How to “Ban” Nuclear Power

by Kevin Carson

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facilities, which turned the 8.9 earthquake and tsunami into a sort of Irwin Allen trifecta, has spurred new calls to ban nuclear power.

Certainly Japan’s recent experience suggests that attempts to plan for worst-case scenarios tend to err on the low side. Nuclear power plants designed to withstand quakes an order of magnitude less still managed to shut down as designed; nevertheless, the earthquake and tsunami also damaged the backup power for their cooling system.

So given the high stakes of a nuclear meltdown, and the manifest inability of planners to anticipate what might go wrong, it would make sense to ban nuclear power, right?

Well, the actual problem is that government has been actively intervening for decades to prevent the market from banning nuclear power. Precisely because the stakes are so high and there’s so much room for unforseen things to go wrong, nuclear power is uninsurable on the private market.

So under the terms of the Price-Andersonn Act, the nuclear industry bears the cost of insuring itself against liability only up to a small fraction of the damages that would result from a disaster like that currently underway in Japan, and above that amount the taxpayers are required to assume liability up to a higher level — which is still far less than the harm which would result from a full-scale meltdown. So if a reactor melts down, blanketing a thousand square miles around a major city with fallout and causing hundreds of billions in damages, the victims are pretty much S.O.L. (simply out of luck).

Legislative caps on liability far, far below the actual damages that would likely result… Sound familiar? Here’s a hint: It starts with B, and ends with P.

In fact the liability issue is only one facet of a much larger theme: Nuclear power is a virtual creature of the government. The nuclear industry grew directly out of the “Defense” Department’s nuclear weapons programs, and the first reactors were built as an offshoot of military production. A major portion of the cost of just about every single step in the nuclear power production chain, from the federal government providing preferential access to government land and building access roads at taxpayer expense for uranium mines, to the above-mentioned assumption and capping of liability, to taxpayer-funded storage of nuclear waste, shows up on your tax bill rather than on your electric bill.

As a Westinghouse executive testified before Congress in1953:

“If you were to inquire whether Westinghouse might consider putting up its own money.., we would have to say ‘No.’ The cost of the plant would be a question mark until after we built it and, by that sole means, found out the answer. We would not be sure of successful plant operation until after we had done all the work and operated successfully….”

Hmmm. Nuclear power was a no-go if 1) private industry had to put up its own money, or 2) it wasn’t guaranteed a profit. This writer’s regular readers might note this seems to be a pretty common business model in the corporate economy.

So the question is not whether the government should ban nuclear power. The question is whether it should stop propping it up.

19 responses to “How to “Ban” Nuclear Power

  1. Oh fuck off.

    Kevin. We’ve never had a completely free market. So if everything tainted by the State gets excluded, we end up with… nothing. Not even any roads!

    Oh, wait. You want roads “banned” “by the market” as well, don’t you Kevin? Roads are just another cruel statist invention. Right?

    Look, it is nice to imagine what would have happened with no State, in some kind of hypothetical alternate reality. But we don’t live in the counterfactual. We are where we are due to all kinds of reasons, some of them very bad. But history is history. We can’t undo it. Would the imaginary free-market-according-to-the-gospel-of-Carson have produced nuclear power? Or computers? Or roads? We don’t know. Neither do we know how electricity grids would have…

    oh, wait. They’re statist too. Grids.

    Carsonism. It’s like libertarianism, but with all the libertarianism taken out.

    • @IanB
      Sean is naturally, I think, more conservative than you or I. His instincts I think err naturally on the side of caution about things that look a little bit unmanageable if things got out of hand – and the MSM’s been going out of its way to make the nuclear events in Japan look fairly unmanageable, even tough the good folks at Samizdata (you probably don’t go there much now Ian!) have been dong their best. And we must not forget the mortal damage done by the MSM & the “liberal-educated” (in thw US sense of “Liberal”) staff that it only hires. This kind of training necessarily precludes any understanding of science that’s more complex than what you get in todday’s british State Primary schools.

  2. Ian B – All KC is suggesting is that the State shold stop intervening in the energy market. How could you object to that?

  3. Sean-

    Because it’s selective. The State and “free” market are so entwined, we have no idea what the real free market would look like. Carson’s argument can be applied to virtually any significant service, including as I pointed out, even roads(!).

    All we do know is that if we closed the State down in one fell swoop tomorrow, the economy would collapse in chaos, because of the lack of genuine market forces. Shut down the health service, what happens? Lots of people die. Not, “they get their healthcare in the market place”. They would die. Because of State dependence.

    Carson by all accounts appears to be a ruralist arty-craftie. His idyll apparently consists of us all sitting in rustic workshops in hamlets dotting the greensward. Where he intends to get a computer to write on in such an economy, I have no idea. But as is typical of such backwardists, he doesn’t like nuclear power. Or any “big” industry.

