The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) has released its third and final issue in its Nuclear Exit series, this time turning its expert focus on the United States. The first two installments looked at Germany and France, countries that share a border but are - for historical, political, and economic reasons - answering the nuclear power question in different ways.
The third editorial piece in this five-part installment to be presented on PennEnergy.com comes from Sharon Squassoni, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In her analysis, “The limited national security implications of civilian nuclear decline,” she writes a US nuclear exit will have relatively minor international implications, and any governmental attempt to buoy the US commercial nuclear industry for national security reasons runs the risk of blurring the distinction between civilian and military nuclear programs—and undermining public backing for both.
Part 1: Introduction- A US Nuclear Exit
The limited national security implications of civilian nuclear decline
By Sharon Squassoni
A declared exit from commercial nuclear power in the United States is highly improbable. But a stealthy, gradual nuclear decline motivated by economics seems reasonably likely, as US utilities decide to close some plants early, rather than implement costly post-Fukushima safety regulations, and the number of new nuclear power plants fails to offset retirements. If nuclear power does make a slow exit, the national security implications are smaller than sometimes suggested. Nuclear energy is far down the list of options for enhancing the US military’s energy security. Weapons programs aren’t dependent on the civilian nuclear industry, and the nuclear Navy has a reliable supply chain. The United States has not needed to produce fissile material for weapons in decades, and although tritium for defense purposes is now produced in civilian reactors, there are other options for obtaining it. A nuclear phase-out could affect US nuclear export control and nonproliferation efforts, but export controls are only one tool among many that can be used to curb the desire for nuclear weapons. Even in a slow slide toward phase-out, the United States would remain at the global nuclear bargaining table for decades because of its status as a military nuclear superpower.
Late in 2012, Dominion Resources, Inc. announced it would shutter the Kewaunee Power Station in Carlton, Wisconsin. Kewaunee had just received a license extension to operate until 2033 (Wald, 2012). “The situation Dominion faces at Kewaunee is the result of circumstances unique to the station and do not reflect the nuclear industry in general,” said Thomas Farrell, Dominion’s chief executive and chairman. “The nation will be hard pressed to meet its energy needs, let alone do so in a secure and affordable manner, without a robust and growing nuclear energy program” (Dominion Resources, 2012).
Actually, Kewaunee may not be unique; it could be the first in a series of early retirements of aging US nuclear power plants. The fact that Dominion, with a $30 billion market capitalization, prefers to pay $281 million in decommissioning fees and other closing costs rather than operate the plant for another 20 years signals a generally grim economic outlook for nuclear energy in the United States.