Frum on Nuclear Socialism

I was saying this morning that I thought conservative affection for nuclear power was a bit odd in light of the fact that only massive socialism seems capable of financing nuclear power plants. David Frum has a post in response that I don’t totally understand:

Nor is it true, as Matt contends, that only an active state can deliver nuclear power. The United States already draws 20% of its power from nuclear. Until recently, it’s true, the stock market has preferred utility companies that generate their power from coal. Coal is cheap and reliable. But if a carbon tax increased the price of coal, nuclear would come back into vogue — and the regulatory changes needed to facilitate that shift would not have to be very dramatic. Probably more important would be mergers in the utility industry. The rule of thumb in the industry is that a new nuclear plant would cost some $10 billion and start yielding revenue only after 5 to 7 years. That’s a big check to write when the largest utility in the United States, Exelon, has a market capitalization of only $35 billion. Electricite de France by contrast has a market cap of some $85 billion.

We seem to me to be in agreement here. Even though carbon pricing ought to make nuclear power profitable on an operating cost basis, it would be prohibitively expensive to raise the capital necessary to construct nuclear plants. I think you could resolve this by having the state step in and do the financing. He thinks, I guess, that some counterfactual private utility could do it if it were far larger than any existing utility. But how would you make these mergers happen? That sounds to me like you need an active state.

Note that many of these same considerations apply to windmills. They generate electricity quite cheaply on an operating cost basis, the problem is building the windmills. But the scale of the investment in a windmill is much smaller, so it’s easier for the private sector to mobilize the risk-bearing capacity necessary to build one. That said, obviously you need a certain amount electricity that can be relied upon irrespective of how windy it is or whether the sun is shining. So I’d happily see the nuclear share of the pie grow at the expense of coal and oil as the provider of that baseload electricity. But from where I sit, making it happen requires a pretty forceful state intervention. Or perhaps what I should say is that the cleanest way to make it happen would be to bite the bullet and engage in forceful state intervention. I’m afraid that what we’re going to do instead is try to subsidize the operating profits of nuclear power to such a sky-high level that the private sector can’t help but jump in with the financing even though the deadweight loss of doing it that way will wind up being a lot higher.