    I think frankly it’s pretty shameful trying to capitalise on the profound suffering of the Japanese right now. What we do know so far is that despite a Hollywood-scale disaster, no nuclear power stations have blown up, nor does it appear that any will. That’s a pretty good advert for them, for anyone who doesn’t have a (hand crafted from native willow in a rustic workshop) axe to grind.

  4. There’s no certainly of course that, had the State not intervened in power generation as a full-generality, from day-one, that we’d still have for example coal-fired power stations! All generation might well be nuclear, since it is so safe in all respects. (I’ll be gently instructing Sean, in some science, about this matter, when I see him next.)

    Coal is all very well. We have also learned how to control the emission of radionuclides inevitably concnetrated in coal ash (the atoms concerned are mostly metals in their oxides which cannot realistically be removed before the burn stage) while siphoning off as much thermal energy as possible by burning the stuff.

    The Door Out Of Hell for 99% of the world’s population is labelled “Joules”.

  5. David, I wasn’t having a go at Sean. I was flinging a thoroughly deserved custard pie at Kevin Carson. There are few more pie-worthy types of humanity on the internet than those who sit there typing about the evils of big business and advanced technology on their Macbooks.

  6. Ian B – You don’t get banned from this blog for being rude to its Master or his friends. Let’s get back to the issues. When you talk about a phased rolling back of the State, there is endless room for disagreement over what should be first to get the chop. There is nothing wrong with suggesting an immediate end to privileges for the nuclear industry.

  7. Why is Ian B trolling on a libertarian blog anyway? He’s obviously fully on board with coercive, state-backed corporatism at gunpoint – and we know what that is.

    Saying, we can’t get rid of the state because there’s no free market is bollocks! We have to get rid of the state so there can be a free market. As for the effects of that, TANSTAAFL.

    News flash: somehow nobody seems to have noticed that people die in revolutions. Get over it. The certain fact is, if we carry on with the state and burgeoning global government as it is, thing can only get worse. Much, much worse.

  8. For my penance at university I had to make choices of subjects to go with my main reading of Social Policy. I so wish I had known you guys then! However, one of my topics of choice was Environmentalism. The professor leading the course was dismayed at our apathy and educational knowledge of politics and policy regarding the environment, of which one was the nuclear industry. This was refreshing because the professor was not a tree hugging dude, not that there is anything wrong with a tree hugging dude of course, each to their own. I know I’m rambling – nuclear energy was promoted by the UK state via the Conservatives under Lady Thatcher to counter the miners who had been a powerful antagonist against both the Labour and Conservative governments: ” The theory of Global Warming suggests that man is increasing the level of C02 in the atmosphere and thus making it harder for heat to escape through the layer of gasses, ultimately warming the planet….The coal industry made up a large percentage of man made C02, so Lady Thatcher saw a solution to her problem. If she could scientifically prove beyond a doubt that the coal industry was responsible for harming the planet, the closing of the mines and the move towards Nuclear energy wouldn’t seem so drastic or dangerous. [What a perfect way to destroy the mining unions and the so-called environmentally costly mines. Not to mention the shut down of these mines would decimate those areas hostile to Conservative rule] She might even prove to be the earth’s savior.”
    I agree with Kevin. When it suits a government it backs something, I have yet to be convinced it does anything out of “real” economic, equitable or equality reasons, it has its own doyens to foster and feed. Nuclear power is as good as it gets, there are problems of course, one being the disposing of the toxic waste, the cost to humanity if such disposal fails will be epic, and we have the ongoing problems relating to safety issues vs cost issues. So far Japan has managed to ‘control’ the situation and with luck lessons will be learned to further research safety measures to counter natural and man-made disasters that could affect such structures.

  9. I am interested to find that when discussing the current nuclear crisis in Japan, as a general rule of thumb, those that I know who would call themselves right wing/capitalist are pro nuclear. The Nuclear industry is to my mind the corner stone of centralized state energy policies, the most highly regulated industry I can think of and only able to compete with other energy sources because the state passes on much of the risk and cost to the tax payer and future generations, probably why the old Communist countries were such big fans? On the other hand the same people dismiss alternatives where more individuals or small companies could set up micro generators detaching themselves from a centralized system and National Grid as naïve hippy nonsense? Go figure!

  10. Ian B’s reply to the article exemplifies all that is wrong with the modern ‘intellectual’. They have an agenda (in this case love/support of gov’t), and they pervert idea and rationality into a viper’s nest of deception.

    @Ian B.: If you are being sincere, and my characterization of your post is incorrect, then the following may assist you…

    You have grossly misprioritized several aspects of the issue at hand. For example, you can see, when a road or highway ‘goes wrong’, a few people die and get injured, but when a nuclear power plant goes wrong, perhaps millions of people, many not even born yet, are severely injured, or killed, or denied life, or horrifically mutilated, to put it mildly. Comparing roads going wrong to nuke plants going wrong, is essentially an expression of insanity, that is, if you are being sincere.

