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September 9, 2008
Conservatives Love Nuclear Energy, But Their Vaunted Free Market Does
There are a few things that nuclear energy has been over the last 50
years. It has been comparatively clean. It has been safe. It has been
the other hand, there is something that nuclear power hasn’t been, which
is an attractive investment for private capital. That, not
hairy-arm-pitted environmentalists, is why nuclear energy went cold soon
after Three Mile Island, not because of the incident itself. If
environmental concerns and safety issues were all that were necessary to
derail an entire industry, the nation would not today be dependent on
coal energy, what with its high-profile links to pollution and global
warming, and high-profile disasters getting it out of the ground.
McCain wants to build 45 new nuclear power plants. Barack Obama says he
supports nuclear energy as a part of the nation’s overall approach to
energy. OK, fine, for starters, let’s figure out how to get the
necessary capital to invest in nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy today has its strongest support among conservatives,
who’ve latched onto it presumably because after two decades of being
wrong about global warming and the costs of a fossil fuel-based economy,
nuclear gets them a foot back into the door. Many talk glowingly out of
one side of their mouths about the glories of the market, which
separates the men from the boys through competition, where the best wins
out – if only government would get out of the way. From the other side
of the mouth comes talk about nuclear energy, and they point to France
as a model of how to do nuclear right.
problem is that France, like most countries, doesn’t operate its
utilities based on the free market. The French – heavily influenced by a
bonafide communist shortly after World War II – nationalized their
utilities and picked nuclear energy decades ago as a winner in the
marketplace. Today, the French stand as a thorny example of how it’s not
always best to let the marketplace pick winners and losers. While the
French lead the world in nuclear research, the United States struggles
with next-generation reactors. Today, because the French emphasized
nuclear energy long, long ago, American free market conservatives are
pointing to what in this country would be derided as an unacceptable,
un-American act of socialism as the model of how to do things.
Nationalizing their utilities provided the French with a solution to
what in our market-based system has long kept nuclear power down. How to
attract the necessary investment capital.
question, really, is risk, and not physical risk. Waste and protecting
the facilities from terrorists are hurdles that could be overcome. In
fact, conservatives again point to the – in their parlance – socialistic
France for a solution to the issue of waste, recycling most of it and
burying what remains encased in glass deep underground.
paper risk that prompted the long dormancy of the nuclear industry. It
flamed out in the 1970s because of design changes, extended construction
periods and considerable cost overruns. The market, naturally, reacted
very negatively to this and decided that coal and natural gas would be a
better investment, in part because the risk for those comes after
construction. For nuclear energy, where plants were derailed
mid-construction by a loss of financial incentive and regulatory
uncertainty, the risk exists entirely during the construction phase.
What’s changed? Well, for starters, the nuclear industry says it has. It
says that it will lower construction costs and minimize design flaws by
adopting standardized designs, and that it is researching things like
pebble bed reactors from South Africa and ways to recycle uranium into
We’ll see. This year, the Wall Street Journal reported that
nuclear operators have revised costs for building new plants
dramatically upward. Much of that is associated with rising costs in
every construction-intensive industry, but that doesn’t make nuclear any
nuclear industry says it’s learned from its failures and changed. The
question is whether it’s wise to take a blind leap of faith on those
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