The Case for the Nuclear Status Quo

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
June 18 2013 2:08 PM

The Case for the Nuclear Status Quo

A protester wearing a mask stands in front of the nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, northern Germany, on April 21, 2013.
A protester wearing a mask stands in front of the nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, northern Germany, on April 21, 2013.

Photo by Carsten Rehder/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Nelder has a brilliant piece about the dubious economics of new nuclear construction and the nuclear lobby's unfortunate tendency to focus on overhyped environmental criticisms rather than sound economic criticisms. A good out-of-the-weeds point on this to share with your friends is that the one Western country where nuclear power has truly flourished in the marketplace is France. Which is to say that nuclear power thrives not when environmentalists stop complaining about it but when it becomes the centerpiece of an Areva/Electricité de France national champion industrial policy. Renewables are promising and no more expensive than nuclear and natural gas is thriving in the market right now, so rather than lavish new rounds of public subsidy on nuclear we should just keep forging ahead.

That said, Nedler doesn't address an important aspect of nuclear policy—existing nuclear power.

In several countries, especially Japan and Germany, there have been moves in the past decade to prematurely retire already built nuclear power facilities. This strikes me as an extremely dubious proposition. The inordinate economic costs of nuclear power have already been borne once the plant is already up and running. There's no backsies here. The benefits of denuclearization would have to be environmental, and it's very difficult to see them being realized in the short term. Of course you can replace nuclear power with even cleaner renewables. But I'd want to see a country entirely phase out reliance on fossil fuel electricity before it starts shutting down nuclear plants. Otherwise, in a practical sense, you end up swapping nuclear for coal and accomplishing nothing. Here, in the United States, I don't think this is a big issue, but shutdowns of existing nuclear facilities are a big cause for the Green Party in Germany and the Democrats in Japan and it doesn't really make sense.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.