China is eating our lunch when it comes to nuclear technology

Three decades after the “historic” United Nations Convention on Climate Change, and after spending trillions on clean energy initiatives that have yielded less-than-stellar results, the inescapable fact remains without incorporating nuclear fission into our clean energy policies, the CO2 levels are probably not coming down. In fact, prominent activists on the political left are now admitting their mistake and supporting nuclear energy.

Once a critic himself, President Biden’s climate plan specifically cites advanced nuclear. The President is awakening to the fact that 500,000 EV charging stations will require a lot of reliable, carbon-free electricity.

The Biden Administration should heed the advice of President Obama’s Deputy Energy Secretary, Dan Poneman, who says we can’t solve climate change without nuclear power.

Vital to this strategy is an open, honest, and intellectual conversation about the issues that impede nuclear energy, such as safety, waste, and proliferation. Without a holistic strategy, there is no public assurance that we will mitigate our Faustian bargain and nuclear energy will remain grossly misunderstood and unpopular. Only an honest and open discussion can help craft public discourse and policies that balance the risk of proliferation and nuclear waste with that of a second nuclear era.

The rapid buildup of clean nuclear energy will require different designs and a fleet of reactors in a thriving ecosystem. This is true for fuel cycles as well. While Uranium or U-235-based TRISO fuel are viable options for some future reactors, supporting the development of other fuel cycles, like plutonium and U-233, are an absolute necessity to ensure that the second nuclear era does not meet the same fate as the first.

The major problem with our implementation of nuclear power is that alternative fuels are absent from the civilian sector, and key nuclear roles that only those fuels can perform have remained unfulfilled.

Do not believe me? Just ask our biggest geopolitical adversary. China has chosen molten-salt reactor technology, powered by thorium, or more accurately, U-233, as an essential component of their medium- and long-term energy strategy. This includes both domestic generation, as well as global soft-power projection as part of CCP’s belt and road initiative to establish themselves as an undisputed superpower in their hemisphere. 

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has learned everything there is to know about this technology, and has done so in full collaboration with the department of energy and our national labs. Recognizing the value, China has invested over 3 billion dollars in its thorium program. To put that into perspective, that is at least three times the amount that DOE has invested in our own advanced nuclear initiatives over the last decade. 

Recently, the head of US Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledging the new breeder reactors in China and the opportunities that such reactors offer China in expanding both its civilian and military nuclear ambitions.

The South China Morning Post correctly asserts that there is no evidence that China intends to divert this technology for weapons use. This is simply because these reactors were probably not created for weapons use. Rather, they are being manufactured to produce U-233. It also happens to be that the U.S. possesses such an inventory and has allocated close to a billion dollars to destroy it.

In 1977, President Carter shut down the Clinch River breeder reactor program and put a moratorium on nuclear recycling to lower proliferation. Much progress in nuclear technology, like those of U-233 has been sacrificed in the U.S., with non-proliferation and security concerns as the principal factors driving policy. While these are serious considerations, such policy on the part of the U.S. has not stopped other countries, both allies, and adversaries, from pursuing U-233.

Thankfully, some in Congress are taking notice of this outdated policy and the inefficient contract it funds. Led by Reps. Jeff Duncan and Guy Reschenthaler, members of Congress are rallying together to secure this American treasure.

It’s becoming clearer by the day that preservation of the U-233 should be a non-partisan issue. Indeed, some environmentalists, as well as Presidential Candidates, have come to recognize the value of thorium. Recently nominated Asst. Energy Secretary Dr. Katy Huff has extensive experience studying thorium fuel cycle reactors.

When it comes to investing in next-generation nuclear reactors, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm is in full agreement. Emphasizing U.S. preeminence in developing innovative technologies needed to tackle the threats posed by climate change, the DOE plans on investing heavily in advanced nuclear energy technologies as part of its greater clean energy strategy. However, such a future must include alternate fuel cycle reactors and an ample supply of reactor-grade plutonium and U-233 is necessary to achieve this. We can start by saving the current U-233 inventory at Oak Ridge, TN, and through a responsible R&D program, take one step closer to the thousand-year energy solution.

• Rabbi Yechezkel Moskowitz is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist in the critical material and emerging technology space, as well as a senior fellow at the center for security policy focusing on American technological and industrial sovereignty.

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