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05/01/2005

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hyh

Arguing the pros and cons of nuclear power is a bit like arguing whether beef is a good source of protein in one's diet. The answer is always yes and no.

Perhaps the current younger generations need to revisit nuclear power as a matter of education. But it seems to me that a specific debate over nuclear power without a broader debate about energy production and consumption in our economy is a bit of a wink to the nuclear power industry. Likewise, a debate about energy sources without a concurrent debate about energy uses is only half a debate. It goes without saying that any national energy strategy that relies heavily on increasing domestic energy supplies is only half a strategy.

Yes, there are pros and cons to oil, gas, coal, nuclear, bio fuels, solar, etc. But what about the pros and cons of conservation policies or the pros and cons of developing more efficient use of energy in physical terms (distributed systems, more efficient engines, motors, appliances, et al.), as well as social terms (peak power consumption habits, personal conservation, et al.)? Given the enormous economic and environmental costs of energy (not all unjustified), why are we so reluctant to impose costs on our individual utility?

As a society and culture, we rarely think hard enough about how we use energy. Our addiction to easy, cheap energy just may be our undoing because in many ways, energy use is about economic competitiveness. And don't look to deeply entrenched energy producers to provide sophisticated long term solutions. One would suspect that the energy industry wouldn't mind several decades of increasing demand and constrained supply.

Nakku

There's no proof yet that storage in the Yucca would be safe. There are, however, allegations that suitability studies for the proposed sight were fudged. Its a fact that there's a water acquifer under the proposed sight that could significantly expedite corrosion of the metal containers that would house the nuclear material. Also, I'd be concerned for the 2 million people who live only 90 miles away.

Although I agree with nuclear energy expansion, we need to make sure that long term effects won't become a detriment to our citizens.

Recycling, along with tight security along our borders, seems at the moment the safest option.

RStutes

First, it seems that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be an argument *against* recycling, not an argument for.
Second, the immense capital costs that are required for nuclear power have made such generation economically inefficient. When power generation was "deregulated" in Texas, the companies that had invested in nuclear power plants had to be given protection from competitors without such a capital burden.
Third, and most importantly, nuclear power is absolutely unable to compete in a free market, because federal law artificially limits the liability that would come about because of a nuclear accident. If the energy company had to compete on a level playing field with other forms of energy generation, they would be forced out of the market.

One comment, also, on Posner's comment. One of the policy changes he surmises might be appropriate is to relax regulatory barriers. It must be recognized, however, that those regulatory barriers are at least potentially part of the reason that there have been no accidents. This is like pointing to the relative cleanliness of Lake Erie as a basis for relaxing environmental controls, when it is those controls that have made it possible for the Lake to get cleaner.

DaveC

First, I wonder if the US safety record has been largely luck rather than careful safety. The Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo came very close to a meltdown in 2002 when a football sized hole was carved out by boric acid over several years. No one at the plant noticed obvious warning signs, and reactor cover was very close to bursting.

The critical flaw with US nuclear strategy is that each reactor is different from all the other reactors. Engineers trained on one plant can only work on that one plant, forcing each company to maintain reserve personnel for only that reactor. Design problems discovered during accidents such as Three Mile Island teach us nothing about possible problems with other reactors. The French success record is largely due to their nuclear plants being standardized designs. The engineers who work on one plant can work on another plant without retraining, parts are interchangeable, and design issues that come up are fixed at all other plants. This increases the safety drastically and lowers the cost.

New technologies like pebble bed reactors show a lot of promise as do other modern designs. However, without the assurances of common design, common personnel, and common replacement parts, I think the American public is justifiably suspcious of nuclear power in it's current incarnation.

Mr. Econotarian

According to the NRC report, there was a meltdown at the Three Mile Island TMI-2, and it did not breach of the walls of the containment building.

logicnazi

I agree with your argument Becker and I have two quick comments in response to some posts here. I have extended comments supporting this position in reply to Posner.

First, admitedly nuclear power plants may not pay the full cost of their potential harms but neither do coal or gas power plants. I suspect if we internalized the externalities of pollution and global warming to these power plants it would actually tip the balance far toward nuclear power.

