The "self-limiting" future of nuclear power
There are a very large number of studies all of which reach the similar conclusion: energy efficiency programs and renewable power technologies are better than nuclear power plants. The fact that these studies come from a variety of sources, across the political spectrum, and from different disciplines, suggests that there is a consensus among abroad base of independent, non-partisan experts that nuclear power plants are a poor choice for producing electricity. So why, then, does nuclear power persist? Is it the superficially attractive narrative associated with nuclear energy that conflates it with national progress and pride, alongside an immensely powerful and effective lobby, a new generation that has either forgotten or never known why it failed previously, deeply rooted habits that favor giant power stations, and lazy reporting by a credulous press?
In a chapter of his new book 'Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power –A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy' Benjamin K. Sovacool argues that three primary culprits exist: the true costs of nuclear energy are not borne by those benefiting from it, resulting in what economists call "market failure"; many of the costs and risks involved with nu-clear electricity are passed directly onto ratepayers; and nuclear power has, since its inception, been associated with complex notions of progress and modernity that make it seductive, despi-te all of its intractable challenges. Taken together, these three culprits - market failure and externalities, the socializa-tion of risk, and hubris and technologi-cal fantasy - largely explain why nuclear power plants flourish.
1. Why does nuclear power persist
Benjamin Franklin once wrote that "the great advantage of being a reasonable creature is that you can find a reason for whatever you do." The nuclear power industry possesses no shortage of argu-ments in favor of a nuclear renaissance, many of them reasonable at first glance. Yet, the central premise of 'Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power' is that a global nuclear renaissance would bring immense technical, economic, envi-ronmental, political, and social costs.
Nuclear power generators cannot be mass-produced. They take much longer to build, and are therefore exposed to escalating interest rates, inaccurate demand forecasts, and unforeseen labor conflicts. Their centralization requires costly and expansive transmis-sion and distribution systems. Modern nuclear reactors are prone to a dete-riorating energy pay back ratio for the nuclear fuel cycle, produce hazardous and extremely long- lived waste, have large water requirements, and possess a larger carbon footprint than energy efficiency and every form of renewable electricity.
All is not lost, however. As this book also shows, renewable power techno-logies reduce dependence on foreign sources of uranium, and therefore cre-ate a more secure fuel supply chain that minimizes exposure to economic and political changes abroad. Renewable technologies decentralize electricity supply, so that an accidental or inten-tional outage would affect a smaller amount of capacity than an outage at a larger nuclear facility. Renewable energy technologies improve the reliability of power generation by conserving or producing power close to the end-user, and by minimizing the need to produce, transport, and store hazardous and ra-dioactive fuel. Unlike generators relying on uranium and recycled plutonium, renewable generator are not subject to the volatility of global fuel markets. They can also respond more rapidly to supply and demand fluctuations, improving the efficiency of the electricity market. Most sig-nificantly, renewable power technologies have enormous environmental benefits, since their use tends to avoid air pollution and the dangers and risks of extracting uranium. They generate electricity without releasing significant quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change as well as life-endangering nitrogen oxides, sulfurdioxides, particulate matter, and mercury. They also create power without relying on the extraction of uranium and its associated digging, drilling, mining, leaching, transporting, storing, sequestering, and pol-luting of land. In the end, nuclear reactors and renewable power generators do the same thing: they produce electrical energy (kWh). Why rely on a nuclear system that is subject to highly uncertain projections about uranium availability, centrally administered by technocratic elites, and vulnerable to the ebb and flow of interna-tional politics (requiring garrison- like security measures at multiple points in the supply chain), when superior alternatives exist?
The simple fact that energy effici-ency programs and renewable power technologies are better than nuclear power plants has not been advanced by this book alone. Indeed, there are a very large number of studies all of which reach a similar conclusion. The fact that these studies come from a variety of sources (academic journals, magazines, and reports) across the political spectrum (including business, science, civil society, and medicine) and from different disciplines (physics, economics, epidemiology, and poli-tics) suggests that there is a consen-sus among abroad base of indepen-dent, nonpartisan experts that nuclear power plants are a poor choice for producing electricity .
So why, then, does nuclear power persist? One study supposed that it is the superficially attractive narrative associated with nuclear energy that conflates it with national progress and pride, alongside an immensely powerful and effective lobby, a new genera-tion that has either forgotten or never known why it failed previously, deeply rooted habits that favor giant power stations, and lazy reporting by a cre-dulous press.(*1) This chapter argues that three primary culprits exist: the true costs of nuclear energy are not borne by those benefiting from it, resulting in what economists call "mar-ket failure"; many of the costs and risk s involved with nuclear electricity are passed directly onto ratepayers; and nuclear power has, since its inception, been associated with complex notions of progress and modernity that make it seductive, despite all of its intracta-ble challenges. Taken together, these three culprits - market failure and externalities, the socialization of risk , and hubris and technological fantasy - largely explain why nuclear power plants flourish. When these conditions change (i.e. when the full costs of nuclear energy become apparent or can no longer be socialized, or when the allure of nuclear fission fades), the drive towards nuclear energy stalls. In short, if nuclear energy is to have any future at all, it will be what Joseph Romm has called a "self-limiting" one.(*2)
2. Market Failure and Externalities
As almost any smart undergraduate student of economics knows, free markets for anything - from tomatoes to Tomahawk missiles – need multi-ple criteria to function properly. One of them is that all costs must be fully internalized in the price of a given good or commodity; if one person is able to shift the costs to someone else while still reaping the benefits, then the market has failed to distribute benefits equally and equitably, creating what is known as market failure. At the heart of the market failure discussion is the concept of an externality.
