Posts tagged ‘Jerry Taylor’

Atomic Welfare

Jerry Taylor echos my point I made last week that supposedly conservative supporters of nuclear power are ignoring the problem of huge government subsidies.

There is an interesting phenomenon in public discourse that I don't have a name for.  Take nuclear power.  Many of the people who oppose nuclear power do so for some pretty flawed reasons.   I think there is a natural tendency to take the other side of the argument when one sees this happening, even if by first principles one should joining the opposition to nukes but for different reasons.

I know I was pulled into having some initial sympathy for the Iraq war for just this reason, because the war-opposition arguments seemed so stupid (e.g. France won't like us as much!)  The correct argument on Iraq was not that Iraq didn't suck (it did) but that so many countries suck just as bad it was an impossible task to start knocking them off using large portions of the US Military, thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars each time out  (I call it the "cleaning the Augean Stables argument).

OK, I am Not the Only One Asking This Question

OK, the comment thread in my post on Romney evolved into a good discussion on health care, but I did not get a very good answer on how Romney supporters could possibly consider him the inheritor of the Reagan small-government legacy.  Apparently, I am not the only one confused on this, as both Michael Tanner and Jerry Taylor chime in with the same question.

What does it say about the Republican Party when the leading fusionist conservative in the field - Mitt Romney, darling of National Review and erstwhile heir to Ronald Reagan -
runs and wins a campaign arguing that the federal government is
responsible for all of the ills facing the U.S. auto industry, that the
taxpayer should pony up the corporate welfare checks going to Detroit
and increase them by a factor of five, that the federal
government can and should move heaven and earth to save "every job" at
risk in this economy, and that economic recovery is best achieved by a
sit-down involving auto industry CEOs, labor bosses, and government
agents armed with Harvard MBAs to produce a well-coordinated strategic
economic plan? That is, what explains the emergence of economic fascism
(in a non-pejorative sense) in the Grand Old Party at the expense of
free market capitalism?

Unfortunately, 1970-style Nixonian Republicans are back in force.  Can "Whip Inflation Now" buttons be far behind?

Update:  Apparently William F. Buckley is happily returning to the 70's as well.

Should We Take Another Shot at Nuclear Power?

An article I saw on a new process for creating hydrogen via nuclear power (courtesy of the Commons) got me to thinking about what a screw-up our first (and really only) generation of nuclear power plant building was.  Learning curve problems with a new technology, combined with an insane regulatory regime and uninformed panicky public response to nuclear power issues led to a shut down in the construction of nuclear power plants, and made the last ones built into memorable financial disasters

Coming from the aerospace industry, I am used to a strong regime of government safety regulation.  The differences in how aircraft construction and nuclear power construction are regulated are very informative, so I want to focus on them in this post.

First, however, its instructive to list some of the reasons why nuclear power is attractive:

  • Excepting the radioactive waste issue, which we will discuss below, nuclear power is essentially emissions free, and is totally devoid of any greenhouse gas emissions that may contribute to global warming.  There are also no particulate emissions or sulfur dioxide emissions, which are blamed for various woes.
  • Nuclear fuel, ie uranium and potentially thorium, is incredibly abundant and currently inexpensive.  Also, much of the world's reserves are located in free democracies rather than Islamic dictatorships

Nuclear Plant Regulation

Nuclear plants in the U.S. were mainly designed as one-offs.  In other words, each one was a relatively unique design.  Each design therefore required regulatory review and approval in depth, processes that could take years.  Since the process took so long, changes in personnel or public attitudes often resulted in revisiting certain already approved design decisions, sometimes even after that part of the plant was built, resulting in expensive modifications.

In addition, uninformed public hysteria was allowed to take precedence in the permitting process ahead of fact-based scientific analysis. That is not to say that there are not potential dangers - Chernobyl proved that, but one can pretty easily argue that Chernobyl was more consistent with Soviet era mega-industrial disasters that occurred in many industries than the general experience with nuclear power. 

In most cases, the public has no real idea of the risks of nuclear plants, especially vs. other risks they might face.  People who might never live in the vicinity of a nuclear plant live downwind of plants using hydrogen cyanide or hydrogen sulfide as process gasses; or near plants with the potential for runaway exothermic reactions, leading to explosions and/or toxic gas releases (Bhopal anyone?)  Far more people were killed by the explosion of a shipful of fertilizer in Texas City than have been injured by nuclear power in the United States.

Aircraft Regulation

If aircraft construction was regulated like nuclear power plants, there would be no aviation industry.  In the aircraft industry, aircraft makers go through an extensive approval and testing process to get a basic design (e.g. the 737-300) approved by the government as safe.  Then, as long as they keep producing to this design, they can keep making copies with minimal additional design scrutiny.  Instead, the manufacturing process is carefully checked to make sure that it is reliably producing aircraft to the design already deemed safe.  If aircraft makers want to make a change to the aircraft, that change must be approved with a fairly in-depth process.

Beyond the reduction in design cost for the 2nd airplane of a series (and 3rd, etc.), this approach also yields strong regulatory benefits.  For example, if the in a particular aircraft, then the government can issue a bulletin to require a new approved design be retrofitted in all other aircraft of this series.  This happens all the time in commercial aviation.

One can see how this might make nuclear power plant construction viable again.  Urging major construction companies to come up with a design that could be reused would greatly reduce the cost of design and construction of plants.  There might still be several designs, since competing companies would likely have their own designs, but this same is true in aerospace with Boeing, Airbus and smaller jet manufacturers Embraer and Bombardier.

Nuclear Waste

The nuclear waste disposal problem is still not fully solved, but technology is making inroads, as in here and here and here.

I would argue that the issue of nuclear waste is a red herring anyway -- waste from nuclear power is not necesarily worse than from other processes, its just more visible and scary sounding.  Current power plants generate millions of tons of waste a year.  However, since they spread this waste evenly throughout the atmosphere, it doesn't always call attention to itself.  Radioactive waste, though small in volume, tends to be concentrated and admittedly tricky to handle.  It can't be just dumped in the air or in the water and forgotten about - it has to be actively tended for years.

Other Reading

Increasingly, many environmentalists are starting to revisit their opposition to nuclear power as the environmental costs are better understood (even technologies formally much-loved by environmentalists are coming under scrutiny for their costs -- do we really want all of our wilderness to look like this and this?)  Such articles include this and this.  Other roundups about the benefits of revisiting nuclear power are here and here.


My gut feel is that nuclear power, if intelligently regulated, could be economically competitive with many other energy sources today, but I don't know for sure.  Jerry Taylor and Co. at Cato think otherwise, and they have certainly put a lot more research into it than I have.  I am certainly loathe to start US energy policy, complete with massive subsidies, down yet another uneconomic blind alley.