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Nuclear Power and the State

The devastating earthquake in Japan has damaged multiple nuclear reactors, and at least one of these facilities is said to pose the potential of Chernobyl-levels of contamination. Germany is responding to this tragedy by temporarily closing down seven nuclear reactors, while France, the second-largest user of nuclear energy in the world, is reportedly planning to rely just as it has on nuclear energy.

All forms of energy production carry risks. The amount of pollution from coal, oil and even the production of windmills is not zero. Not having energy carries even greater risks, as civilization as we have come to take it for granted requires massive amounts of energy to sustain.

Pollution, once it reaches the level of damaging the person and property of third parties, is a tort. It is a violation of rights—a trespass. For over a century, the United States and other western nations have treated pollution as a regulatory matter, where some is allowed for the supposed benefit of the common good, rather that as primarily a matter of torts under civil law.

The question arises as to whether nuclear energy is appropriate or not in the context of a free and just society. This question has been tainted by the extensive degree to which the state has intervened and nearly taken over the energy sector, especially the nuclear sector, in America. The dirty history of nuclear power, from Nazi Germany’s attempts to foster civilian uses of atomic energy to the United States’s inherently immoral Manhattan Project, further complicates the issues involved.*

Yet other circumstances have dirtied the question of nuclear energy. While many free marketers argue that nuclear energy is obviously cleaner than more traditional forms, we do not want to end up bolstering the corporate state, which has in the last few decades, in the name of stopping “climate change,” attacked carbon-based forms of energy with the often forgotten side benefit of shoring up the case for nuclear power. Under the Thatcher regime in England, when anthropogenic global warming theories were first advanced, it was largely in advancement of nuclearization. This does not prove anything in itself, but it does remind us that none of the energy industry is purely clean in one especially important sense—most of this sector has been in bed with politicians for a long time.

Many people have a strong opinion on nuclear energy, either for or against. And I tend to have a strong opinion on everything political. But on nuclear energy, I must say I’m ambivalent. The way it has been maintained in Japan, in a corporatist context of General Electric working with the government, is far from ideal. It is far from ideal anywhere in America, either. I have problems with the ban on nuclear energy facilities in California, which contributed to the 1990s energy crisis, as well as governments building and helping to maintain nuclear installations against the protests of many of their subjects.

In a free market, this could be better sorted out. Would insurance companies take on the liability of covering nuclear facilities, or would they shy away? Would deed restrictions and covenants discourage nuclear plants except in remote, barely inhabited locations, or would civil society welcome such plants nearby? A free market in energy and law and torts, while not perfect, would at least help provide an idea as to the willingness of people to coexist with nuclear power and incur the risks personally and financially. Instead of the state imposing one way upon a population, the presence or lack of presence of nuclear facilities would reflect market demand and cultural norms. If the Germans don’t want nuclear power and the French do, or vice versa, this would probably be more accurately reflected in a market setting than in the political setting that has contaminated energy sectors everywhere.

But even a market would not be perfect. Few people expected an earthquake of this magnitude. Sometimes, freak accidents and natural disasters occur. I don’t trust the state to improve upon the situation.

In Japan, I sincerely suspect the state did not make conditions better than they otherwise would have been, but I am hesitant to argue that the market would have prevented anything like this from ever happening.

Nevertheless, if we are going to make a political or economics point about the question of nuclear power and the risks it carries, we can say one thing with confidence: The state monopolizes the energy sector, claims to balance the risks and benefits of its decisions, and is not liable as an institution for error. It is almost impossible to know for certain the correct answer about how much or little we should rely on nuclear energy or any other form of energy without a free market and outside the context of private property rights and privately held profits and accountability. Is nuclear power legitimate? My temptation is to say yes, with qualifications and reservations. The question is difficult to answer, but it does offer one more reason we’d be better off if we got the state completely out of the way.

* In the case of nuclear weapons, I find them intrinsically immoral as they cannot be used except in a way that kills innocent people. I particularly oppose any state having nuclear weapons, although I also oppose the use of war or state violence as a means of stopping the nuclearization of other states. The ends never justify the means. An I do hope that this does not become yet another reason to rattle the saber against Iran for its peaceful nuclear energy program and alleged but unproven attempts to create nuclear weapons.

Anthony Gregory is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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