Defined as costs and benefits resulting from an activity that do not accrue to the parties involved in the activity, externalities have won attention in recent decades as an important (albeit often ignored) aspect of energy production and use.(*3) Externalities are part of the "overall social cost of producing energy, including the value of any damages to the environment, human health, or infrastructure."(*4) Another definition of externalities is "inadver-tent and unaccounted for effects of one or more parties on the welfare of another."(*5)
Take the classic example of unregulated pollution from a smokestack. A factory produces items that are priced by taking into account the demand for the products as well as labor, capital, and other costs, but the damages from the factory's pollution - health and other effects – are true costs borne by society that are unaccounted for in the price of the factory's product. These latter costs are commonly referred to as "externalities" because people tend to consume them as by products of other activities that are external to market transactions and, therefore, unpriced. This means that the factory produces a volume of items that is less than "socially optimal," resulting in a net welfare loss to society in the form of morbidity, mortality, and reduced productivity.
Nuclear power plants have a plethora of these types of externalities that most pro-ducers and users of nuclear energy do not have to pay for. A partial list would at least include:
- Catastrophic risks such as nuclear meltdowns and accidents
- An increased probability of wars due to rapid uranium extraction, the boom and bust cycles of uranium mining communities, or the inability to secure fissile materials as-sociated with the nuclear fuel cycle
- Public health issues such as chronic exposure to radiation and its consequent advanced morbidity and mortality, as well as worker exposure to toxic substances and occupational accidents and hazards
- Direct land use by power plants, uranium mines, enrichment stations, and storage facilities
- The destruction of land by uranium mining and leaching, including acid drainage and resettlement
- The effects of water pollution on fisheries and freshwater ecosystems, which are sensitive to water chemistry, as well as the release of radionuclides into water sources
- Consumptive water use, with consequent impacts on agriculture and ecosystems where water is scarce
- Continual maintenance of caches of spent nuclear fuel
- Changes to the local and regional economic structure through the loss of labor and jobs, transfer of wealth, and reductions in gross domestic product
- Incidence of noise and reduced amenity, lower property values near nuclear plants, and aesthetic objections.
Even though this list is incomplete, one study analyzed 132 externality estimates associated with electricity generation in
a variety of countries with an assortment of different energy systems.(*6) The study found that net social costs for nuclear power ranged from a low of less than 1 cent per kWh to a high of almost 65 cents per kWh, with a mean of 8.6 cents per kWh. As Table 2 documents, the external costs for nuclear power were twice as high as that of hydroelectric systems, more than 12 times higher than that of solar power, and almost 30 times higher than that of wind power. The amount of 8.6 cents per kWh may not sound like much; but if correct, it means that, since nuclear units produced 2,601 billion kWh of energy in 2008, they also generated US $ 223.7 billion in global social and environmental damages.
In other words, nuclear power generation created US$ 223.7 billion of additional costs that are not assumed in traditional estimates of nuclear power's price. Many of these costs are "hidden" because neither nuclear producers nor consumers have to pay for these additional expenses. Instead, the external costs of nuclear energy are shifted to society at large. What is interesting is that - when one takes the negative externalities associated with nuclear power, fossil fuels, and renewable sources of electricity, and adds them on top of existing production costs - Figure 1 shows that wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass plants are already cheaper than existing nuclear units. Put simply, if the true cost of nuclear energy matched its price, nuclear energy would never be competitive with renewable energy (or energy efficiency) in any free market.
3. Subsidies and the Socialization of Risk
Because of their capital intensity and financial risk, nuclear power plants are only cost-competitive when they are underwritten with gargantuan public subsidies. Put in other terms, absent an enormous diversion of tax-payer funding, no rational investor would ever finance a nuclear power plant. As one economist put it, investing in nuclear power without the pro-vision of government subsidies is about as useful as "watching a movie with the sound turned off."(*7) One 2009 assessment of the global nuclear industry identified no less than ten types of subsidies given to nuclear power plant operators around the world, as presented in Table 3.