Secondly, not all nuclear power plants help make nuclear weapons. There are many new reactor designs that simply can't be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Finally, given the several fold improvement in reactor design over the past twenty years new reactor designs literally cannot meltdown (air cooling plus thermal expansion is enough to slow the reaction). These new reactors are many times safer than the old ones. Thus if your concern is safety then you must either believe that the old reactors are so dangerous that they deserve to be shut down immediatly despite the cost or if you feel that these aren't an eggregious danger then the new reactor designs must be well within the margins of safety you find reasonable.

fling93

Yeah, human fear can be pretty irrational. An unlikely disaster with many deaths (plane crash, terrorist attack) is always overweighted compared to a likely trickle of deaths (pollution, cancer, car accidents). The fact that most Americans don't understand nuclear power just exacerbates this fear.

I'm sure The Simpsons hasn't helped, either. :)

fling93

Oh, I guess Posner already covered this ground in his post. Sorry!

James

As DaveC pointed out, France has benefitted from its policy of standardized nuclear plants. My concern is that the free market might not bring about this result. It seems likelier that new power plants would have a variety of different designs. Of course, economists might argue that power plants should compete to come up with the best design, but this is doubtful. First, unlike cars or shoes, power plants have an easily measured output. It's hard to predict which car will actually make people happier, since people want a blend of comfort, reliability, aesthetics, efficiency, space, and safety. The government has no competence to make these choices, and it's possible to market a variety of cars. With power plants, though, you basically want efficient production of energy. Safety isn't properly governed by the market because the costs are externalized by the producer. Given the advantages of standardization, then, perhaps the government should select a good design and then license companies to build power plants with only minor modifications from that design. This can keep costs down (no duplication of effort) and allow us to enjoy the advantages of the French system.

Joe Merchant

In 1990, straight out of college, I interviewed with the NRC in Atlanta as a potential plant inspector. I queried the manager about future prospects for a new inspector when no new plants had come online in over a decade. He assured me that the new designs were inherently safe and it was just a matter of "a few years" before new plants were permitted and built.

Several of your present NRC inspectors believed that line fifteen years ago, or they didn't think through the future carreer prospects for an ex-nuclear power plant inspector.

Political backpressure against nuclear power is immense, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mentality will be as hard to break for a new generation facility as it is for the Yucca Mountain disposal site. The net environmental benefits of nuclear power are immense - tons of sulfur (acid rain) mercury (neurological disease) and other vile pollutants flow from the nation's coal fired powerplant stacks daily. Even hydro-electric power generates tremendous amounts of methane (greenhouse effect) from rotting vegetation on the artificially manipulated shorelines of the resevoirs. But the United States has accepted these problems and is not ready to contemplate a nuclear power gamble, because the one in their backyard might be the next Chernobyl.

Chernobyl and the other nuclear accidents all combined have done far less environmental, economic, and human damage than coal fired plants in the last 50 years.

Conservation is a fine idea, but you need to think of the standard of living in the early 1800s and consider if you want to return to that way of life with current population levels. If not, significant power generation facilities will be needed- with or without significant conservation.

Larry

The Government picking up the liability insurance, as Bush proposed, is the way to go. My recollection is all those nuke plants under construction in this country which were abandoned--Michigan, Long Island, Maine/CT--at a loss of billions--were lost just like the Vietnam War, i.e., in the liberal media, not on the merits. Who is going to control the liberal media, and the madness of the crowds they incite, this time? As far as that's concerned, there are tens of millions of Americans out there now who are already brainwashed beyond redemption. What politicians, other than George W. Bush, have the gonads to stand up to these mostly ignorant, but sometimes subversive, protesters? ("Earth Day" was said to have begun as Lenin's birthday). Just think how much better position we would be in if the American media from the dawn of nuclear power had adopted a Panglossian view of it, always downplayed or declined to mention its faux pas, and all the schools had done likewise... As Becker says, nobody was even hurt at Three Mile Island, and that was nothing but a big media lie... In fact, solar power is by far the most dangerous, because hundreds of people have been killed by falls from their roof when installing solar panels. (See "The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear, by Dr. Petr Beckmann, 1976). As if any vast production of power by any means could be achieved without accidents! They say nuclear energy was--in this country. But dozens, if not hundreds, died in building the Hoover Dam.

