Nuclear power is relatively clean, relatively safe, and relatively cheap. Yet the U.S. has not begun construction on a new nuclear power plant since 1977. To understand why this is true, we have to take a detour to pick up one of the most interesting analytical tools in public choice.
There is a famous story originating with my old Federal Trade Commission colleague Bruce Yandle of Clemson University. It is a theory of regulatory reform Yandle dubbed "bootleggers and Baptists." Yandle's point is that political movements can often succeed even if the results harm the public, provided the movement can foster an alliance between a strong ideological bloc and a powerful economic interest. As Yandle put it:
What do industry and labor want from the regulators? They want protection from competition, from technological change, and from losses that threaten profits and jobs. A carefully constructed regulation can accomplish all kinds of anticompetitive goals of this sort, while giving the citizenry the impression that the only goal is to serve the public interest.
Indeed, the pages of history are full of episodes best explained by a theory of regulation I call "bootleggers and Baptists." Bootleggers, you will remember, support Sunday closing laws that shut down all the local bars and liquor stores. Baptists support the same laws and lobby vigorously for them. Both parties gain, while the regulators are content because the law is easy to administer. Of course, this theory is not new. In a democratic society, economic forces will always play through the political mechanism in ways determined by the voting mechanism employed. Politicians need resources in order to get elected. Selected members of the public can gain resources through the political process, and highly organized groups can do that quite handily. The most successful ventures of this sort occur where there is an overarching public concern to be addressed (like the problem of alcohol) whose "solution" allows resources to be distributed from the public purse to particular groups or from one group to another (as from bartenders to bootleggers).
There is a much older version of this account, of course: William Shakespeare, in The Tempest, had Trinculo say:
Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under [the cloak of the monster, Caliban]. There is no other shelter hereabouts. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.
We have now shortened and adapted this saying to "Politics makes strange bedfellows." (I hope I can be forgiven if I equate politics with misery.) At first blush, of course, such political alliances seem bizarre. In the case of Prohibition, the survival of a dumb policy required "strange bedfellows," cooperation between groups that would never socialize or work together. Baptists, after all, sought morality, upright living, and service to the church, community, and nation. Bootleggers were tough, large-scale criminals, ready to kill or bribe officials if it increased their profits.
Yandle's point is a deep one. Demonstrating the economic costs or inefficiency of a policy may not be enough to change policies, even if the existing policy is bad. The reason is that existing regulations have created a set of economic interests that benefit from the status quo, and the regulations are supported by a set of (apparently distinct) moral arguments that may have nothing to do with economic consequences.
Hell No, We Won't Glow!
It might appear that this has little to do with the nuclear-power story. After all, we "know" that nuclear power is dangerous, and too expensive because new generation facilities take too long to build and create too much dangerous waste. But is that true?
Beginning in the 1960s, two strange bedfellows crawled under the same political cloak. The first was the fossil fuel industry, comprising coal, petroleum, and natural gas producers. The second was the tree-hugging, granola-crunching flower children who wanted to "save the Earth." To say that these bootleggers had little natural common cause with these Baptists is an understatement: fossil fuel discovery and production is a difficult, cutthroat business, capitalist in nature, red in tooth and claw, and the nascent environmental movement took the opposite position on almost every policy issue.
Except, it turned out, nuclear power. There are real problems with nuclear power, including the potential for truly catastrophic failure and managing the highly toxic waste products that have half-lives of at least 200,000 years. But, as a popular movie this summer showed, more people died at Chappaquiddick than at Three Mile Island, the worst "nuclear disaster" the U.S. has seen. We have nearly 100 nuclear reactors producing power, 24 hours per day, and there has been exactly one severe incident — one that was almost completely contained.
Even including the (small) amount of radioactive gases that escaped in March 1979 in Middletown, Pa., the total atmospheric emissions of nuclear power in the U.S. sum up to … steam. Hot water vapor. That is the environmental impact of nuclear power. Further, as a recent study seems to indicate, small amounts of radiation are not harmful. The "linear no-threshold" hypothesis has been used to justify anti-nuclear alarmism with absolutely no scientific evidence to support it.
If nuclear power is cheap, clean, and efficient, of course, that spells trouble for traditional fossil fuel producers and users. After all, mining, drilling, and transporting fossil fuels is an expensive proposition, and the resources used in these activities are highly specialized and not easily adapted for other uses. And the fixed plant devoted to "conventional" energy production has no hope of being adapted to nuclear power. Literally billions of dollars in investments have been at risk.
What that means is that we have our bootleggers. The CEO of Atlantic Richfield Co., Robert O. Anderson, famously contributed $200,000 to fund the international network Friends of the Earth as early as 1970. Friends of the Earth is particularly aggressive in voicing and organizing opposition to nuclear power, on both safety and cost grounds.
As F. William Engdahl argued in his book Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Orders, there was a surprising and "illogically tight" connection between the environmental advocates and their hated foes, the conventional energy industry. But the willingness of the conventional energy companies to fund anti-nuclear activism was redirected from a general concern for the environment toward a laser-like focus on obstructing, delaying, and eventually blocking the construction of new nuclear-power generation facilities.
Of course, something happened in March 1979: a (fictional) nuclear-power movie set in Los Angeles titled The China Syndrome, starring famous people such as Michael Douglas, Jack Lemmon, and Jane Fonda, opened in movie theaters. In the public mind, the (mild, controlled, real) events at Three Mile Island and the (dangerous, uncontrolled, fictional) events in Los Angeles.
One British review, available now on the movie-review site Rotten Tomatoes, shows how thoroughly the conflation of fact and fiction had been accomplished; the reviewer said that the scenes in the movie were
so accurate that, even though they're fictional, they could easily be documentaries.… We see the greatest fears of the Nimby culture unearthed when a nuclear power station almost goes out of control and the men-in-suits cover it up..… [Unknown] to them, the entire incident is covertly filmed by a visiting TV news-crew.
Do tell. How could the movie scenes "easily be documentaries," given that the reviewer has no knowledge of science or actual nuclear power? Even in the movie, of course, there was no actual release of radioactivity nor a core meltdown. Nothing like those had happened, or has happened since.
There have been problems, of course, including at Chernobyl and Fukushima. But the Chernobyl blast was the result of the Soviet practice of assuming perfection and not building a proper containment vessel; Fukushima's Daiichi reactors were struck by a 50-foot-tall tsunami caused by the worst earthquake in the history of that region. And even then, the reactor could have been shut down safely if the operators had followed the procedures and flooded the reactor with sea water, which the tsunami had provided in abundance.
A little over 10 years ago, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt asked an interesting question in a New York Times article: suppose you were asked to identify the single most dangerous "climate villain" and tool of corporate "big energy" in the second half of the 20th century; who would you choose? Their argument is surprising, if you don't know the bootlegger-and-Baptist story: Jane Fonda.
The reason is that her activism, and promotion of The China Syndrome and its "documentary" message and feel, helped ensure that billions of tons of carbon and other combustion-byproduct gases and solids were unnecessarily being spewed into the atmosphere. The alternative to nuclear power is not forests and green meadows; the alternative is less efficient, and far more polluting, conventional power plants.
The conventional power industry, relying on fossil fuels, was of course acting legally in seeking more-favorable regulation using the political process. But one wonders whether the "bootleggers," pursuing economic self-interest, could have been successful if they had not been allied with zealots such as Fonda and well-funded environmental groups using what amounts to terror tactics to extort contributions from citizens who lacked real information.
After all, the problem is balancing the risks of nuclear power generation against the well-understood and certain harms from the use of fossil fuels.