Nuclear safety

Japan's Nuclear Nationalism

Japan has pushed nuclear energy hard-at the expense of safety

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Nuclear advocates are dismayed that radiation fears over Japan's Fukushima plant might kill an industry that has a better safety track record than virtually any other. But the public in Japan and elsewhere has every right to question the safety of nuclear power that everywhere receives massive government support. The Japanese government, in particular, has aggressively pushed nuclear in its quest for energy independence, perverting with political considerations the market's natural ability to take safety issues into account.

It's true that radiation engenders irrational fear among people. Trace amounts of radioactivity from Japan have produced a run for iodine pills in California. Never mind that Golden State residents likely have more to fear from being knocked out by falling solar panels than radiation sickness. And judged purely by deaths per terawatt hours, nuclear is 10 times safer than solar and thousand times safer than coal or oil.

But that doesn't mean there is nothing to worry about with nuclear. Its potential for catastrophe is orders of magnitude greater than any other technology. Hence, only when investors are willing to foot the entire bill for its construction and liability can we believe that nuclear is truly safe.

That, however, is not the case anywhere—least of all in Japan.

Nuclear meets about a third of Japan's energy needs (compared to 20 percent in America) not because it is more competitive than the alternatives; it is not. Nuclear's exorbitant upfront capital costs and long—and uncertain—lead times make it every bit as unattractive to investors in Japan as elsewhere, especially compared to other fuels.

But nuclear appeals to Japan's mercantilist rulers who, since the mid-60s, have regarded the country's lack of indigenous energy resources as a major strategic vulnerability that must be corrected at all cost. They have committed themselves to increasing Japan's energy independence ratio from 35 percent currently to 70 percent by 2030. "We can no longer rely on the market to secure energy," declared Koji Omi, chair of the Liberal Democratic Party's Energy Security Committee a few years ago. "We should put much more emphasis on energy as our nation's strategy."

Such thinking has prompted Japanese lawmaker to push nuclear more aggressively than street vendors hawking broken Mao watches in Tiananmen Square. From 1990 to 2000, nuclear's share of Japan's energy mix has gone from 9 percent to 32 percent.

To get there, Japan has poured lavish subsidies into nuclear, starting with research. Around 65 percent of Japan's energy research budget goes toward nuclear—the highest of any country—with the industry spending $250 million, well below 10 percent of what the government spends. Even France, that gets 80 percent of its energy from nuclear, spends three-and-half times less than Japan.

Beyond research, the government offers the nuclear energy industry loans that are a full percentage point below commercial levels. And for four decades Japan has taxed the utility bills of electricity consumers, distributing the proceeds to communities willing to house nuclear plants. In essence, nuclear's competitors are being forced to act against their interest and bribe local communities to accept a risk against the communities' interest.

But the mother-of-all subsides is the liability cap that nuclear enjoys. In the event of an accident, the industry is on the hook for only $1.2 billion in damages, with the government covering everything beyond that. Japan's cap is generous even by American standards which require the industry to cover $12.6 billion before Uncle Sam kicks in. (Nuclear proponents in the U.S. argue that this liability cap is necessary given our insane tort awards. However, the fact that even countries without such awards have to offer a liability cap suggests that nuclear technology is not yet considered safe enough to be viable.)

The liability cap effectively privatizes the profits of nuclear and socializes the risk. It uses taxpayer money to diminish the industry's concern with safety—which government regulations can't restore. In 2008 Tokyo actually started offering bigger subsidies to communities that agreed to fewer inspections. The problem of regulatory capture is particularly endemic in Japan given that regulators seek industry jobs upon retirement, and hence often cosy up to companies they are supposed to oversee.

Nuclear's advocates argue that, if anything, Fukushima testifies to just how safe nuclear is given that the reactor reportedly shut down as designed in the face of a 9 Richter earthquake even though it was built for only 7 Richter. Had a freak tsunami not knocked out the backup generator needed to cool down fuel rods, none of this would have happened. Requiring an industry to plan for every random eventuality is a recipe for paralysis.

