Nuclear power, weapons and 'national security'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

The nuclear industry promotes a complex, interlinked set of lies and half-truths to obscure its connections to weapons proliferation. We untangled that industry propaganda in Nuclear Monitor #840.1

Discussion about the military potential of 'peaceful' nuclear technologies and programs focuses on the efforts of non-weapons states to acquire weapons. For advanced weapons states, such as the US, we noted in Nuclear Monitor #840 that "incremental growth of nuclear power in the US ... is of no proliferation significance."1

The same could be said in reverse: incremental decline of nuclear power in the US (or comparable weapons states) is of no proliferation significance. But what about a precipitous decline of nuclear power ‒ might that have adverse consequences for the US nuclear weapons program? The answer is 'yes' according to a growing number of nuclear advocates ‒ and that is being put forward as an argument for expanded government support for the troubled US nuclear power industry.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, for example, has been trying to convince politicians in Washington that if the AP1000 reactor construction projects in South Carolina and Georgia aren't completed, it would stunt development of the nation's nuclear weapons complex because the engineering expertise on the energy side helps the weapons side.2

A different argument ‒ that a strong civil nuclear industry provides the experts and expertise to drive international non-proliferation efforts and other geopolitical interests ‒ is common enough (see the following article in this issue of Nuclear Monitor). The 'Environmental Progress' group, for example, issues ominous warnings of "global nuclear domination by Russia" and argues the case for massive, multifaceted taxpayer subsidies for the nuclear industry and for a taxpayer-funded bailout of bankrupt Westinghouse.3

A new report by the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) makes the same argument and arrives at the same conclusions, arguing for massive additional subsidies for the civil nuclear industry in the US including credit support, tax incentives and federal siting and/or purchase power agreements.4 The EFI report also advocates establishing a broad-based consortium of nuclear supply chain companies, power-generating companies, financing institutions and "other appropriate entities" to share the risk and benefits of further new-build projects both in the US and internationally.

But there are a couple of major differences between Environmental Progress and the EFI. Environmental Progress is a fake environment group led by paid pro-nuclear lobbyists, whereas the EFI carries far greater weight ‒ it is a creation of Ernest Moniz, who served as energy secretary under president Barack Obama.

And while the EFI paper runs the argument that effective international engagement on nuclear issues depends on a strong domestic nuclear industry, it also argues that a strong domestic industry is necessary to directly support the US nuclear weapons program. The report states that the US nuclear energy sector "helps the U.S military meet specific defense priorities, supports the implementation of U.S. nonproliferation policy, and is essential to the global projection of U.S. military capability. The flip side is that an eroding nuclear enterprise will compromise important nuclear security capabilities or make them more costly."4

There are profound contradictions between Moniz's role at the EFI and his role as co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The contradictions between the positions of the two organizations would fill a book. To give just a couple of examples, the Nuclear Threat Initiative argues the case for the elimination of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in the civil nuclear sector5; but the EFI is having none of that ‒ it wants a civil enrichment industry to underpin military production of HEU. The Nuclear Threat Initiative warns that the US and Russia keep nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons on high alert, leaving both countries vulnerable to nuclear launch by accident, miscalculation or cyber-attack6; whereas the EFI report states that the existence of the Russian nuclear weapons arsenal underscores the importance of US nuclear weapons to "global strategic stability and deterrence".

The Navy's nuclear needs

On the US Navy's alleged need for a civil nuclear industry, the EFI report states:4

"The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program is comprised of military and civilian personnel who design, build, operate, maintain and manage the nearly one hundred reactors that power US aircraft carriers and submarines and provide training and research services.

"The program is operated jointly by the Department of Energy and the US Navy. Nuclear reactors provide the Navy with the mobility, flexibility and endurance required to carry out its global mission. More powerful reactors are beginning to be employed on the new Ford class aircraft carriers and will enable the new Columbia class of submarines in the next decades.

"A strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements.

"This supply chain has an inherent and very strong overlap with the commercial nuclear energy sector.

"This supply chain for meeting the critical national security need for design and operation of Navy reactors includes a workforce trained in science and engineering, comprised of US citizens who qualify for security clearances.

"The Navy will (also) eventually need additional highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel its reactors for long intervals between refueling. Because of the national security use and the sensitivity of HEU production, the entire supply chain from uranium feed to the enrichment technology must be of United States origin.

"There is currently no such domestic capability in the supply chain. The relatively lengthy time period required to stand up such a capability raises serious, near-term concerns about the US capacity to meet this critical national security need."

The EFI report also states that the companies that supply the shrinking civil nuclear reactor program are the same firms providing components and enriched uranium to keep the Navy's nuclear-propelled vessels operating. And the report raises concerns about the workforce: "A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers."

