The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s crucial decision on nuclear power

The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa., on March 19. (Michael S. Williamson/WASHINGTON POST)

In the ongoing mash-up of the tragic and the trifling that is the modern news cycle, one crucial story getting far too little attention is President Trump’s effort to revive the U.S. nuclear power industry. The nuclear fuel cycle is vital to our nation in terms of the power that nuclear energy can provide (without which there is no hope for significant reductions in carbon output) and the security guaranteed by our nuclear weapons. Yet both are imperiled by neglect.

On that front, there is a countdown clock ticking toward a major decision that few if any national security experts are focused on. On July 12, Trump moved decisively to change that, issuing a memo demanding “a comprehensive review of the entire domestic nuclear supply chain.” If you have heard of this memorandum, you are ahead of 99.9 percent of policymakers, but word needs to spread, and the president’s resolve on paper needs translation into specific actions.

The uranium cycle is, basically, (1) uranium mining and milling, (2) conversion into uranium hexafluoride gas and (3) enrichment. Natural uranium has about a 0.7 percent concentration of the fissile uranium-235 isotope. Enrichment increases that share; just under 4 percent gets you nuclear fuel for electricity while 90 percent can get you a bomb (or fuel for a naval reactor).

About 90 percent of the uranium used by U.S. utilities is imported, thus the first step in the “uranium cycle” is dangerously dependent on foreign sources. Not only do you need domestic production of uranium, you need domestic enrichment. The United States, however, saw its last plant for highly enriched uranium in Paducah, Ky., shuttered earlier this decade after the 2011 Fukushima disaster sent shudders through the nuclear power industry.

The United States must now dilute its preexisting stockpiles of highly enriched uranium — the end product of an expensive and difficult process — into lower-state products. Like pulling up your floorboards to burn in the furnace, this solution is neither efficient nor sustainable in the long term. Though our current stockpiles could in theory be made to last until around 2040, facing increasing threats from Russia and China, we can’t predict what new demands will be placed on this finite stockpile in the next few years.

Thirteen countries (including North Korea and Iran) are now ahead of the United States in terms of indigenous enrichment capacity — and all of those countries’ foreign enrichment plants are state-owned. It would be foolish to count on foreign governments to allow us to use their enrichment plants to fuel our warships or maintain our nuclear weapons. Outsourcing one of our core national security requirements is never a good idea.

If people are serious about significant slowing of carbon emissions, they have to be for safe nuclear power production. If they are serious about long-term maintenance of our nuclear deterrent, they have to be for domestic production and enrichment of uranium. If they are serious about national security in every dimension, they will agree with what the president said in his July memorandum: that the country must “reinvigorate the entire nuclear fuel supply chain, consistent with United States national security and nonproliferation goals.”

In that memo, the president set a deadline of 90 days for recommendations from the team entrusted with this crucial decision, a deadline that is approaching fast. The recommendations he receives will set a course for U.S. nuclear policy for decades. The time to pay attention is now.

Read more:

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Susan Q. Stranahan: Why don’t U.S. nuclear regulators acknowledge the dangers of climate change?

Steven Andreasen: Trump is quietly leading us closer to nuclear disaster

Dana Milbank: Why can’t we use nuclear weapons against bedbugs?