The recent threats by North Korea to begin making weapons-grade plutonium from a nuclear power plant should be all the United States needs to conclude that its policies of the past two decades have failed to significantly reduce the nuclear weapons threat around the world.
Ironically, these failed policies directly correspond to a misguided view in Washington of the relationship between commercial nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The overwhelming evidence regarding this relationship is absolutely clear -- when American commercial nuclear technology is exported around the world, safety and security increase. When it declines, safety and security decrease.
American civil nuclear technology provided the foundation for non-CO2-based electricity in Western Europe and Western Asia in the 1970s and early '80s. This energy supply was the backbone for their growing economies and the catalyst that raised their standard of living.
The technology transfer between the United States and those new nuclear countries also transferred our ethic of responsibility and safety and broadened the global security infrastructure between governments. The U.S. nuclear energy "ethic" was based on transparency, exceeding regulatory standards, self-criticism and defense-in-depth, and it provided a firm base for safe and secure commercial nuclear energy in many new places.
Yet when U.S. policy in support of civil nuclear power declined in the aftermath of Three Mile Island and in favor of other energy sources, that global foundation began to erode. It was replaced with a paranoia about the connection between American civil nuclear energy and nuclear weapons proliferation, a view still held by many in Washington.
The loss of U.S. leadership in civil nuclear energy, which minimizes weapons proliferation and maximizes public safety, has led to the expansion of rogue nuclear technologies and a degradation of effective nuclear standards around the globe. It was only a matter of time before totalitarian dictator states like North Korea seized on this void.
The decline of American technical influence and its nuclear ethic was clearly a contributor to the rise in nuclear weapons proliferation in India and Pakistan. Although well-intentioned, the polices which isolate American civil nuclear technologies from those that need them the most is not adding to our safety or security; they are degrading them. Even recent debates with our allies, like South Korea, emphasize an outdated paranoia versus the needed industrial cooperation that actually assures lasting security between peaceful nations.
We stand at a pivotal time for American energy leadership in the world. Here at home, many of us are focused on the growth of natural gas as the next great hope for our energy security and stability. Yet we overlook the fact that our natural gas paradise is not shared across all parts of the world, nor is it addressing the geopolitical problem of continued dependence on fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, we now are building the first new commercial nuclear reactors in this country in more than 30 years, which gives us a unique opportunity to reassert ourselves as a leader in civil nuclear energy and restore the nuclear ethic sorely needed around the world.
There is reason for optimism. The recent American industrial participation in the Chinese and United Arab Emirates programs allow our industries and practices to embed themselves in these economies. American and Chinese interests are uniquely interconnected with the success of the first four new American reactors in China. Those projects enable our two countries to transparently exchange technology, experience, people and economic value in a way that is unique and will last for the 60-year lifespan of the reactors. Additionally, our nuclear technology transfer agreements with China, often misunderstood, do not weaken American leadership. Instead they cement American involvement and create an interdependence that delivers long-term value to both countries.
It's time for decision-makers in Washington and those who espouse policy concerns about nuclear proliferation, global warming and nuclear safety to re-examine the policies which limit American civil nuclear technology around the world. Tensions on the Korean peninsula are a clarion call for the United States to return to a nuclear energy policy that works by exporting our nuclear know-how and ethic.
If we don't, North Korea will certainly not be the last rogue nuclear threat we must contend with.
Ricardo Perez, a principal at RG Perez & Associates in Pittsburgh, is a former president of Westinghouse Electric Co. and has spent more than 30 years in the commercial nuclear power industry.