The concept of ‘opportunity cost’ is one of those fairly easy-to-graspnotions that we often forget about, especially when we’re focusedinstead on having a sustainable business model, and especially amongthose of us–like this humble correspondent–who tend to be prettyoptimistic. We think, ‘Oh, I can stay up later and finish that post.I’ll dive down this interesting rabbit hole a minute and still haveplenty of time.’
It basically operates congruently with the notion of entropy, thatthings become less orderly and energetic over time. Nobody can doeverything, so each aspect of life that we do engage should resonatepowerfully, for in taking one road, another is not available. "Knowinghow way leads on to way," said our homegrown bard, "I doubted if I should ever come back."
The University of Michigan, for our purposes, gives an elegant definition. "The cost of somethingin terms of opportunity foregone. The opportunity cost to a country ofproducing a unit more of a good, such as for export or to replace animport, is the quantity of some other good that could have been produced instead."
Were we to substitute nuclear electricity for ‘good #one’ and renewableenergy for ‘good #two,’ above, we would see the impact of making a dealwith the nuclear devil. Of course, since the only other industry more capital intensive than nukes is H-bombs, this price of dalliance is especially high, and especially likely to preclude other potentiality.
Only a few commentators have picked up on this component of the energy-choices dialog.Nevertheless, looking at things from an economic angle, no other issueis of greater import than this.
Externalities represent one of the most artful dodges in the history ofthe bourgeoisie, and we’re talking a class that perfected divide andconquer and bait and switch to high art forms in its infancy, andmanifests frighteningly pointed psychological insight almost as a matter of course. Propaganda and Freud were both expressions of maturecapitalism, as Marcuse and others attest.
In the economic realm, an externality is an aspect of commodity production that one can separate from the commodity nexus. In other words, it needn’t have any effect on some laborer’s abilityto produce an item, nor need it interfere with the owner’s, or hisagents’, marketing efforts, nor does it necessitate any inhibition inthe buyer’s willingness to plunk down cash for the goods.
Easily enough imagined, in any view of the world that insists oninterconnection, the very concept is a bit suspicious. In itsday-to-day employment in the field, the impact is nauseating. DU is an’externality,’ because the government has ‘kindly’ enough removed itfrom the nuclear-fuel-cycle as such, meaning that its toxicity andpotential billion-and-a-half year poisonous assault on the biosphere won’t, of necessity, inhibit selling electricity at an affordable price, or, for that matter, it won’t impede dispensingweapons that undersell competing brands.
One can find plenty of calls for ‘responsibility’ in regard to ‘negative externalities, of course. "A negativeexternality occurs when an individual or firm making a decision does not have to pay the full cost of the decision. If a good has a negativeexternality, then the cost to society is greater than the cost consumeris paying for it. Since …they don’t take into account the cost of thenegative externality, negative externalities result in marketinefficiencies unless proper action is taken."
And of course, a million cancers, or a hundred million cancers, or theextinction of the genome a hundred generations hence, clearly counts as a ‘market inefficiency.’ On the other hand, next quarter’s balance sheet sure sparkles in the interim.
This is the juncture at which I want once more to make the pitch tothink of things in terms of science, technology, and society, inparticular in a historically focused fashion. By separating things into cells, whether in a ledger book or on anExcel spreadsheet or in an academic compartmentalization process matters not a whit, we always engenders a false consciousness. Only by seeking out and insisting on confronting the social–and hence political andeconomic–aspects of knowledge and the stuff that knowledge permits, can we ever hope to act responsibly in relation to the things that we makeand do and buy. This is quintessential to any ‘sustainable business,’for certain.
Taking things for granted is an inevitable result of failing to accountfor the nuances of interrelationship, as well as for refusing to insiston historical understanding. One commentator states this in friendly terms, "Today’s electricity user takes forgranted the quick, convenient supply of electric power. …Behind theconvenience lies a variety of legal rules and regulations." He goes onto unravel some seriously ‘negative externalities’ that flow from suchahistorical thought processes, one of which could conceivably be notnoting the dissonance apparent when poverty sits in the shadow ofnuclear reactors.
Burke County, Georgia is Old South country. ‘Dixie’ predominates at the top, but for most folks, eliminating slavish conditions and having some sort of decent life remains the primary priority. In coming postsabout nuclear prospects, one of my focuses will be on communities likeWaynesboro and Shell Bluff, Burke County towns which directly abut boththe reactors currently at Plant Vogtle and those projected forcompletion in the next decade.
Today, however, we’ll be creating a replica of the nuclear electricity business model. From the perspective of the Federal Government, the utility industry, and quasi-public suppliers of power, the future simply glows with the necessity of radioactive powergeneration. This certainty, which flies in the face of both the focuson renewable energy that citizens favor and what our historicalexperience with this technology has shown us, might seem anomalous.
However, if we examine the structure and dynamics of the variouselements of the nuclear industry, or in other words of the cost andbenefits of the ‘nuclear fuel cycle,’ we might see things differently.Then, the decision to invest in these expensive and arguably dangerousbehemoths begins to look like a pretty sweet deal, at least for theproponents of nukes who thereby gain access to a seemingly bottomlessfeedbag of public funds and taxpayer guarantees.
Let’s walk through the deal, from beginning to end. We’ll start withUranium mining, we’ll end with the disposition of Depleted Uranium andother nuclear wastes.
At the outset, as is the case with any mineral wealth, the resources ofthe US Geological Survey are at a prospector’s beck and call; nothingunusual here, but worthy of note. Moreover, the Feds have repeatedlyattempted to restore long standing mining subsidies, which remain a DOE priority still under the purview ofBarack-the-Magnificent. Finally, the government readily signs off onletting Uranium tailing lie and generally accepts the grotesquedegradation that accompanies the strip mine methods and the inevitable lung and organ cancers of deep-mining–although admittedly the situation now is vastly superior to that which prevailed a half century ago.
The enrichment process, like mining, also ships U-235 enriched metal to weapons makers; even more so than mining, these industries havebenefited from and continued to depend on the DOE’s H-bomb programs. Once again, then, even as promises of ‘privatization’ about, the truecosts of obtaining skinny fuel rods packed with Uranium pellets buffedup with the fissionable isotope are not borne by power producers, but by the citizens whose taxes originated the technology.
Permits, construction, and licensing are not so directly tied to thepork barrel as such. Here, however, some of the perfidy that we hearabout below plays a role. So-called ‘consumer advocate’ agencies likethe Georgia Public Service Commission end up making sure thatelectricity suppliers begin recovering the monstrous expenses ofbuilding reactors five to ten years before the facilities go on line.
Not only that, but legislatures like the Georgia House and Senate ease the political path by making sure that just common folks have to foot this bill. "The bill was amended by lawmakers so that itexempts large business and industrial users from having to pay theirpart of this $1.6 billion in monthly fees — that load falls onresidential and small business customers."
As one senator observed wryly: the large users "got a deal."
And, like ‘duh!’ Southern Company (and Duke Energy will likely do thesame if it can overcome public opposition to its reactor dreams) isgetting advance payment for remuneration capital costs that are alreadyguaranteed by the government’s decision to cover any difficulty that the loans effect on Georgia Power’s bottom line.
Promises of reprocessing are almost exclusively going to originate withthe government if ever they come to pass, because otherwise Plutonium,which is both ‘critically’ fissionable in its basic isotopic form andthe only element on earth more toxic than Uranium, would have similar access to the standard stream of commerce as coal or petroleum. Visions of mushrooms would dance in Sam Nunn’s head.
Above a trivial base level per reactor, all possible damages that couldflow from a reactor accident are the responsibility of, let’s think now, who could it be?–oh, that’s right, of Jimbo and the JustMeans readersand the other taxpayers of the United States. The Price Anderson Act, fifty five years into this era of ‘cheap’ and ‘safe’ power is stillsupposedly a necessity of doing nuclear business. Is that ‘businessbetter?’ Getting the citizens to cover the insurance tab?
Downstream Depleted Uranium threatens human survival. Are utility companies and reactormanufacturers paying for this devastation? On the contrary, theybenefit from the government’s continued wrongheaded policy of creatingweapons out of this nasty metal that could easily undermine the genomeof every mammalian species on the planet.
The situation is similar in regard to low level wastes and high level wastes, as we will see in even more detail in future installments. A baseballplayer that hits one out of three pitches is a superstar. By thismeasure, batting a thousand, the nuclear industry’s participants oughtto create an entirely new Hall of Fame, designated for those whosuccessfully pillage the public treasury and get away with it at everyturn of the wheel.
When citizens considers the sum total of the ‘nuclear fuel cycle,’unless they happen to draw their salaries from nuclear sources orotherwise lean in the industry’s direction as a matter of faith andbelief, a discomfited reaction is likely. A certain one-sidedness isapparent, to say the least. A series of dumbfounded inquiries mightresult.
"You mean, I’m going to have to pay for these things up front?" Uh huh. "And then my tax dollars and subsidies are going to provide a ‘safety net’ at the back end?" Right again. "And all of the hazards and filth all along the way, I’m going to have to cover that too?" Bulls eye. "And I’m even on the hook in the event of a catastrophe; they can’t get insurance?" That’s exactly right. "And they even want me to subsidize any move in the direction of reprocessing, if they decide to go after the Plutonium?" Bingo again.
I point all of this out for a simple reason. Given the accuracy of this depiction–folks should check it out; I just wish that I werewrong–investing in nukes for those who don’t have ‘to foot the bill’ is a giant no-brainer, a license to print money, and ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ all rolled into one package.
And this is the basis for the conflicting interpretations about nucleareconomics. If we take into account the cost of massive capitaloutlays–never has a reactor come in under budget, and generally costoverruns are more than 100%, the escalation of more than 1200% the last time that Plant Vogtle was on track a likely record—then nukes look a tad less rosy.
If we factor in the costs of clean-up at the front end, disposal (whichis a cruel joke, really, from the perspectives of Iraqi parents or GulfWar survivors, who can attest that nothing about disposal got rid of the dangers) at the back end, then atomic energy begins to look a lot morethan a little ragged, as an investment grade option.
If we then consider the potential downside that would result from a bad accident–"That’ll never happen" ought to be a mortal sinfor any scientist, and it ought to have become absurd after the Titanicsank–which might kill thousands, tens of thousands, or more at theoutset, and cause long lasting contamination over thousands of squaremiles, ‘boy oh boy,’ as one of my poker buddies would say in collegebefore he folded, the proposition begins to look like a stinker foreverybody but the principals, whose free ride is guaranteed.
HOW THE WORLD CAME TO REFLECT THIS BUSINESS MODEL
Goodness gracious me, this doesn’t seem altogether balanced andrational, let alone fair and just and friendly. How things could havecome to this pass is hard to imagine but, as in all such matters, thereality is merely one version or another of ‘step by step.’
This article is going to give a broad overview of the historicalsituation. Later iterations will go more into detail, as specificreports reach the front of Jimbo’s queue. As in all such situations,untangling the way that years gone by have yielded the present is justas difficult as untying an intricate knot. On the other hand, only when we can both see the overall picture, and recognize the key junctures on the historical time line, will what is happening now make sense.
More important still, this sort of contextual capacity is critical forpropounding any sort of reform or improvement. In the most basic sortof way, suggesting a viable method to make things better will almostnever come about if we don’t know what patterns are important in havingelicited the way that things now stand.
To start, we need to remember that a billion and a half people around the globe have no regular access to electric power. Within living memory, barely a one of our former cousins from the nineteenth century lived in an electrified environment. Before that, everybody was ‘in the dark,’ but for candles and lamps.
That only changed at the cusp of the twentieth century, when scienceand technology and consciousness and social and economic changes allcame together, and folks like Thomas Edison, of whom we’ve heard, and Samuel Insull, whose name is new to most folks, began to provide the tangible basisfor people to ‘flip a switch’ and have the power of a thunderbolt attheir command.
And every time that such networks became possible, a new feeding frenzy took place.
This assertion is arguably an exaggeration. It is also plausibly anelegant summation of the economic history of capitalism. Especially inregard to what the courts and the progressive reformers and thechagrined investors who lost everything and the historians termed "a natural monopoly" like a water supply or electric supply or other’utility’ or transportation company, an initial phase occurred in whicheveryone of means anticipated cashing in.
Then, using creative accounting and leveraged finance that parallel themachinations of Bernie Madoff, Enron, and so on down the list of ‘usualsuspects,’ these enterprises imploded. Reformers would rail. Moststates, even in the benighted South, formed simulacra of today’s ‘Public Utility Commissions’ and ‘Public Service Commissions,’ the participants in which would scold and moan that such perfidy could even be possible.
Roger Lowenstein reviews The Merchant of Power: Sam Insull, Thomas Edison, and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis and proffers a tiny sampling of the sort of assessment of our past that folks need to hear. "We tend to think the invention of the light bulb led directly to anilluminated world, but the truth is otherwise. …(M)oguls like Insullconceived of broadening the market for electricity by hawking appliances … .(B)y the Roaring Twenties, Insull was one of the country’sforemost power brokers. He controlled utilities in 5,000 towns in 32states, as well as a network of electrified railroads coursing out fromChicago. …Hubris is not the worst crime — merely the one thatguarantees the surest retribution. And Insull’s capital structure wasmore reckless than his politics. Addicted to debt, he pioneered acorporate form — the holding company — in which one company wasliterally stacked atop another. This allowed him to control an empireworth $500 million with only a tiny $27 million sliver of equity. Comethe crash, some 65 of his enterprises were perched like the unluckysubjects of Yertle the Turtle: down they went. Insull fled to Greece,leaving 600,000 shareholders ruined. He returned to face federalprosecution and was likened to Al Capone."
Can we be real, folks? We’ve heard it all before. What followed in the lee of devolution such as this, at least until recently, was ever someform of State or Federal reform. The entire utility structure thatprevailed in the U.S. until the late 1990’s emanated from the New Deal.
A very much middle of the road history of this aspect of American life details the plundering and schemingthat pervaded the development of pervasive power networks. He has noideological agenda. He’s merely telling a set of good stories in such a way as to match the facts of what happened. He makes a crucial point.
|"During the early years of his presidency, President Roosevelt had theopportunity to transform forever the utility industry. Having public and political support behind him after the holding company abuses becamewidely known, he could have urged that state and federal power agencies(such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bonneville PowerAuthority in the Pacific Northwest) assume the assets and activities ofprivately owned utility companies. But this was not what he did.Instead, the President sought to impose safeguards… . to preserve thesanctity of the private capitalist economy and not destroy it."|
And those safeguards are what we had until five years ago, with therepeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act(PUHCA), whichfinanciers and other gambling wizards had been seeking to overthrowbefore the ink was dry from FDR’s signature. And this potent antipathypredominated in spite of the fact that PSC’s and PUC’s and other’consumer protection’ agencies almost always have bonded with and become indistinguishable from the corporate agenda.
Even the likes of the thieving Sam Insull recognized this. "Astuteutility managers such as (he) anticipated the benefits of regulation topower companies. As early as 1898, he pointed out that regulation wouldlegitimate the monopoly status of utility companies and would keep atbay those who harbored distrust and antipathy for non-competitiveindustries. In other words, regulation gave the utility industry aspecial place in the American political economy and protected it fromthose who saw evil in(other monopolies)."
For heaven’s sake, were I to attempt to be thorough, I might findimputations of predatory behavior on the part of ‘regulated’ utilitiessuch as the Southern Company on literally thousands of occasions overthe century. A cursory search turned up copious cases of such shadydealings, by firms from every state in the union.
Our own dear Southern Company, in 1991, faced the wrath of stockholdersand consumers who accused it of racketeering. The District Court hadgranted summary judgment in the lawsuit, but a nearly unanimous appeals panel sent the case back for trial with these words.
