Friends of the Earth is running an internet ad campaign that attempts to link the current world financial crisis with the future prospects of nuclear power. Paul Gunter – a career anti-nuclear activist – has tried to make the same link.
From a logical argument point of view, the effort is a real stretch. For many years, an often repeated line from many people and individuals opposed to new nuclear power plants was “even Wall Street won’t finance them.” That is a straight “appeal to authority” debating tactic that is often used in trying to explain the pros and cons of very complex issues.
When the topic – like the business case for new nuclear plants – is either beyond the comprehension of the audience or too lengthy to explain in a short discussion, debaters often resort to quoting a respected source that has already issued a judgement on the topic. In this case, the idea is that since the experts on Wall Street chose to avoid new nuclear plant investments, that must mean there was something wrong with the projects.
Appeals to authority that are truly expert in the topic under discussion can be effective, but they can be exposed as a logical fallacy if the authority loses public credibility. It should be pretty obvious that the kinds of investments that Wall Street was willing to make during the past dozen or more years have spectacularly failed to deliver the kinds of returns expected. In fact, they have resulted in a tremendous debt that is beyond the computational ability of many observers.
In general, they provided quick financial payback based on enormous leverage, but the underlying assets were often not very productive. If Wall Street had, instead, been willing to invest in new nuclear power plants in 2000, at a time when the projected cost of building plants was lower and when competing energy sources had already begun increasing in cost, we could be within one or two years of starting up new plants. Few people who understand how to operate a spreadsheet would disagree that a brand new nuclear plant built at a cost of less than about $3000 per kilowatt capacity would be a huge money maker in our current market.
There is no doubt that building new nuclear power plants is a challenging task that requires patience, foresight and dedication. It is, quite frankly, hard work that requires Cal Ripken style performance over a long period of time. From my point of view, our current financial crisis at a time of ever more evident needs for infrastructure improvements indicates that those attributes were not terribly well rewarded or respected in the banking sector. That is a tragedy for all of us.
PS – I realize that logic often has nothing to do with ad campaigns. However, it is worth discussing. I hope you agree.