The United States is at its best when it leads, setting the standard for the rest of the world while doing so. Whether it be independence in thinking, independence in manufacturing bases, independence in energy production, or independence in agriculture, these attributes (and more) established the U.S. as a stabilizer in the rules-based global community. With that said, America’s independence, which is vital to our economy, workforce and national interests, has dangerously eroded. Case in point, our leadership and independence in overall U.S. production. As U.S. production erodes, so does global security. The adverse effects of overreliance on foreign supply chains have led to inflation, economic instability, and frankly even a challenge to America’s stature as a global supplier and the global market’s stability.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest example of challenges to the current global market and supply chain infrastructure as well as a major challenge to the very models of independence – inspired and modeled in so many ways after the U.S. It is also a jarring reminder of the risks associated with depending on foreign adversaries for critical resources and energy.
Dependence on Russian energy has put our major NATO allies like Germany at huge risk since upwards of 75% of their oil comes from Russia. Our energy dependence does not stop at oil, it’s tied to our clean energy supply as well. Specific to U.S. nuclear energy, the public is mostly unaware of how dependent our supply chain is on Russia and other foreign suppliers. Virtually 100% of U.S. annual nuclear fuel is provided by foreign suppliers, with about 20% of that coming from Russia! Dependence on geostrategic adversaries is unfortunately not unique to our nuclear sector. The U.S. also has an unacceptably high level of reliance on our geostrategic adversaries, including China, for our wind and solar sectors. As we seek to scale up our Nation’s clean and renewable electricity production, it is vital that we concurrently build domestic supply chains for these sectors – less we become even more dangerously dependent on our geostrategic adversaries.
An important question is how the U.S. nuclear energy sector found itself in such a challenging infrastructure and supply chain situation. The short answer, there has been a steady deterioration of the U.S. nuclear fuel supply and the broader fuel cycle infrastructure sector over the last few decades with policies and overregulation having played a major role. Regardless, the fact is that the U.S. actually relies almost entirely on foreign suppliers for its nuclear fuel requirements. With nuclear energy supplying 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, and over 50% of our clean, emissions-free electricity, being reliant on other, not-so-friendly sources puts our energy independence at serious risk.
As the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for nuclear energy, I helped lead the U.S. civil nuclear energy cooperation with Ukraine for nearly a decade. At the time, I worked closely with my Ukrainian counterparts to help wean them off their own dependence on Russia in the nuclear energy sector. To this day, Ukraine has 15 Russian-designed nuclear reactors and was at the time totally dependent on Russia for its nuclear fuel needs as well as for the removal and management of its used nuclear fuel. Over the course of many years, the U.S. government in partnership with American nuclear vendors and used nuclear fuel management companies played a vital role in helping ease Russia’s chokehold on Ukrainian domestic electricity. One way of doing so was by supplying nuclear fuel designed in America that today is operating in nearly half of Ukraine’s reactor fleet while also building a national used fuel storage facility. These efforts are a true testament to the world-class capabilities of the U.S. nuclear industry. The successes were not only realized but done so in the face of sustained and long-term efforts by Russia to undercut and prevent such commercial successes with Ukraine.
With current events portending further nuclear fuel supply chain challenges, it is incumbent on us now, more than ever before, to build a domestic clean energy infrastructure that is not dangerously dependent on our geopolitical adversaries. Whether it is our dependence on manufacturing wind and solar components in China or acquiring nuclear fuel from Russia, we must recognize that these countries do not share our free-market and democratic principles. As such, we must build up our domestic energy infrastructure for the sake of global leadership, energy security, our environmental objectives, and overall economic well-being.
After 30 years working mostly in the field of nuclear energy and security, it’s enormously clear how we must unite as a nation and usher in a U.S.-led second nuclear era. By rebuilding our Nation’s nuclear supply infrastructure, including recycling our Nation’s used nuclear fuel, in combination with prioritizing our current and next generation of advanced reactors, we can build a truly environmentally and economically sustainable nuclear fuel cycle offering abundance and prosperity and, most importantly, peace.
- Ed McGinnis is CEO of Curio, a nuclear innovation and technology development company.