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As a general rule, if George Monbiot agrees with you, start
worrying you may be wrong. The Fukushima nuclear crisis has
made Monbiot a fan of nuclear power, at just the
time when my doubts have been growing.
You will not be surprised to hear that
the events in Japan have changed my view of
nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed
it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer
nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety
features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The
electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The
reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a
familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as
we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Some greens have wildly exaggerated the
dangers of radioactive pollution.
Yup, and some greens, George, have wildly exaggerated the
dangers of genetically modified food, the population explosion,
endocrine disrupters, acid rain, ocean acidification, ozone
depletion, pesticides, oil spills and the Y2K computer bug.
Actually my doubts about nuclear power came before the Fukushima
crisis, which has indeed reaffirmed the low risks involved in
nuclear power. What worries me is the economics of an electricity
generating industry that requires massive capital projects, whose
costs usually over-run and whose costs per kilowatt hour
are roughly double those of the newest gas
Of course, new technologies may come to rescue one day, as I argued in the case of thorium. But a
perceptive article by Shikha Dalmia explains where
nuclear's flaws come from -- its symbiotic relationship with
government. Nuclear power requires, demands and gets subsidies of
many different kinds.
But the mother of all subsidies is the
liability cap that nuclear enjoys. In the event of an accident, the
industry is on the hook for only $1.2 billion in damages, with the
government covering everything beyond that. Japan's cap is generous
even by American standards, which require the industry to cover
$12.6 billion before Uncle Sam kicks in. (Nuclear proponents in the
U.S. argue that this liability cap is necessary given our insane
tort awards. However, the fact that even countries without such
awards have to offer a liability cap suggests that nuclear
technology is not yet considered safe enough to be viable.)
Which leads Dalmia to this conclusion, which resonates very
strongly with me.
The liability cap effectively privatizes the
profits of nuclear and socializes the risk. It uses taxpayer money
to diminish the industry's concern with safety - which government
regulations can't restore.
That's exactly the problem with crony capitalism, whether in
finance or energy or anything else. The `market' and `capitalists'
are not on the same side and against `government'. No, its
government and capitalists colluding against the market, which is
on the side of the people. The `financial market' proved to be no
such thing; it was a casino for favoured clients run by central
banks. The `energy market' is no such thing. It is a scheme run by
governments for favoured clients in the nuclear, renewable and
environmental-pressure group industries.
As Adam Smith so astutely observed,
The proposal of any new law or regulation
which comes from [businessmen], ought always to be listened to with
great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having
been long and carefully examined, not only with the most
scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from
an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that
of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even
to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many
occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.