US President Donald Trump’s FY2021 budget has earmarked US$1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) for nuclear energy research and development programs, as the US joins a growing global race to develop and implement next-generation energy production methods to ensure energy and national security.
As many nations and governments around the world race to secure their domestic energy supplies while limiting the harmful effects on the global environment, the US under the rambunctious President Donald Trump has been quietly seeking a way to “unleash American Energy Dominance”.
Despite nuclear power often proving to be a poison chalice in Australian politics, the perfect storm of environmental, consumer cost and the strategic imperative of energy security has prompted many nations, mainly China and India to develop next-generation nuclear technologies.
Not to be outdone, US President Donald Trump has outlined a push to re-establish America’s position of technological dominance in the nuclear energy space after a long period of hiatus in favour of technologies like wind and solar.
Nuclear energy has long served as a powerful, albeit contentious, alternative to meet the voracious energy demands of the global economy, with frequent critics citing the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima incidents as largely emotionally driven counter-arguments against the widespread implementation of traditional, fission-based nuclear power production.
The White House’s FY2021 budget – A Budget for America’s Future: Budget of the US Government – has pushed for what President Trump states as an attempt to aid the “revitalisation of the domestic [nuclear] industry and the ability of domestic technologies to compete abroad”, with the President reiterating nuclear energy as “an issue of national security”.
This recognition of the role nuclear energy can play in solving energy security challenges by developed economies, combined with the impact nuclear energy plays in providing carbon-free energy at a period of growing concern about the impact of carbon dioxide on climate change, is an important factor driving R&D.
A key component of Trump’s push to roll out the next generation of nuclear energy technology includes two bills signed by the President, which is aimed at speeding up the development of a Versatile Test Reactor designed to test and develop advanced reactor fuels and materials.
Throughout recent decades, nuclear technology has rapidly evolved with a range of civil and military applications – the advent of “small modular reactors” (SMR) and “very small modular reactors” (vSMR) in particular serves as a notable example of recent developments to address the growing need for reliable, “clean” baseload power generation.
Closer to home, in response to these growing economic and strategic concerns, Energy and Environment Minister Angus Taylor has officially launched a parliamentary inquiry into the viability of developing Australia’s own nuclear energy industry:
“This will be the first inquiry into the use of nuclear power in Australia in more than a decade and is designed to consider the economic, environmental and safety implications of nuclear power.”
Emphasising ‘American Energy Dominance’
A core focus of the US President’s energy budget is what is defined as establishing and maintaining “American Energy Dominance” during a period of increased great power competition:
“The United States has among the most abundant and diverse energy resources in the world, including oil, gas, coal, nuclear, hydro and renewables. The budget supports an array of efforts that emphasise and strengthen that unique advantage, leveraging the nation’s position as a global leader in energy production and technological innovation,” the US budget document states.
Trump’s budget document identifies the role nuclear energy will play in supporting the US pursuit of energy dominance, where it states: “Nuclear energy is also critical to the nation’s energy mix, and the budget supports an array of programs to advance nuclear energy technologies.
“This portfolio promotes revitalisation of the domestic industry and the ability of domestic technologies to compete abroad. The budget provides US$1.2 billion for R&D and other important nuclear energy programs, including nearly US$300 million for the construction of the Versatile Test Reactor – a first of its kind fast reactor that would help the private sector develop and demonstrate new technologies.”
Learning from the US example
While the widespread rollout of the fusion reactor is still some time away, the increasing reliability and modularity of advanced fission reactors, particularly Generation III and IV reactors, present an interesting and attractive opportunity to respond to the nation’s energy security situation.
Despite the overwhelmingly emotional response to nuclear energy in Australia, the nation’s position as one of the largest fissile material exporters in the world – combined with world-leading standards, environmental protection legislation and voracious demand for reliable, “clean” and “safe” energy – positions Australian policymakers at a crossroads where logic and reason need to trump emotion.
The advent of SMR technology and the similar vSMR platforms was a key focus of the terms of reference outlined by Energy Minister Angus Taylor – with the ABC recently reporting the growing focus of SMR developers, stating their key objective as “aiming to lower the typical construction costs associated with nuclear plants through serial fabrication at an off-site facility, with components brought together at the operational site for final assembly”.
SMR technology is one such example of modernisation and technological breakthroughs in the nuclear industry, with the US Army Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations study highlighting the growing importance of energy on the modern battlefield, saying:
“Energy is a cross-cutting enabler of military power, and nuclear fuel provides the densest form of energy able to generate the electrical power necessary at forward and remote locations without the need for continuous fuel resupply.”
Enter the development of vSMRs, designed to deliver between one and 10 megawatts (MW) for years without refuelling in a rapidly deployable (road and/or air) package.
Both the US Department of Defense and NASA have collaborated on the development of such reactors for use in military and space exploration contingencies.
In response, Ted O’Brien, chair of the House standing committee on the environment and energy, has issued a preliminary report into the nation’s future energy security and generation equation.
“Nuclear energy should be on the table for consideration as part of our future energy mix. Australia should say a definite ‘no’ to old nuclear technologies, but a conditional ‘yes’ to new and emerging technologies such as small modular reactors,” O’Brien said.
A key component of the conditional “yes” to nuclear energy as part of Australia’s energy solution is the acceptance of new generation technologies on the back of over 300 submissions to the committee and its report, titled Not without your approval, which recognises the contentious issue of nuclear power.
In recognising this, O’Brien focused the argument: “If we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can’t simply ignore this zero-emissions baseload technology. But we also need to be humble enough to learn lessons from other countries who have gone down this path.”
Further supporting this, the committee report recommends “the Australian government undertake a body of work to deepen the understanding of nuclear technology, which would include economic, technological and readiness assessments and also a two-way public engagement program”.
“The report recommends a partial lift of the current moratorium on nuclear energy, urging the government to keep its moratorium on Generations I, II and III reactors while lifting it for reactors in Generations III+ and IV, so only the newest and best be considered,” the report said.
While Australia enjoys a virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, the ability to refine and produce vast quantities of steel, coking coal and now domestic agricultural produce and critical, specialised medical supplies also serves as a glaring gap in the broader national security debate.
Accordingly, any national strategic reserve policy requires a holistic approach to incorporate these into the development of any policy response.
Contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods.
This is extended further when we recognise that even fewer within modern Australia understand the sociopolitical and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Accordingly, it is now up to Australia’s political and strategic leaders to form an integrated policy agenda as part of a broader National Security Strategy.
Similar to that advocated for by senator Jim Molan: to include the development of critical national strategic reserves to support the national economy and defence capability during an increasingly troubled period in global history.