  11. This caught my attention:
    “Remember that the Fukushima reactors survived an M8.9 earthquake and a 5m tsunami. The cores remained contained even after these. The design also succeeded in that the control rods were placed between the reactor rods which stopped the fission reaction. “All” that had to be done now was to cool the core down from its operating temperature. The cooling system is normally powered by electricity generated by the power station, which had been shut down. The problem is that the tsunami also destroyed the backup diesel generators, so the operators flew in replacement generators . However, they found that they could not connect the generators to the pumps: they lacked a suitable connector.
    So reflect on this: the failure at Fukushima is not in the reactor, it is not nuclear; the problem is electrical: they needed an electrical connector.”

    I agree with “fromnowhere”, in that Nuclear Power is the most regulated source of energy. Left to the industries own devices, would they be trustworthy at not side-stepping costs of human and environmental hazards? As it stands I am still for Nuclear power sources but would like to see, the “…alternatives where more individuals or small companies could set up micro generators detaching themselves from a centralized system and National Grid…”, be acted upon as well as all entrepreneurs are important in any line of provision.

  12. Julius Blumfeld

    Kevin is half right. It is undoubtedly the case that the nuclear industry has received massive State subsidies in various ways. But on the other hand, it is also hobbled by absurd regulatory requirements that go beyond anything which would exist in a free market. So at the end of the day it is hard to know if there is a net subsidy or a net tax.
    I suspect the truth is not that nuclear power would be absent in a free market, but that it would take a very different form, with very different technologies. Perhaps small scale reactors using something like thorium. But of course it is pure guesswork.

  13. ” absurd regulatory requirements that go beyond anything which would exist in a free market”

    This statement is unqualified and grossly misleading, possibly based on a corrupt comprehension of the nature of inhaled radioactive particles. Not unlike genetically modified food, the dangers are horribly understated, and make borrowing trillions of dollars from those who aren’t even born yet, look like a child’s prank. Life is far more precious than you would make it out to be.

  14. @Name: can you qualify why Julius Blumfeld’s statement is wrong or at least un-qualified?

  15. Graham Davies

    The accusation that nuclear power is unsafe is not justifiable. Personally, I would go so far as to say that it is the most environmentally friendly form of large scale power production that we currently have (even including the Chernobyl disaster). Whether the industry could cope with meeting setup/decommissioning costs without government intervention is another matter as evidenced by the statement from the Westinghouse executive.

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  17. Out of control tort law (made out of control by various statist interventions) made nuclear power unprofitable in the United States – and led to demand for hidden subsdies (the classic mistake of asking for a government intervention to couter the effects of a previous government intervention).

    And there are endless government regulations (more regulations than any other industry) which also undermine nuclear power around the world. There regulations do not (repeat not) improve safety – but do vastly increase costs.

    Also there is general paranoia about anything “nuclear” and an incredible level of ignorance. For example, far more radioactivity is produced by the coal industry than the nuclear industry. And people who even live in high granate areas get more radioactive exposure than people who live near nuclear power plants. Yet it is nuclear power that gets attacked.

    Even in Japan it was the earthquake and wall of water, not (repeat – not) the nuclear accident that killed people. Yet the demand is for the nuclear industry to be banned – perhaps because people think that destroying the nuclear industry is a worthy sacrifice to the nature Gods.

    That is certainly the view in Germany – where the “Green” movement is a direct decendent of the Pagan Nazi movement (Himmler and co were into all this “organic” stuff). Germany is not known for massive earthquakes and walls of water from the Pacific – but they are banning nuclear power anyway.

    Which, of course, will leave Germans dependent on nuclear power from France, and on hydrocarbons (coal, gas and oil) from Russia – Putin is such a trustworthy fellow….

    How Germans square this dependence on Russian hydrocarbons with their “Green” ideology I do not know – but the mind of the “Green” passes all understanding (even Gaia man James Lovelock, the founder of the British environmental movement, has been saying for many years that he does not understand these people).

    As for Kevin’s opposition to nuclear power…..

    Well if Kevin Carson can come up with an economical method of building nuclear fusion power stations, then his opposition to nuclear fission ones might make some sense, But not till then.

    Last point – the regulations have perverse effects. And I do not mean the government cardboard labels at Three Mile Island in 1979 (there were these stupid cardboard things everywhere – so people in the control room could not even see the red lights). It is more important than that….

    It is perfectly possible to make a nuclear power (fission – not fusion) plant no bigger than a large truck. Powerful enough to power a small city (for years) and when it reaches the end of its life one does not need to take it apart – one gets rid of it as a single lump.

    Cheap, simple, virtually no maintance.

    Why are they not about?

    The government regulations……