Skip to main content

Missing the Nuclear Target by a Populist Mile

Daily_CameraThe Boulder Daily Camera offers what can only be called the economic populist’s objection to nuclear energy:

On the economic side, we have this Darwinian capitalism that emphasizes profit at all costs. Nothing can ever be done without everybody slurping at the trough, somewhat of an unstated mandate to always put the risk on the other guy and not pay for it ourselves, and the disastrous need for short-term profits. This would force the operators and owners to cut corners on maintenance and safety, use low-cost unqualified labor, try to circumvent the rules, and pull the profit out in terms of money early in the endeavor so as not to put the profits at risk.

You can see where this argument, if valid, could go in the nuclear energy sphere. Movies such as The China Syndrome and even the more sophisticated Cloud Atlas showed capitalistic greed trumping good sense in nuclear energy (actually, Cloud Atlas made the villains the coal industry out to crush a nuclear plant).

But this argument, and these movies, are, at best, populism gone berserk. In order to develop his angle, writer Glenn Bennett wears blinkers that are alarmingly thorough in blocking reality:

What we need for nuclear power is to have strong regulations, a maniacal culture of maintenance and safety, well-educated workers that would be adept at heading off problems before they become serious, and a true concern for people and society.

Why, yes, we would need that, wouldn’t we? Why don’t we?

The prevailing economic thought does not handle risks to society as it should. The main culprit is this idea that the "purpose of business is to make money." What should scare everyone upon hearing that is what the adage omits. There is nothing there about risk or hurting other people and society.

Nuclear energy has operated in the United States since the mid-50s and the number of people it has harmed is zero. There have been industrial accidents at nuclear plants, but even those are very few and are industrial not nuclear, the kinds of mishaps that could happen at a wind farm (well, more like a coal plant).

None of this is dumb luck. It comes from “a maniacal culture of maintenance and safety, well-educated workers [who are] adept at heading off problems before they become serious, and a true concern for people and society.”

Sometimes, what seems idealistic can be deeply cynical. The nuclear energy industry may be, to a large extent, a commercial operation – albeit one with exceptional federal, state and local government entwinement. Pretending that safety and a “true concern for people and society” is incompatible with a capitalist enterprise is popular in some quarters but does not stand up to the least scrutiny. Everything is subject to criticism, but not all criticism hits the target. Some criticism gets nowhere near the target.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Knowing What You’ve Got Before It’s Gone in Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of carbon prevention in the United States, but this is a rough time to be in the business of selling electricity due to cheap natural gas and a flood of subsidized renewable energy. Some nuclear plants have closed prematurely, and others likely will follow.
In recent weeks, Exelon and the Omaha Public Power District said that they might close the Clinton, Quad Cities and Fort Calhoun nuclear reactors. As Joni Mitchell’s famous song says, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
More than 100 energy and policy experts will gather in a U.S. Senate meeting room on May 19 to talk about how to improve the viability of existing nuclear plants. The event will be webcast, and a link will be available here.
Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no specia…

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…