weldon berger

Yucca Mountain is not being held up solely as a result of politics. Of the two studies looking at groundwater travel time at the site, one, conducted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, found that groundwater can travel through the site in as little as 50 years, and the other, suggesting a much longer and consequently safer travel time is the USGS study based upon falsified data. So even aside from the question of whether or not it's wise to store nuclear waste atop an aquifer in a seismically active and increasingly populated part of the country, the only credible groundwater study indicates the site isn't suitable on that score either.

No doubt good arguments can be made on the safety and efficiency of new and developing nuclear power technology, but that blithe dismissal of the very serious concerns over the suitability of Yucca Mountain or any other long-term storage site tends to taint those arguments with more than a hint of boosterism.

DaveB

As a 25-year veteran of nuclear power design, I would have to say that the Davis Besse incident is more disturbing than TMI (a collasal (sp?) failure of operator training and government regulation, since resolved) and Chernobyl (another collasal (??) failure of command-and-control, quite possibly leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union). This was a failure of the nuclear safety culture - many obvious signs of trouble ignored and lied about. Once again, a serious failure of regulation. Anybody reconize a pattern here?

On the plus side, one of the greatest successes has been the tremendous increase in reliability - plants are shutting down less, producing at higher power, and operating for longer cycles. The equivalent of several new plants have been addes to the nation's generating capacity just by increasing power and extending cycles of existing plants.

The other great success is the role the commercial US operators play in consumption of former weapons-grade nuclear material in the megatons-to-Megawatts program the historic 1993 United States-Russia nonproliferation agreement to convert highly enriched uranium (HEU) taken from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads into low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel.

http://www.usec.com/v2001_02/HTML/megatons.asp

thedaddy

What a bunch of weenies.
We have proven over and over again, that we in this country, if allowed to persue our own interests without the "government" interfering, can accomplish what ever it is we set out to do.

The reason that we are in an energy "crisis" is because the "government" at the behest of the "wisdom" of Congress and various deluded or railroaded Presidents have enacted laws that have contributed and led directly to the situation we find ourselves in now. The courts haven't been innocent in this either.

Capitalism and individual effort may not get it right the first or second time but eventually, because capitaism is a self regulating system, it will get it right. Conversly because "government" control is anything but self regulating, mistakes that are built into the systems are virually imposible to remove or remedy.

As examples of this I point to the Social "Secutity" systsem, Amtrak, Medicaid, Medicare, IRS, DOE, HUD, EPA, OSHA, DOT etc. etc. etc. If any of these edifices to inefficency and corruption had to operate as a private sector organization they would have gone out of business or changed their ways long ago. but because there is no self regulation or even consequences (to the organization or rarely to its personell ) these branches of the "government" quickly become ossified.
I don't know if any of the blythe commenters here have ever had to deal with an OSHA inspector but if you have you will know that safety has nothing to do with their mission -- it is only blindly adhereing to the "rules" that counts.

A short anecdote-- at one time I owned several bakeries, one of my bakers had brought one of those pancake computer fans with a plastic fan balde to work to provide some cooling for himself while standing in front of the oven. You could take your finger and stick it into the fan while it was running and the blade would stop turning, pull your finger out (no injury) and the fan would start. The OSHA inspector wrote ME up for a workplace saftey violation because the "rules" say that all fans must have a blade guard in place. $7000 fine (for first offense) -- never mind that the fan didn't belong to me and that the ony way you could get hurt with the fan would be to hit yourself in the head with it. The "rules" are the rules.

If this is the government that some commenters want to be planning on how to insure that we have adequate supplies of energy or safety or anything else other than a 'one size fits all' solution then I say -- Give Me A Break.

