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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.

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