Nationalize the nuclear industry?

by Milan on March 16, 2011

in Economics, Ethics, Nuclear power

In an informative question and answer piece in The New York Times, R.J.M Hudson raises the question of whether nuclear power stations are too hazardous to be run by private companies. Perhaps it makes more sense for them to be nationalized and run by the state. Governments still have some incentive to cover up problems, but at least there would be less of a profit motive driving decisions.

Of course, there have also been plenty of nuclear accidents in state-run facilities.

Would people feel more comfortable if all the world’s nuclear plants were directly owned and operated by governments?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 18, 2011 at 8:52 am

I can see no reason why corporations should be allowed to run nuclear power stations – it is impossible for them to price and absorb the risk involved. That said, there are plenty of problems with letting governments run the power station. The best solution right now is probably some sort of mixed institution set up to privilege long term interests rather than profit. Perhaps some custom designed variant of a crown-corporation would be most appropriate.

Milan March 18, 2011 at 10:20 am

One risk is that governments are even more capable of covering up problems and accidents than private corporations are.

Perhaps the real solutions lie in requiring much safer designs, even if they ate much more expensive, and scrapping dangerous old plants.

crf March 18, 2011 at 5:57 pm

It’s a good question, but nationalisation is a tangential issue, I believe.

What would be better if there were fewer nuclear companies. (Joe Romm has made a similar same point, from a US-centric perspective though.) Fewer companies, making, perhaps, more types of reactors (for different applications and environments), and having more expertise to continuously improve reactor designs, as well as the ability to service and improve older designs. The more companies there are, the more they stretch (compared to fewer, larger companies) their individual intellectual resources between designing newer safer reactors, and continuously improving and studying their currently deployed reactors. More companies encourages cost cutting or shifting costs to the customer. More companies and low demand has also meant that companies may find it much more profitable to service older reactors well beyond their orginally designed lives. There are also so many changing competitive pressures the more companies there are. Nationalisation may exacerbate this, because each nation thinking of nuclear (and there are a lot!) may wish its own nuclear company, with its own designs and processes, for, perhaps, unhealthy nationalistic reasons.

So you’re right on the mark with your last comment though. Fukushima was such an OLD reactor. A newer reactor design may have fared better. And if it were possible, earlier replacement of these stations may have been wise. (This isn’t just looking in hindsight. Safety improvements in newer reactor designs are very real.) People in rich countries think nothing of replacing their cars every 10-15 years, or less. But look at Cuba! The world’s nuclear fleet is replacing and services itself in a way analogous to Cuba’s taxi fleet.

Milan March 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm

If accurate, this is a dramatic relationship of how little information sharing there is between the nuclear industry and governments:

Experts met in Tokyo to compare notes. The United States, with Japanese permission, began to put the intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from Tokyo Electric, which operates Fukushima Daiichi.

American officials say they suspect that the company has consistently underestimated the risk and moved too slowly to contain the damage.

Is it plausible that the Japanese government thinks it can get better information from American drones and U2 spy planes than from one of its own companies?

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