Two months ago, the last plant for enriching uranium in the U.S. that employed domestic technology ceased operations. The plant is located in Paducah, Kentucky and is one of the few remaining vestiges of a once-mighty U.S. nuclear industry. Enrichment is the process of boosting the fissionable content of naturally-occurring uranium so that it is suitable for sustaining a nuclear reaction. Without an enrichment capability, it would be impossible to operate nuclear power plants or maintain the nation’s nuclear deterrent.
Shutdown of the Paducah plant was the inevitable consequence of Washington’s decades-long failure to formulate a coherent, consistent policy for meeting the nation’s nuclear-energy needs. Once a global leader in nuclear-energy technology, the U.S. has gradually seen other nations such as France and Russia surpass it in their technology investments and market share. Today the U.S. commercial-power industry is heavily dependent on nuclear-fuel imports from such counties to keep its power plants running.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the Cold War ended, the Energy Department moved to privatize its enrichment capacity by setting up a commercial entity called United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC). But Washington failed to follow through with policies that would protect the fledgling enterprise from the predatory trade practices of foreign-owned or subsidized competitors. So USEC, which leased the Paducah plant from the government, has seen its fortunes flag. Its efforts to build a modern enrichment facility using the latest domestic technology look increasingly endangered.
If USEC goes under, it will have big, bad consequences for the nation. First, commercial power plants will become even more dependent on offshore sources of enriched uranium. Second, the ability of the government to produce short-lived tritium for its nuclear deterrent will be jeopardized. Third, the domestic technology base for nuclear energy will continue shrinking. Fourth, the government’s ability to dissuade other nations from building their own enrichment facilities — potentially leading to nuclear-weapons proliferation — will be undercut. And finally, the United States will yield yet another front in the global trading system where it was once the dominant player.
These adverse consequences all could be avoided if Washington moved to counter the predatory pricing behavior of overseas competitors. It could provide tax breaks for buying domestically-produced nuclear fuel using U.S. technology; or it could mandate that a certain portion of nuclear fuel used be of such nature; or it could impose quotas on imports until state-influenced foreign enrichment companies clean up their act. Every major player in the global enrichment market except the U.S. seems to be employing similar measures, and as a result America is being forced out of the market.
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