Consider the US, where one would think that the electricity market operated freely and with little distortion from subsidies. In fact, the US electri-city sector is heavily subsidized, and most subsidies have gone to nuclear power plants. From 1947 to 1999, federal subsidies for nuclear power in the US totaled US$ 145.4 billion (in 1999 USD). Even in fiscal year 1979, when subsidies for renewable energy peaked in the US at US$ 1.5 billion, the Department of Energy (DOE) devoted more than 58% of its research budget to nuclear power. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 promised U S $ 100 million in new funding for reactor designs, set limits on utility pay-ments for decommissioning, and delegated the authority to set waste dis-posal standards to the National Academy of Sci-ence rather than public participation. However, it failed to incentivize any one to build a new nuclear power plant.(*9) The Energy Policy Act of 2005 only worsened the disparity by lavishing the nuclear industry with US$ 13 billion worth of loan guarantees, US$ 3 billion in research, US$ 2 billion in public insurance against delays, US$ 1.3 billion in tax breaks, an extra 1.8 cents/ kWh in operating subsidies, and limited liability for accidents. Yet even this was not enough, des-pite the fact that these subsidies covered 80% of the costs of a new nuclear plant.(*10)
These subsidies are in addition to numerous other benefits the nuclear industry already en-joys: free offsite security, no substantive public participation or judicial review of licensing, and payments to operators to store waste. The subsidy established by the Price± Anderson Act, which ironically charges tax payers for liability insurance against nuclear accidents that could kill them, alone is possibly estimated to be worth more than twice the entire research budget of the US DOE.(*11) According to one estimate, nuclear power operators would be responsible for only 2% of the cost of a worst-case accident, with tax payers picking up the rest of the tab.(*12)
Interestingly, this very issue of limited liability for nuclear plants could derail the recent "123 deal" made between the US and India. For the deal to go through, Indian legislation must cap nuclear liability; but when lawmakers put forth a Civil Nuclear Liability Bill that limited dama-ges at US$ 450 million in the event of a nuclear accident, the Indian Supreme Court argued that it violated Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The presiding judge in the case stated that the main lesson from the Bhopal disaster was that foreign hazardous industries must be made absolutely liable for any damage caused from their facilities.(*13)
One interesting comparison is to look at subsi-dies for wind, solar, and nuclear power for their respective first 15 years of operation. Nuclear power in the US received subsidies worth
US$15.30 per kWh between 1947 and 1961, compared to subsidies worth only US$ 7.19 per kWh for solar power and 46 cents per kWh for wind power between 1975 and 1989. During the first 15 years, nuclear and wind power produced about the same amount of energy: 2.6 billion kWh for nuclear power, and 1.9 billion kWh for wind power. But, nuclear subsidies outweighed wind subsidies by more than a factor of 40, receiving US$ 39.4 billion compared to wind 's US$ 900 million over the 15-year period.(*14)
The trend of grossly subsidizing nuclear energy holds true globally, as nuclear power has received more public research funding than any other source since the 1970s.(*15) This is especially true for many other industrialized countries, inclu-ding Canada, France, Germany , Japan, Sweden, and the UK (illustrated in Figure 2). As the numbers show, nuclear energy has received 54.8% of all research subsidies among Interna-tional Energy Agency (IEA) countries, compared to only 8.7% for renewables and 8.9% for energy efficiency. It may come as no surprise that the only way for utilities to embrace new nuclear units is to receive large subsidies or raise electricity prices for consumers. Some states now allow utilities to increase electricity rates to finance new plants years before construction even begins.(*16) In Georgia, these rate incre-ases will amount to a "subsidy" of US$ 14 billion on top of an additional US$ 8.3 billion of federal loan guarantees given by the Obama administration.(*17) In Levy County , Florida, residential customers will begin paying US$ 100 per year in higher bills from 2009 to 2016 to help Progress Energy fund a new nuclear unit. South Carolina had to pass a 37% rate hike before it could consider financing a new reactor.(*18)
How does the nuclear industry get such sweet subsidies? Part of the explanation may lie in lobbying. In the US, the In-vestigative Reporting Workshop at American University found that the nuclear industry spent more than US$ 600 million on lobbying and US$ 63 million on campaign contributions from 1999 to 2009.(*19) In many ways, the nuclear power industry 's efforts to win support are a textbook case of how the influence game is played in Washington. Besides the money spent on lobbying and campaign contributions, the industry - led by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) - has created a network of allies who give speeches, quote one another approvingly, and showcase one another on their websites. The effect is an echo chamber of sup port for nuclear power.
