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President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have made energy security a top priority, and they couldn’t be more correct. They wisely consider the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes a serious, national goal.
Oil may grab headlines, but nuclear power for civilian use is growing, as it should. It is efficient, extremely safe and friendly to the environment. As with oil, the U.S. would be wise to produce its own supply of enriched uranium, the fuel for nuclear power plants.
Farming out the process to other nations — or to companies headquartered overseas — is risky and increases our vulnerabilities. The U.S. government should pay more attention than it has in recent years to the nation’s dwindling ability to enrich its own uranium.
The consequences of doing otherwise could be dramatic. Our country could find itself at the mercy of foreigners who do not have our best interests at heart.
Energy independence, a laudable aspiration for oil, is even more essential for nuclear power. Domestically produced supplies of enriched uranium are already running short. The U.S. once produced most of the world’s enriched uranium. Now we’re down to about a quarter of the world’s supply. For reasons of national security, we shouldn’t dip further.
That’s why the president should be praised for requesting $150 million in next year’s National Nuclear Security Administration budget to keep uranium enrichment alive on our soil. In the meantime, Chu has asked Congress for the authority to reallocate his current budget resources for that purpose until next year’s budget is enacted. Without this cash infusion, American technology at a major facility in rural Ohio will face an uncertain future. We can’t afford the uncertainty.
Military considerations also play a role here. Nuclear weapons, while thankfully on the decline, still exist and must be maintained and updated. International treaties mandate that tritium, a rare, radioactive isotope that’s a byproduct of enriched uranium use in nuclear reactors and is critical to the proper, safe functioning of nuclear weapons, must be made with U.S. technology. Unless U.S. technology is available to make the enriched uranium needed to produce tritium, our national security will be at risk.
As odd as it may sound, a strong enrichment industry in the U.S. promotes the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. The more nuclear fuel we produce, the less enrichment is needed abroad and the less chance our enemies have of getting their hands on the technology to produce weapons-grade material. The commercial trade of nuclear technology, even for peaceful use, heightens the risk of proliferation. By being a leader in the commercial trade of nuclear fuel, we reduce the need for other nations to pursue their own enrichment technology.
One needs to look no further than Iran and North Korea to see how enrichment for civilian electricity or the production of weapons is of equal concern to the rest of the world.