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Nuke Nukes?

June 25, 2012

In Reason Magazine today, Veronique de Rugy has an article on the economic unfeasability of nuclear power, saying that it’s not the energy solution for the US.

But jump-starting nuclear power is not just bad politics. It’s awful economics

The nuclear energy industry in the United States is powered by corporate welfare on plutonium. What is in theory a wonderful technology is in practice an economic white elephant. The data accumulated during the last 30 years suggest strongly that nuclear plants will never be able to cover their operating costs, let alone recoup the billions it costs to build them.

Ah, subsidy, our friend!  Note this:

 Historically, nuclear energy has flourished only in countries, such as France and Japan, where governments have stepped in with heavy subsidies. Yet dating back to at least the Reagan years, many conservatives have argued that if it weren’t for the regulatory costs and other barriers imposed by the federal government, nuclear energy would be competitive in the United States as well. While these conservatives rarely have a kind word for a nation of cheese-eating surrender monkeys, they don’t hesitate to point to France—which gets about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and has never suffered a large-scale disaster—as demonstrable proof that nuclear power can be affordable and safe if companies are given the opportunity to build plants. 

But producing nuclear energy in France is not magically cheaper than elsewhere. French citizens are forced to pay inflated costs to support grand government schemes, such as the decision made 30 years ago to go nuclear at any cost after the first oil shock in 1974. 

Here’s where I stray from my “no government,” standard approach.  I do believe that for some things government needs to provide subsidy to get technology off the ground, and then let private industry make it profitable.  I’ve said the same about the space program in the past, though the privitization has come a couple decades too late.  I’d say the same for energy in general, but here’s the rub…

Most energy investigations today appear to be developed privately, then funded via subsidy to get to market.  Solar did have its initial government investment, but most of the real development was left to private industry.  Then later the government comes in an picks winners.  Witness all the mess going on with solar right now, where Chinese manufacturers have pretty much driven the cost out of the market while the US governmetn subsidizes locals with big political pockets.

So for nuclear, I’d probably agree that fission reactors are probably not all that good of an idea right now.  But I do wonder if government investment would be viable for driving fusion experiments.  Fusion reactors can be built much smaller, and they have better potential regarding safety.  But the technology is still way off.  Here’s where government investment could pay to drive breakthroughs which could be then productized by private industry without subsidies to be deployed.

Pipe dream?  Yes.  But wouldn’t it be nice to have a next step in energy policy that actually makes long-term sense?

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