4. Hubris and Technological Fantasy
One final factor pushing nuclear power is its association with progress, complexity , and modernity . Early advocates pro-mised not only a future of electricity too cheap to meter, but an age of peace and plenty (without high prices or shortages) in which atomic energy would provide the power needed to desalinate water for the thirsty , irrigate deserts for the hungry , and fuel interstellar travel deep into outer space. Other exci-ting opportunities included atomic golf balls that could always be found and a nuclear- powered airplane, which the US federal government even spent US$ 1.5 billion researching between 1946 and 1961.(*20)
This section suggests that one explanation for the attractive-ness of nuclear energy could be its association with national visions of progress. While these visions vary by country and over time, John Byrne and Steven Hoffman propose that the single most consistent predictor of whether a society will embrace nuclear energy is their ability to think in the ´future tense". That is, planners and promoters become enthralled by the possible benefits of nuclear energy in the future, and are willing to accept the costs in the present to realize them. Put another way, they tend to overestimate the advantages of nuclear energy and discount its future costs in the absence of knowledge about current economic or technical compatibility; the reality of present risks and costs is discounted by the unrealized possibilities of future gain.(*21) Indeed, the energy historian Martin Melosi has noted that "it's amazing that commercialization of nuclear power occurred at all.... The energy market had little to do with this important event, since there was no pressing need for a new source of power in the United States. There was, however, strong interest in enhancing American prestige."(*22) Although these psychological bene-fits are intangible, they are often believed to be real. A cursory look at the genesis of nuclear programs in eight countries
- China, France, India, Japan, the former Soviet Union, the US, Spain, and Canada - reveals that, in each case, optimism in the technology and an overarching vision of what nuclear energy could deliver in the future played a role in trumping concerns about present costs.
Figure 2: Government-Funded Subsidies for Nuclear Fission and Fusion Within International Energy Agency Countries , 1974 ± 2007 (in millions of 2007 USD)
China , 1953 ± 1992
The prospect of developing nuclear power was first broached in China's first Five- Year Plan in 1953, which emphasized the need for a centralized nuclear development program managed by the government and state enterprises. China's commercial nuclear program formally began in 1972, when the central government approved the first nuclear program - known as the 728 Project - to develop submarine reactors. Nuclear energy quickly became attached to aspirations of Chinese economic power and the legitimatization of China as a superpower. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, China experienced massive deficits in electricity supply, with an-nual demand for electricity surpassing supply by as much as 70 billion kWh. The government had to replace m ore than 100,000 boilers at conventional power plants between 1972 and 1978, and rolling black outs hit every major province wit-hin China at least twice a year for much of the two decades. Nuclear power was seen as instrumental in overcoming the energy supply deficits, improving Chinese economic competitiveness, "catching up" with Taiwan and other indus-trialized countries, and enhancing national prestige. Chinese officials even toyed with the idea of exporting both nuclear technology and electricity to the rest of Asia; and built one facility, the Yibin Fuel Component Factory in Sichuan, to manufacture prefabricated components of nuclear power plants for export. They sold one set of components to Pakistan in 1989, and planned to earn billions of dollars of foreign exchange exporting similar packages to Africa and the rest of the developing world.(*23)
France, 1945 ± 1970
Left in the devastation caused by the German occupation and fighting of 1944± 1945, French technical and scienti-fic experts linked nuclear power to French "radiance" and identity.(*24) Nuclear energy was central to this campaign of French economic modernization; and research, development, and construction were dominated by the government. The Commissariat à l'énergie atomique (CEA), formed in 1945, had a close association with the bureaucracy in Paris and the military, and was charged with developing indigenous French reactors.(*25)
Nuclear energy was seen as a tool to not only provide much-needed electricity to France, but also revitalize the national economy. Nuclear reactors offered the chance for French planners to rebuild infrastructure, promote industry, and augment political influence simultaneously. One key compo-nent of this push was the notion of dirigisme, or the idea that government-led intervention and planning was the best way to respond to social problems. Another component was the notion of French "national champions," or the idea that key sectors of the economy (such as the state owned nuclear ma-nufacturer Framatome) deserved special protection and sup-port from the government.(*26) After the creation and demon-stration of the atomic bomb, "nuclear technology became a quintessential symbol of modernity and national power".(*27)
India , 1945 ± 1980
The Indian government began investigating nuclear energy in 1945, when they formed the Tata Institute of Fundamental Re-search and appointed a prominent physicist, Homi Bhabha, as its director.(*28) In 1948, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prim e Minister, made an impassioned speech to the General Assembly of India advocating nuclear energy; later that year, an advisory board (the Atomic Energy Commission) was es-tablished under the Indian Ministry of Natural Resources and Scientific Research to further study the issue.(*29) By August 1956, the first research reactor was operational, despite the accidental death of Bhabha.
