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Reports Nuclear Energy

Strengthening Nuclear Energy Cooperation between the United States and Its Allies

This report represents the research and views of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of the Center on Global Energy Policy. The piece may be subject to further revision. Contributions to SIPA for the benefit of CGEP are general use gifts, which gives the Center discretion in how it allocates these funds. More information is available at Our Partners. Rare cases of sponsored projects are clearly indicated. For a full list of financial supporters of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA, please visit our website at Our Partners. See below a list of members that are currently in CGEP’s Visionary Annual Circle.

CGEP’s Visionary Annual Circle

(This list is updated periodically)

Jay Bernstein
Breakthrough Energy LLC
Occidental Petroleum Corporation

Executive Summary

Nuclear energy cooperation between the United States and its allies has been important for over a half century. Bilateral cooperation agreements with key countries date back to the 1950s, and the United States played a principal role in the development of several allied nuclear energy programs. Today, the international nuclear energy marketplace has changed, and the supply chain is globalized—the US program, for example, depends on working with allies for major safety-related components. However, limitations imposed by legacy US statutes and other obstacles are hampering greater collaboration in areas that would enhance the country’s nuclear program today. Developing advanced reactors to produce dispatchable zero-carbon electricity and heat as part of global efforts to address climate change would be aided by greater cooperation and utilization of resources and financing across countries.

Deeper cooperation with like-minded allies would also allow the United States to better compete against other supplier countries that have different commercial and geopolitical objectives. If the challenges facing the US nuclear program are not overcome, the country risks further ceding its role as a leading nuclear technology exporter to China and Russia. Already China and Russia are growing their domestic nuclear energy programs and offering attractive financing to prospective customers of this technology around the world. These nuclear competitors may place differing priorities on areas such as nonproliferation, and therefore maintaining a US role in the nuclear supplier regime is connected with national security considerations.

This paper, part of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s nuclear power program, examines part of what may be required for the United States to regain momentum in the nuclear power industry after an erosion of domestic capabilities stemming from a long hiatus in new reactor orders. The paper discusses the historical importance of nuclear cooperation between the United States and allies, some of the challenges that the US and some allied nuclear energy programs are facing, and how cooperation could be reinvigorated to the benefit of the United States and its allies.

In short, the paper finds:

  • Advanced reactor development and demonstration are both expensive endeavors: each can cost over a billion dollars. Greater cooperation between the United States and allies such as Canada, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United Kingdom would enable more sources of investment and help keep development costs low by utilizing existing facilities and capabilities.
  • Laws dating back to 1954, however, have created barriers to foreign investment in domestic nuclear reactors—even among the country’s closest allies. These laws inhibit efforts for nuclear energy cooperation in areas that are becoming critical in the modern economy, particularly investment in new US reactor projects and preserving existing reactors. The international nuclear energy marketplace has changed dramatically since these provisions were created, making these legacy restrictions increasingly problematic.
  • In 1999, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) proposed amending parts of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to enable the NRC to more effectively manage modern corporate structures and a globalized supply chain. This proposal, not since enacted, would help to facilitate greater cooperation on advanced reactor demonstration between the United States and its allies.
  • Also, current international programs in the US Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy are not structured to facilitate greater cooperation between the United States and its allies on advanced reactor demonstration. Either reorienting existing programs or establishing new ones with this aim would increase the likelihood of successful demonstration of advanced reactors.

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Reports Nuclear Energy

Strengthening Nuclear Energy Cooperation between the United States and Its Allies