Panic in the Nuclear StreetsProfessor Ferdinand E. Banks
May 24th, 2011
In my forthcoming textbook Energy and Economic Theory (2011), the last chapter contains a section called ‘On the Sunny Side of the Nuclear Street’, which is a shortened version of a keynote talk on nuclear energy that I volunteered to present at a forthcoming energy conference in marvellous summer Stockholm.
However on the basis of the tragic situation at the Fukushima nuclear complex, a question must now be asked as to whether my presence is desired at that congress, since I have never attempted to conceal my upbeat attitude on nuclear energy. In addition, for reasons that I am not inclined to examine here, I have come to believe that my contribution would not be of interest to some of the conference bosses if the Fukushima incident had never taken place, and every reactor on the face of the earth had been awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
I have therefore decided to circulate some aspects of my talk in this short paper, because whether they realize it or not, the persons attending that and other energy conferences need to receive a realistic glimpse of the nuclear future, rather than the panic-inspired misrepresentations being circulated by members of the anti-nuclear booster club, many of whom are trading on the Fukushima calamity.
THE REAL NUCLEAR DEAL
Let me begin by saying something about neoclassical economic theory. My favourite example has to do with the American entrance into the Second World War, when it was discovered that the Japanese possessed a fighter plane called the Zero that was a superb advance in the evolution of military aircraft. After evaluating the Zero’s capabilities, the Americans realized that if they were unable to match or exceed its technical excellence, command of both the skies and the sea might be lost. The bottom line in this drama was that qualitatively and quantitatively the United States easily overcame the challenge.
The same kind of phenomenon is going to take place with nuclear. Anne Lauvergeon, the director of Areva, has called the new Chinese reactors “worrying”, by which she means worrying for her firm, and probably for every other producer of (nuclear) reactors. Fortunately, however, neo-classical economics suggests that this is a short-run phenomenon. Eventually the achievements of Chinese nuclear designers will be duplicated, and when that happens, we may be at the beginning of what Professor Kenichi Matsui has termed The Seventh Energy Revolution, which he believes will be based on nuclear energy.
There have been times when my friendly and modest lectures and articles have been condemned by zealous bloggers and others, however this does not bother me at all, because I know that when the topic is nuclear, it is necessary to confront all sorts of nonsense. For instance, Dr Warren Reynolds is a self-proclaimed expert on nuclear matters, and according to him France has turned away from nuclear and is moving toward renewables (2011). What he should have said was that the French energy establishment claimed that they were moving toward renewables, just as the Swedish government has taken virtually a sacred oath to move in the same direction, and this is also true of the Chinese and the Germans and just about every dominion and authority between Copenhagen and the Capetown naval yard.
The key observation here is that the proposed abandonment of seemingly abstract machinery is exactly what a large segment of German voters want to hear, and the same is true of the young party animals posturing themselves and courting attention in the fashionable bars and discos of Sweden. As it happens though, no matter what the high-and-mighty say about moving somewhere, to include why or when, they are definitely not moving away from nuclear. Globally, hundreds of nuclear plants are in the construction or planning stages, and this is just the beginning. Moreover, eventually some of those plants are going to be radically different from the installations that Dr Reynolds and his well-wishers are eager to warn us against.
FUKUSHIMA; N’EST PAS MON AMOUR
Hiroshima mon Amour is a famous film, directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras, which concludes with a mass demonstration featuring young people calling for an end to nuclear armaments. Nuclear armaments and the district in which Fukushima is located have a place in my memory, because I was given an unexpected acquaintance with nuclear weapons during an extremely pleasant vacation in the U.S. Army in Germany, and while enjoying a similar long holiday in Japan I almost made the acquaintance of Sendai-Fukushima and its ‘glider infantry’ school, which I managed to avoid at the last moment.
In any event, many years ago a Japanese gentleman and myself left a small conference in order to walk through the streets of Vienna, and before we had gone very far he explained to me that nuclear energy was crucial for the future of Japan – “irreplaceable” – by which he specifically meant not just the energy obtained from the prevailing light-water equipment utilized in Japan and most countries, but breeder technology. The kind of technology that Ralph Nader once called “maniacal”, because it possesses some of the characteristics of a ‘perpetual motion’ machine.
That stroll took place before the massive sodium leak at Japan’s Monju ‘breeder’ installation, but in remembering some fragments of the long conversation to which I am referring, I doubt whether there has been a change of heart among Japan’s decision makers. One of the theories presented to my good self was that every country in the world with nuclear capabilities is going to turn to breeder technology shortly after it becomes politically possible, and it will be politically possible if economic meltdowns of the type now being experienced in many countries become endemic.
That may or may not be so, but if you are interested in economic logic, there are many phenomena in the nuclear panorama that should be studied. For example, immediately after the Fukushima incident, I spent a few minutes looking at a television program in which a young lady waved a crank exposé written by some anti-nuclear fanatic, and informed three fellow debaters, as well as her studio and the TV audience, that the presence of nuclear energy created a life-threatening ambiance in nuclear intensive countries.
As far as I have been able to discover, life expectancies in very nuclear intensive Sweden and France, and especially Japan, are longer than in countries like Denmark and Norway that have no nuclear. This result is made clear in a number of references, among them the CIA ‘Fact Book’. The simple truth of the matter is that in countries like Japan and Sweden, life expectancies have increased as economic welfare has increased, and the increase in economic welfare is mainly the result of a rising energy intensity – an energy intensity that often features the optimal employment of nuclear equipment.
My first economics professorship was in Australia, and at a conference in Canberra, an over enthusiastic American virtually bawled a song of joy to breeder technology. Everyone I talked to at that meeting thought that he had taken leave of his senses, to include myself, but as I found out later, there were quite a few admirers of breeder technology in various parts of the world. My prediction is that for better or worse their forty year wait for approval is coming to an end, and the first unambiguous, large scale and completely successful breeder program can hardly be more than a decade away.
A physicist of my acquaintance once informed me that the Monju project mentioned above would never be started up again, but he was wrong, nor is it true that the French ‘Superphoenix’ breeder is a lost cause. Actually, the only thing keeping the tempo at these installations from expanding is a belief by governments that breeders are not needed at present, nor perhaps even in the future. The first belief probably makes economic and political sense, while the last will disappear during or after the next macroeconomic meltdown.
The Japanese gentleman mentioned above used the word ‘waste’ to describe non-breeder technology. I had some problem agreeing, because while I am completely uninterested in the half-baked propaganda about renewable energy promoted by people like Amory Lovins and Ralph Nader, their obvious distrust of the competence of many of our political masters in nuclear and other matters may well be justified.
But even so, I feel it necessary to insist that Messrs Lovins and Nader, as well as many Nobel Laureates, have failed to understand that there is a law of economics far more powerful than the physics of Albert Einstein or anybody else. The law I am thinking of is that ALMOST EVERYBODY PREFERS MORE TO LESS, which makes it difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that ‘almost everybody’ will eventually be receptive to all nuclear initiatives and contrivances. For that reason the fervour that has gone into discounting the social and economic progress that plentiful energy have made possible, would be better utilized making sure that avoidable blunders like the erroneous positioning of the Fukushima reactors will never happen again.
Banks, Ferdinand E. (2011). Energy and Economic Theory. Singapore, London and New York: World Scientific (forthcoming).
Reynolds, Warren (2011). ‘Nuclear power is dead’ (Parts 1&2). EnergyPulse (www.energypulse.net)
Professor Ferdinand E. Banks
May 24th, 2011
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