Free Trade Isn’t Radioactive

December 9, 2010

Last week, free-trade fearmongers stumbled onto a new fable: Russians want to steal our uranium!

A bit belatedly, right-wing talk radio -- reliably lucid on fiscal issues but frequently horrid on the economics of globalization -- went into full-demagoguery mode over a November ruling by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Canadian mining company Uranium One, which owns infrastructure in Wyoming, is merging with Russia’s ARMZ Uranium Holding Co. But the companies needed approval from NRC regulators to seal the deal. Several Republicans in the House of Representatives warned the commission not to sign off on two license-transfer requests that would put, as Bloomberg breathlessly claimed, “as much as half of U.S. uranium production” under Russian control.

Sounder minds prevailed, and the transfer was approved. Not one gram of the stuff that powers nuclear reactors can be legally exported, and as the NRC explained, the new mining giant’s U.S. subsidiaries “remain qualified to conduct the uranium recovery operations, and will continue to have the equipment, facilities, and procedures necessary to protect public health and safety and to minimize danger to life or property.”

However minor, the dustup over a dastardly Rooskie uranium grab was another disturbing reminder of just how ignorant pols, the media, and most citizens are about the role trade plays in economic growth.

Nuclear power is a thoroughly globalized industry. That’s fitting, because the effort to unlock the secrets of the atom was an international project, with scary-smart scientists all over Europe sharing their findings as they progressed toward radiochemists’ 1938 discovery of fission. A few years later, European and Canadian physicists and engineers worked with America’s industrial might and best brains to make a-bombs.

Under the Eisenhower administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program, nuclear technology and know-how spread to nearly every non-communist country. (Even Zaire got a research reactor.) In 1958, the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency accelerated the dispersal. Uranium-mining operations were already digging in many places, to fuel warheads and propulsion systems for the West and East. Demand for the fissionable material rose when nucleus-splitting began to pump juice out to the grid.

In America, the Golden Age of the Commercial Atom was fleeting. By the late 1970s, falling energy demand, soaring cost overruns, eco-obstructionism, loss of public confidence (i.e., Three Mile Island), and the betrayal of a once-generous federal government made the anti-nuclear lobby giddy. Existing reactor plans were junked, and no new orders were placed.

Abroad, things were very different. With France walking point, European nations built atomic plants based on technology developed across the pond. Soon Asia began to embrace nukes -- Japan and South Korea at first, then India and China. To the horror of greenies, a full-fledged, planet-spanning nuclear renaissance is underway. Dozens of reactors are under construction. Hundreds more are possible.

Amazingly, after decades in the dark, America is tentatively making its way back to nuclear power. The industry has cleaned up once-sloppy operations, due in part to efficiencies achieved through consolidations permitted under states’ restructuring of electricity markets. Output is astoundingly high. Costs have dropped. Polls show broad public support --  Jane Fonda’s “China Syndrome” fantasies never materialized. Pols, as usual, are following, with corporate-welfare packages. (It’s an ugly aspect of a salutary development.)

Nuclear revival means high-paying jobs for workers and a boost for America’s high-tech competitiveness. But the business of designing, erecting, and fueling reactors has changed since the 1970s. Foreign collaboration is commonplace. Here are just a few examples: Half of the uranium used to generate electricity in the U.S. was removed from Russian warheads, then processed in Kentucky. General Electric and Hitachi merged their nuclear businesses in 2007. Westinghouse, a pioneering manufacturer, was sold to Toshiba in 2009. Germany’s Siemens is adding staff at its North Carolina instrumentation-and-controls facility. In New Mexico, URENCO, a Dutch-German-British conglomerate, is underway on “the first [uranium] enrichment facility to be built in the U.S. in 30 years and the first ever using centrifuge enrichment technology.” AREVA, a France-based multinational, has plans for a competing facility in Idaho. Foreign loans will likely play a significant role in the construction of new reactors here.

Hoary Cold Warriors surely laughed when they read about the uranium-mining imbroglio. The nation spent four decades worrying that the Soviet Union would irradiate us, and now it’s afraid that Ivan is plotting to take our indigenous radiation away?

But Americans’ refusal to accept free-trade truths is not so funny. It’s intransigence perpetuated by greedy union bosses, rent-seeking corporatists, and fact-challenged talking heads. And it’s not something a struggling economy can afford.

D. Dowd Muska ( writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.

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