During his marathon live-blogging yesterday, David "Boss-man" Roberts wrote about the GOP love of nuclear power: “Why are Republicans obsessed with this? It’s mystifying. Don’t they have anything else to talk about?”
Well, they love clean coal too. The question to me has always been why alleged conservatives have so much time for nuclear when it doesn’t align with one of their cherished principles: If "big-government nanny-state market interference" had a poster child, the cooling towers of a nuclear plant would be it.
This is, after all, an industry that still traces it’s lineage to the military-industrial complex. Created by the exigencies of war in a style of command economy that the United States didn’t see again until the Apollo Program, the first atomic weapons in fact cost multiples more than landing a man on the moon. Later, as the U.S. Navy shifted to nuclear power and the arms races of the Cold War gathered steam, the military remained the dominant consumer of nuclear materials. Globally, military uses of uranium were not exceeded by civilian uses until the mid-1970s.
The mid-1970s were, as it turned out, the last best hope for a major nuclear expansion. With unprecedented spikes in the price of oil, France (as any nuclear advocate will endlessly tell you) embarked on a major expansion of its nuclear industry. How did France do this? With yet more nanny-state intervention, of course! Reactors were designed by the state, financed by the state, built by the state, and operated by the state. Permanent waste sites are similarly built and run by the state.
In the U.S., the story is similar but with some quirks. Often called the biggest single subsidy for the nuclear electric industry, the U.S. government insures every reactor built in the U.S. with taxpayers’ money. (No private insurer will ever, ever risk a nuclear investment.) The companies that make civilian reactors also just happen to be able to rely on contracts from the U.S. Navy, which powers all its large ships with nuclear reactors.
And now we have Yucca Mountain, a long-term (and I mean long-term!) storage site for nuclear waste being built at taxpayers’ expense in a location chosen for political expediency, not safety, efficiency, or even market logic. (Nevada apparently didn’t have the sway in Congress to dump in another state.)
The sad truth (for the nuclear industry, at least) is that there’s very little sign of change. The safer and more efficient reactors are even more obscenely expensive than current models (some $10,000 per kilowatt for prototype pebble-bed reactors, compared to a historic $4,000 for conventional models) and the nuclear industry cannot afford to finance its own insurance and waste disposal — not without pricing its kilowatt-hours right out of the market.
All the same … if, in the 1970s — the time of the earliest warnings about climate change — you had asked me to sign up for the French program, I probably would have supported it. (We’ll ignore the fact that such a program might not have survived the Reagan Revolution in America, or the War on Deficit that followed.) Except — and I don’t know why this isn’t obvious — we don’t live in the 1970s. Check it out — it’s 2007, there’s not a bell-bottom to be seen, and we’ve got different and better options.
Efficiency is cheaper than coal or natural gas. Wind is cheaper than nuclear. (And in some countries, wind is already generating more power than nuclear! Viva!) By the mid 20teens, solar electricity will be cheaper throughout most of America than nuclear, and by 2020 it may be cheaper even in places like Syracuse, N.Y. Storage technologies will make renewables increasingly competitive with base load generation. (Consider what we’d rather Washington spend money on: storing radioactive waste, or storing heat and kilowatt-hours?) More efficient long-distance transmission will make the Midwest the new Middle East of energy. This could all be possible about the same time a nuclear reactor would come online, if we started building it yesterday.
Most of the renewable options are possible without government interference of anything like the same magnitude nuclear receives every hour of every day. Some will be possible without government interference at all, but I’m not a small-government fetishist. But so long as the the state is keeping its thumb on the scales, the market will not act rationally like it’s supposed to, and as Republicans claim to believe it should.