The Nuclear Option

POLITICS & POLICY
Workers on a natural gas drilling platform in the Barnett Shale in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

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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.

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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 offers one important and obvious benefit that wind does not and cannot: reliable 24-hour power on tap irrespective of the weather.

The European Union takes, at least as a matter of rhetoric and aspiration, a much stronger line on climate change than does the United States, where the issue is much more wrapped up in the tribal-partisan divide; but Europe also is looking at a cold winter with high energy prices, probably headed higher, and low fuel supplies. The Germans have some reason to suspect that Putin Inc. may not be the best or most reliable fuel supplier but have put themselves in an unnecessarily difficult position by nuking their nuclear-energy industry, with the last of Germany’s nuclear plants scheduled to cease operations this year. (The French, showing their too-rarely-seen sensible side, produce more than 70 percent of their electricity with nuclear power and have very little trouble doing it.) And so it is not entirely surprising that the European Commission (the European Union’s executive arm, in effect) has come up with a proposal that would reclassify nuclear power as officially green — or green enough, anyway, “sustainable” — while taking a gentler line on natural gas, too, labeling it a tolerable “transitional” fuel source. The European Union being the European Union, it also is not a surprise that this proposal comes with enough caveats and qualifiers that, even if enacted without further amendment, it could very well end up having no practical effect on investment and development.

Germany is the world’s fourth-largest consumer of coal, behind China, India, and the United States (the least-populous of which has four times as many people as Germany) and relies on coal for more than a fourth of its electricity. Switching Germany’s coal-powered generation to nuclear- or gas-fired generation would, ceteris paribus (though it ain’t never paribus) reduce worldwide coal consumption by about 3 percent — a significant sum, though doing the same in China and India would reduce worldwide coal consumption by almost two-thirds. Germany also has a new coalition government in which Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats are allied with the Greens and the Free Democrats. The Greens, who are the senior junior partner in the coalition (the libertarian Free Democrats hold only 92 of the 416 seats that make up the coalition, compared with 118 Greens) are, for reasons of history and ideological inertia, bitterly opposed to nuclear power, and for years called for the immediate closure of all German nuclear-power plants. But the Greens also insist that climate change must be at the top of the agenda for Germany, for the European Union, and for the world. Traumatic memories of the Cold War notwithstanding, nuclear power is the most direct and prudent means of decarbonizing electricity production.

And because the German debate is happening in a wider European context, it is necessary to keep in mind that other European Union members are at the moment heavily reliant on coal for electricity: Coal produces 40 percent of the power in the Czech Republic and 70 percent of the power in Poland. Switching to natural gas would cut the associated emissions roughly in half; switching to nuclear would as a practical matter eliminate them entirely.

The European Union might consider the recent history of the U.S. energy industry for an example. The United States has not implemented any very ambitious national policy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but the United States has seen a steady improvement in its emissions thanks to the market-driven substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity generation. That cheap gas came onto the market largely thanks to hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” — which comes with environmental challenges of its own, the most important one being the handling and disposal of toxic wastewater from wells. That is a real problem, in that toxic wastewater can, if improperly handled, do all sorts of damage to life and health. What it does not do is contribute to global warming. Natural gas is not anything like 100 percent in the clear when it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions; it is simply better — much — than coal on that front. To the extent that natural gas does exacerbate climate concerns, some of that is a matter of deficient drilling and storage practices (methane “flaring,” for example) but some of it is simply a consequence of burning natural gas for energy. The immediate relevant question for those who put climate change at the top of their agenda is whether they would like large improvements related to changing coal for gas now or wait for the possibility of larger improvements at some point in the future reliant on technologies that have not yet been developed. (Yes, wind and solar exist; wind and solar that can reliably and efficiently replace existing generating capacity without the support of an independent source of baseload production do not yet exist.) Toxic drilling wastewater is an environmental externality that can be intelligently and responsibly managed.

And, more relevant from a climate-change point of view, so can the waste from nuclear-power facilities. We do not have to pretend that it is not a tricky business or that there are no risks involved; but if those who say that climate change should be our No. 1 consideration in these matters really mean it, then taking on the relatively straightforward problem of handling nuclear waste in exchange for the very complex problem of trying to reduce emissions in some other way would be a very good trade, accepting a small and manageable externality in place of a big, hairy, and complicated one.

Of course, generating electricity is only one of the relevant sectors: Other industrial processes, agriculture, and — especially — transportation all have pretty big emissions footprints, too. But it is foolish to try to put together a single plan of action that would address each of these at the same time under the same program, and to allow radical improvements that can be made relatively easily in the here and now to be held hostage to utopian fantasy. Anybody who tells you that you can swap an energy industry with lots of externalities for one with no externalities (or only a few) is either ignorant or delusional or willfully misleading you; the real question is: Which externalities do you prefer?

Europe could do itself a considerable environmental favor — and an even bigger geopolitical favor — by ramping up its own natural-gas production; the continent is blessed with a considerable supply of the stuff, which sits in the ground unused because of political opposition to hydraulic fracturing and other modern modes of development. Another option would be for Europeans to do in a bigger way what they already are doing: turning to imports of natural gas from the United States. We Americans are, uncharacteristically, missing an opportunity to profit from this: Our capacity for processing natural gas into LNG (liquified natural gas) for export to Europe and points east is limited, and new facilities have been kept in bureaucratic limbo for months and years — there wasn’t a single new North American LNG project approved in 2021. Only one broke ground in 2020.