The fledgling nuclear energy program was seamlessly connected to a vision of a prosperous and technologically advanced Indian society. Upon attaining independence, the Indian economy was dominated by the agrarian sector while the industrial sector was in a primitive state. From the outset, planners conceived of the national nuclear program as key to confirming the country's standing in the modern era, thus intersecting with the widely held belief that energy abundance underpinned social progress. Nehru argued in 1948 that India had failed to capitalize on the first Industrial Revolution due to lack of technical skill, and believed that success in the ongoing second Industrial Revolution was predicated
on engineering prowess, typified by nuclear power. Later in the 1970s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reiterated Nehru's position that nuclear power was an essential technology for rescuing developing economies such as India's from "poverty and ignorance". She was convinced that a bold display of scientific and technological might could impress the populace enough to win her re-election.(*30)
Japan, 1955 ± 1990
Following defeat in World War II, much like France, Japan was in ruins. More than 30% of the Japanese population was homeless, communication and transport network s were in shambles, and industrial capacity had been bombed into insignificance.(*31) With the support of Occupation funding, Japan embarked on a modernization program that would achieve unprecedented economic success. The promise of generating cheap energy through applied nuclear technology meshed perfectly with government aspirations to enhance the international competitiveness of industry. Japan's nuclear power program was officially launched when the government passed the Atomic Energy Basic Law in 1955, which set out the criteria under which peaceful development of nuclear technology was to be undertaken. Government development funding, which commenced that year, led to the inaugura-tion of Japan's first nuclear energy plant, the Tokai Nuclear Power Plant, in 1966. Japan's nuclear energy program was an offspring of aspirations for enhanced national energy security. National planners came to see nuclear technology as an important export product - a tool to not only free the nation from energy dependence, but also extend its economic reach into the Pacific and the world at large. The sheer lack of indigenous energy resources justified a massive expansion of the nuclear program , including commitment to plutonium-fueled fast breeder reactors. Japanese officials believed that a greater national risk was posed by dependence on imported energy than by a network of nuclear power plants.
Soviet Union, 1954 ± 1986
The former Soviet Union was home to the first nuclear power plant in the world, a 5-MW graphite- moderated reactor at Obninsk that was built in 1954 and similar to the later design which failed at Chernobyl in 1986.
Atomic energy was linked to visions of a radiant communist future. The one-party Communist system, its control over the media, and the suppression of doubts about science and technology provided an ideal environment for nuclear expansion. Nuclear energy was quickly attached to the infal-libility of Soviet science and technology, as well as the idea of a progressive communist regime free from energy shortages and wants. As a central slogan of the Soviet nuclear industry put it, "Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier."(*32) Atomic energy came to represent not only a source of electricity supply for government planners, but also a pathway towards developing breeder reactors that would meet all of the coun-try's energy needs, a first step towards perfecting nuclear-powered engines for aircraft and automobiles, a system for producing radiation to preserve food, a source of knowledge about nuclear technology that could help the Soviet Union build advanced weapons, and a mechanism of political con-trol whereby planners dispersed nuclear reactors to the re-publics to strengthen ties and political adherence.(*33) It also went hand-in-hand with an agenda to convert an agrarian and peasant society into a "well oiled machine of workers" tireles-sly committed to communism.(*34)
Early successes in nuclear research were seen as positive proof of the legitimacy of the entire way of Soviet thinking, and the promise of nuclear energy also reassured Soviet leaders about the concentration of the empire's energy reserves in Siberia and the Caspian Sea. Soviet engineers quickly became caught up in the fantasy of a nuclear Soviet Union, and spoke publicly about the applications of gamma ray mineral prospecting and oil surveying, the use of radiation for industrial monitoring and quality control, the creation of atomic fertilizers and viruses, and the irradiation of food and other items to prolong their shelf life. Soviet nuclear energy was "the instruction of nature at its finest" ; and it was be-lieved that widespread use would produce the energy needed to fill deserts with water, build canals, excavate waste sites, and accelerate industry. One plan even called for the melting and diversion of Siberian rivers so that the heavily populated Ukraine and Volga Basin regions could be irrigated.(*35)
Nuclear power in the Soviet Union therefore fused together faith in Soviet science and technology, secrecy, defense, and gigantism.(*36) Russian planners were captivated by science and technology, and became fascinated with the techno-logy on display. Khrushchev encouraged Soviet scientists to "accelerate the construction of communism" by imitating Western methods of scientific experiment and management, culminating in the belief that atomic energy was almost a magical sort of alchemy. Radioisotopes were believed to help grow food quicker and cure diseases. This reaffirmed political control to an inner elite of party members, and created pres-sure for scientists to avoid delays in nuclear projects that could result in their arrest, dismissal, imprisonment, or even death. Nuclear energy was also pursued on security ground s to ensure parity with Western military might and secure Russian borders from invasion or interference; Soviet military planners spent billions of dollars researching nuclear-powered rockets, jets, ships, and satellites.
