On Thursday, September 9, 2010, the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School, which is not affiliated with the University of Vermont, hosted a phone press conference to announce the release of a paper titled Policy Challenges of Nuclear Reactor Construction: Cost Escalation and Crowding Out Alternatives by Dr. Mark Cooper.
During the press conference, Dr. Cooper emphasized that the French model for nuclear energy development was state socialism. Michael Kanellos at Greentech Media also picked up that important word from the press conference as the headline for his post titled Time to End Nuclear Socialism, Says New Study. Here is a quote of Dr. Cooper from his initial remarks during the press conference.
In fact, if the US nuclear industry is relaunched with massive subsidies as is currently being suggested in the US, my analysis shows that the great danger is not simply that the US will import some French technology, which would be the case in a few of the proposed reactors, but that it will replicate the French model of what I call nuclear socialism.
I use the ‘S’ word deliberately; nuclear power would remain a ward of the state as has been true throughout its history in France. It would remain a great burden on rate payers, as has been the case throughout its history in both France and the US and it would retard the development of low cost renewables as it has done in France and in nuclear friendly portions of the US.
(Note: there is an audio recording of the press conference available. )
It would be presumptuous of me to explain why Dr. Cooper, a man who works at a liberal think tank and has proven through a long history of publication that he is on the political left, has determined that “socialism” is a cuss word, but apparently he has some reason for using this appellation to denigrate the French nuclear accomplishment. I have visited a number of French nuclear facilities, studied the results that have been achieved by the democratic decision to implement an aggressive nuclear plant construction program following the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and read Dr. Cooper’s paper. If the French nuclear program is an example of what Dr. Cooper thinks is socialism, please call me a socialist.
Don’t misunderstand me – the French program has not been perfect; there are some key lessons that can be used to improve future results. There were increasing costs towards the end of France’s first construction phase and Areva’s early experience with the new 1600 MWe EPRs at Olkiluoto in Finland and at Flamanville in France has been disappointing. The current EPR results are not terribly surprising considering the normal challenges of first of a kind construction and the complexity of the very large reactor plant design.However, France achieved a nearly complete transformation of its electrical power system from being heavily dependent on imported coal and petroleum to being more abundantly supplied by emission free nuclear energy. The transformation was completed in a bit more than two decades. France achieved that result by building an endowment of reliable, low marginal cost generating plants that should ensure continued independent decision making for many decades into the future – without asking its population to sacrifice progress or creature comforts.France’s success at producing reliable, competitively priced, emission-free electricity is the second policy “challenge” that Cooper’s paper identifies. He appears to be quite disappointed that abundant electricity from nuclear plants has “crowded out” investments in efficiency programs and in the kinds of renewable energy supplies that he favors, mainly wind and solar power.French nuclear plants provide sufficient quantities of high quality electricity to reduce investor interest in spending money on systems that provide less reliable power because the electricity from those alternatives does not even have an environmental value that is higher than the power from a nuclear plant. French nuclear plants produce so much power that they earn billions by exporting their surplus power to neighbors; their abundant production reduces the volume of pious exhortations for everyone to use less electricity. I think those are favorable impacts of the nuclear program, but I guess I have a different view of the relationship between electricity and human freedom than Cooper does.Aside: According to the CIA Factbook, France exported a net of almost 50 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2008. If EDF sold it for a a very modest price of 5 cents per kilowatt hour, that amount of electricity would be worth $2.5 billion. End Aside.After listening to Dr. Cooper’s opening remarks, I had several questions that I wanted to ask, but the conference moderators made it clear that each press representative would be limited to a single question and a single follow up. I prepared my question and got into the queue by pressing *1 on my phone. (When I dialed in, I had provided my name and the publication for which I write.)Here is a transcript of our interaction:
ADAMS: Dr. Cooper, can you explain why France has both lower per capita emissions of CO2 and lower electricity prices than all of its neighbors in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK? French electric rates are about 20% lower and France sells electricity to all of its neighbors.
