Uneasy Alliance: Nuclear Power and Capitalism
The one-sided 60 Minutes segment on Sunday night, April 8, about France's apparent success with nuclear power has reopened what many of us had hoped was a moribund discussion about the future of nuclear energy in the United States. The program left the impression that nuclear power is an inevitability, an approaching nirvana, the solution to global warming, and a cheap and clean precursor to all things bright and beautiful.
Nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gases and the air over France, we learned, is the cleanest of any industrialized country. The French have invested in a recycling program for spent fuel rods that eliminates the radioactive waste storage dilemma. Based on the evidence presented, any downside to France's nuclear industry was nearly invisible. You'd think there hadn't been so much as a teeny-weeny mishap in the 30 years since France cast her lot with nuclear energy – if it weren't for the official who said, "We have not known very important accidents." There was no description of what an accident that wasn't very important would look like.
However, there was mention of American concern about the possibility of a nuclear calamity, such as the disaster at Chernobyl (1986) and the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island (1979). 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft and the French official he was interviewing dismissed such apprehension as old news, making anyone opposed to nuclear power sound like grade school hysterics. But, decades later, Chernobyl remains a stark cautionary tale and 3 Mile Island, long ago closed and shuttered, continues to be monitored.
I'm betting with France. It will never happen in the United States.
The most significant point in the CBS/60 Minutes story, one that was accorded no more than a passing mention, was the fact that nuclear power in France is a state monopoly, named AREVA, that controls every step in the process beginning with uranium mining. Under such circumstances, it's not hard to see how France's nuclear project could be a good deal for the country and consumers, not only cost-controlled, safe and seamless but viable for the long haul.
In America, things are different. The rough edges of capitalism are on constant display. As many services and domains as businesses can wrest from the public are now privatized in the name of a free market economy. Publicly traded corporations consider their true business to be increasing shareholder value, not providing a public good. Massive cost overruns on federal contracts, that escalate the taxpayer's bill and pad the corporate balance sheet, are a normal part of doing business. There are, eternally, inherent conflicts between ethically and reliably providing a product or service and increasing share price; between production costs and market share. It's usually the shareholders who win. That was the story in 2003 when 50 million people in the Northeast were left without electricity after a poorly maintained, privatized, power grid failed.
According to the 60 Minutes report, the U.S. government is trying to lure power companies back into the business of nuclear energy, which became largely dormant after the disasters at Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island, by promising them financial incentives and risk insurance. In other words, American citizens will be not only subsidizing future nuclear development but bearing the financial, as well as physical, cost of any catastrophe -- without ever owning the utility. It has been said that a nuclear accident could bankrupt the United States but, with government insurance, a disaster could have little effect on a power company's bottom line. It's entirely possible that corporations will be robust global players long after U.S. predominance has ebbed away.
We learned when several U.S. ports were sold to foreign nationals that there is nothing short of a popular uproar to stop, say, a GE from divesting a shiny new, taxpayer subsidized, nuclear power plant to the highest bidder, no different from any other asset. In fact, British Energy Group, Plc, was once a co-owner of 3 Mile Island. How long and how much lobbying money would it take before lawmakers agreed to anything a corporate owner wanted to do with a nuclear power facility?
The United States, as currently financially constructed, is no place for a home-grown nuclear power industry, and all the puff pieces the industry can place on television networks can't make it so.
If the United States decides it must invest in nuclear power, then the project including construction, maintenance and operation should be outsourced to France's AREVA. They have the experience, a long and apparently successful safety record, and expertise that is sought after by other nations.
And we are so into globalization.