The Tuesday: The Nuclear Option . . .

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BY KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON January 11, 2022
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WITH KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON January 11, 2022
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The Nuclear Option

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about language, politics, and thermonuclear reactions. To subscribe to the Tuesday — and please do! — follow this link.

Which Externalities?

The most important question in almost every public-policy debate is: Compared to what? And so it is with nuclear energy and, to a lesser extent, with natural gas, both of which are likely to receive more liberal regulatory and financial treatment in the European Union under a recently proposed policy change. This raises important questions for the European Union, of course, but also for the United States, India, and even China, all of which have growing power needs that come with environmental complications attached.

One of the concepts that comes up often in the discussion of environmental policy is externalities. An externality is an effect created by some economic activity, one that is incidental to the activity itself and that has some consequence for a third party that is not accounted for in the price of the good or service. There are both positive and negative externalities, but, when it comes to regulation, we usually are worried about negative externalities. Externalities often involve damage to public goods, and the textbook case is air pollution. None of the parties involved in producing and consuming diesel pays in a direct way for the air pollution caused by diesel engines and, because in most circumstances nobody has a property right in ambient air quality, nobody has standing to sue or to demand relief, even assuming that a meaningfully responsible party could be identified. (Some very cranky libertarians will tell you that there is no such thing as an externality, only a problem of insufficiently defined property rights, which may be a valid philosophical point but one that is of very little practical use in policy-making.) We can't say, "Let the market take care of it," because there is no market mechanism for taking care of it (though it is possible to create market mechanisms through regulation, as in cap-and-trade schemes), we can't let the courts sort the question out as a policy dispute, and so we turn to lawmakers and regulators to address the issue.

Often, they fail to do so. Many of our progressive friends who are quick to point to a lack of market incentives to address environmental problems neglect the fact that the political incentives often are stacked against environmental action, too. There is, for example, the familiar phenomenon of "concentrated benefits and dispersed costs"; everybody knows that burning coal causes air pollution, and nobody is in favor of air pollution, but people in coal-mining areas care a great deal more about their jobs than they do about whether the air quality in some faraway city gets 0.005 percent better or 0.005 percent worse next year. Christopher Buckley's "Yuppie Nuremberg Defense" — "I was only paying the mortgage!" — is not reserved exclusively to highly paid metropolitan professionals but informs blue-collar politics and farm-town politics to a considerable extent, too.

Using nuclear power to produce electricity comes with externalities, and using coal to produce electricity comes with externalities — but they are not the same externalities. Different externalities can be weighted differently. At the moment, the environmental externality that most concerns the majority of the world's policy-makers is, rightly or wrongly, the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with climate change. Operating a coal-fired power plant, even a very sophisticated modern one, produces a lot of greenhouse-gas emissions; operating a gas-fired plant produces only half as much, and less in some circumstances; operating a nuclear plant produces none at all. The common estimates of the admittedly slippery issue of "embedded carbon" — meaning the total greenhouse-gas emissions associated with building facilities, transporting fuel to them, disposing of them when they have completed their periods of operation, etc. — find nuclear to be not only less carbon-intensive (as measured by emissions per unit of electricity) than coal and gas but also a better performer than solar (the manufacture and maintenance of which is more complicated than is widely understood), which produces about twice as much in the way of greenhouse gases as nuclear. On that score, nuclear runs neck-and-neck with wind but ...   READ MORE

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