Sunk Costs – More About Nuclear Power

Edit: It occurs to me that I neglected to mention that I used to work in the nuclear field. Just in case that might be relevant to whether you are going to write me off as a crank, or something. Not that I’m not cranky. But I’m an informed crank.


Also known as, “Throwing Good Money After Bad”

Also known as, “Why we can’t get off fossil fuels”

Also known as, “The Biggest Problem with Nuclear Power”

The biggest problem with nuclear power isn’t the possibility of meltdown and fallout, although that is a problem worth considering and worrying about. Nor is the biggest problem with nuclear power the spent fuel, which concentrates a nasty mixture of incredibly toxic materials in a small space, requiring thousands of years of containment and protection, both from the nefarious and the naive. Nor is it the fact that nuclear power is not carbon-neutral, having fairly intense inputs of non-electric power at the construction, mining, transport, and decommission stages. The worst part about nuclear power isn’t even the fact that uranium is an extraordinarily non-renewable resource, subject to depletion in a matter of 10s to 100s of years (depending on which projections bear out).

The biggest problem with nuclear power is the future reality of the sunk costs that will go into this system, keeping us, once again, from doing the right thing until no other options are available. A switch to sustainable power is inevitable, as in… unavoidable, as in… we’re going to have to do it eventually, as in… we are going to run out of non-sustainable things to deplete… deep breath!

Right this moment, we have the potential to use the tail end of this cheap concentrated form of fuel to carry us over the hump to a new strategy for meeting our needs. But instead of taking advantage of forward thinking, looking at this as an opportunity to make substantial change, we are dragging our heels, clinging to the vestiges of existing power structures, and remaining tied up in existing infrastructure.

Let me be very clear in my language here. When I say that something is unsustainable, I do not mean that it isn’t nice, or kind, or morally defensible. I mean that there is a limiting factor that must necessarily lead to an end, either because we will run out of the resource, or because it leads to a society that tends to cause revolutions, or because it leads to an environmental system that is incompatible with life. You can only pour so many toxins into a pond before the fish start to die. You can only catch so many fish before the population collapses. You can only make a field so large before the bees can’t find their way to the middle of it. You can only pull so much of an element out of the ground before no more remains. There are real, concrete, physical constraints on systems. Technologies allow us to do end-runs around the constraints, increasing our catches (for example) even as the fish population is depleting to the point of collapse, but in the end this cleverness is our undoing. We have bought into the very seductive claims of hardcore economics, that the price of a resource (what it trades for on the market) in some way reflects how much remains. No, no. The “price” of a resource in our economic system primarily reflects the sophistication of our extraction methods, the demand, and how well we have concentrated the power to externalize costs. The price does not accurately reflect the cost, and the cost is where those constraints are hidden.

That, however, is a problem for another day.

What the price does reflect is the costs that companies have not managed to externalize. These can be broadly divided into operating expenses and capital. (As in Capital-ism… as in the ones with the capital have the power…) I don’t think that I will be surprising anybody by pointing out that the voices most vehemently opposed to doing anything to transition away from fossil fuels are those with the most capital invested in them. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that fossil fuels are a) jeopardizing the ability of the planet to regulate its climate systems, b) possibly endangering the future of human civilization, and c) probably running out, the fossil fuel industry has mounted the most astonishing campaign of disinformation conceivable. Why? Because it needs to recoup the costs of the capital it has already invested. Those costs are sunk. They are unrecoverable without continuing down the path that was projected for them. We’ve already invested billions of dollars in coal mines, coal plants, and the towns that are dependent on those for their survival. We cannot stop mining coal; in fact we will pursue more aggressive techniques, like blowing tops off entire mountains. We cannot stop drilling for natural gas; we have entire cities hooked up for it. So we will inject high pressure water into shale formations, effectively removing the water from the water cycle, releasing methane, and potentially poisoning the surrounding water supply. And we cannot get off oil, because our entire transportation, food, and technology sectors depend on it, so we will mine more and more difficult sources, spend more and more on the military “protection” of oil rich land, and drill deeper and deeper, regardless of the risks.

This is the nature of sunk costs. It is a cycle of dependency that exceeds the worst nightmare stories of “The Right”, because it is not one (vilified, disenfranchised, gendered, racialized, easily attacked) group of people-over-there. It is all of us, our entire culture, our entire society, our entire world, constrained to worse and worse future choices by those of the past.

What it means for nuclear power is this: The IAEA report in 2000 was asked to project the world supply of Uranium to 2050. Under a number of different scenarios, they considered at what point it would become economic to mine various sources. The possibility that they should not mine particular locations is never discussed. Once we build the plants, we are committed to continue to supply them until all the uranium is gone. That is why they are already considering mining uranium in the Grand Canyon.

So. While I have chapters in the works on all of those issues I mentioned in the first paragraph, what I really want to ask of fellow environmentalists is this: Do we really want to go down this path? We’ve done it once already, and we know where it ends. Disruption, pollution, toxic waste sites, social upheaval, company towns, strip mining, budget overruns, unanticipated retrofit expenses, and above all, the inability to step off the path once we are fully committed.

And that, my friends, is the biggest risk of nuclear power.

10 responses to “Sunk Costs – More About Nuclear Power”

    • No! I’ll have to take a look… although any monoculture solution to the energy crisis is likely to run into the same issues around long-term access to inputs, and large-scale infrastructure spending.

      • Mar07matt In 1983, nuclear pshsiciyt Bernard Cohen argued that by extracting uranium from seawater for use in breeder reactors, nuclear fission could supply twice the world’s total energy consumption for five billion years longer than the sun will last. So actually, it may be RENEWABLES that one day have to be replaced.

      • Well, if that becomes a developed and proven technology, then this particular issue becomes moot… although the other problems with nuclear power still need to be addressed. It’s not currently a developed and proven source of energy, and we need to move this transition along rather rapidly, but it is good to hear that there might be a solution out there.

        Also… good source of fuel for starships!

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