No one is more surprised than I to see something worthwhile reading in The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad magazine. You might even be forgiven for suspecting an April Fool. But there it is. It’s an editorial by Shikha Dalmia, a senior policy analyst at frequently misnamed Reason Foundation, exploring the fundamental problem with nuclear power. Dalmia’s indictment goes far beyond the nuclear industry, though. Intended or not, it strikes at the heart of the economic philosophy that dominates pretty much the entire planet To wit:
The liability cap effectively privatizes the profits of nuclear and socializes the risk.
Liability caps are just one of many tools that serve to privatize profits and shift risk onto the public. Without the protection afforded the industry by governments everywhere, it is doubtful a single private-sector nuclear reactor would be splitting atoms anywhere. But the nuclear industry is nothing special.
Only in the past few years have a few jurisdictions cottoned on to the reality that the combustion of fossil fuels does exactly the same thing. The owners of coal-, gas- and oil-fired power plants reaps the profits, but the rest of the planet must deal with the consequences and risks — the millions of people that end up in hospital and graves from the pollution and myriad other species that suffer untold fates from habitat destruction and toxification. Putting a price on carbon emissions is a small step in the right direction, one that has yet to be taken at the federal level in North America or China, which collectively are responsible for half of world’s total emissions.
There are many reasons why we have refused to recognize the necessity of taking this step. One of them is almost certainly the intransigence of the system Dalmia is talking about. My first reaction when I read the sentence excerpted above was to recall an NPR story aired earlier this week about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the home-mortgage giants that served primarily to privatize profits from their industry while ensuring all of the risk is taken by the taxpayers. That (and similar distribution of wealth and risk elsewhere in the financial sector) led to the collapse of the housing market, a credit crunch, and crippling unemployment. How is this fundamentally from what’s going on over on the other side of the Pacific?
There, the operators of the four Fukushima reactors that are giving us so much grief banked tens of billions in revenues but are on the hook for just $1.2 billion in costs. Each reactor would probably cost $5 billion to $10 billion to replace, in addition to the unknown costs associated with the long-term contamination of a good piece of Japan, the foregone income from other industries that no longer have access to enough electricity, and so on.
We have made no serious efforts at reform to prevent another financial crisis. What are the chances of making substantial reforms to the nuclear industry? Or the fossil-fuel industry? The fact is, if we did redistribute profit and risk everywhere it is out of whack, the face of capitalism would be unrecognizable. That face wouldn’t allow the concentration of capital in so few hands because they wouldn’t have the strength to carry the risk.
This is why so many people deny the facts of climatology and the need to change our ways. Not because the science is uncertain. (Uncertainty is the hallmark of good science) Not because climatologists are all in on some New World Order socialist conspiracy. (Scientists prosper by undermining their colleague’s theories, not participating in group-think. And besides, how do you explain Republican climatolgists?) Not because Al Gore is a hypocrite (What would that have to do with anything?) Not because the world was warmer 1000 years ago. (It wasn’t). Not because the sun is to blame. (It isn’t). Because reversing the inexorable rise in global average temperatures will require a new way of organizing our economies, one that scares the captains of industry far more than the spectre of rising sea levels, desertification, and ocean acidification scare the rest of us.
And that’s no April Fool.