A Political History of Nuclear Power

This thread over at Hit & Run prompted some thoughts about the historical role of government in the development of nuclear power.

There never was at any point in its history a free market in nuclear power. Unlike other technologies such as oil, railroads, automobiles, aviation, computers, etc., where the technology started on a small scale in the private sector and then grew into a giant, attracting government attention much later, nuclear power was a government project from the beginning.

Nuclear power probably would have evolved as did other major technologies had it not been for WWII and the Cold War. Apart from a few glow-in-the-dark applications no significant radiation-based technologies existed prior to WWII. All the basic technologies for nuclear reactors came out of the Manhattan program. Either the government or government-funded researchers held all the basic patents.

In the post-WWII era, most people believed that the state had mitigated the Great Depression and fought WWII successfully, so it seemed the state was the best manager for the new gee-whiz technology. They formed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to oversee the development of all nuclear related technologies. The AEC controlled access to all nuclear technologies for the next decade. No one could do any significant research or development without AEC support and approval.

The AEC’s death grip on nuclear technology might have faded had it not been for the Cold War. In the mid-1950s, nuclear power became a matter of national prestige and nations all over the world raced to implement it. Governments began selecting technologies based not on the technical merits, but rather on the speed at which they could be rushed into production. Politics, not the market, drove almost all decisions.

In the US the most advanced reactor designs were light-water reactors created by the Navy to run submarines. The AEC chose that design and conducted almost all the research involved in scaling it up to the size needed for commercial power. Only then did they start trying to foist the results off on the private sector.

Many hold the nuclear power industry to be textbook case of corporate welfare. They believe that greedy corporations exploited a virginal government. In fact, the exact opposite occurred. The state wanted nuclear power for reasons of prestige and wheedled, bribed and possibly coerced public utility companies into building the first generation of nuclear power plants using a mandated version of the technology.

As a consequence of this government interference nuclear power evolved in a way much different than any other major technology. Nuclear power went from laboratory to large scale in less than 20 years. It’s as if automobiles went from their beginnings as motorized bicycles to SUVs in the same interval. There was none of the gradual scaling seen in other technologies and none of the gradual evolution of co-technologies. Expensive, large reactors just appeared by government fiat. Corporate greed had little to do with it. The same dynamic occurred in socialist and communist countries. (The desire to quickly build reactors for reasons of prestige in part explains the insane design of the Chernobyl reactors.)

In the late ’60s a sea-change in government’s attitude towards nuclear power occurred. Wildly pro turned into wildly con.

In the late ’60s, the world-wide political Left underwent a profound cultural transformation from technophiles into technophobes. Previous generations of leftists had based their claim to political power on the assertion that they could better provide the benefits of technology to the people than could capitalists. By the late ’60s real-world experience had disproved that idea, so the Left reinvented itself. They began to base their claim to power on the idea that they could protect people from the threats posed by technology. Nuclear technology, which few in the general population understood and which had associations with nuclear weapons, was a tailor-made villain and leftist marketing pounced on it. The unexpected high cost of the government-mandated first-generation plants hurt as well.

By the late ’70s the new ruling class had turned the tables. Nuclear power went from being a prestige technology to an evil one. The politically motivated hysteria shut down the construction of new plants and terminated most research. It created a liability climate that precluded private development of any significant nuclear technology. Even most public funding for basic research dried up.

For the libertarian, nuclear power presents a political dilemma. As a practical matter, nuclear power represents the only real-world alternative to fossil fuels. Even if anthrogenic global warming doesn’t prove to be as much of a problem as many claim, we can no more give 6 billion people on earth a high standard of living using fossil fuels than we could run the contemporary developed world entirely on wood and coal. Nuclear technology must move forward, yet no free market in nuclear power technology exists or has ever existed. Creating a legal environment in which people will contemplate risking private money will be a herculean task politically and will take a long time. Nuclear power has been systematically vilified by leftist marketing for nearly 40 years. How long will it take to counteract that marketing and get to the point where people view nuclear power like any other technology? A true free market in nuclear energy will most likely not be practical for decades, if ever.

So what do we do now? I don’t know.

The immediate temptation is to use contemporary government power to offset the mistakes made with government power in the past. Of course, that assumes that our political system can accurately make those kinds of decisions. Our track record in this matter does not inspire confidence.

Personally, I think nuclear power will develop in nations that are too desperate to play up to the luddites. Countries that place a high premium on national security, like France or China, will push forward. Poor nations may seek out small-scale reactors as a means of providing power in the back country. After a couple of decades of nuclear-power use in the desperate places the luddites here might be won over.

3 thoughts on “A Political History of Nuclear Power”

  1. My hypothesis is that the anti-nuclear power movement was not the spontaneous eruption of hippiedom as it has long been portrayed.

    My belief is that it was organized and financed by the Soviet Union as part of its plan to undermine the power of the US.

    Why didn’t France fall prey to this bit of insanity? My guess would be that De Gaulle made the deal to keep control of internal affairs in France, in exchange for pulling out of NATO and dumping Israel in favor of the Arabs.

    The good news is that without the Soviets, the movement will eventually die out as the loathsome boomers join the choir invisible.

  2. One item not mentioned is that for a long time only the government could own nuclear material. The AEC leased fuel to private reactors, who were then obligated to return it. Although the fuel is now privately owned (by authorized licensees), DOE is the only place they can return the fuel to when used.

    I have never thought the the anti-nuclear movement was all that deep in it’s penetration of the general public. When the perception was that there was no energy “problem” why have something percieved as bad. Now that has all faded away.

    With any luck nuclear power will evolve into a highly regulated heavy industry much like chemical plants and refineries. Not easy to build any of these in the US, but possible under the right circumstances.

  3. From Instapundit:

    China Leaps Forward
    The people’s republic is embarking on the world’s biggest nuclear building spree.

    Newsweek International

    Feb. 6, 2006 issue – American businessman Edwin deSteiguer Snead went to China seeking a future for nuclear energy. He’s pretty sure he found it. On a recent bitterly cold day, Snead took a ride out to a military zone northwest of Beijing, not far from one of the most well-known sections of China’s Great Wall. In the spartan lobby of an unassuming concrete office building that contains the control center of a nuclear reactor, Snead studied a model of the reactor, housed in a hillside at the site. Nuclear scientist Chang Wei pointed at the model, which looked like a basement furnace split down the middle, and explained how the design—including 27,000 balls of uranium wrapped in layers of super-strong silicon carbide, ceramic material and graphite—makes it physically impossible for the reactor to do anything but shut down if something goes wrong; the dangerous uranium would be trapped inside the spheres, which have a melting point much higher than the temperature inside the reactor could ever reach.


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