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The real front in US-Russia 'Cold War'? Nuclear power

The new Cold War brewing between Russia and the U.S. has the potential to go nuclear—just not in the conventional sense.

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, a debate has ensued about whether the U.S. can use natural gas to counter Russia's global ambitions. However, some experts say the real front in the global energy battle lies not in oil and gas, but in the arena of nuclear technology.

Moscow has quietly taken the lead in the $500 billion market for nuclear exports, building the lion's share of new facilities—and by extension earning influence and good will in key regions around the globe—as the U.S. sits on the sidelines.

Fueled in part by its bounty in natural gas and oil, Russia has transferred nuclear technology to a host of countries, including Hungary, Venezuela, Turkey and, most controversially, Iran. According to the World Nuclear Association, Moscow is building 37 percent of the new atomic facilities currently under construction worldwide, while nearly doubling its own domestic output by 2020.

"The Russians view nuclear as an excellent export product," said Barbara Judge, former chair of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, in an interview with CNBC. "They are using it as part of their plan to establish themselves as a geopolitical economic power."

(Read more: Think US natgas can threaten Russia? Think again)

Simultaneously, the U.S. nuclear sector has fallen into an advanced state of decline. Safety and cost concerns—combined with booming natural gas supplies that are quickly becoming a staple in generating electricity—have relegated the industry to the outer limits of atomic manufacturing.

Meanwhile, demand for atomic power is projected to soar in emerging markets, and even some major developed economies. Three years after Fukushima's harrowing disaster, Japan is slowly restarting its 48 idled reactors, and is poised to upgrade its aging plants.

(Read more: Christine Todd Whitman making a case for nuclear power)

In the geopolitical chess match between Washington and Moscow, some say the world's largest producer of nuclear technology is ceding influence when it could be competing against Russia, as well as others that export nuclear technology.

"Countries that need nuclear often do not have the funds to pay for it," said Judge, who is deputy chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) reform committee. By helping countries to finance the purchase of nuclear technology, Russia, and to a lesser extent China, "are using that money as a lever to open the door," she added.

"They're selling good technology to countries that still need to train their operators," Judge said, an area where the U.S. can and should compete.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that the international nuclear market will grow to $740 billion over the next decade, with every $1 billion in exports supporting at least 5,000 domestic manufacturing jobs. The Nuclear Energy Institute points out there are 71 new nuclear plants under construction across the globe, with an additional 160 "in licensing and advanced planning stages."

That could provide an opportunity for nuclear technology providers such as Westinghouse and Hitachi, which has a joint U.S. partnership with General Electric.

'Subsidize the bejesus' out of nuclear tech

Critics, however, argue that nuclear technology can easily be misused to create weapons.

Tehran is widely suspected of using the cover of civilian technology to reprocess spent fuel into a bomb, a threat world powers have struggled to contain. Elsewhere, Pakistan, India and North Korea all eventually violated non-proliferation protocols by using technology misappropriated for illicit programs.

"Once you export this technology and don't have direct control over it, no matter how safe you say it is, it can come back to bite you," said Mark Cooper, a senior fellow of economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and Environment at Vermont Law School and an implacable critic of nuclear power.

Cooper pointed out that China and Russia "are subsidizing the bejesus out of their technology," which means privately owned U.S. companies can't really compete.

(Read more: Going nuclear—and small—with a new type of reactor)

In a June 2013 report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) called boosting the U.S. nuclear export sector "a national security imperative," given the encroachment of China, Russia and India—which struck its own civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. back in 2004.

However, the CSIS paper stated that unlike the state-subsidized projects of Russia and China, "U.S. firms are currently at a competitive disadvantage in global markets, due to restrictive and otherwise unsupportive export policies," the think tank said.

In order to prevent nuclear cheating, the U.S. only provides nuclear expertise via a "123 Agreement" to 21 countries. However, it currently lacks accords with key demand hubs in Asia and the Middle East –areas where nuclear power is expected to soar, and ripe targets for Russian financing. Observers also say the rules need updating to reflect the realities of the marketplace.

"Without a strong commercial presence in new nuclear markets, America's ability to influence nonproliferation policies and nuclear safety behaviors worldwide is bound to diminish," the CSIS paper said.

Jane Nakano, an energy security fellow at CSIS, said in an interview that the current regulatory structure of the U.S. nuclear markets is a barrier to it mounting a direct challenge to its global competitors. Nuclear technology is "quite expensive in the U.S.," where a plant can run upward of $10 billion, Nakano said, "but in many countries the financing is a national program."

Yet Vermont Law's Cooper said the U.S. "would be better off exporting much more benign technology," and should forget about getting into the nuclear game. He stressed "the agony we go through once we lose control of the technology. Is it worth the risk?"

By CNBC's Javier E. David. Follow him @TeflonGeek

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