(I’m not sure "agnosticism" is really the right word here, but this is the "blogosphere" where you’re supposed to generate "buzzwords" that are "viral," so what the hell, I’ll give it a whirl.)

The nuclear debate continues. This Felicity Barringer piece in the NYT — about a few high-profile green defections on the subject of nuclear power — kicked off a new round of back-and-forth. (See also this piece about the resurgence of the nuke industry in the UK.)

Let me just rip off this intro bit from a post at Corpus Callosum:

There has been a fair amount of blogbuzz lately, about the subject of nuclear power: not the type of power that comes from having really big bombs, but the type of power that is used to generate electricity.  There are posts on the subject at Crooked Timber, Tapped, Mark A. R. Kleinman, Washington Monthly, and Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal.

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All the posts he cites are worth reading, many with good discussions in the comments.

The position I’m coming around to is hinted at in this post by Nathan Newman, and echoed in this John Tierney column (which marks the first and likely last point of agreement between me and Tierney). It is twofold:

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  • The ability of a small number of people to predict energy demand and energy technology even a few years into the future is notoriously bad. Picking and subsidizing winners is usually done for political, not pragmatic, reasons, and rarely turns out well.
  • The nuclear industry is the recipient of an extraordinary amount of corporate welfare. Some of this is through direct subsidies and tax breaks, but the bulk of it is via the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, which shields nuke makers from liability for the consequences of and accident or attack at a nuke plant.

It appears, by the way, that a coordinated push is underway to funnel still more pork to the industry.

It’s complicated, so I can’t say this with certainty, but my strong impression from reading around is that the nuclear industry as currently constituted could not survive without the subsidies and liability shields currently in place.

But let’s not argue about it. Instead, let’s find out.

Let’s create a level playing field whereupon each energy source pays its own way: pays for its own R&D, its own land, its own waste, its own pollution, and its own insurance. There’s no shortage of demand, so there’s no shortage of incentive. Let the market decide.

Of course, that’s far easier said than done, as this comment from the Crooked Timber thread argues:

…there is no such thing as a free market in energy anywhere in the world. There isn’t anything even close. Energy production is a very large scale undertaking which is so dependent on large scale infrastructure that no electricity production system exists that isn’t linked to the state at basically every level. Second, even if there was such a free market, there would be no agreement about the secondary costs of power production, particularly the health effects of pollution and environmental damage.

Well …

I don’t agree that a level playing field is impossible in principle, and I certainly don’t agree that we couldn’t take large steps in that direction. These kinds of public policy issues are inevitably complex and our solutions are inevitably imperfect, but the point is that environmentalists should — for both substantive and PR reasons — be full-throated in their support for a free energy market.

Nuke supporters think it’s the only viable answer? Let them prove it. I think nuke power will lose on a level playing field, but I’m willing to find out. I’m even willing to change my mind if I turn out to be wrong. But I’m not willing to funnel billions of dollars in public money to an industry that has proven extraordinarily lazy, deceptive, and dependent over the last 50 years.

It’s time for lil’ Nukie to take the training wheels off.