United States , 1942 ± 1979
While the Soviet Union exhibited grand visions for nuclear energy, perhaps they paled in comparison to those in the US, where the atomic age began in December 1942 with an experiment at the University of Chicago and culminated in the completion of the Manhattan Project. By the end of World War II, planners were looking for civilian applications of the atom, and its possibilities were seen as endless. Scarcely one year after the War ended, Congress established the Ato-mic Energy Commission (AEC), which believed that atomic energy should not only enhance defense but also "promote world peace, improve the public welfare, and strengthen free competition in private enterprise."(*37) The AEC was esta-blished as an executive agency with complete control over nuclear development and exclusive ownership of fissionable materials and all facilities. The creation of the AEC gave the federal government control and authority over all aspects of the technology. Put another way, the AEC was given ”mono-poly like powers protected by the cover of national security".(*38) (This emphases on peace is a bit ironic, given that, when the US Air Force discovered that the Soviet Union had detonated a nuclear device in September 1949, the civilian reactor program was intertwined with military efforts; generals hoped that civilian reactors could produce a "quantum jump" to develop a thermonuclear weapon.)(*39)
As one example of the hype surrounding nuclear energy, the same month the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the pocket book The Atomic Age Opens was published and widely read. The book depicted a future world in which coal and petroleum would go unused, and existing hydroelectric facilities would be abandoned and as "obsolete as the stagecoach" was in 1945. To give the general public some feeling for the vast amounts of energy soon to be theirs, the authors calculated the atomic power of ordinary things: one pound of water had enough energy to heat 100 million tons of water, a handful of snow could power an entire city, and the energy in a small paper railway ticket was sufficient to power a heavy passenger train several times around the earth.(*40) Robert M. Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago, stated in 1946 that nuclear power would make "heat so plentiful that it will even be used to melt snow as it falls." Hutchins went on to suggest that "a very few individuals working a few hours a day at very easy tasks in the central atomic power plant will provide all the heat, light, and power required by the community and these utilities will be so cheap that their cost can hardly be reckoned".(*41)
Nuclear energy promotion also reinforced national values and ideas about technology and nature. The anthropologist Gary Downey argues that advanced technology has always been correlated with progress in the US, and was initially used to distinguish the American colonies from their English counter-parts. Thus, nuclear energy was seen as politically necessary to avoid the risks of communism, and was key to a postwar identity shaped in defiance to Marxism and Communism. Military planners believed that demonstrating the civilian ap-plications of the atom would also affirm the American system of private enterprise, showcase the expertise of scientists, increase personal living standards, and defend the democra-tic lifestyle against Communist intrusion.(*42)
Less than ten years after Hutchins' statement, the US government fully embraced nuclear power and passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 – the same year that President Dwight Eisenhower pledged to "strip the atom 's military casing and adapt it to the art of peace."(*43) The central theme behind the "Atoms for Peace project was to show that the power of the atom could be converted from a terrifying military force to a benign commodity. The role of the government was to be a custodian of atoms.(*44)
Lewis Strauss, Chairperson of the AEC, remarked that atomic power would usher in an age where:
It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.(*45)
Partially captivated by such optimism, Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program granted US$ 475 million in funds to pro-mote nuclear power abroad and Walt Disney even produced a television show entitled "Our Friend, the Atom."
One of the drivers behind atomic energy in the U S was competition with the Soviet Union. Developments outside the nuclear industry during the 1940s and 1950s - such as the Alger Hiss case, the pro-Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet blockade of West Germany, the Chinese Revolution, as well as Soviet progress in developing atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, and nuclear reactors - convinced many American planners that they were in a "race to save the world from communism." Nuclear power was one key component of win-ning this race. It is illustrative that the first nuclear plant built by the AEC in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, started in 1953 directly after the Soviet Union exploded its H-bomb, and that the reason for choosing to go forward was not to produce a "cost-competitive" plant but to show the world that the US could design and operate a reactor.(*46)
Spain, 1951 ± 1980
Spain pursued a path of nuclear power partly because of its technocratic government, imperialist ambitions, utopian thin-king, and Cold War relationships. Its quest for nuclear energy began in the early 1940s. After the atom bombs were drop-ped on Japan, Spanish leaders were convinced that military might lay in nuclear weapons, not in soldiers or ships. The country also happened to be sitting on what was believed to be one-seventh of the world's recoverable uranium depo-sits. Planners there established the Junta de Energia Nu-clear (Nuclear Energy Board, or JEN) in 1951, and promoted nuclear power on the grounds that Spain had to be involved with important developments in science. As a consequence of its dictatorship and its collaboration with the Third Reich during World War II, Spain was excluded from international forums until 1955 and did not receive economic aid under the Marshall Plan. Impoverished by war, Spanish planners therefore saw nuclear energy as an inexhaustible source of energy necessary to power Spain's national reconstruction, development, and industrialization.(*47)
Canada , 1942 ± 1994
Canada's nuclear power industry can be traced back to ura-nium mining, which was initially under private control during World War II and operated to meet the needs of British and US military research. Under the 1943 Quebec Agreement, Canada funneled high-quality uranium to the Manhattan Project and clandestine British weapons programs; but when the war ended, the government declared all "works, under-takings, and substances relating to atomic energy to be for the general advantage of Canada." One year later, in 1944, construction began on an experimental research reactor. Canada later passed the Atomic Energy Control Act of 1946, which gave the government complete control over nuclear energy, expropriated all private uranium companies, esta-blished a Crown corporation (Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited), and prohibited all other actors from selling uranium in Canada to any one other than this entity until 1959. Also, in 1952, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited was established as a government agency to coordinate research and regulate the export of nuclear materials and equipment.(*48) The belief at the time was that Canada would be well positioned to supply the world fleet of reactors with uranium, making the country a de facto power broker in the transition to a global atomic economy.
