The Real Nuclear Deal: A Modest Contribution To A Stockholm Energy Summit

Berthold Brecht put it as follows: “If you don’t know the truth, you are a fool, while if you know the truth but say that it is a lie, you are a villain." I seldom object to that kind of language, because I used it all the time when I taught financial economics at Uppsala University,  but it is not always appropriate when the subject is nuclear, and so I modified it somewhat for a talk that I gave a few years ago in Singapore at Nanyang Engineering University, where I was once a visiting professor: If you don’t know the truth about nuclear energy you are probably too tired or unlucky to find out, because learning enough to feel comfortable when the conversation turns to energy is as simple as locating your name on your birth certificate.

 On the other hand, if you know the truth but say that it is a lie – which often happens – it generally means that you don’t want to offend certain persons. For example,  persons who might not invite you to their parties and dinners if you reject their beliefs about this very touchy subject.

The most important project in energy economics at the present time is providing proof that optimal national energy structures of the future will be a mix of all sorts of items – nuclear, fossil fuels, renewables (which includes hydro), alternatives etc. The anti-nuclear booster club wants to eliminate nuclear from that collection, but fortunately they are going to be greatly disappointed. The reason they are going to be disappointed can be explained by referring to what I call the first law of neoclassical economic theory: voters (and others) prefer more to less! They prefer it in both the short and long terms, even though they are often they are confused in the former.

Once this is appreciated, some effort should immediately be put into comprehending perfectly a few basic characteristics of nuclear. This is not always easy, even for the leading academic energy economist in the world, however I congratulate myself on my familiarity with a few things. For instance, I know that while some countries, to include China, make a special effort to pay tribute to renewables, where serious business is concerned they will bet on nuclear. China will make this bet because they are able – or will be able – to construct reactors faster and probably cheaper than any country in the world. I also know something even more important. I know that when dealing with energy matters, you are liable to find yourself confronting a whirlwind of lies and misunderstandings.

Mainland China has many reactors in operation or under construction, and perhaps twice that number  in the planning stages. But even so, the energy directorate in that country is apparently in no hurry to increase the pace at which reactors are produced, because they possess plenty of coal to burn in a clean or dirty manner, and in addition they want to make sure that they are constructing and installing the most efficient and up-to-date nuclear equipment. Perhaps I should mention that the Chinese are in the nuclear business because – given their elaborate industrial agenda – an enormous amount of energy will have to be made available for things like  industrial activities and transportation. Attempting to obtain a majority of this energy from wind and solar would be completely and totally counterproductive. It would be absurd!

When I write papers or give lectures on oil, my preparation usually begins by examining the situation in the United States, by which I mean the situation going back to about 1931, and then transposing the most relevant materials into a short but useful survey which includes things like OPEC and the peak oil hypothesis.  Where nuclear is concerned, I always turn to Sweden for an indication of nuclear capabilities and successes.

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