How to “Ban” Nuclear Power

The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facilities, which turned the 8.9 earthquake and tsunami into a sort of Irwin Allen trifecta, has spurred new calls to ban nuclear power.

Certainly Japan’s recent experience suggests that attempts to plan for worst-case scenarios tend to err on the low side. Nuclear power plants designed to withstand quakes an order of magnitude less still managed to shut down as designed; nevertheless, the earthquake and tsunami also damaged the backup power for their cooling systems.

So given the high stakes of a nuclear meltdown, and the manifest inability of planners to anticipate what might go wrong, it would make sense to ban nuclear power, right?

Well, the actual problem is that governments worldwide have been actively intervening for decades to prevent the market from banning nuclear power. Precisely because the stakes are so high and there’s so much room for unforeseen things to go wrong, nuclear power is uninsurable on the private market.

So, under the terms of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, the US nuclear industry bears the cost of insuring itself against liability only up to a small fraction of the damages that could result from a disaster like that currently underway in Japan. Above that amount the taxpayers are required to assume liability up to a higher level — which is still far less than the harm which could result from a full-scale meltdown. So if a reactor melts down, blanketing a thousand square miles around a major city with fallout and causing hundreds of billions in damages, the victims are pretty much S.O.L. (simply out of luck).

Legislative caps on liability far, far below the actual damages that would likely result … sound familiar? Here’s a hint: It starts with B, and ends with P.

In fact the liability issue is only one facet of a much larger theme: Nuclear power is a virtual creature of the government. The nuclear industry grew directly out of the US “Defense” Department’s nuclear weapons programs, and the first reactors were built as an offshoot of military production. A major portion of the cost of just about every single step in the nuclear power production chain, from the federal government providing preferential access to government land and building access roads at taxpayer expense for uranium mines, to the above-mentioned assumption and capping of liability, to taxpayer-funded storage of nuclear waste, shows up on your tax bill rather than on your electric bill.

As a Westinghouse executive testified before Congress in 1953:

“If you were to inquire whether Westinghouse might consider putting up its own money … we would have to say ‘No.’ The cost of the plant would be a question mark until after we built it and, by that sole means, found out the answer. We would not be sure of successful plant operation until after we had done all the work and operated successfully …”

Hmmm. Nuclear power was a no-go if 1) private industry had to put up its own money, or 2) it wasn’t guaranteed a profit. This writer’s regular readers might note this seems to be a pretty common business model in the corporate economy.

So the question is not whether government should ban nuclear power. The question is whether it should stop propping it up.

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