By Oliver McPherson-Smith, ACI
The Department of Energy recently announced plans to develop a strategic uranium stockpile for America’s nuclear energy reactors. While having ample sources of uranium is central to low emissions energy security, the likelihood of running out of the resource is an incredibly rare scenario. Rather than pouring taxpayer money into a redundant stockpile, the federal government should prioritize addressing the current challenges that are hindering the nuclear power industry.
Nuclear power already plays an important role in America’s energy mix, and its full potential is yet to be realized. Nuclear power generates around 20% of energy in the United States, all without producing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Unlike other forms of renewable energy that depend on weather patterns, nuclear can—and does—produce near consistent power at all hours of the day and night, every day of the week. Given this lucrative combination of low emissions and high-output energy production, nuclear power could make decarbonization of the energy mix realistic in today’s world.
Although the United States has some uranium resources, domestic production is near record lows while imports have boomed. To shore up the domestic nuclear energy and mining industries, the Trump administration’s 2021 budget includes $150 million for a national uranium reserve. Despite the fact that domestic uranium miners have been lobbying for restrictions on imports for years, the ostensible reason for the reserve is to protect the country’s supply of uranium for nuclear power.
While the need for a reliable nuclear supply chain is vital for the country’s medical, energy, and defense industries, there is little evidence that America would ever be hard pressed to acquire uranium. Unlike the 1973 Arab oil embargo, and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that was created in its wake, two of America’s closest allies have bountiful uranium resources. Neighboring Canada has traditionally been the largest source of American uranium imports. Similarly, Australia holds the world’s largest uranium deposits and are cheap to mine. Meanwhile, the country doesn’t even have a domestic nuclear power industry.
If America has so far enjoyed decades of importing lower cost uranium from its closest allies, under what circumstances would the country’s supply chain be threatened? According to the Congressional Research Service, the Department of Energy has not specified what would constitute a market disruption sufficient to trigger a drawdown of the uranium reserve. Without even hypothetical examples of why the uranium reserve could be needed, the $150 million project is a tough sell for taxpayers reeling from the COVID-19 economic crisis.
To make matters worse, creating a uranium stockpile for nuclear power seems hasty when the federal government is already struggling to dispose of the country’s existing nuclear waste. Emblematic of this challenge is the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada, which has been under consideration since the Reagan administration. Despite repeated congressional votes of support for the repository, the site has the dubious title of being scuttled by both the Obama and Trump administrations due to local political pressure. In lieu of more funding or a new waste strategy, the uranium stockpile program risks producing a mess it can’t clean up.
Nuclear power represents an unparalleled opportunity to provide stable and reliable emissions-free energy. But pouring $150 million in taxpayer money into the domestic mining industry resolves a supply chain problem that doesn’t exist. To support the nuclear industry and the benefits it provides, the federal government needs to fix the nuclear waste problem it already faces.
Oliver McPherson-Smith writes for the American Consumer Institute, a non-profit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.