Rowny: Safe Uranium Enrichment Should Be a U.S. Priority

Posted March 28, 2012 at 6:02pm

President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have made energy security a top priority, and they couldn’t be more correct. They wisely consider the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes a serious, national goal.

Oil may grab headlines, but nuclear power for civilian use is growing, as it should. It is efficient, extremely safe and friendly to the environment. As with oil, the U.S. would be wise to produce its own supply of enriched uranium, the fuel for nuclear power plants.

Farming out the process to other nations — or to companies headquartered overseas — is risky and increases our vulnerabilities. The U.S. government should pay more attention than it has in recent years to the nation’s dwindling ability to enrich its own uranium.

The consequences of doing otherwise could be dramatic. Our country could find itself at the mercy of foreigners who do not have our best interests at heart.

Energy independence, a laudable aspiration for oil, is even more essential for nuclear power. Domestically produced supplies of enriched uranium are already running short. The U.S. once produced most of the world’s enriched uranium. Now we’re down to about a quarter of the world’s supply. For reasons of national security, we shouldn’t dip further.

That’s why the president should be praised for requesting $150 million in next year’s National Nuclear Security Administration budget to keep uranium enrichment alive on our soil. In the meantime, Chu has asked Congress for the authority to reallocate his current budget resources for that purpose until next year’s budget is enacted. Without this cash infusion, American technology at a major facility in rural Ohio will face an uncertain future. We can’t afford the uncertainty.

Military considerations also play a role here. Nuclear weapons, while thankfully on the decline, still exist and must be maintained and updated. International treaties mandate that tritium, a rare, radioactive isotope that’s a byproduct of enriched uranium use in nuclear reactors and is critical to the proper, safe functioning of nuclear weapons, must be made with U.S. technology. Unless U.S. technology is available to make the enriched uranium needed to produce tritium, our national security will be at risk.

As odd as it may sound, a strong enrichment industry in the U.S. promotes the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. The more nuclear fuel we produce, the less enrichment is needed abroad and the less chance our enemies have of getting their hands on the technology to produce weapons-grade material. The commercial trade of nuclear technology, even for peaceful use, heightens the risk of proliferation. By being a leader in the commercial trade of nuclear fuel, we reduce the need for other nations to pursue their own enrichment technology.

One needs to look no further than Iran and North Korea to see how enrichment for civilian electricity or the production of weapons is of equal concern to the rest of the world.

Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons has been a staple of U.S. policy since World War II. Unless Congress approves the requests made by Chu and the president, the U.S. stands to lose its leadership in nuclear development and cede its leverage in the fight for nonproliferation. Specifically, USEC Inc., the sole U.S. uranium enricher, might be forced to shutter the Ohio project where it is developing our next generation of enrichment technology.

As the world moves toward low-emission energy sources, nuclear power will inevitably increase in popularity. The U.S. this year finally approved the construction of a new nuclear power plant after decades of inactivity. More plants will soon be built here and elsewhere. The disaster in Japan after last year’s earthquake and tsunami is only a setback to nuclear development, not its death knell.

Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget justification has it right. The $150 million will help the U.S. “maintain global leadership in the effort to minimize the excessive spread of enrichment technology” and provide “the U.S. an unencumbered source of enriched uranium, critical in the near-term for the national security tritium production mission.”

This is a small price to pay for such insurance; the allocation would cover research and development expenses. But that will be enough to continue developing a modern, commercially viable domestic enrichment program. Happily, the Department of Energy is working closely with Congress to provide the funds needed both this year and next year.

A few radical environmentalists and scattered others who doubt the value of government interventions have threatened to undercut the vital national security interests that are at stake here.

But lawmakers of both parties have begun to line up behind the appropriation. Many more should do the same.

Retired Lt. Gen. Edward Rowny was chief negotiator with the rank of ambassador in the START arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and served as an arms control adviser and negotiator for five presidents.