Perhaps. But had the industry been underwritten by private companies that risk getting wiped out by lax procedures instead of a government that risks nothing, might they not have refused to insure a reactor in an earthquake-prone zone or demanded better seismological studies than those available or ensured that backup generators were built to withstand a tsunami?

Only when the nuclear industry fully internalizes safety costs will we know that it is actually safe. Until then, we can only regard Fukushima as an avoidable tragedy. If it offers any lesson about nuclear, it is a cautionary one.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation and a columnist at The Daily. This article originally appeared at The Daily. Allison McCarty of Pepperdine University provided valuable research assistance for this column.

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  1. Good morning reason!

  2. “But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about with nuclear. Its potential for catastrophe is orders of magnitude greater than any other technology.”

    *facepalm*

    How many times will this canard be repeated? Does Shikha even understand the concept of ‘orders of magnitude’?

    1. ….or science?

  3. Had a freak tsunami not knocked out the backup generator needed to cool down fuel rods, none of this would have happened.

    Yeah, and if shit tasted like butter, you could spread it on your toast.

    1. a freak earthquake/tsunami that hit the same spot twice in history
      http://rctlfy.wordpress.com/20…..say-sorry/

    2. Suddenly I am reminded of an old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, where he builds a model “city”, only to be seen in the last panel about to destroy it by “flood” (wish I could find that one online to link to…)

        1. Yep, found it: http://www.gocomics.com/calvin…..985/11/27/

      1. Tsunamis are about as “freak” in Japan as jeans are in the United States

  4. Just recently physicists have called for entombment for Japanese reactors. Why not address this issue?

  5. “perverting with political considerations the market’s natural ability to take safety issues into account.”

    Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, New York’s East River

    Industry has risk management, not a smoking gun on how to keep everything safe. Both governments and industry struggle to balance safety and economics.

    1. And it governmetn has caused problems, but Deepwater Horizion oil slick has mostly been cleaned up and the amount of oil in the oceans is less than natual polution. This latest accident shows that in the right conditions even in an industrialized country things can go really wrong.

  6. It’s true that radiation engenders irrational fear among people.
    It also produces rational fear

    1. Which is unfortunately drowned out by the uninformed, irrational fear.

  7. But nuclear appeals to Japan’s mercantilist rulers who, since the mid-60s, have regarded the country’s lack of indigenous energy resources as a major strategic vulnerability that must be corrected at all cost.

    That attitude goes back even further, to the imperialist rulers who sought energy independence in the petroleum reserves of Indonesia.

  8. “nuclear technology is not yet considered safe enough to be viable.”

    What? Look at its track record! We don’t need to infer anything from the level of governmental assistance it’s getting. We fifty-plus years of data to look at.

    Nuclear’s not perfect. But neither is any other energy source (all of which are also getting big support from governments as well). I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but let’s not single out nuclear.

  9. “nuclear technology is not yet considered safe enough to be viable.”

    What? Look at its track record! We don’t need to infer anything from the level of governmental assistance it’s getting. We fifty-plus years of data to look at.

    Nuclear’s not perfect. But neither is any other energy source (all of which are also getting big support from governments as well). I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but let’s not single out nuclear.

  10. Is nationalism a bad thing? Call me crazy but I’m not a global citizen, I do not have a global greencard, I don’t pay global taxes (so far), and I like to put my country first.

    The Real Che Guevara: Article and 5 minute documentary.
    http://libertarians4freedom.bl…..evara.html

    1. “Is nationalism a bad thing?”

      Fuck Nein!

  11. This article is an example of the ignorant writing about something they know nothing about.
    Why didn’t you write about this a year ago?

  12. it worked fine until the earthquake and tsumani. how often will those things happen? what is the point of this article?

  13. “perverting with political considerations the market’s natural ability to take safety issues into account.”

    How do liabilty issues have anything to do with “the market:?