In each of the above historical cases, planners pursued nu-clear power not solely based on its costs and benefits in the present, but with hope about potential future gains, national visions, and technological optimism. As this overview shows, these visions differed by country and overtime. Yet despite such differences, each of them painted nuclear energy as lea-ding to national “radiance,” economic revitalization, progress, and the possibility of a better future of some type. Their pre-valence reminds us that energy policy making is not always guided by coldly rational thinking alone, and that energy systems can play a forceful role in shaping norms and ideals about what the future may hold. However, it also illustrates that nuclear power was never initially designed or intended to be a cost-competitive source of electricity supply.
In the end, the choice between nuclear power and its cleaner alternatives boils down to a simple question: Do we want a nuclear economy, which is centrally administered by techni-cal specialists, completely reliant on government subsidies, dependent on future breakthroughs in research, and sure to promote international proliferation and worsen inequity
and vulnerability, that requires draconian security measures, wastefully generates and distributes electricity, remains based on highly uncertain projections about theoretical nuclear de-signs and available fuel, fouls water and the land, and trashes the planet for many future generations?
Or, do we want a small- to-medium - scale decentralized electricity system, which is more efficient, independent from government funding, and encompassing commercially available technologies, that operates with minimal harm to the environment, remains resilient to disruptions and terrorist assaults, is equally available to all future generations, and is highly beneficial to all income groups?
When the true costs of nuclear energy are compared to
the true benefits of renewable technologies, the answer is almost too obvious. In a carbon constrained world, continued investment in nuclear technologies still on the drawing board makes little sense, especially as such technologies rely on diminishing stocks of usable uranium that will require more and more energy inputs in order to be enriched to fuel-grade status. Why invest in nuclear energy as a solution to global climate change when, by the time such systems come online, enriching the fuel for them will require emitting as much car-bon as today 's fossil fuel systems?
Any rational investor, regulator, and citizen would choose instead to invest in the deployment of technologies that require little to no energy inputs so as to harness free and clean fuels widely throughout the world.
Policy makers should peek beyond the smoke- and - mirrors Kabuki dance used to obscure the obvious advantages of renewable technologies and the obvious costs of nuclear sys-tems. Any effective response to electricity demand in a world facing climate change involves enormous expansion in our use of renewable technologies and a steady abandonment of nuclear power.
Published by kind permission of by Benjamin K Sovacool
(National University of Singapore, Singapore). His new book "Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power. A Critical Global As-sessment of Atomic Energy" is available through: http://www. worldscibooks.com/environsci/7895.html
(*1) Amory B. Lovins, Imran Sheikh, and Alex Markevich,
"Forget Nuclear", Rocky Mountain Institute Solutions 24(1)
(Spring, 2008), p. 27.
(*2) Joseph Romm, The Self Limiting Future of Nuclear Power (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress Action Fund, June 2008).
(*3) John Carlin, Environmental Externalities in Electric Power Markets: Acid Rain, Urban Ozone, and Climate Change (Wa-shington, D.C.: NARUC, 1993).
(*4) Russell Lee, "Externalities and Electric Power: An Inte-grated Assessment Approach" (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1995, CONF-9507-206-2).
(*5) US Department of Energy and the Commission of the European Communities, "U.S .- EC Fuel Cycle Study: Back-ground Document to the Approach and Issues," Report No. 1 on the External Costs and Benefits of Fuel Cycles (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, November 1992, ORNL/M-2500).
(*6) Thomas Sundqvist and Patrik Soderholm, "Valuing the Environmental Impacts of Electricity Generation: A Critical Survey," Journal of Energy Literature 8(2) (2002), pp. 1-18; and Thomas Sundqvist, "What Causes the Disparity of Elec-tricity Externality Estimates? ,"Energy Policy 32 (2004), pp. 1753-1766.
(*7) Jim Giles, "When the Price Is Right: Chernobyl and the Future," Nature 440 (2006), p. 984.
(*8) Mycle Schneider, Steve Thomas, Antony Froggatt, and Doug Koplow, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009 (Paris: German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Con-servation and Reactor Safety , August 2009, UM0901290).
(*9) John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman, "The Ideology of Progress and the Globalisation of Nuclear Power," in John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (eds.), Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk (London: Transaction Publishers, 1996), pp. 17-18.
(*10) Amory B. Lovins, "Energy Myth Nine -Energy Efficiency Improvements Have Already Reached Their Potential," in Benjamin K. Sovacool and Marilyn A. Brown (eds.), Energy and American Society- Thirteen Myths (New York: Springer, 2007), pp . 259-260; and Dan Watkiss, "The Middle Ages of Our Energy Policy - Will the Renaissance Be Nuclear?, "Elec-tric Light & Power (May/June, 2008), pp. 12-18.
(*11) Benjamin K. Sovacool and Christopher Cooper, "Nu-clear Nonsense: Why Nuclear Power Is No Answer to Climate Change and the World 's Post-Kyoto Energy Challenges," William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review 33(1)
(2008), pp. 1-119.
