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Does the US need a strong nuclear industry to prevent proliferation abroad?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

The argument that a strong civil nuclear industry is needed to maintain the US weapons program is exaggerated and problematic, as is another argument being put forward to bolster the case for expanded government support for the nuclear industry. This is the argument that the US must be heavily involved in the global nuclear industry to prevent weapons proliferation and to shore up other geopolitical interests.

Historically, the US has variously supported other countries' weapons programs, or turned a blind eye to them, or attempted to prevent those programs with varying success. The US 'Atoms for Peace' program spread dual-use facilities and materials (such as 25 tons of highly-enriched uranium (HEU)1) across the globe and there are unfinished efforts to undo that damage by transfering fissile material to the US, converting HEU-fuelled reactors to low-enriched uranium fuel, etc.

The administration of George W. Bush invested considerable resources and political capital into opening up civil nuclear trade with India. In so doing it took a sledgehammer to the global non-proliferation architecture, in particular the prohibition on nuclear trade with non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). To add insult to injury, the efforts of US firms to build reactors in India have come to nothing ‒ Russia is the only foreign country building reactors in India.

In recent years, the US has done all it can to undermine the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the UN in early July 2017, and the US boycotted the negotiations. Just in the past week, reports have surfaced that the US warned Sweden that if it signs the UN treaty, bilateral defence cooperation will be hampered and it would jeopardize the possibility of military support from the US in a crisis situation.2

Michael E. Webber, an academic who receives funding from the US government and the power industry, argues that the "loss of expertise from a declining domestic nuclear workforce makes it hard for Americans to conduct the inspections that help keep the world safe from nuclear weapons."3 Webber notes that around 2,500 people, including 200 US citizens, work at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)4 ‒ but he fails to note that only 385 of the IAEA's staff members are safeguards inspectors, and that inspectors come from around 80 countries.5 His argument might carry a little more weight in relation to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a US agency concerned with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

Geopolitical interests

Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written an article6 which has been enthusiastically endorsed by the World Nuclear Association7, the Nuclear Energy Institute8 and other nuclear advocates.9

Hibbs argues that US nuclear firms are at a competitive disadvantage compared to Russian and Chinese state-owned enterprises. That argument dovetails neatly with industry calls for direct state funding to build nuclear power plants since private firms can't or won't cover the capital costs. Commenting on Hibbs' article, Ted Jones from the Nuclear Energy Institute said: "The US nuclear industry has been competing not just against foreign companies but also against their governments ‒ which seek the unique strategic benefits of a nuclear energy supplier. For our nation, much more is at stake than billions in US nuclear exports and tens of thousands of American jobs."7

Hibbs says nothing about the interlinkages between civil and military nuclear programs in the US or the possibility that the weapons program will be adversely affected by a sustained downturn in nuclear power. He argues that US capacity to constrain weapons proliferation will be adversely impacted by the domestic downturn of nuclear power and by the waning prospects for US nuclear exports (greatly diminished by Westinghouse's bankruptcy filing).

Hibbs also argues that historically the US nuclear export program has facilitated "strategic trade penetration". He states that the Atoms for Peace program "was designed to expand U.S. influence during the Cold War, and it succeeded" ‒ but he fails to note that the Atoms for Peace program also spread dual-use nuclear facilities and materials across the globe.

Hibbs makes the exaggerated claim that the nuclear export programs of Russia and China give them "access to strategic decisionmaking" in dozens of countries "concerning technology, energy, and foreign policy for decades to come".

Hibbs states that the US and other established nuclear-technology-owning countries "made the rules for nuclear exporting, nonproliferation, nuclear security, and business transparency" and problems loom if that leadership is ceded to Russia and China. He cites allegations of Russian cyberattacks against nuclear power targets and alleged Chinese economic espionage against Westinghouse.

Hibbs questions whether Russia and China have strictly adhered to the Nuclear Suppliers Group's guidelines concerning their exports to India and Pakistan, respectively. But he doesn't mention that the US took an axe to the global non-proliferation architecture with the US‒India deal. And he doesn't mention that the US is now trying to undermine the Nuclear Suppliers Group by pressuring it to include India despite India's expansive program to expand its nuclear weapons and missile arsenal and its dodgy record in relation to nuclear exports.10

Hibbs notes that China's support for international efforts to rein in North Korea's "dangerous" nuclear weapons program has been limited and conditional upon other Chinese strategic interests. But the same could be said of US approaches to other countries' nuclear weapons programs (those of India and Israel, for example). And are we to believe that the only "dangerous" nuclear weapons program is North Korea's?

Although Hibbs' article says everything the US nuclear industry wants to hear ‒ and nothing it doesn't want to hear ‒ he is short on suggestions. Other than proposing "better use of the U.S. Export-Import Bank", all he proposes is a "structured conversation" between government and industry about steps that could be taken to enhance US nuclear exports and encourage a "level international playing field" for exporting nuclear technology.

Hibbs' article is dangerous, irresponsible propaganda and it undermines the credibility of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


1. Jessica Varnum, 23 Jan 2014, '60 Years of Atoms for Peace',

2. The Local (Sweden), 30 Aug 2017, 'US Defence Secretary Mattis warned Sweden not to sign anti-nuclear weapons treaty: report',

3. Michael E. Webber, 11 Aug 2017, 'Why the withering nuclear power industry threatens US national security',


5. IAEA, 27 July 2016, 'A Day in the Life of a Safeguards Inspector',

6. Mark Hibbs, 10 Aug 2017, 'Does the U.S. Nuclear Industry Have a Future?',

7. World Nuclear News, 15 Aug 2017, 'Call for government to revitalise US nuclear industry',

8. Nuclear Energy Institute, 10 Aug 2017, 'Russia, China Threaten US Leadership in Commercial Nuclear Trade',,-China-Threaten-US...

9. Dan Yurman, 12 Aug 2017, 'Does the U.S. Nuclear Industry Have a Future?',

10. See pp.9-10 in EnergyScience Coalition Briefing Paper No. 18 (revised), Oct 2010, 'Uranium, India and the Fracturing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime',