The Roots of Progress

Interview: Titans of Nuclear with Bret Kugelmass

I was interviewed on the podcast Titans of Nuclear with Bret Kugelmass to talk about progress and stagnation in nuclear power and beyond. See also the show page, or find the audio on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

A key excerpt:

Let me summarize my current understanding of a very complex picture of what went wrong and how we got here. … First off, nuclear technology was born in wartime and it made its introduction to the world as this horrific, dramatically destructive weapon. I think that is actually very significant to understanding what happened. Because then, well, first, it was considered—all nuclear technology of any form, even nuclear power—which is, of course, not a weapon—but any nuclear anything was considered a very strategic geopolitical asset—probably very wise to consider it that way in the early years, right—but it was under the exclusive control of the US military bureaucracy for many years. And then, even when it emerged from that, it was always under this very tight government control. When it did emerge into civilian use cases, it ran smack into the combined efforts of the anti-war movement and the environmentalist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. You had the anti-war folks who were anti-nuclear weapons, and became anti-nuclear anything. And then you had the environmentalist folks who were like, they had that ergophobia and were anti-energy, anti-anything industrial and advanced technology, which they saw as destroy—I mean, if you have any kind of initial fear or suspicion of technology, and then there’s some technology that is somehow linked in any way to the most destructive weapon we have ever created, and by the way, it also has this radiation thing that’s super scary and can kill you, okay, it’s no surprise that they were going to be very much against nuclear power. The combination of these things—you’ve got this tight government bureaucracy, and then you have this social movement that’s very against the technology—just combined to create this really turbulent and rapidly escalating regulatory environment, especially the late ’60s and into the early ’70s.

Then you ask, what forces might counter this? Well, this is naturally the sort of thing that’s going to lead to a lot of cost increases as you make things more complicated and difficult. Who would possibly counter this? Well, one thing that counters cost increases is to have a free market with competition and buyers who care about costs. And that is exactly what we did not have and essentially no one has ever had in energy, in electricity. Electricity markets in the US and around the world are typically regulated monopolies. They don’t have an incentive to cut costs. In fact, the way they’re done in the US, at least, there’s this perverse incentive to to increase costs, which is the cost-plus model or rate basing, where you’ve got, the cost a utility is allowed to charge, the price they’re allowed to charge, is their cost plus a guaranteed rate of return. Guaranteed rate of return is a term that should strike fear into an economist’s heart, because it literally says that the higher your costs are, the higher your profit will be. There was no cost fighting from that angle, and then how did the rest of the industry respond? Well, I mean, this is the thing that you have told me and that I had also gleaned from other sources, which is they essentially just pivoted into regulatory capture. Very profitable to retrofit nuclear plants. …

So when you’ve made very low levels of radiation, far below background level, far below what is rationally harmful to human health, and you’ve made those levels of radiation into a thing that you can profit from shielding people from, and protecting against release of, and “cleaning up”, when it’s out there, you’ve just created all these profit incentives that are only there because of the safety regulations. …

… I think it’s this whole thicket of, it’s the combination of the regulations, the utility companies and the way the entire utility market is structured, the nuclear companies themselves, and then the social substrate of this very anti-nuclear attitude in society. It’s all of those things working together to create this very complex problem. And that’s why I say it’s like this thing. Okay, and then after generations of this go on, now what do you have? Well, now, nuclear engineering is just not the top field that you would direct a young ambitious engineer into. Not that there aren’t some very talented and ambitious people in there—there are, fortunately—but it’s not where the firehose of talent has been pointed. It’s been pointed into things like computers and finance. That’s where you can go make a bunch of money if you’re smart. Nuclear is not that place. And there’s this socially reinforced thing as well, where the very overreaction to radiation releases convinces people further that those releases are harmful. People will, if you ask people, why is a nuclear accident so dangerous? They’ll say, well, don’t you know Chernobyl is still shut down, and they won’t let new people in there. Don’t you know, they had to evacuate 100,000 people out of Fukushima, and—right, and so it’s this thing where the very overreaction itself becomes the proof to society that the reaction was needed. That’s why I say we’re in this very difficult position of metastasis, where the problems are everywhere. The supply chain has been decimated. It’s everywhere.

See all my recorded talks and interviews.

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