Don’t let China steal the global nuclear-power industry
In a major blow to the US nuclear-energy industry, China is reportedly helping Saudi Arabia create a facility to produce uranium “yellowcake” from uranium ore. The deal is further evidence that America’s anti-nuclear energy policies are pushing US allies into the arms of our illiberal and undemocratic rivals.
“The Chinese will expand the breadth of their engagement with the Saudis and become a supplier of nuclear plants,” a US nuclear industry official told me, “which will lock China in as the leading supplier of influence over the next century.” The Chinese-Saudi facility would bring the kingdom one step closer to enriching uranium, which could be used for a power plant — or for a weapon.
“The potential of a lot of countries in the Middle East going nuclear is very real,” says nuclear weapons expert Richard Rhodes. “And the idea of Middle Eastern nations armed with nuclear weapons is scary, given how reactive they are to each other.”
As recently as 2018, momentum had been growing for Congress to approve an agreement for US firms to help Saudi Arabia, on the thinking that it was better for the United States than the Chinese to be involved.
But that fall, men allegedly working for Mohammad bin Salman, the ruling crown prince of Saudi Arabia, killed Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist.
Yet Saudi Arabia’s desire for nuclear energy didn’t go away, and the 1970 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, which most nations — including the US, China and Saudi Arabia — have ratified, protects the right of nations to enrich their own uranium.
Indeed, that NPT provision is why the United States and Europe have allowed Iran to pursue uranium enrichment. Saudi Arabia views the US double standard toward Iran as insulting.
“When the [Iran deal] was concluded, [President Barack] Obama should have accepted that we couldn’t ask the Saudis to renounce enrichment,” said the industry official. Human rights abuses, terrible as they are, do not abrogate the NPT. “I think they’ve killed a journalist or two in Iran over the years.”
Where Republicans have been apathetic, Democrats have been activists in trying to prevent the US from helping nations abroad develop their nuclear capacity.
“There are people in Congress who don’t understand that, if the US government won’t sell nuclear energy to a country, others will,” says Seth Grae of Lightbridge Corporation, one of several nuclear industry CEOs who met with President Trump last year.
Democrats continue to push for the closure of nuclear plants. The United States plans to close 12 reactors by 2025 and could lose half of the rest of its reactors over the next decade. Two of those reactors are at New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant, which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, not long after proclaiming her open-mindedness on nuclear, called for shutting down.
Some nuclear-industry officials hope that the US will, in the future, “leapfrog” over China and Russia with smaller “modular” reactor designs, micro-reactors, and radical new reactor-coolant combinations such as those being pursued by Bill Gates. But China and Russia are already far ahead on building and selling small, modular and radical designs, as well as the standard water-cooled ones most nations have chosen since the 1950s.
The China-Saudi deal should serve as a wake-up call to Congress and the national-security and nonproliferation community. It’s time for the United States to realign its policies with the NPT and take action to compete with the Chinese and Russians.
Nations looking to build nuclear plants will choose partners with experience building them. To compete, the US must make global nuclear-energy superiority a national security goal. This starts with either designating a new “national champion” nuclear building firm or creating a state-owned nuclear company capable of competing with Russian and Chinese firms.
As part of this effort, Congress should make sure all of today’s reactors, including recently shuttered ones, stay open for at least 80 years. It should also consider amending the Atomic Energy Act to let the US help nations develop uranium-enrichment facilities, just as China and Russia do now.
Congress and the White House must act thoughtfully and deliberately — but also decisively — before it’s too late.
Michael Shellenberger is author of “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.” Adapted from City Journal.
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