Friday, November 13, 2009

Yglesias and nukes

I'm going to cheat and cross post my final substantive post from my old blog to get the ball rolling.

Matt Yglesias has written two annoying posts about nuclear power. His thrust is that conservatives are hypocritical for supporting nuclear power, nuclear power plants require subsidization due to large initial capital investment and long time horizons. And of course, conservatives are passionate about free markets, so how could they support nuclear power? Even more damning, the place where nuclear power has been expanded the most is socialist bogey-nation France.

This assault is wrongheaded and irresponsible. Yglesias points out that conservatives agitating for nuclear power are asking for subsidies. He sounds as if the energy market is perfectly competitive, unregulated, and subsidy-free. Well, it's not. Every form of energy has a lobby and a pet senator or dozen. Anyone who wants to say anything realistic about energy policy has to face that fact (unfortunately). Unless admirers of free markets are just not allowed to speak about heavily subsidized industries because it means they have to admit the State is involved. (Libertarians hear no end of this: Whaddya mean you use public transportation. I thought you were a libertarian!!)

Energy markets aren't exactly transparent either. This NYTimes article on a current program to convert nuclear weapons into nuclear fuel mentions that about 10% of electricity in the United States comes from old Russian bombs, a fact that must remain obscured:

Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for fear of spooking consumers: the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it.

How many Americans know where their power comes from, even without deliberate obfuscation? Can consumers pick and choose their power sources? I don't even know. I just moved to San Francisco and assumed PG&E was my only option.

Of course the reason why utilities don't advertise nuclear power is because nuclear power (still) has a public relations problem. Part of anyone's advocacy of nuclear power is an attempt to win hearts and minds for nuclear generally, not economically. And this NIMBYism has an economic effect. Aside from the intrinsic risk due to the size of the investment, a potential investor has to fear changes in local rules at any moment.

A carbon tax or cap and trade scheme would bring down the costs of nuclear compared to oil and coal. Yglesias patronizes David Frum for advocating nuclear power in a post where Frum explicitly offers it as a way to lower carbon emissions, in light of an eventual cap and trade scheme. Seeing how so many conservatives deny climate change altogether, it seems like it would be more responsible of Yglesias to welcome such good faith, sensible proposals by conservatives, especially since Yglesias isn't even anti-nuke anyway.

Most importantly, just because nuclear power plants can be prohibitively expensive without public subsidy right now doesn't mean that will always be the case. Stewart Brand in his book and lectures talks a lot about microreactors, which are produced and sold by competing private companies. Evolving public opinion, carbon dioxide emission capping policies, and advancing technology all make it seem perfectly reasonable and unhypocritical for conservatives to embrace nuclear power. Those who do should be applauded.


  1. He got tired of complaining about the rules of the Senate and decided to be nit-picky to conservatives.

  2. Oh, and by the way....

    "Libertarians hear no end of this: Whaddya mean you use public transportation. I thought you were a libertarian!!"

    So, I've always wondered... do libertarians not drive (or walk or bike or leave their house cum fortress filled with firearms) either? Because all those roads were built by the government...