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USA needs ‘robust’ nuclear industry for security via World Nuclear News

A Washington, DC-based organisation led by former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has called for greater federal-level recognition of the importance of the USA’s nuclear energy supply chain to national security. In its first major report, Energy Future Initiatives (EFI) recommends immediate government action to support and encourage existing and future new-build projects and strengthen the supply chain.

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A robust US nuclear energy sector is a “key enabler of national security”, helping the US military to meet specific defence priorities and supporting the implementation of US non-proliferation policy, the report says. The sector is underpinned by generation from existing and new nuclear power plants and their associated supply chain but these are under “considerable stress”, it says.

A strong domestic nuclear energy industry is seen as necessary for the country to maintain its overseas role, where it has been “a leader in setting the global standard for nuclear fuel cycle development consistent with nuclear non-proliferation objectives”. The report notes the USA’s failure to agree bilateral nuclear energy agreements with countries including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all of which have signed agreements concerning reactor construction and nuclear fuel supply with Russia. It also notes that the United Arab Emirates – with which the USA has a bilateral agreement – chose South Korea as the developer of its first nuclear reactors.

“A strong domestic nuclear enterprise will be necessary … to protect and advance US national security equities as nuclear fuel cycles develop internationally in regions that historically have had little or no nuclear energy,” it says.

At the national level, the USA’s naval nuclear propulsion program also relies on a robust domestic supply chain, the report says. The US Navy will “eventually” need additional high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for its reactors, the entire supply chain for which must be of US-origin because of the national security aspects and the “sensitivity” of HEU production, the report says. “There is currently no such domestic capability in the supply chain,” it adds.

A domestic supply of enriched uranium is also needed to ensure supplies of tritium for military purposes, but the absence of an enrichment facility using US-origin technology means this need cannot be met in the long term. “This is a glaring hole in the domestic nuclear supply chain, since the only enrichment facility in the United States today uses Urenco (European) technology to supply power reactor fuel,” the report says.

The domestic nuclear supply chain has in the past been sustained by the USA’s large deployed civilian nuclear fleet but a “dramatic” reduction in nuclear construction from the late 1970s until construction began on four reactors in 2013 has taken its toll, according to the report. The future of the reactors under construction is now uncertain following Westinghouse’s bankruptcy filing, and the risk of early retirement of existing capacity will also impact the supply chain.

“Without a strong nuclear energy program, which is by far the largest nuclear activity in the USA, sustaining the supply chain for both civilian and national security objectives will be challenging,” the report says.

More than 700 companies in 44 states provide products or services in direct support of the US nuclear energy industry, and there are synergies between the supply chains for the naval and civil sectors with all of the companies involved in the naval supply chain also supplying the civil sector. However, many key components are no longer supplied domestically or have limited fabrication capability. These include: reactor pressure vessels; steam generators; pressurisers; main condensers and turbine generators; specialised valves; and passive residual heat removal.

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