Nuclear power in the new Cold War - CNBC

Critics, however, argue that nuclear technology can easily be misused to create weapons.

Tehran is widely suspected of using the cover of civilian technology to reprocess spent fuel into a bomb, a threat world powers have struggled to contain. Elsewhere, Pakistan, India and North Korea all eventually violated non-proliferation protocols by using technology misappropriated for illicit programs.

"Once you export this technology and don't have direct control over it, no matter how safe you say it is, it can come back to bite you," said Mark Cooper, a senior fellow of economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and Environment at Vermont Law School and an implacable critic of nuclear power.

Cooper pointed out that China and Russia "are subsidizing the bejesus out of their technology," which means privately owned U.S. companies can't really compete.

(Read more: Going nuclear—and small—with a new type of reactor)

In a June 2013 report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) called boosting the U.S. nuclear export sector "a national security imperative," given the encroachment of China, Russia and India—which struck its own civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. back in 2004.

However, the CSIS paper stated that unlike the state-subsidized projects of Russia and China, "U.S. firms are currently at a competitive disadvantage in global markets, due to restrictive and otherwise unsupportive export policies," the think tank said.

In order to prevent nuclear cheating, the U.S. only provides nuclear expertise via a "123 Agreement" to 21 countries. However, it currently lacks accords with key demand hubs in Asia and the Middle East –areas where nuclear power is expected to soar, and ripe targets for Russian financing. Observers also say the rules need updating to reflect the realities of the marketplace.

"Without a strong commercial presence in new nuclear markets, America's ability to influence nonproliferation policies and nuclear safety behaviors worldwide is bound to diminish," the CSIS paper said.

Jane Nakano, an energy security fellow at CSIS, said in an interview that the current regulatory structure of the U.S. nuclear markets is a barrier to it mounting a direct challenge to its global competitors. Nuclear technology is "quite expensive in the U.S.," where a plant can run upward of $10 billion, Nakano said, "but in many countries the financing is a national program."

Yet Vermont Law's Cooper said the U.S. "would be better off exporting much more benign technology," and should forget about getting into the nuclear game. He stressed "the agony we go through once we lose control of the technology. Is it worth the risk?"

—By CNBC's Javier E. David. Follow him @TeflonGeek