    The entirel legal system that is set up by and for the benefit of lawyers doesn’t remotely resemble a market. Legal extortion via threats of lawsuits that would never have been filed under a loser pays court costs syste, the punitive damages lottery, etc.

    There’s nothing remotely marketlike about it.

    And the supposed “costs” of nuclear power is mostly tied to that very same liabilty threat.

    1. So, there shouldn’t be recourse to the courts if A materially, financially wrongs B?

    2. Torts are an important component of the rule of law. There’s nothing incompatible about the market and the rule of law. In fact one of the primary legitimate reasons for the courts is to mediate and settle market-based disputes and conflicts between one property owner and another. Nothing un-libertarian about that.

      1. Obviously some torts do amount to extortion and frivolity. And if the system’s working correctly they should never go to trial. But I’ll take an imperfect state funded civil system any day over none at all. Granted there are competing views over who provides the tort/court services, and that’s a reasonable debate.

  14. (Irrational public fear over nuclear technology) + (public antipathy against big corporations) + (inability among non-physicists to understand nuclear science) x (a greedy and opportunistic legal industry) = possible tort judgements much larger than actual damages which might occur.

    Translation: the economic risk of nuclear is much less than the fiscal(legal) risk.

    Governments are concerned with economic risk. Investors are worried about fiscal risks.

    One cannot point to political risks and say, “See! Even industry knows this is a safety issue.” That is like arguing that higher insurance rates on East African shipping routes is evidence that those routes have nastier storms. Don’t you think the pirates might skew the market a little?

    1. Risk is risk — what’s the difference if it’s political or natural? I don’t see a relevant difference there.

      So you think it’s better for the government to take control of the energy industry and basically absolve it of all accountability, than for the industry itself to hold some liability?

      Look, plaintiffs lawyers are always going to be aggressive and pushy. They’re the “used-car salesmen” of the legal industry. It’s the nature of the business, and it’s the responsibility of a good judge to keep those kinds of lawyers at bay.

  15. “But had the industry been underwritten by private companies that risk getting wiped out by lax procedures instead of a government that risks nothing, might they not have refused to insure a reactor in an earthquake-prone zone or demanded better seismological studies than those available or ensured that backup generators were built to withstand a tsunami?”

    Like BP and the blowout preventer?

  16. While the author does not actually have a clue about she writes, I endorse her proposition wholeheartedly. Let the energy companies build their own nuclear plants, without any open or hidden subsidies.

    The result: No nuclear plants will be build, because they are just too damn expensive.

    Problem solved.

  17. Remember when you had to actually provide citations for your claims?

  18. Hopefully someone will take advantage of the Japan nuke disaster and call attention to the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). In truth, the light water reactor (LWR) should never have been built. The LFTR cannot meltdown, has waste products removed on a continuous basis so that cataclysmic failure is not even possible, and it can be built for less than a coal plant because there are no core internals or emergency cooling requirements. To top it off, a single LFTR can produce the power of 20 conventional reactors meaning the economy of scale would be tremendous. Any serious discussion of an energy policy isn’t serious without a thorough discussion of the LFTR.

  19. Hopefully someone will take advantage of the Japan nuke disaster and call attention to the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). In truth, the light water reactor (LWR) should never have been built. The LFTR cannot meltdown, has waste products removed on a continuous basis so that cataclysmic failure is not even possible, and it can be built for less than a coal plant because there are no core internals or emergency cooling requirements. To top it off, a single LFTR can produce the power of 20 conventional reactors meaning the economy of scale would be tremendous. Any serious discussion of an energy policy isn’t serious without a thorough discussion of the LFTR.

  20. The Mac OS, and OS X in particular works the same way between machines even when aspects of the desktop look different. The same holds true between Android and iOS.

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  22. This movie has some nike sb skunk dunks for sale of the same flaws I saw in another attempt at a faithful adaptation of a work of fantastic literature long thought unfilmable, Zach Snyder’s 2009 version of Watchmen…That is, it kobe 7 for sale struck me as a series of filmed recreations of scenes from the famous novel

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