Broader connections

The EFI report also discusses civil/military connections beyond the Navy's requirements. For example it states:4

"The nuclear weapons stockpile requires a constant source of tritium (half life about 12.5 years), provided by irradiating special fuel rods in one or two commercial power reactors. As with the Navy HEU requirements, the tritium must be supplied from US-origin reactors using domestically produced LEU reactor fuel.

"Once again, we do not have the long-term capability to meet this need because of the absence of an enrichment facility using US-origin technology. This is a glaring hole in the domestic nuclear supply chain, since the only enrichment facility in the United States today uses Urenco (European) technology to supply power reactor fuel."

The report also broadens the workforce argument beyond the Navy, stating that the number people pursuing higher education in nuclear sciences is becoming too small to sustain the nuclear industry and that a nuclear career path will be still less attractive if only military careers were available.

The EFI report concludes that "a stabilized existing reactor fleet and new builds" will be needed to rebuild a supply chain that will underpin national security "success".

Do the arguments withstand scrutiny?

A growing number of nuclear advocates are arguing that a strong civil nuclear industry is required to support the US weapons program ‒ but do their arguments stack up? The short answer is that a strong civil industry helps the weapons program but it isn't essential.

If tritium isn't produced in one particular power reactor, it can be produced in another power reactor, or a research reactor, or a small military reactor could be built or restarted to produce tritium for weapons. As for low-enriched uranium to fuel reactors used to produce tritium, the European consortium Urenco has reportedly approved the use of its enriched uranium to fuel reactors in the US used to produce tritium.7

If HEU isn't produced in a dual-use domestic enrichment plant, a dedicated military enrichment plant will do the job (and could be built with or without the support of a civil enrichment industry), or HEU can be sourced elsewhere (e.g. from dismantled weapons).

It helps the weapons program to have a pool of trained personnel in the civil sector to draw from ‒ but it isn't essential.

Of course, this discussion assumes that maintaining the US nuclear weapons program is a good thing ‒ which is a strongly contested assumption. If the aim is to comply with the nation's obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to seriously pursue disarmament, the decline of the civil nuclear industry would dovetail neatly with the NPT obligation to pursue disarmament.

And of course, this refreshing honesty about the connections between the peaceful nuclear industry and Weapons of Mass Destruction might backfire. Opponents of nuclear power in the US (and comparable countries) might redouble their efforts, secure in the knowledge that anti-nuclear power campaigning also serves to undermine the WMD program to a greater or lesser extent.


Perhaps some of those arguing that a strong civil nuclear industry is needed to maintain the US weapons program don't really believe the argument stacks up, or they don't care one way or another ‒ for them the test is whether the argument might be accepted by people with power and influence within the Trump administration.

Trump is certainly an advocate of expanding the nuclear weapons program. But his comments linking civil and military nuclear programs have been so convoluted that it would take an oracle (or a Fox or a Breitbart) to decipher them. He famously said in February 2017: "You know what uranium is, right? It's a thing called nuclear weapons and other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things."8 And in the same month he said: "I am the first one that would like to see everybody nobody have nukes, but we're never going to fall behind any country even if it's a friendly country, we're never going to fall behind on nuclear power. It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we're going to be at the top of the pack."9

At the Future of Energy summit in April 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry joined the dots more clearly: "As we have not built nuclear plants over a 30-year time, the intellectual capability, the manufacturing capability, I will not say has been completely lost, but has been impacted in a major way. In doing so, the development of our weapons side has been impacted."10

Perry continued: "There is a conversation, there is a discussion ‒ some of it obviously very classified ‒ that will be occurring as we going forward to make sure that we have the decisions, made by Congress in a lot of these cases, to protect the security interests of America ..."10

The Trump administration is probably sympathetic to the argument that the civil nuclear industry needs extra support in order to prop up the weapons programs. The administration might, in time, give the industry what it wants ‒ but it has done little to date. A request for a non-repayable handout of US$1‒3 billion to help keep the VC Summer reactor project in South Carolina alive was rejected and the project was abandoned shortly thereafter.11 The administration has proposed cutting nuclear power R&D funding and killing off the loan guarantee program (which would jeopardize the only nuclear new-build program in the US ‒ the Vogtle project in Georgia).12 In June, the administration barred 27 Department of Energy scientists from attending an IAEA conference in Russia on fast neutron reactors.13 One scientist offered to pay his own way and was still barred from attending.

The Trump administration might be more receptive to libertarian conservatives such as those arguing that favoring nuclear power with heavy subsidies "increases costs to electricity users, and discourages the development of new energy technologies" and that nuclear subsidies "reward poor management and bad judgment and would cost homeowners and businesses billions."14

Matt Kempner, a journalist with Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote on August 28:15

"There's a mad scramble underway to come up with new reasons for why Georgians should continue to pay billions of dollars to expand nuclear power in the state. National security! Push back against Russia and China! ... Seriously? ... It seemed like only yesterday when Georgia Power convinced politicians on the Georgia Public Service Commission that a primary reason for expanding Plant Vogtle was because it was the cheapest way to cool our homes, charge our iPhones and keep industry chugging. Proponents can no longer say that without twitching. ...

