Monday, October 29, 2007

The Big Sell on Nuclear Plants Doesn't tell the Real Story About French Nuclear Power

The pro-nuclear drums are beating harder and faster. Now I just hear old Newt Gingrich pointing to France as the model we should emulate. The French produce about 80% of their electricity from nuclear and they export electricity. Pollution? Those French nuclear power plants run clean, Newt points out. All of the conservatives are making it sound like nuclear power is the obvious answer to getting away from fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. Newt Gingrich is all for it. So are a bunch of other friends of big business. But wait just a minute.

There is more about the French and American nuclear programs those pro-nuclear power advocates don't want you to know. The truth is France and the United States went down different paths in the long term development of nuclear power. They are not comparable in any way.

Let's take a closer look. France chose a government agency to design and develop its nuclear capacity and most plants are based on the tried and true pressurized water reactor design. Over the years the French program stuck with the same basic design for every power plant, Thus a trained nuclear reactor operator in France could operate any reactor in France. As newer plants came on line some additional safety and operational improvements were added and older plants were easily updated with the improvements. One plant design made it easier to provide training for plant operators and safety standards applied to all plants equally.

And, oh yes, the French taxpayers paid for all of it and have benefited equally from the system they helped pay for. When it came time to build a costly nuclear fuel reprocessing plant or two French legislators didn't have to hassle over which province to bury nuclear waste in. It was all seen as a cost of having the benefits of nuclear power. And as France looks to the future they are NOT looking to privatize their system either. France has an energy policy that was NOT set by energy tycoons and it includes more nuclear power. Safety and the environment are prime considerations.

Now compare that to the good old free market American style of nuclear power development. In the United States taxpayers paid with large subsidies for the development of the first commercial nuclear power plants. Investors in utility stocks reaped the benefits and no one wanted to build a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, because they were expensive and America was so large that the cheapest way to handle nuclear waste was to bury it and American taxpayers were expected to pick up the lions share of the cost. Whoever came up with that bright idea should be tried for treason.

There's more. There was some good old competition in the American nuclear power industry. Not your rip-roaring kind of open market competition, mind you, but good old boy kind of competition that included just a few companies with Westinghouse and GE at the top of the heap. Some smaller outfits tried and failed against the oligopoly and the net result was that weaker players arose and the arrogance of American-trained nuclear engineers kept wanting to try something a little different. Michigan's Fermi nuclear plants were a prime example of that we-can-do-it-better crowd. Good old American competition is good for business. But it didn't turn out to be good for America. Fixing the mistakes were costly to the ratepayers of Detroit Edison. Back in the good old days of regulation it was easy to pass on costs to consumers so it didn't matter.

Then, of course, there was the American wake-up call at Three Mile Island. It wasn't a design problem as much as it was a training problem. Plant operators there didn't really understand what was going on until it was too late. France's safety record is impressive. They have a continual improvement program and because all plants are similar it's simple to change operational procedures and upgrade training.

America's nuclear plants are a hodge-podge and they are all aging and not well. Improvements are not standardized and made more costly.

The dirty little secret that the new pro-nuclear advocates don't want to tell you is that some things are better accomplished by governments and not the private sector.

It seems ironic, doesn't it, that those same conservative free market foghorns don't want you to know that the French nuclear power program is government owned, government run and yes it does work very well indeed.

If Newt Gingrich wants us to emulate the French nuclear program, perhaps we should take a closer look. What's the opposite of privatization? The French nuclear program puts a lie to the conservative framing that government can't do anything right.

We know the American program hasn't worked out very well for any but the rich folks who benefited from American taxpayer subsidies and when it came to picking up the hidden costs, well that was a government responsibility.

Well, I just saw on TV a few weeks ago how some Americans with costly diseases have moved to France where they have a medical system that is run by the government too and everyone gets free medical care.

Amazing. Where do these France folks come up with all these innovative ideas? Those crazy French people also don't spend a huge amount of money on defense either.

OK, Newt, you got me. Let's adopt those French policies all the way. How about some Freedom Fries to munch on while you think about it, eh?

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