To Outcompete Russia and China, the US Needs a Civil Nuclear Director
- In order to unlock the full potential of the American civil nuclear industry and deliver more affordable, reliable, and secure energy to domestic and international markets, it is imperative that the Biden Administration designate a Director for Nuclear Energy Policy to successfully coordinate across all levels of government and industry.
- A whole-of-government approach to civil nuclear policy is critical, especially as we face increasing competition from nations like Russia and China, which wield their civil nuclear exports as tools for geopolitical leverage. A Director for Nuclear Energy Policy can coordinate and focus efforts to promote energy independence and reduce vulnerability to authoritarian influence.
Russian and Chinese state-owned nuclear companies have been aggressively courting overseas markets, and they have the full backing of their governments in this endeavor. Why? Because these deals bring more than just commercial value, but further the geopolitical interests of both Moscow and Beijing. Thus, Russian and Chinese efforts to win civil nuclear export deals are highly integrated and coordinated operations.
The United States must level the playing field for our nuclear industry to achieve our energy, climate, commercial, and national security interests. Back in 2012, the position of Nuclear Energy Policy Director was established in the White House’s National Security Council to provide coherence to nuclear energy policy and give American industry a competitive edge globally. In the wake of Russia’s War in Ukraine and China’s rapid emergence as a civil nuclear supplier, the time is now to fill this position and coordinate efforts across the government to ensure the American nuclear industry can compete in this growing global market.
Catalyzing the Biden Agenda on Nuclear Energy
In a rare case of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Biden Administration are implementing the boldest agenda for nuclear energy in years. This includes billions of dollars in federal investments for both commercializing advanced nuclear technologies and keeping our existing nuclear power plants open, as well as finally getting us on the path to producing our own advanced nuclear fuel—or high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU).
International interest and demand for US advanced nuclear is soaring as countries seek reliable solutions to decarbonize and strengthen their energy security in light of recent instability in world energy markets. In response, the administration has initiated multiple cooperative efforts for advanced nuclear energy infrastructure enhancement that strengthen strategic relationships and finance global nuclear supply chains. The United States is also ramping up support for nations seeking to transition to nuclear energy, recently signing multiple nuclear energy agreements with Poland and Romania, as well as a joint partnership with Japan and Ghana to support Ghanaian SMR deployment.
Under President Biden, support for nuclear energy has never been greater. But putting all of these pieces together in a strategic manner will require visionary leadership and strong coordination across the federal government, which a “nuclear czar” would bring.
Putting a Whole-of-Government Approach into Motion
Policymaking does not occur in a vacuum, and acting without consideration of the broader global landscape puts us at a disadvantage against our international competitors. Other countries are rapidly advancing with their own advanced reactor development and deployment programs. State-owned nuclear suppliers, particularly Russia and China, receive extensive backing from their national governments in competing for export deals, including providing financing arrangements that U.S. private industry would be hard-pressed to match without support.
This approach fundamentally requires a strategic leader and visionary in the White House who can appropriately contextualize our domestic and international civil nuclear policy decisions. A high-level coordinating position can facilitate greater integration among federal initiatives, drive and accelerate urgency in the funding and implementation of relevant programs, and rally the full suite of federal policy tools and solutions to level the playing field against state-backed competitors on the international stage.
Escalating Geopolitical and National Security Implications
The White House Civil Nuclear Director has historically been positioned within the NSC, an appropriate placement given the council’s strategic mission. While the energy, commercial, and environmental relevance of civil nuclear issues is generally understood, the geopolitical and national security implications of our nuclear energy sector are increasingly salient.
Recent reports point to evidence that Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, is not just a commercial entity but serves as an arm of the Russian government in pursuit of its geopolitical interests. Both Moscow and Beijing recognize the geopolitical value of civil nuclear exports as a tool to bind countries into decades-long relationships and energy ties. Thus, they lavishly support their national nuclear vendors as a means to extend their spheres of influence and render other governments more pliant to their respective wills.
Moreover, there are deep concerns regarding the potential of Russian or Chinese stewardship of international nuclear security and nonproliferation norms. Competing for overseas markets is not purely an act of trade and commerce but an imperative for our national security and foreign policy interests—enabling global democracies to resist the encroachment of authoritarian influence and ensuring our ability to uphold the highest standards of safety, security, and nonproliferation internationally.
One of the central roles of White House Civil Nuclear Energy Director will be to make sure the advanced nuclear reactors get commercialized in the United States this decade, and can be exported to our allies. This position is so critically important because the nation’s civilian nuclear policy is currently paralyzed by traditional thinking, bureaucratic sclerosis, and walls between agencies and issue areas. For example, this leader must be empowered to break down the historic tensions between the energy and security sides of government—although there have been long-standing barriers between the civil nuclear and nonproliferation communities, the realities of the international market dictate that strengthening our export competitiveness must now be an essential part of our nuclear security and nonproliferation efforts.
Given the current stage of the Biden administration, this position must be filled swiftly and preferably by a candidate with the necessary clearances, commitment to these goals, and experience in coordinating across interagency and interdisciplinary lines. While expeditious designation is the top priority, the following recommendations should be considered in the further development of this role:
- Position Level: Elevating the position to the Senior Director-level can enhance the convening power and efficacy of this post, as well as provide staff support to the role. Aligning this post with other Senior Directors in seniority would also emphasize the value of this role when engaging with interagency partners or even foreign partners.
- Flexibility: Equipping the position with the capacity to move across silos (e.g., through reporting lines to Executive Assistants and other offices within the Executive Office of the President) can streamline communications and reduce redundancy. As the role is intended to enhance efficiency, considering ways to make cross-stream coordination easier can ensure timely implementation of interagency activities.
The Civil Nuclear Director position is pivotal to successful whole-of-government nuclear energy policy solutions and implementation. We must urgently and thoughtfully designate an individual for this role to ensure the efficacy of interagency nuclear energy activities.
The United States is in a competition with authoritarian states to develop the next generation of nuclear reactors to provide reliable, affordable, secure, and clean power, industrial heat, and other energy services. Countries around the world, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also throughout Asia and Africa, are interested in building nuclear reactors. Many of the countries would like the technology, and the 100-year relationship that comes with it, to be imported from the United States. This would also benefit the US economy, our national security, and democracy. But it is utterly dependent on whether the government and its bureaucracy move fast enough to support, license, and deploy advanced nuclear before Russia and China dominate the global market. Creating the position of Civil Nuclear Director in the White House, empowered to ensure coordination across the government, remove obstacles, and force action, is critical to achieving this goal.