Esau sold his birthright for a dish of lentils. It seems we will throw it to the garbage against a false promise of somewhat cheaper electricity.Nuclear energy is a field of activity surprisingly similar to banking. Maybe it stands to reason that both employ the most talented and possibly least socially conscious individuals of the world. In both industries, ingenious schemes have been put in place whereby entities “too big to fail” effectively privatize enormous profits,while creating much greater risks, to be borne by the taxpayer and by the whole citizenry.
I don’t intend to push here the analogy with banks, in the first place out of respect for the sheer size of the nuclear catastrophe at hand in Japan, and then because it is self evident. Those interested in my take on the cost for the taxpayer of financial rescues, risk associated with these and relative fairness of possible approaches, can see here my article on recent bailouts (hint: it is not enthusiastic)
Nuclear energy has been sold to the public since its inception with the promise of free energy. Marginal cost would be so low that it would just not be worth it to meter electricity once these portents were fully developed. In short, the philosopher’s stone searched by mediaeval alchemists. Surprisingly, as time passed and it became evident that this was not going to be the case, this tired chimera didn’t lose its appeal: it was endlessly refurbished, with suspicious but blindly accepted excuses: the technology had developed so much that new plants would this time make it true, public opposition delayed construction and hence augmented the costs, etc.
It is a never ending debate and one not likely to find a solution soon since data are not easy to gather lees to understand, there are a lot of interests in the issue and the public is easily misled. There is a number of sources to follow it. I find the web page of the Union of Concerned Scientists to contain the most unbiased set of information. Wikipedia has also an excellent page with estimations of the total cost of nuclear energy. The long and the short of it is: when you only take into account marginal (or production) costs, nuclear is the cheapest source. But any report finding nuclear cheaper will have obviated most of the sunken costs, such as construction, security installations, decommissioning, etc, many of operating costs, such as spent fuel disposal, security operation, etc. After taking these into account nuclear is, in fact, more expensive than its alternatives. Then, there are the environmental costs.
I would like to delve in a generally overlooked cost, which is risk. I hope that, by this time, we have all learnt to take with a pinch of ionized salt the constant noise of the bright boys of the industry about security of the plants and the harmlessness of radiation at any dose. Frankly, to hear them talk it would seem it is much safer to eat a steak barbecued on the fuel rods of Fukushima than to watch a couple episodes of “American Idol”. Even allowing for the high risk of the latter, I have yet to see the CEO of TEPCO personally join in the disaster control effort to have any respect for such claims (why is it that less than a month after BP Gulf’s spill we saw the CEO and the country’s President tour the site and now we won’t?)
Nuclear facilities produce radioactive residues (from spent fuel to the very own building) that keep active for millennia. This is a time frame that no human organization can prepare for. This is a very simple fact that is always skirted by proponents of nuclear energy: it is practically sure that, in the lifetime of a nuclear plant many unforeseen accidents will happen. These are uncertainties, which we can’t possibly imagine now and having these dirty bombs sitting among us just adds an incalculable amount of “background risk. In practice, security is much laxer than we have been made to believe, as this news shows.
The truth is that the main reason behind the development of nuclear energy has primarily been production of atomic weapons. It is in this sense tragically ironic that this accident happened in Japan, the only country among the ones producing nuclear energy that has renounced in its constitution to nuclear weapons.
One of the main conclusions of the investigation on Chernobyl’s accident was the inadequacy of a private company to manage a nuclear crisis once it has been declared. A company has every incentive to hide information, play down any event and hinder an appropriate response. BP’s spill in the Gulf proved this conclusion correct. Fukushima is proving we can collectively learn nothing from our mistakes.
Even when a crisis is initially managed by the operating company, a big crisis soon reaches a point where the means available to said company are obviously inadequate to the scale of the problem. The State is then dragged into it, footing the bill, both economic and human. It then becomes clear that it would have been much better to mobilize these means from the beginning, but the fact that the plant was privately owned prevented it. Still, the company gets away with very limited liability, compared to the huge damage inflicted (anybody counting the cost of evacuation, loss of property and activity and human cost so far?)
Now that debate on risks and costs of nuclear energy is set to liven up, I propose a solution, based on market forces: Let’s just force any company willing to operate a nuclear plant to obtain full insurance in the market against ANY AND ALL risks arising from the plants. My instinct is that no party will be found to take that risk up. Maybe this is the reason for the huge subvention given to operators through the capping of liabilities in place in all nuclear countries. You can see here that present mandatory insurance is cosmetic and, thus, risk and its costs fall squarely on the shoulders (and health) of the taxpayer.
If we must have them, nuclear plants should be managed by the army, just like Florida’s Governor is reportedly suggesting. But let me clear about this, I don’t think they are needed other than to enrich and empower a group of companies and individuals.
Already events in Libya and elsewhere are competing with the plight of the Japanese people for public attention. The difficult issue on the future of nuclear energy will be forced down as far as possible on the public agenda. The nuclear lobby will wait for the tsunami of public opinion to pass and then counter-attack. As Kenzaburo Oe noted in a recent interview, though, we have a duty to the dead, the victims of atomic power, who are silently watching us while we try to find our way in the aftermath. I, for one, say: