The global nuclear energy market is a geopolitical battleground
Competition with Russia and China is no longer a game of Monopoly; it’s a game of Risk. And with a multibillion-dollar global civil nuclear market up for grabs, it’s time we recognize that competition with autocratic regimes is more than economic rivalry, it is fundamental to American national security.
Long before invading Ukraine, Russia weaponized civil nuclear exports to bind countries into decades-long energy dependencies, particularly when it comes to fuels — around 40% of the world’s uranium fuel supply comes from Russian facilities. With Russian nuclear exports continuing to surge, up more than 20% since the Ukrainian invasion first began, and China following suit, the U.S. has an imperative to secure the global civil nuclear supply chain, for both our energy and national security interests.
Given the geopolitical significance of nuclear commerce and our continuing struggle against authoritarian influence, ceding control of this market to Russia and China will not only imperil opportunities to secure wealth, jobs, and sovereignty, but also our ability to impart our values and standards on the safe and peaceful use of this critical technology.
The U.S. is in a good position to bring American-made advanced nuclear technology to market, but this is not a fair fight. Russian and Chinese nuclear energy companies are as much extensions of their respective governments as they are corporations, and thus, the highest levels of state will strategically direct their activities and support their efforts to win projects — and wars — abroad.
Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power conglomerate, has been involved in Moscow’s brutal and ongoing campaign of subjugation, acting as a lifeline to Russian military units and sanctioned arms manufacturers. The state-backed entity also was involved in Russia’s capture of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station and military activities around the plant. And despite worldwide condemnation and outrage, global reliance on Russian nuclear reactors, equipment, fuels, and services has only increased.
Rosatom’s business model is effective because it functions as an arm of the Russian government, something China echoes. Neither country is bound by Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development export financing restrictions, and each brings government-backed financing to export deals. In some instances, these governments will simply bankroll entire reactor projects and derive profit over time from power revenue, as is the case with Rosatom’s Akkuyu project in Turkey. Officials in Moscow and Beijing often aggressively court prospective markets well in advance of any reactor deals and have allegedly “sweetened” export bids with arms transfers and other government concessions.
Commerce is more than financial gain but a tool of geopolitical influence as civil nuclear export deals lock-in extended energy and diplomatic ties. For our nuclear industry, this is not merely a competition against firms, but nations.
Our geopolitical adversaries do not view nuclear commerce as strictly a business endeavor, and with what is at stake, neither should we.
The Biden administration has moved the needle on federal nuclear energy programs, but considering the highly centralized, vertically integrated, and state-sponsored competition, we urgently need a strategic, whole-of-government approach to nuclear energy policy and civil nuclear exports.
A secure and reliable domestic nuclear supply chain is an essential component to our energy security and must be integrated with our larger national security strategy. Third Way, a center-left think tank, has an idea of where to start: quickly appoint a nuclear energy policy director within the White House. This role can serve a vital interagency coordinating function and provide a strategic and coherent vision of federal support for U.S. nuclear export. Perhaps even more foundationally, we must restore our domestic uranium fuel supply chain — the lifeblood of our nuclear energy sector that is currently reliant on Russian supply.
Federal programs are in place to kickstart infrastructure build-out for the production of low-enriched uranium and high-assay low-enriched uranium for advanced reactor types, necessary to support both domestic deployment and export competitiveness. Robustly funding and rapidly implementing these programs must be the first step of any effort to alleviate Russia’s extensive hold over the global nuclear fuel market.
This is a defining moment for how we think about energy, and how it shapes our geopolitics. Autocrats have learned nuclear exports not only represent commercial value, but can also be wielded as weapons of geopolitics.
As a result, transitioning to cleaner, more reliable energy sources has become a strategic imperative for the United States. If we can successfully build and supply nuclear technologies to the world, we can modernize our military fleet, build relationships and enhance our collective energy security as part of a broader integrated deterrence approach. By weaving energy security into the heart of our national security strategy, we can bolster our capacity to deter and resist authoritarian aggression.
Elaine Luria represented Virginia’s Second Congressional District from 2019-2023. While in Congress, she served as the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee and as a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. She is a fellow at Georgetown University under the Institute of Politics and Public Service.
Josh Freed is senior vice president of Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program, advocating for the United States to reach net-zero by 2050 as equitably as possible.