COOPER: Well, clearly the nuclear reactors are lower emitters so it has a low carbon footprint. The excess capacity in France, which was an accident; the commitment to French nuclear construction was never adjusted as demand declined so the French went into an export mode. In point of fact the French taxpayer has long been bearing the burden of subsidizing a state run enterprise. As Steve Thomas pointed out when they tried to transition to a capitalist approach as opposed to a state socialist approach, the companies have now gotten into trouble and are now showing massive losses. As so it is possible with brute force and taxpayer dollars to accomplish the things you mention, low carbon, low cost and exports, but the taxpayer bears the burden of that accomplishment.It is not an economic accomplishment in any sense of the word, it’s a state socialist accomplishment. And that in a certain sense is the point of this paper is to make sure people understand that if you emulate the French model you are looking at massive government subsidies, you’re looking at a model that is essentially a state capitalist monopoly and you ought to have your eyes open if you hold that out as the model, which is frequently done in the US.I tried to ask the follow up question that we were promised at the beginning of the press conference, but my line was apparently muted on the other end. Steven Thomas, Dr. Cooper’s press conference associate, jumped in and spoke about how the French government encoura
ges its citizens to use electric space heating. Cooper then came back to talk about how he testified for AARP in a case where a rate regulated utility in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, was charging its captive customers 8 or 9 cents per kilowatt hour while selling its surpluses to Baltimore for 2 cents per kilowatt hour.After the speakers had taken more than five minutes to answer my question, I was unable to get the moderator’s attention to ask my follow-up. My plan was to ask Dr. Cooper if he would instead recommend the the Danish or Germany model of encouraging renewable energy production though feed in tariffs and if he thought that American consumers would be better off with the resulting German or Danish electricity prices and higher per capita CO2 emissions. Note: Both Germany and Denmark have substantially higher electricity prices than France.Just before the question and answer period started, the moderator had reminded the press to ask only one question with a follow up. He then told us that if we wanted to ask more questions, we could get back in the queue by following the same procedure of pressing * then 1. Despite repeated attempts to do that and despite the fact that the conference organizers asked several times if there were any more questions, I was never again recognized as being in the queue. The conference, which was initially scheduled for one hour, ended several minutes early.A good way to avoid answering inconvenient questions is to use electronic tools to prevent them from being asked. It is slightly frustrating and quite amusing to find proof that the anti-nuclear groups are not very receptive to public participation and hard questioning – unless they are the ones who are doing the participating and shouting their questions in a public meeting.Following the press conference I contacted Areva with an audio file of my question and the responses from Dr. Cooper and Mr. Thomas. I asked for a comment that I could publish. Katherine Berezowskyj, an Areva spokesperson, provided the following:
The French model for nuclear energy has been successful though the use of standardized designs, a similar energy policy supported by successive governments, and expert energy companies. The industry has financed this growth and operation through its business contracts, just as any other commercial industry. Nuclear energy companies have not received subsidies from the government and are advancing because nuclear energy is profitable.
While nuclear energy does involve large initial capital investments, it is a low cost source of energy in the long run. The cost is stable because the fuel source, uranium, represents only five percent of generating cost, and it is a predictable cost because of the long term perspective of contracts.It is due to this operational excellence and experience of the French nuclear industry that France has energy security, low electricity prices and among the lowest CO2 per capita of any industrialized country.Disclosure: In June 2010, I enjoyed Areva’s hospitality and professionalism during a sponsored trip to visit French nuclear facilities. Those facilities were impressive, especially for a guy who has worked in a number of industrial activities and toured dozens of factories. I am also a lifelong francophile with a deep admiration for the history and culture of the fiercely independent and proud nation. I trace my that attitude to the combination of a trip to Martinique when I was about 10 years old and the influence of a family friend who was always interested in sharing her knowledge and love of the country as she helped me with my French accent. When most of my high school classmates were taking Spanish and told me it was more useful in our South Florida home, I spent four years taking French.Note: Though Dr. Mark Cooperoccupies a position at the Institute for Energy and the Environment of the Vermont Law School titled “senior fellow for economic analysis”, he holds a PhD in Sociology from Yale. His degree was awarded following the completion of a dissertation analyzing the transformation of Egypt during the time of Gamal Nasser. Since earning his PhD he has worked as a consumer advocate and policy analyst. He has been hired as an expert witness in more than 250 cases. There is nothing in his professional background that indicates any experience with engineering, manufacturing, or operating electrical power systems.