Contributor Post Created with Sketch. When We Retreat from Progress: Nuclear Power Edition


Nuclear Power PlantThere’s a special word — such an important word — right in the final paragraph of the new NBER working paper “The Private and External Costs of Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out” by Stephen Jarvis, Olivier Deschenes, and Akshaya Jha: “Trade-off.”

Yup, trade-offs exist. And their reality is something that policy activists tend to ignore, but policymakers must eventually confront. No such thing as a free lunch. No something for nothing. Here’s the nuclear power trade-off identified by those researchers:

Policymakers around the world thus face a difficult trade-off. On the one hand, many climate change experts have argued that nuclear power is a necessary part of the shift away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Moreover, many voters are willing to incur substantial costs to reduce the risk of climate change. However, many of these same voters are also unwilling to support nuclear power due to fears surrounding nuclear accidents and nuclear waste disposal.

And that uncomfortable political trade-off is related to the trade-offs incurred when shifting a nation’s energy portfolio away from nuclear. From the paper, again:

Following the Fukashima disaster in 2011, German authorities made the unprecedented decision to: (1) immediately shut down almost half of the country’s nuclear power plants and (2) shut down all of the remaining nuclear power plants by 2022. We quantify the full extent of the economic and environmental costs of this decision. Our analysis indicates that the phase-out of nuclear power comes with an annual cost to Germany of roughly $12 billion per year. Over 70% of this cost is due to the 1,100 excess deaths per year resulting from the local air pollution emitted by the coal-fired power plants operating in place of the shutdown nuclear plants. Our estimated costs of the nuclear phase-out far exceed the right-tail estimates of the benefits from the phase-out due to reductions in nuclear accident risk and waste disposal costs. Moreover, we find that the phase-out resulted in substantial increases in the electricity prices paid by consumers.

A different paper found a similar trade-off in Japan itself after the Fukushima accident:

This paper provides a large scale, empirical evaluation of unintended effects from invoking the precautionary principle after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. After the accident, all nuclear power stations ceased operation and nuclear power was replaced by fossil fuels, causing an exogenous increase in electricity prices. This increase led to a reduction in energy consumption, which caused an increase in mortality during very cold temperatures. We estimate that the increase in mortality from higher electricity prices outnumbers the mortality from the accident itself, suggesting the decision to cease nuclear production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself.

At least in the case of Germany, the authors speculate that the public may be anti-nuclear because the risks from air pollution are less obvious and the costs of climate change will be born by future generations. As such, the paper concludes, “it is essential for policymakers and academics to convey the relative costs of climate change and air pollution versus nuclear accident risk and waste disposal to the voting public.”

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  1. James Gawron Thatcher
    James GawronJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member


    When you decide that ideology is more important than engineering the exponential growth of stupidity is breathtaking.



    • #1
    • January 6, 2020, at 5:36 PM PST
  2. Chuck Thatcher

    James Pethokoukis: Yup, trade-offs exist. And their reality is something that policy activists tend to ignore, but policymakers must eventually confront.

    Really? When? If the costs are “private and external”, could not that be a very long time indeed?


    • #2
    • January 6, 2020, at 5:50 PM PST
    • 1 like
  3. David Foster Member
    David FosterJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thomas Edison, as part of his campaign to standardize the nation on DC-based electrical distribution as opposed to the Westinghouse/Tesla AC model, used some extremely sleazy fear-based tactics. (“AC is killer current”)

    If today’s political and social climate had existed back then, he probably would have gotten away with it.

    • #3
    • January 6, 2020, at 7:11 PM PST
  4. Stad Coolidge

    One other consequence of shutting down all nuclear power plants is the loss of nuclear engineering programs at their universities. With a significant loss of the nuclear engineering job market, students will opt for other degrees. If they ever do rev up their nuclear power industry again, guess what country they’ll come to for education?

    • #4
    • January 7, 2020, at 6:44 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    < devil’s advocate mode = on >

    Commercial nuclear power has never been realized without massive government subsidies and/or massive liability exemptions for nuclear operators. When conservatives praise nuclear, I would prefer that they be honest about this fact.

    < devil’s advocate mode = off >

    On the other hand, maybe subsidies and liability exemptions won’t be required when building new nuclear technologies, like small modular reactors and Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactors. However, I’ve never seen this question addressed by boosters of new nuclear.

    • #5
    • January 7, 2020, at 7:50 AM PST
  6. Old Bathos Moderator

    The precautionary principle really means: “If we choose to assign a high value to a theoretical risk from your enterprise the burden is on you to convince us we are wrong even though our position is almost entirely subjective and ideological.”

    Green groups have always reflexively opposed nuclear power (see the saga of and litigation surrounding the Vermont Yankee plant). Making appliance-heavy modern life impossible is a Luddite feature not a bug. I can’t see them ever getting enthised about nuclear power as an alternative to dreaded fossil fuels.


    • #6
    • January 7, 2020, at 9:59 AM PST
    • Like
  7. Stad Coolidge

    Misthiocracy grudgingly (View Comment):
    Commercial nuclear power has never been realized without massive government subsidies and/or massive liability exemptions for nuclear operators. When conservatives praise nuclear, I would prefer that they be honest about this fact.

    No one I know of has ever denied this fact. The government subsidizes all sorts of things to get stuff started. I have no probelem with wind and solar power being government subsidized to begin with. However, nuclear power quickly proved itself viable as a reliable source of electricity for the mass consumption. Wind and solar have yet to do so, and state governments mandating xyz percent of electric generation be generated from these still questionable sources is screwing up utilities’ long range planning and removing competition from the martketplace.

    • #7
    • January 7, 2020, at 11:26 AM PST
  8. Chuck Thatcher

    @stad it’s been a good number of years since I was directly involved with nukes, so things may have changed. You might know. Still, today I live in sight of two cooling towers for a nuclear plant that was built, completed but never commissioned. (I have been told by several locals that Washington keeps political prisoners there, and you can see the black helicopters dropping down into the towers some nights.)

    Be that as it may, what I observed in two currently active plants was an egregious level of federally mandated administrative overkill and support functions beyond belief. What I observed was that to maintain some degree of fiscal viability in this atmosphere, the nukes had to run at full power constantly with the fossil fuel plants receiving regular dispatch orders as necessary. What I observed was that much of the operating cost was distributed across the whole corporation while each fossil fuel plant had to support itself. What I observed was that one nuke had more security officers alone than the entire operating, maintenance and security staff of a fossil fuel plant with two boilers, eight reciprocating monsters and half a dozen gas turbines. Of course, things may have changed.

    • #8
    • January 8, 2020, at 9:00 AM PST
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