By Linda Pentz Gunter
Lately, we have been witnessing the danger of one man with far too much power. In the United States, that one man is Joe Manchin. The Senator from West Virginia, a Republican in Democrat’s clothing, was key to derailing the Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation to address the climate crisis.
Manchin also lined up with Republicans to defeat a bill to enshrine the right to abortion in federal law and to block changes to the filibuster that would have allowed voting rights legislation to pass with a simple majority.
Now, he has come up with his own bill. Manchin’s grandiose International Nuclear Energy Act of 2022 is not only couched in a good deal of America first-style rhetoric, it is utterly detached from reality. Not that this will hinder it in any way. As Nuclear Intelligence Weekly recently concluded, “The bill has a relatively good chance of passing, in part because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the push for energy independence”.
Needless to say, the bill’s language repeats the popular mantra “safe secure and peaceful use of nuclear technology”, even though it is none of these things and can never be.
Manchin and Republican co-sponsor, Senator James Risch of Idaho, describe their aspirational Act as “a bill to facilitate the development of a whole-of-government strategy for nuclear cooperation and nuclear exports.”
It is, in effect, a grand scheme to build a veritable American nuclear empire, manufacturing and exporting everything from nuclear reactor technology to financing services and even “storage and disposal” of irradiated reactor fuel. It will, the senators say, “promote the fullest utilization of United States reactors, fuel, equipment, services, and technology in nuclear energy programs outside the United States”.
Among the program’s targets are “embarking civil nuclear energy nations”, that is, countries that do not already have nuclear power programs. But this latest nuclear largesse is not restricted to ally or partner countries. Manchin and Risch invite the Assistant and Deputy Assistant of the US Department of Energy to select “any other country” that either “determines to be appropriate”. This leaves the proliferation door wide open to all manner of potentially unsavory nations, and even unsavory US administrations (witness President Trump’s cosy coddling of Russian premier, Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un).
This is made the more disturbing because what Manchin and Risch want to export is not only light water but non-light water reactors, all under the nomenclature of “civil nuclear technologies”. But non-light water reactors are not necessarily civil. The whole problem with them is that they can use or make plutonium and that they rely on more highly enriched fuel known as HALEU (High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium), fuel that is not impossible to use in nuclear weapons and which can more easily be further enriched to weapons grade. At the moment, HALEU is only manufactured by Russia.
No matter, say the good senators, because the US will start manufacturing HALEU, too. And exporting it. Within a year of the bill’s enactment, US companies will be selected to produce the HALEU fuel and Low-Enriched Uranium fuel. Only uranium produced and converted in the US will be used.
HALEU fuel is essential to some designs for so-called “advanced” reactors but, at the moment, is supplied by Russia. (Image: US Department of Energy)
The frenzy around HALEU is that most of the so-called “advanced” smaller modular reactor designs depend on it, including Bill Gates’s Natrium and Oklo’s Aurora, now going in for a second try at regulatory approval having even been rejected the first time around by the traditionally rubber stamp-prone US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Oklo has repeatedly failed to provide substantive information in response to NRC staff requests for additional information (RAIs) on the maximum credible accident (MCA) for the Aurora design, the safety classification of structures, systems, and components (SSCs), and other issues needed for the NRC staff to establish a schedule and complete its technical review,” read the NRC decision.
The comprehensive nuclear products and services promised by the International Nuclear Energy Act fall within the remit of “Team USA’’, described as “the interagency initiative to identify opportunities in emerging economies, embarking civil nuclear energy nations, and ally or partner nations” in order to present them with the USA’s great soup-to-nuts nuclear enterprise.
And all of this can happen even faster, the Senators say, if we simply “improve” — as in “weaken” — “the regulatory framework to allow for the expeditious exporting and importing of civil nuclear technologies and materials”.
The bill actually encourages “foreign investment in domestic construction projects”, precisely at a time when it also insists on domestic autonomy and energy independence.
Indeed, the whole idea is a politically opportunistic lunge for the Russian and Chinese shares of the nuclear market, usurping programs already underway under the auspices of those autocratic countries and replacing them with products branded “Team USA”. The US has been smarting for some time that it is about to be displaced by China “as the global leader in the production and sale of nuclear power generation”. Reliance on Russian nuclear imports, in contrast, had fallen under the radar until the war in Ukraine turned it into a political hot potato.
All sorts of sums of money — not necessarily super large considering what they are supposed to pay for — are requested for various phases of the bill’s activities, including $15.5 million per year in loan guarantees from 2022-2026 “for the utilization of United States reactors, fuel, equipment, services, and technology”; and $5.5 million grants to “ally or partner nations for the construction of nuclear reactors and advanced nuclear reactors”. But it will be our money, of course, duly wasted.
The bizarre lesson that the US and parts of Europe seem to have taken from witnessing Ukraine’s reactors come under fire and occupation, risking catastrophic and potentially multiple meltdowns is, “what we need are more nuclear power plants”.
We can be forgiven, therefore, for asking if Senator Manchin, in dreaming up this fissile flight of fancy, has likewise taken leave of his senses, but this would presuppose the presence of senses in the first place.
Instead, we must work to defeat his bill. The International Nuclear Energy Act of 2022 is another fatal diversion from the most important task at hand: to eschew wars and nuclear weapons and dumb conspiracy theories and focus on drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.
This article was published on April 25, 2022, at Beyond Nuclear International.