|"In 1982, with the help of the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen &Company, both utilities allegedly devised schemes to cover up thewrongful accounting…fil(ing) requests for a change in accountingmethod with the IRS for the stated purpose of properly reflecting theirspare-part inventories for federal tax purposes… .The utilities thenallegedly established dual sets of books. Each utility kept one set ofaccounts for the IRS. But other records, recorded on personalcomputers, kept track of the true amount of inventory. As the utilities reduced their inventory of previously expensed parts, deductions fromthe inventory listings on the secret books would be made, but deductions would not be made from the books kept for the IRS until it appearedadvantageous to do so. This dual bookkeeping system allowed theutilities to use up a large amount of the previously improperly expensed parts without the wrongful accounting being discovered. The practicecontinued until 1988 when an undercover investigator for the IRSunmasked the scheme. The improper accounting was profitable not onlybecause it resulted in a reduced or deferred tax burden but because itinfluenced the rates the utilities could charge their customers. In both Alabama and Georgia, the utilities may charge only the ratesestablished by the state Public Service Commission ("PSC"). The PSC sets the rate according to the profitability of the utility. The smaller the utility’s income appears, the more likely the PSC is to approve a ratehike."|
So the system detailed in the introduction above was mainly thehappenstance of a regulated environment. The fleecing of citizens’pocketbooks has transpired under the watchful eye of ‘watchdogs’ thatfell for the above scheme on several occasions, and obediently turnsover rate hikes for reactors that will cost a lot more than we’re told. Then those reactors will receive subsidies or some other rationale mayallow for loan coverage. And then the new owner can crow about howcheaply it can distribute clean and reliable nuclear electricity.
Now we’re ‘deregulating,’ much to the delight of the Southern Companyand other owners of the grid. Of course, fiscal pros are salivating atthe prospects of mergers and acquisitions and new bubbles to inflate.We can hear them in such outpourings as "Private Equity and the Repeal of PUHCA."
"The repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, effectiveFeb. 8, 2006, is likely to have a profound effect on investment in theelectric utility sector. The elimination of PUHCA’s burdensomeregulations and severe operational and geographic restrictions willencourage investment and acquisitions by a greater number of non-utility companies, including private equity firms and hedge funds that hadpreviously been effectively precluded from investing in this industry.In addition, PUHCA’s repeal will now allow combinations among electricutility companies, opening up new investment opportunities for privateinvestors."
Hello, Sam Insull!
Precisely in this context, we are seeing the’new-generation nuclear’ guaranteed. It’s all a done deal. Whatevercitizens have to say has no bearing on the outcome.
If we don’tfeel at least a modicum of concern about what is coming down the pike in such places as Burke County, when we consider the sort of longcontextual view that folks have here, then we’re just not payingattention.
As a Georgia business journalist recently explained one aspect of the ‘sweet deal’ that utilities and the nuclear establishment are receiving, "Why loan guarantees? Because six top investment firms told the Departmentof Energy in 2007 that they were unwilling to finance new reactors inlight of the industry’s horrible financial track record," Ellen Vancko, nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists writes in an opinion piece for the New York Times. "Utilities don’t want to take that risk, either. But both would consider newreactors if taxpayers assumed the risk — in the form of federal loanguarantees."
He continues that, "Based on the industry’s history of cancellations and defaults, both the Congressional Budget Office (2003) and theGovernment Accountability Office (2008) estimate that the averagedefault risk on a federal loan guarantee for new construction could beas high as 50%."
Leaving aside the noisome doom of Depleted Uranium, the small but realchance of horrifying annihilation as a result of accident, and all ofthe other health and safety concerns–not to mention ties to nuclearweapons and so on and so forth–the nuclear option has to seem much more akin to a con game than a business model unless one is on the inside.Then, as I’ve said, it’s a sweet deal indeed.
The economic aspects of nuclear energy amount to this. They are afantastic investment if the owner can manage to find someone else to pay the up-front costs, the clean-up costs, and the insurance. Otherwise,they are tantamount to buying cool-aid from a snake-oil salesman likeJim Jones, who promises sweet light in the hereafter.
Nevertheless, as I’ve been saying since shortly after 9/11, these things are coming. As soon as Cheney’s little confabulation took place well away from public scrutiny, I was sure. I thought as much based on various developments at the end of the Clinton administration, but the energy knights sharpening their knives in secret made me sure.
And here we are. Some places in which a bit more democracy actuallymaintains a grip, unlike the proto-dictatorial stranglehold thatGeorgia’s institutions have on those of us withering at the grassroots,may manage to forestall this eventuality. But I doubt it.
