1 March 2013

The limited national security implications of civilian nuclear decline

Sharon Squassoni

Sharon Squassoni, a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, has directed the Proliferation Prevention Program at the...

A declared exit from commercial nuclear power in the United States is highly improbable. But a stealthy, gradual nuclear decline motivated by economics seems reasonably likely, as US utilities decide to close some plants early, rather than implement costly post-Fukushima safety regulations, and the number of new nuclear power plants fails to offset retirements. If nuclear power does make a slow exit, the national security implications are smaller than sometimes suggested. Nuclear energy is far down the list of options for enhancing the US military’s energy security. Weapons programs aren’t dependent on the civilian nuclear industry, and the nuclear Navy has a reliable supply chain. The United States has not needed to produce fissile material for weapons in decades, and although tritium for defense purposes is now produced in civilian reactors, there are other options for obtaining it. A nuclear phase-out could affect US nuclear export control and nonproliferation efforts, but export controls are only one tool among many that can be used to curb the desire for nuclear weapons. Even in a slow slide toward phase-out, the United States would remain at the global nuclear bargaining table for decades because of its status as a military nuclear superpower.