While our progressive friends dream of Green New Deals and modern economies powered by good intentions, wishful thinking, and unicorn flatulence, about 40 percent of the world’s electricity at this moment still comes from coal. Left-wing populists in the United States worry about the trade deficit as much as right-wing populists do, but they also stand in the way of developing the infrastructure that would make it easier and more profitable to export the fuels we already make. Displacing some great share of that coal with natural gas would be an environmental win and, if the United States could manage to be halfway smart about it, an economic win, too. Forgoing these advantages is foolish, and it is at least as foolish for the nations with the ability to avail themselves of the benefits of nuclear power to fail to do so — to refuse to do so for reasons that amount to superstition.

The European Union is ready to take a baby step in the right direction. The United States needs to take practical and realistic steps in the same direction but remains at least as paralyzed and sclerotic as the European Union, if not more so, and finds itself in that sorry situation for similar reasons. Cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing the efficacy of economic coercion from Russia and other gangster states, supporting new export-driven industrial jobs in the United States and in friendly countries — you could call that a Green New Deal, if you liked, and it would be a great deal more sensible and effective than anything else currently marketed under that name.

Words About Words

Jay Nordlinger writes about Nashville:

There is also a memorial to fallen police officers. I don’t really like that word “fallen” — sounds too pretty, almost. Poetic. “Killed” may be better. As far as I’m concerned, police officers are, in a sense, at war every day, in behalf of all of us.

I used to proof-read Jay’s magazine galleys. I found a typo, once (once), but never a mistake as such. And I haven’t found one here, either, though the last sentence does raise an issue. (No, it does not beg the question.) And that issue is: in behalf of vs. on behalf of.

Most of us are more used to reading on behalf of. To act or to speak on behalf of someone else is to act as their representative: “I attended the conference in Arizona on behalf of ACME Rocket Skates Inc.” “I am speaking on behalf of those who cannot be here to speak for themselves.” “His proxy voted on his behalf.”

In behalf of means in the best interest of someone else. That is a similar but not identical qualifier. William F. Buckley Jr.: “I’ve always believed that conservatism is the politics of reality, and that reality ultimately asserts itself in a reasonably free society, in behalf of the conservative position.” W. H. Conant: “Perhaps we need an Anti-License League to resist the encroachments on our freedom to have our own offspring educated as we desire. Let us hope it will not require a great hue and cry of propaganda in behalf of Parental Freedom.”

Of course, it is possible to act simultaneously in someone’s behalf and on his behalf, as lawyers often do. But it is important to understand which is which.

In other wordly news, here is a CNN headline that makes no damned sense at all:

‘America’s Dad’ Bob Saget also loved dirty jokes. He mastered both.

Both what? As written, it sounds like there are only two dirty jokes in existence. That is not the case, as Bob Saget was well aware. And to what does that also refer?

Picture Samuel L. Jackson here demanding: “English, motherf***er — do you speak it?”

Also: I’ve noticed that more than one English-speaking German broadcaster pronounces nuclear Bush-style, “NUKE-u-lar.” My theory here is that this pronunciation is in fact more a variation on the first syllable than on the second; if you pronounce the first syllable of the word “nu,” then the following “cl” sound is an easy transition; but if you pronounce the first syllable of the word “nuke,” then it feels more natural to make the transition to the second “u” sound rather than the “l.” I would guess, then, that the “NUKE-u-lar” pronunciation is most common where the slang “nuke” is used. But that’s just a guess.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Reticent does not mean hesitant.

The words almost rhyme, and reticent suggests a flavor of hesitation in that it describes a disinclination to act by speaking, but there the similarities end. Consider this from Reuters:

“We’re setting up for a structural shortage of LNG capacity,” said Reid Morrison, global energy advisory leader at PwC in Houston. “There is reticence to taking a long-term position in natural gas given the net zero commitments that different governments are making.”

To be reticent is to be disinclined to speak; the word has nothing to do with other kinds of non-communicative actions, such as making long-term investments in this or that. Morrison might have said that there is hesitation or hesitancy (or, if you must, hesitance) about or resistance to those investments, or reluctance, but not reticence.

That being written, reticence is an excellent quality, one that our world could use much more of.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

I didn’t think much of Sam Quinones’s latest book, The Least of Us.

Both men would probably loathe the comparison, but Quinones is in a sense a version of Tucker Carlson, another child of the old California aristocracy. Quinones is the son of a Harvard-educated Claremont professor, [one who was] a former president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics later appointed to the board of the National Council for the Humanities by George W. Bush — but one who offers himself as a journalistic tribune of the plebs, a voice for a marginalized underclass he knows in an essentially anthropological way, who are not his people but his profession. I do not fault Quinones for being born to privilege; I blame him only for his failure to overcome the difficulties imposed by such an upbringing.

More in Commentary.

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In Other News . . .

Even in winter, Texas is not without sunny spots.

(Photo: Kevin Williamson)

Recommended

I’ve recently reread Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies. It is bracing. You might enjoy it, provided you are not the sort of person who is easily offended, in which case, you might really, really not enjoy it at all.

In Closing

Today is the feast day of Blessed William Carter, a printer and publisher who imprisoned, tortured, and, finally, drawn and quartered by the government of Queen Elizabeth I for printing things the Crown did not wish to see printed. Tyrants and fanatics have always had a special place in their hearts — and their dungeons — for dissident printers and publishers, and they always will. Carter should remind us that to run a press with the courage of one’s convictions has at many times in history been as dangerous as fighting in a war. In many places in our unhappy world, it still is.

On a lighter note, he is the only Billy Carter anybody is likely ever to call blessed.

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