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Decarbonizing the world’s energy supply by 2050 will require financing low-carbon energy projects at a cost of upwards of trillions of dollars. Nuclear energy is one of the few dispatchable low-carbon energy resources, and studies by the International Energy Agency have estimated a possible doubling of nuclear power as part of scenarios for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury. Large, capital-intensive projects such as nuclear power plants can be challenging for some countries to finance, however. As a result, countries wishing to build nuclear reactors look for attractive financing from supplier nations in the form of loans and equity.
This report, part of wider work on nuclear energy at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, compares the financing terms offered between 2000 and 2021 by the world’s major exporters of nuclear power plants: Russia, France, the Republic of Korea (ROK), China, and the United States. Russia dominated this period, with 11 reactors connected to power grids in six countries, in part due to the attractive state-backed financing offers it made. At the beginning of 2022, Russia had 13 of its reactors under construction in other countries, more than all other countries’ reactor exports combined.
The US government has been actively developing advanced reactor technologies, partly with the intention of exporting them to other countries to help them address their energy and environmental goals. However, for numerous reasons, the US government has not financed a new US reactor export in decades, even though the US Export-Import Bank (EXIM) and the new International Development Financing Corporation (DFC) are capable of supporting exports of this scale. Given the recent absence of US financing, this report analyzes the earlier activities of EXIM related to nuclear energy and their relevance for potentially reviving such financing efforts in the near or medium term.
A key factor shaping reactor vendor competitions is a nuclear arrangement by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in which France, the ROK, and the United States are members but China and Russia are not. This arrangement places limitations on OECD members regarding key loan terms for their reactor exports, including minimum interest rates and loan repayment terms, that can put them at a disadvantage compared to state-owned vendors from Russia and China. The arrangement does not restrict equity investments in reactor exports, posing an additional disadvantage for private vendors in the United States as they compete with larger, state-owned vendors in France and the ROK.
As other countries develop their civil nuclear energy programs or begin new ones, the US government will need to decide whether it will assist in financing US reactor exports. The federal government has a variety of potential rationales for doing so, including creating jobs, assisting other countries in overcoming their energy and environmental challenges, and limiting Chinese and Russian influence. On the other hand, financing from EXIM or the DFC will come with financial risk, as some individual projects may not have successful outcomes.
This report ultimately makes a set of recommendations to US policymakers, should they seek to strengthen the role of the United States in the international nuclear export market:
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