The future of nuclear energy is American
By Sen. John Barrasso
Wyoming’s uranium production needs a jump-start. Our state is the number one producer of nuclear fuel in the nation. For generations, Wyoming’s uranium fueled America’s nuclear energy successes. Now, new challenges have slowed production. Foreign adversaries in Russia and China have undercut Wyoming’s uranium producers. The industry stands at a crossroads.
From the Manhattan Project through the beginning of the 21st century, the United States was the globe’s undisputed leader of nuclear energy. For generations, America led the world in nuclear engineering, reactor design, nuclear services and technical expertise.
Nuclear energy powers our businesses, homes and military. America’s 95 operating nuclear reactors generate approximately 20% of our nation’s electricity and provide over half of our carbon-free energy. They also create good-paying jobs at power plants and uranium mines. Wyoming produced 87% of America’s domestic uranium supply in 2018.
Today, nuclear energy faces serious hurdles. Regulatory costs and subsidies for renewable energy technologies are forcing America’s nuclear power plants to close at an alarming rate.
Since 2013, 10 plants have stopped operating. One more will shut down before the end of this year. As plants have closed, Wyoming’s uranium production has also struggled. The impacts of the COVID-19 public health crisis have made matters worse. Currently, there is no significant uranium production in the United States. We are headed in the wrong direction.
Russia and China are subsidizing their government-owned nuclear companies to assert their energy influence around the world. China is searching the globe for uranium reserves and investing heavily in the countries where it’s found. They want to secure more nuclear fuel for themselves and increase their control of the global supply.
Meanwhile, American nuclear power plants have come to rely on cheap Russian imports of uranium to meet their nuclear fuel needs. Right now, roughly 40% of the uranium coming into the United States originates in Russia or its satellite states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Russian-backed companies are developing fuel that can be placed directly in American reactors.
I am leading efforts to limit imports of Russian uranium. America cannot be dependent on Vladimir Putin and communist China for our nuclear fuel. Wyoming, and other states in the West, stand ready to produce much more uranium, but we are being undercut. Putin is unfairly flooding the U.S. market with cheap uranium — making us more reliant on Russia and putting Wyoming uranium miners out of work. This must stop.
In April, the Trump administration issued a report that detailed just how dire the situation in our nuclear industry has become. The report concluded we must take steps now to help America’s nuclear sector. It’s critical for our energy and our national security. We have to reclaim our place as the world’s leader of nuclear energy.
As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, I have legislation to help revive, strengthen and protect our use of nuclear power. The bill takes recommendations from the Trump administration’s report and makes them into law. Reinvigorating America’s nuclear energy infrastructure will create jobs, make America more secure and grow our economy.
The legislation would establish a national uranium reserve to protect our national interests and bolster Wyoming’s production. Building a national uranium reserve will ensure America’s nuclear plants always have the ability to operate on American nuclear fuel. In an emergency, America should not need to look beyond our borders for uranium to operate our reactors. Having a secure stockpile of American nuclear fuel is essential for our energy and defense needs.
We also must preserve and expand America’s use of nuclear energy. Gov. Mark Gordon recently signed into law a bill passed by the Wyoming State Legislature to pave the way to deploy advanced nuclear technologies in Wyoming. Our legislation will help make that vision a reality.
Our bill would cut red tape that has slowed advancements in nuclear development. It simplifies the permitting process so federal approvals are much more predictable for nuclear plant operators.
Nuclear material is already used for medical radiation therapy and to power our Navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines. Our legislation will assist entrepreneurs looking for brand-new applications of nuclear technologies.
To take advantage of these technologies, we must have the advanced nuclear fuels available to power first-of-its-kind designs. The legislation will help innovators develop those new nuclear fuels — so Wyoming can once again produce the uranium that powers America.
It’s crucial for Wyoming and for the entire country that we modernize our nuclear industry. America can once again be on the cutting edge of nuclear development. It’s time to bring our nuclear fleet into the 21st century. Our bill helps get that done. The future of nuclear energy is American.
(Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This column first appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune.)