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House climate plan needs global and national security context

The Hill logo The Hill 7/9/2020 David Gattie, opinion contributor
a building with smoke coming out of it: House climate plan needs global and national security context © Getty Images House climate plan needs global and national security context

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis recently released its action plan. Entitled, "Solving the Climate Crisis, A Congressional Roadmap for Ambitious Climate Action," the plan appropriately characterizes climate change as an existential threat and calls for action on shoring up U.S. infrastructure against the impacts of a changing climate.

However, it lacks the context to impact climate change at the global scale. It also fails to account for the national security implications of fundamentally reorienting the U.S. energy technology industrial base at a time when America is engaged in a long-term competition with revisionist powers pursuing superiority in dual-use technologies such as nuclear power.

The U.S. cannot unilaterally solve the climate crisis. Under even the most aggressive policy, eliminating all U.S. carbon emissions would reset global emissions to 2006 levels, yet emissions would continue increasing. Meaning, if climate change was a threat in 2006 with U.S. emissions, climate change is a threat today without U.S. emissions.

As I testified before the House, U.S. policy should include building low-carbon energy technology relationships with developing regions, cultivated as international investment opportunities for U.S. industry coupled with diplomatic efforts of U.S. engagement and goodwill.

As for U.S. nuclear power, since 2000, 22 countries have engaged in 150 nuclear construction projects. China and Russia are associated with 97 of these projects in 11 countries, either by domestic construction or collaborative engagement with other countries. The U.S. has had only two new construction projects since 2000.

The consequences of China or Russia becoming the preferred global partner in nuclear power development have been reported for some time as both countries leverage nuclear power collaborations for geopolitical gain and to establish their own brands of soft power.

The proposed climate plan doesn't account for this or for the implications of a U.S. nuclear power enterprise in decline relative to state-owned nuclear enterprises in China and Russia. While suggesting R&D support for advanced reactors, the plan favors renewable energy while its support for nuclear is predicated on ensuring the safe operation of existing plants and developing a path forward for nuclear waste.

U.S. reactors have been operating safely for over 50 years with spent fuel managed securely over that same period. There's no rationale for imposing safety and waste concerns as preconditions for expanding U.S. nuclear power to meet climate objectives.

U.S. nuclear power policy was originally crafted as a foreign policy issue aligned with national security objectives. What is evident, as indicated by this proposal and others like it, such as the Green New Deal, U.S. nuclear power is perceived as just another energy commodity for potential deployment in service to U.S. climate policy, stripped of its primary role in the U.S. industrial base - that primary role being national security.

As I further testified, this perception needs to change. While nuclear power should be deployed to meet climate goals, it should first and foremost be deployed in service to U.S. national security. Meeting climate goals and sustaining the national security imperative of U.S. nuclear power need not be mutually exclusive. To this end, at least two core actions are needed.

First, expand the scope of nuclear science, engineering and technology within the National Security Industrial Base (NSIB) to include the U.S. civilian nuclear power sector. This will elevate the debate on nuclear power and shift it from a domestic energy policy issue only, to a foreign policy issue debated within the national security space.

Second, conduct a whole-of-government Nuclear Industrial Base Review in order to evaluate risks and make recommendations for strengthening and reorganizing the U.S. nuclear sector's domestic and global manufacturing supply chain and to facilitate U.S. competitiveness at the global scale where China and Russia are dominating. This should be led by the Department of Defense in collaboration with intelligence and national security communities. It should also include engagement with a broader contingent of allied nations with whom the U.S. could partner in international nuclear projects. An analog for this is the September 2018 Defense Industrial Base Review.

America's nuclear power enterprise is at a strategic crossroads where 21st century challenges of grid reliability, energy security, climate change and great power competition have converged. Before enacting policy that potentially marginalizes nuclear power, U.S. policymakers should ask themselves some questions: Will policymakers in China and Russia subject their respective energy technology industrial bases to an all-in effort to reduce carbon emissions and solve the climate crisis? Will Russia jeopardize the global status of its state-owned nuclear power enterprise in favor of renewable energy? Will the Chinese Communist Party tell its Belt and Road partners across Eurasia that China won't engage in nuclear power development until it has solved its nuclear waste issue? If the U.S. doesn't advance its nuclear power enterprise, will Russia and China follow that lead or compete for the vacancy?

Climate change must be taken seriously and with effective actions at the global scale. This plan lacks that necessary global context. Moreover, it does not aggressively address the national security implications of U.S. nuclear power or America's capacity to compete globally with Russia and China in civilian nuclear technology.

Given the complex challenges of the 21st century, it is time for U.S. policymakers to consider that the fate of America's nuclear power enterprise is being decided in the wrong space - it needs to be decided as a national security issue, not as if nuclear is just another energy commodity.

David Gattie is an associate professor of Engineering at the University of Georgia's (UGA) College of Engineering, and a Senior Fellow at UGA's Center for International Trade and Security. Gattie is an unpaid member of the advocacy council for Nuclear Matters. Prior to UGA, he worked 14 years in private industry as an energy services engineer and an environmental engineer. He has provided testimony on energy, climate and nuclear power policy before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee. The opinion expressed here is his own.

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