Reason on energy: nuclear power and light bulbs

Lynne Kiesling

Two good articles on misguided government intervention and energy policy at Reason recommend themselves. Ron Bailey’s written a really excellent, clear, analysis of improved, safer reactor technology, and argues that the best response to the Fukushima accident is not a ban, but rather is innovation:

One hopeful possibility is that the Japanese crisis will spark the development and deployment of new and even safer nuclear power plants. Already, the Westinghouse division of Toshiba has developed and sold its passively safe AP1000 pressurized water reactor. …

One innovative approach to using nuclear energy to produce electricity safely is to develop thorium reactors. Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive element, which, unlike certain isotopes of uranium, cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction. However, thorium can be doped with enough uranium or plutonium to sustain such a reaction. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) have a lot to recommend them with regard to safety. Fueled by a molten mixture of thorium and uranium dissolved in fluoride salts of lithium and beryllium at atmospheric pressure, LFTRs cannot melt down (strictly speaking the fuel is already melted).

Ron accurately, in my view, argues that interventionist government energy policy is part of the reason why such technologies have had such a difficult time coming to market:

The main problem with energy supply systems is that for the last 100 years, governments have insisted on meddling with them, using subsidies, setting rates, and picking technologies. Consequently, entrepreneurs, consumers, and especially policymakers have no idea which power supply technologies actually provide the best balance between cost-effectiveness and safety. In any case, let’s hope that the current nuclear disaster will not substantially add to the terrible woes the Japanese must bear as a result of nature’s fickle cruelty.

Similarly, Jacob Sullum criticizes interventionist government energy policy for imposing the paternalist belief that individuals are not capable of making an intelligent decision about the costs, benefits, and tradeoffs involved in using either incandescent or compact fluorescent light bulbs. CFLs turn on too slowly, don’t work in dimmers, and don’t last long enough to make up for their higher cost … and yet, our government tells us that we have to use them because we are too short-sighted to include the environmental impact of incandescents in our decision-making? We should trust a bureaucracy that has mandated such an immature, inferior technology to make a better decision than we each can individually? Yeah, right.

I agree with Jacob when he concludes

I will be happy to use CFLs if and when their manufacturers get the kinks out, or LED bulbs when they become affordable. But I am not the only one who thinks we’re not there yet, judging from the Energy Department’s estimate that more than 80 percent of residential lights sockets were still occupied by incandescent bulbs last year.

By forcing this transition, the government is ignoring the preferences that most Americans have clearly expressed in the marketplace. Which explains why I cheered when I heard Paul declare: “You busybodies always want to do something to tell us how to live our lives better. Keep it to yourselves.”

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One thought on “Reason on energy: nuclear power and light bulbs

  1. In fairness to our dear government, it’s not fair to say that they mandate a particular technology. The legislation from 2007 establishes a performance standard that bulbs must achieve. CFLs are one way of achieving this, but not the only way.

    Is that so different from setting mileage standards for cars? Is that, too, paternalistic, or is it an appropriate mechanism to incorporate externalities into the market structure? I think it’s the latter, but others may disagree. In the big picture, I do think that it’s an appropriate role for government to bring the external costs into the market structure precisely because they are external to individual’s choices. So, in that respect, while I probably wouldn’t prefer the value-laden term “short-sighted”, I DO think that individuals do not have the right signals to “include the environmental impact of incandescents in our decision-making.”

    A performance standard is NOT a technology mandate, and this strikes me as a very relevant point if we are going to determine whether the standards are “paternalistic.”

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