Opinion - Politics

US must 'reassert global leadership' in nuclear energy or lose out to Russia and China

Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island)
Key Points
  • American nuclear energy leadership faces stiff headwinds. Nuclear plants are shuttering nationwide due to competition from cheap natural gas.
  • This means more fossil fuels, less clean energy, and a big step backward for emissions reductions and climate change.
  • Regardless of our political affiliation or region, developing advanced nuclear energy technologies is a win for the country.
Florida Power and Light workers Juan Madruga (R) and Pehter Rodriguez (L) confer at the Turkey Point Nuclear Reactor Building in Homestead, Florida May 18, 2017.
Rhona Wise | AFP | Getty Images

As partisan gridlock on a few high-profile issues dominates headlines, it is easy to lose sight of goals members of both parties share. For us, one bipartisan goal is protecting America's longstanding leadership on nuclear energy.

Our bipartisan work comes as American nuclear energy leadership faces stiff headwinds. Nuclear plants are shuttering nationwide due to competition from cheap natural gas.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported twelve U.S. reactors with a combined capacity of 11.7 gigawatts are scheduled to retire within the next seven years. That is equivalent to about 36.5 million solar panels or 5,043 utility-scale wind turbines of carbon-free power.

When nuclear reactors are retired, carbon-emitting sources of energy typically fill the void, at least in the near-term. This means more fossil fuels, less clean energy, and a big step backward for emissions reductions and climate change.

If the U.S. does not reassert global leadership in this sector, others will. Russia and China today account for more than 60 percent of new nuclear plants under construction worldwide.

Given the mounting challenges of climate change and geopolitical and national security threats, we cannot afford to allow rival nations to define the nuclear energy landscape.

We must lead, particularly in efforts to develop the next generation of nuclear reactors. Those technologies hold tremendous potential to generate clean energy with greater efficiency and reliability.

In the 115th Congress, we led bipartisan efforts to develop new, promising nuclear energy technologies, and to reduce barriers to commercializing those technologies. We were able to pass into law two important bills in this area:

  • The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA), which aims to foster and accelerate development of advanced reactors through collaboration among national labs, private industry, and academic institutions; and
  • The Nuclear Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), which requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop a regulatory framework for licensing these new advanced reactor concepts.

To buttress these efforts, we secured federal funding for programs that demonstrate the viability of recycling nuclear fuel from the Navy's nuclear-powered ships and submarines—a smart way to support cutting-edge research at our national labs that could turn nuclear waste from a liability into an asset.

Our nuclear innovation laws are important first steps in reinvigorating U.S. nuclear leadership. Now, we must develop a strategy for maintaining it. What such a strategy might look like was the focus of the Atlantic Council Task Force on U.S, Nuclear Energy Leadership, for which we served as Honorary Co-chairs.

This diverse group of policy experts, academics, private sector representatives, government and nongovernmental organizations came together to consider the U.S. response to the challenges facing nuclear energy.

The resulting report issued this week, U.S. Nuclear Energy Leadership: Innovation and the Strategic Global Challenge, calls on the U.S. to set a national mission to regain U.S. leadership in nuclear innovation.

The Task Force's recommendations include funding advanced reactors, reforming export laws, incorporating nuclear energy into the national security strategy, and enhancing international cooperation to enable the U.S. to compete in the global nuclear market.

Congress could enact a key part of this plan by passing the bipartisan Nuclear Energy Leadership Act led by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski. The bill would develop additional funding mechanisms and demonstration programs for the next wave of advanced nuclear reactors, and establish a national nuclear energy strategy for the nation. Such a measure would be a big win for American nuclear energy leadership.

Regardless of our political affiliation or region, developing advanced nuclear energy technologies is a win for the country. Together, we share the goal of reestablishing America's leadership in advanced nuclear research. We will keep working in the U.S. Senate to foster American innovation and leadership to provide for a cleaner and more resilient energy future.

Commentary by U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island).

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.