(*12) Quoted in Travis Madsen, Johanna Neumann, and Emily Rusch, The High Cost of Nuclear Power: Why America Should Choose a Clean Energy Future over New Nuclear Reactors
(Baltimore: Mary;and PIRG Foundation, March 2009), p. 9.
(*13) Aarti Dhar and J. Venkatesan, "Limiting Nuclear Liability Is a Violation of Rights: Sorabjee," The Hind u (December 11, 2009), p. 12.
(*14) Marshall Goldberg, Federal Energy Subsidies: Not All Technologies Are Created Equal (Washington, D.C.: Rene-wable Energy Policy Project, July 2000, Report No. 11).
(*15) Sovacool and Cooper (2008).
(*16) Matthew L. Wald , "In Finland, Nuclear Renaissance Runs into Trouble," New York Times, May 29, 2009.
(*17) Steven Mufson, "Nuclear Projects Face Financial Obsta-cles," Washington Post, March 2, 2010, p. A1.
(*18) Madsen et al. (2009).
(*19) Judy Pasternak, "Nuclear Energy Lobby Working Hard to Win Support," McClatchy Newspapers, January 24, 2010.
(*20) Otis Dudley Duncan, "Sociologists Should Reconsider Nuclear Energy," Social Forces 57(1) (September, 1978), pp. 1-22.
(*21) Byrne and Hoffman (1996), pp. 11-46.
(*22) Martin Melosi, "Energy Transitions in Historical Perspec-tive," in Laura Nader (ed.), The Energy Reader (London: Wiley - Blackwell, 2010), pp. 45-60.
(*23) Michael G. Gallagher, "Nuclear Power and Mainland China's Energy Future," Issues and Studies 26(12) (1990), pp. 100-120.
(*24) For an excellent history of nuclear power in France, see Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity After World War II (Cambridge, MA : MIT Press, 1998); and L. Scheinman, Atomic Energy Policy in France Under the Fourth Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965).
(*25) Wolfgang Rudig, "Outcomes of Nuclear Technology Po-licy: Do Varying Political Styles Make a Difference?" Journal of Public Policy 7(4) (1988), pp. 389-430.
(*26) See Gene I. Rochlin, "Broken Plowshare: System Failure and the Nuclear Power Industry", in Jane Summerton (ed.), Changing Large Technical Systems (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 231-261; and Michael T. Hatch, "Nuclear Power and Postindustrial Politics in the West," in John Byrne and Steven M. Hoffman (eds.), Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk (London: Transaction Publishers, 1996), pp . 201-246.
(*27) Hecht (1998), p. 2.
(*28) David Hart, Nuclear Power in India: A Comparative Analysis (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983).
(*29) See ibid.; and Manu V. Mathai, "Elements of an Alterna-tive to Nuclear Power as a Response to the Energy - Envi-ronment Crisis in India," Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society 29(2) (April, 2009), pp. 139-150.
(*30) Byrne and Hoffman (1996), pp. 11-46.
(*31) J.W. Hall, Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times
(Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Publishers, 1990).
(*32) Paul R. Josephson, Red A tom: Russia's Nuclear Power Program from Stalin to Today (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1999), p. 38.
(*33) Josephson (1999).
(*34) Paul R. Josephson, "`Projects of the Century'" in Soviet History: Large- Scale Technologies from Lenin to Gorbachev," Technology and Culture 36(3) (July, 1995), pp. 519-559.
(*36) Josephson (1999); and ibid.
(*37) Alice L. Buck , A History of the Atomic Energy Commis-sion (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Energy, July 1983, DOE/ES - 0003/1), p. 1.
(*38) Lee Clarke, "The Origins of Nuclear Power: A Case of Institutional Conflict," Social Problems 32(5) (June, 1985), p. 477.
(*39) See Buck (1983); and ibid., pp. 474-487.
(*40) Editors of Pocket Books, The Atomic Age Opens (New York: Pocket Books, 1945), p p . 202± 203.
(*41) Daniel Ford , Meltdown: The Secret Papers of the Atomic Energy Commission (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 30.
(*42) Gary L. Downey, "Risk in Culture: The American Conflict over Nuclear Power," Cultural Anthropology 1(4) (1986), pp. 388-412.
(*43) Richard Munson, From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity
(London: Praeger, 2005), p. 80.
(*44) Shelia Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, "Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea," Minerva 47(2) (2009), pp. 119-146.
(*45) Lewis Strauss, "Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, September 16th, 1954," New York Times
(September 17, 1954), p. 1A .
(*46) Clarke (1985), pp. 474-487.
(*47) Albert Presas I. Puig, "Science on the Periphery : The Spanish Reception of Nuclear Energy," Minerva 43 (2005), pp. 197-218.
(*48) Constance D. Hunt, "Canadian Policy and the Export of Nuclear Energy," University of Toronto Law Journal 27 (Winter, 1977), pp. 69-104.