To stop or prop up

Townsville Bulletin - - Voice Of The North - opin­ion Kevin Car­son

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 s uggests t hat at - tempts 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 f r om 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 tax- payer 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.

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?

COSTLY: Be­cause the stakes are high, nu­clear power is unin­sur­able on the pri­vate mar­ket

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