I doubt it unless a truly nationwide movement emerges, and it had better be a nationwide movement with a strongly internationalist inclinationat that, that not only puts renewable energy and sustainable business on the front burner, but also manages to organize a movement fordemocracy, for social justice, for participation that elicits theleadership of the benighted over the hegemony of the plutocrats.
I don’t see it yet. If anybody does, I hope they’ll keep me posted.
Confucius supposedly said something like the following: ‘Just as everycrisis represents an opportunity, so too every opportunity may yield acrisis.’ These days, when the Chinese curse about "living ininteresting times" seems applicable to every waking moment, crises soabound that thinking of all of them as an almost infinite array ofopportunities is, to put the matter mildly, difficult.
Dealing with everything at once is never possible, even though suchoften seems necessary. This posting lays a foundation. I havecommitted myself to learning more fully the background of today’sconundrums in energy and other areas of life. Part of any securefoundational understanding must include the historical andsociopolitical underpinnings of the confusing morass of apparentcorruption, or if one likes irradiated power supplies, merriment thatbaffles us on any given day.
The next article in this series, always returning to Burke County inpreparation for an introduction to the communities that have sufferedthere under DOE and Southern Company management, will expand on both the economic and political economic aspects of this issue. The final piece will look at radiological and other public health matters in thecontext of communities in search of power and justice.
But as I’ve said, these reactors look nigh unto unstoppable at this point, save by a miracle of majority rule at the hands of BREDL and WAND and others. And this, given the putrefaction that the nuclear business model displays, and the huge sponge that the process creates for cash,makes any serious development of renewable energy, at least here in the’Sahara of the Bozart,’ seem unlikely in the extreme.
And we need that sort of tangibly ‘green’ input nearly as much as theAfghan communities that Sir Walt Ratterman was seeking to succor beforean earthquake laid him low. One reason that the situation in manyGeorgia communities is so dire is that the supposed ‘externalities’ oftoxic industries, as we’ll soon see in relation to Shell Bluff, havequite likely become internalized there. Cancer and disease and despondency have been the harvest.
I say ‘quite likely’ above, in the same way that those who advocate forDepleted Uranium victims can only say ‘quite likely’ that the harmswhich are obvious in the lives of Vets stemmed from DU. Not one study has taken place that examines possible connectionsbetween radiation and disease in the area around Plant Vogtle.
Release reports from the NRC are available; until 2002, DOE gave cursory data about effluents that had gotten loose from the noxious SavannahRiver Site across the river. But what has to occur, if we are to liveup to our commitments to our cousins, is just the opposite of this, inthe form of detailed and ongoing investigation of actual tissue samples, actual soil and vegetable samples, of ways to match releases with winddirection and infer actual uptake of radionuclides.
Nothing of this sort has happened at Shell Bluff, nor has it happened in regard to the nuclear industry generally in the U.S. And theinternalization of the conveniently labeled ‘externalities’ continues.The social environment thus prohibits the success of folks like thecitizens of Burke County in seeking something vaguely resemblingenvironmental justice.
The principles of such a practice, after all, mandate such as this:
6) Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of alltoxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all pastand current producers be held strictly accountable to the people fordetoxification and the containment at the point of production.
7) Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equalpartners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment,planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.
9) Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmentalinjustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages aswell as quality health care.
The integration into our understanding of the social forces at play when we want to do ‘business better,’ or achieve breakthroughs in democratic engagement or the utilization of solar or wind or other renewabletechniques for garnering power, is a key to success. The proponents ofenvironmental justice stand for the citizens of Burke County. Theyinsist that those cousins of ours have the chance to empower themselveson their own behalf.
Instead, we are following a ‘model’ that enriches the already bloatedand maintains the mainline establishment in its continuing operations.Which approach is likely to heal the earth? The final entry on the list of EJ principles quoted above is telling.
"Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personaland consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resourcesand to produce as little waste as possible; and make the consciousdecision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure thehealth of the natural world for present and future generations."
Money: Tracy Olson
Public Utility Commission timeline: Google
Plant Vogtle: GA Wand
Wind & Solar: Matt Montagne
Uranium Mine: Alberto OG
Underground Distributor system: public domain
Power pole diagram: public domain