Becker is right about nuclear energy. We have had 30 years of gov't interference in the energy business, it has not been beneficial, it's time for the "government" to step aside and let the real men take over.
By real men (and, for you PC weenies, women) I mean entrepeneurs and capitalists and risk takers.

You don't buy your computers from a "government" run factory or from standardized factories ( so that operators could easily move between factories) so why should we have to be burdened by the cookie cutter mentality of the french (whose economy by the way isn't to hot at the moment). Why do weenies always want to immitate some marginal system in failing economies and then want our government to chisel it into stone?

The chaos of the marketplace of ideas and experiment is the only way for the problems of the day to be solved. Government solves nothing, it only institutionalizes the problem because it cannot react to current circumstances. The people who deal with the everyday cannot change the rules and the people who make them ( the various branches of government) are not effected by the results of their rule making and therefore have no incentive to make sure that the rules they make, make sense.

thedaddy

WillyShake

As a former Navy nuclear engineer, I'm very grateful for a fantastic discussion that, I hope, will help to dispel the many myths surrounding nuclear power. Whether our country decides to embrace this form of energy or not will depend on the extent to which we engage in this level of critical discourse rather than mindless cliches and myths. Thank you! My further comments are posted here:

http://unconsideredtrifles.blogspot.com/2005/05/if-he-have-power-then-vail-your.html

N.E.Hatfield

As with any type of technology, each has it's own Benefits and Risks. Nuclear Energy not excepted. The prime problem with this source of energy is that it is "inherently dangerous and hazardous" to the environment, public health, and public safety. I won't go into the details, because I'm quite certain everyone is familiar with the hazards.

The fundamental issue is, "Accidents Happen"; it is not a matter of "if", but "when". There is no way of getting around this basic fact of reality. Knowing this, it is critical that such inevitabilities are taken into account in the design, operation, and maintenence of such technology. Such that any designs and actions minimize or lessen the impact of such events and disasters.

As for acceptance of such technology by the public, there is going to have to be tremendous effort put into selling the "Cost-Risk-Benefit" Analysis of nuclear power vis-a-vis other sources of power to counter the paranoia that has already been created in the public mind.

It is unfortunate that in the development of the Nation and humanity as a whole; we have all come to the point, like Dr. Faustus, of having to strike a such bargain with the Devil himself. But, that is where we are at. This stuff is dangerous and requires exceptional care in its use and handling. Hopefully we will be able come to grips with it. If we don't, sometime down the road we're all going to end up freezing and starving in the dark and I for one don't like the cold.

jr

I like the idea of recycling and reusing the waste

TheWinfieldEffect

Recycling and reusing the waste is attractive, except it results in more plutonium. Unless we rachet up security at our nuclear facilities, more plutonium means more plutonium for domestic terrorists to steal or more nuclear weapons in our arsenal. More nuclear weapons in our arsenal means greater problems on the diplomatic front -- the more nukes we have, the greater the urge of rogue nations to acquire nukes too.

We could simply store the waste in Nevada. But that won't happen with Harry Reid of Nevada leading Senate Democrats and opposed to the notion. Too many MoveOn.org-type activists are against nuclear power in a knee-jerk way. For some reason, nuclear power per se represents fascism to them, the same way corporate profits per se do.

It seems nuclear power would have to be packaged as a boon to national security, not a boon to coprorate patronage networks. Worse, it'd have to be packaged in a way not to set off extremist Greens and pandering Democrats and not to signal to the international community that the United States is a hegemonic power fixated on global domination. Politics-wise, it seems almost near infeasible.

John Kelsey

For whatever it's worth, I know someone who worked on the Yucca Mountain site, who came away with very little confidence in the safety of the containment over time.

Are there any realistic sources of energy other than nuclear that can replace CO2 emitting sources? My impression is that there aren't. Solar and wind power are great for some isolated places, but they're not going to substitute for much coal or natural gas. Hydro and geothermal only work in special places, and hydro has a bunch of its own environmental problems. I keep thinking that if you take global warming by CO2 emissions seriously, you pretty much have to want to move toward nuclear power.