"You might wonder why Georgia ratepayers should pay the bulk of supposedly preserving national security rather than having the federal government do so. Well, there hasn't been a Washington groundswell to write a blank check that takes most of the nuclear burden off our backs. Maybe they aren't fully convinced by the "national security" argument. ...

"Bobby Baker, a former PSC commissioner, says he doesn't remember the national security argument or fear of Russian or Chinese dominance being raised as issues when PSC commissioners were asked to approve the Vogtle expansion back in the day, when U.S. utilities were already decades into a deep freeze on nuclear construction. Baker called it a "creative" argument."

Kempner also questions Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols' claim that the lack of a commercial nuclear industry to provide employment and training would have an adverse impact on the Navy:15

"Actually, a lot of the time it's the other way around: Utilities often hire Navy-trained nuclear personnel. I asked the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program about how crucial the commercial nuclear industry is for the Navy. "The direct relationship between civilian and naval nuclear reactors is small," public affairs director Lee Smith emailed me. But some components are supplied by the same companies, "providing some economy of scale for the manufacturer and reduced costs for the Navy.""

UK debates

The UK's nuclear power industry is closer to extinction than the US industry. The US has 99 operable power reactors, a large majority of them 30+ years old. The UK has 15 power reactors, most of them 30+ years old.

The power/weapons arguments are also starting to surface in the UK. Paul Brown wrote in Climate News Network on August 23:16

"Britain decided in 2002 after an objective inquiry17 by the government's Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) that nuclear was becoming too expensive and renewables were a better alternative for generating electricity.

"However, quite unexpectedly, in 2005, after a secretive review under the premiership of Tony Blair, the policy was reversed and the UK government announced a revival of the nuclear industry.18

"Corresponding with this unprecedented U-turn on civil nuclear power was an equally unprecedented intensification in efforts to preserve nuclear skills for the military sector. Many millions of pounds have been given in government grants since that time to set up nuclear training programmes.

"The Oxford Research Group (ORG), a UK think tank, published a two-part report, entitled Sustainable Security.19,20 Both parts examined the prospects of the UK's Trident nuclear programme influencing its energy policy. 

"The ORG concluded that the government realised it could not sustain its own nuclear weapons programme, or more particularly its nuclear-propelled submarine fleet, without a large and complementary civilian nuclear industry.

"Commenting on the release of the American report on the military crisis being caused by the lack of civilian power projects, Andrew Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at the School of Business, University of Sussex, UK, said: 'With renewable costs tumbling and the international nuclear industry in growing crisis, it is becoming ever more difficult to carry on concealing this key underlying military reason for attachment to civil nuclear power.'

"In the last year the UK government has been trying to generate interest in an alternative civilian nuclear programme. It has encouraged a competition to develop small modular reactors.21

"These reactors are supposed to be dotted around the countryside to power small towns. There are a number of designs, but some are remarkably similar to the power generators for nuclear submarines, particularly those that will be needed for the UK's so-called independent nuclear deterrent – the Trident programme.

"It is no coincidence that the frontline developer of both these kinds of reactors is Rolls-Royce, which has a workforce that seamlessly crosses over between military and civilian developments."


1. Nuclear Monitor #804, 28 May 2015, 'The myth of the peaceful atom',

2. Amy Harder, 16 June 2017, 'Nuclear scramble on tax credits',

3. Nick Gallucci and Michael Shellenberger, 3 Aug 2017, 'Are we really going to allow global nuclear domination by Russia?',

4. Energy Futures Initiative, 2017, 'The U.S. Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler',



7. Nuclear Monitor #846, 29 June 2017, 'Urenco enrichment consortium to help US nuclear weapons program',

8. Tom DiChristopher, 16 Feb 2017, 'Donald Trump claims — falsely — that Hillary Clinton gave Russia 20% of US uranium',

9. Steve Holland, 24 Feb 2017, 'Trump wants to make sure U.S. nuclear arsenal at 'top of the pack'',

10. Christian Roselund, 25 April 2017, 'Full speed in reverse: Rick Perry presents his vision for DOE',

11. Amy Harder, 4 Aug 2017, 'Utility made failed plea for billion-dollar nuclear grant',

12. Ari Natter, 15 Aug 2017, 'Nuclear Power's Woes Imperil U.S. National Security, Moniz Says',

13. Elliott Negin, 1 Aug 2017, 'Energy Department Scientists Barred From Attending Nuclear Power Conference',

14. Joe Romm, 25 May 2017, 'Nuclear industry prices itself out of power market, demands taxpayers keep it afloat',

15. Matt Kempner, 28 Aug 2017, 'Kempner: Georgia nuke backers scramble for reasons to keep going', The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,

16. Paul Brown, 23 Aug 2017, 'US nuclear might rests on civil reactors', Climate News Network,