Brad Plumer has an interesting piece about the American right’s strangely passionate love affair with nuclear power and the impact it’s having on the climate debate in congress. What I find especially odd about it is that it’s so at odds with American conservatives’ ardor for the free market. You see this mismatch in a small sense in that their nuclear agenda in congress consists basically of asking for subsidies. But in a larger sense the issue is that the big example one can find of a country living the nuclear dream is . . . France. And it’s not just an irony or a funny coincidence, nuclear power in France is deeply tied to the genuinely socialistic (i.e., not just high taxes and a generous welfare state) aspects of the French economy.
When the French nuclear network was being built out Éléctricité de France was wholly owned by the French state and had a statutory monopoly on the distribution of electrical power. What’s more, of the different kinds of French state-owned companies (yes, there are several) it was an Établissement Public à Charactère Industriels et commercial (EPIC) which meant it was fully guaranteed by the state and could, in effect, raise capital at a sovereign rate. This solves the big economic problem with nuclear power. The projects are so big, so long-term, so risky, and have such high up-front costs that financing the construction of these things is a nightmare. As the MIT interdisciplinary project on the future of nuclear power wrote in its 2009 update:
While the U.S. nuclear industry has continued to demonstrate improved operating performance, there remains significant uncertainty about the capital costs, and the cost of its financing, which are the main components of the cost of electricity from new nuclear plants.
The nuclear industry is eager to find ways for the US government to intervene in the market to resolve these issues, but the easiest way to do that is to actually have it undertaken by a publicly owned company.
These days EDF has been “privatized” in the kind of only-in-France way that many large French firms are private—it’s a standard Société Anonyme with shareholders, but the majority of shares are owned by the state. Areva, the engineering company that does the actual building, is also owned by the state. In Finland, there’s a somewhat problematic big nuclear project underway and the utility doing it Teollisuuden Voima Oy, also involves a hefty share of public ownership. In the United States, too, we used to build nuclear plants back when our economy was much more dirigiste.
At any rate, I have fairly equivocal views as to whether this is a good idea or not. But I think it should be seen for what it is. If you’re interested in reading more on the subject of nuclear power, I recommend the MIT interdisciplinary study on The Future of Nuclear Power.