--John

Mike P

Wow...

DaveB, er, don't know what to say to you, it sounds like you have a lot of personal issues.

To the "liberal media" bashers--do a search for which think tanks are cited the most by the msm and I believe you will be surprised (hint--it's those bastions of bleeding hearts at Cato and Heritage!). Beyond that, look at the ability of "corporate america" to more easily take on the cost of operating media outlets (Murdoch's NY Post hasn't posted a profit, but that he can eat that loss and use it to promulgate views that benefit his other operations for a net gain) vs. a group of affected individuals (bakery workers perhaps). The media is far from "liberal."

I also agree that the United States should follow France's lead (sorry, DaveB) and increase the share of nuclear power in our energy portfolio, assuming that the costs can be internalized (of course what course of action is not permitted as long as the costs are internalized?!)

Beyond that, the Economist included a special report on oil that was really useful for examaning enrgy politics and the role that increased production and conservation should each play--check it out if you haven't already.

anciano

I can't agree with thedaddy at all and I believe that Becker should be more respectful of political uncertainties. Highly radioactive rods will remain lying around thedaddy’s plant after he has died, a problem for future generations to control. There are genuine uncertainties about the Yucca mountain site, but so far no waste has reached it. Five years of safe storage won't prove much of course.

Governments like to promise something for nothing while rewarding their friends with nice contracts. I agree that all forms of power generation have a downside, but I will vote against more nuclear power plants until we have waste sitting in YM and seemingly OK. I don't expect to see that in the next ten years. Nevadans see no reason to accept dangerous excrement from other states.

Joe Merchant


Pure NIMBY attitude - thank you anciano.

Not that I believe Yucca mountain is the safest place to dispose of nuclear waste - I like the recycling plan myself, nobody says you have to make bombs with plutonium, and if we don't get busy - the French will have more fissionable material than any other country... Bonaparte II anyone?

logicnazi

Several points.

First NIMBYism is not as much of an obstacle as you think. I recently listened to a bunch of NPR interviews with people living in a town with one nuclear power plant and another going through an approval process and most of the citizens seemed to be strongly in favor of another power plant to provide jobs. In fact rather than NIMBYism it seemed that more resistance was being generated/instigated by people outside the community than those in it. Now one could spin this either way (these are outside experts or interfering do gooders) but the NIMBY problem might not be as bad as you think.

Secondly while nuclear power plants do present safety concerns it is a serious mistake to underestimate the harms of coal and gas power plants. In fact the amount of radioactive material released every year from the burning of coal is more than the three mile island release. Additionally a great many deaths and reduced quality of life can be traced to the direct air pollution not to mention the impacts of global warming.

Thirdly a great many of the concerns about Yuca mountain swirl around whether it will really keep the waste safe for 10000 years or just 8000. However, even if these safety figures are wildly incorrect and it only keeps the waste protected for 500 years this still is of small concern compared to the current harms being done by coal and gas. Sure right now cleaning such a spill up would be a great cost (if possible) but 500 years provides a long time to develop technology. 500 years ago we were in the middle ages and now we are in space, most likely before any spill happens we can intervene and repackage the material in a safer manner. Even if there is a spill and no special technology makes it easy to clean up just depreciating the cost at the rate of economic growth (i.e. consider cost as a percent of the economy) it would still be a small price compared to the current harms of coal.

Edmundo

I've had this wild idea for a while -- shipping nuclear waste to some God-forsaken asteroid. I know that there is a big risk at launch but it would reduce all of the other risks to some tiny number.
I had originally thought we could shoot it into the Sun which would just burn the waste up, but quickly realized that we can't mess with the Sun.

John Kelsey

I haven't worked out the numbers, but I'm pretty sure it would be cheaper to dispose of nuclear waste by packing it away in several-inch-thick solid gold boxes than by launching it into the sun. You're talking about a *lot* of delta-v there. (Of course, there's nothing we could manage to get to the sun that would do it any harm, but we couldn't afford to get it there in any quantity, so the point's moot.)

--John

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