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YC Magazine, Libertarian Commentary, April 2011

by Brian Smith

The accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex has mobilized the anti-nuclear groups, and made some supporters of nuclear expansion to question their stands. Those who continue to support nuclear energy view Japan’s accident as an anomaly, and point to the low emissions and reduction of the reliance on fossil fuels as the basis of their belief.

The Libertarian Party is neither for nor against nuclear energy. The LP platform states ‘While energy is needed to fuel a modern society, government should not be subsidizing any particular form of energy’.

In York County there are thousands who live within the 10-mile zone of the Catawba Nuclear Station. It is rare to hear the plant mentioned, and few are concerned with their safety, as the plant has been with us for over 25 years. A similar attitude is likely found in areas around any of the 104 United States facilities.

The safety issue is not in the number of accidents, but rather the potential magnitude of an incident. Most accidents receive little press coverage and never endanger plant workers or the community at-large. However, the evolving situation at the Fukushima plant, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl demonstrate the destructive potential of a meltdown. Although there have been improvements in the containment, safety and construction of nuclear power plants, the potential for disaster should be kept in mind, always reminding us to continue these improvements.

Perhaps a more pressing, and often overlooked, safety and environmental concern is nuclear waste. With the Yucca Mountain project de-funded, the U.S. doesn’t have a large repository for spent fuel. It should be pointed out that the Yucca Mountain project would have done little to solve the problem, as there is over 71,000 tons of nuclear waste held in facilities around the country. Yucca Mt. would have been above capacity before opening its doors. With human and environmental safety in mind, a plan must be developed for waste before the United States continues with nuclear expansion.

What about the cost of nuclear power?

Federal support of nuclear energy costs the tax payers billions annually. There is the nuclear production tax credit and $853 million requested for the research and development of waste storage, safety and reactor technology. With the Obama administration’s desire to “jump start the domestic nuclear industry” there are loan guarantees of $18 billion in 2011 and as much as $36 billion planned for 2012.

There is also the cost incurred by the utility companies. A nuclear facility costs $3 billion or more, which is the primary reason for federal funding, and generally requires a construction period of a decade or more. On the back end, spent nuclear rods must be contained and stored long-term.

Also working against the nuclear expansion is the cost of electricity it will produce. When all the costs are combined, the energy produced will be about 30-40% more expensive than that produced by coal or oil fired plants. This difference is about the same as other alternatives such as solar or wind sources.
The cap and trade tax proposed in 2009 had the intention of resulting in an increase in the price of energy produced by fossil fuels. In effect this would attempt to force consumers to seek alternative energy sources, as their price (with government subsidies) would have been lower than conventional fuels. The inflation created by cap and trade would have been crippling to individuals and business at a time our economy is still reeling.

Without cap and trade it is unlikely energy companies would take on the expense of a nuclear reactor, unless the government provides so many incentives that nuclear becomes economically viable.
Libertarians do not see cap and trade taxes on energy, or tax payer money spent on an expensive fuel source as acceptable solutions to our problems.

There are a variety of alternative sources of energy, including nuclear, solar, wind, bio-fuels, etc… When the American public demands an environmentally sound energy future, entrepreneurs and industry will provide it. The government should not be allowed to offer funding and tax breaks to favor one alternative energy source over another.

Brian Smith is the Chair of the York County Libertarian Party

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