Fight the Power, Bernie! The Cheap, Reliable Kind That We All Need

A Senator struggles with math.

A Senator struggles with math.

As everyone knows, the US is awash in nuclear power plants, springing up all across the fruited plains at a rate of one per week. Oh, wait, never mind – those are coal plants, in China. But because Brooklyn’s own Bernie Sanders, US Senator from Vermont (more or less), feels that nuclear power is getting a free liability insurance ride in some way, shape, or form, he recently discussed overturning federal law (but it’s settled law, Bernie!) that puts a limit on liability insurance coverage for nuclear power facilities.

In other words, Bernie sees deregulation as a good thing.  Jaws will now need to be picked up off the floor.  But, true to Bernie Form, he wants to essentially deregulate the nuclear power industry out of existence, because by removing the Price-Anderson liability limits that have been in placed for decades, the cost of the liability insurance for the plants would make them unprofitable, and they would be forced to close.  From the article:

Under the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, which Congress first passed in 1957 and has since renewed several times, the liability of nuclear power plant operators in the event of a disaster is limited. The industry pays into an insurance account — estimated to have a current value of $12 billion — that is intended to underwrite such expenditures as hotel stays, lost wages and replacement of property for people affected by a nuclear power plant incident.

Enter: The Sanders

“During a hearing on Thursday, Sanders debated Republican colleagues on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who argued that the federal government plays too big a role in regulating the energy industry and is thus stifling its growth.

The hearing focused on NRC implementation of steps to prevent a Fukushima-style catastrophe in the United States, and committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) used it as an opportunity to chastise the agency for what she said was slow follow-through.

Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) suggested during the hearing “that perhaps we are trying to regulate the nuclear energy industry out business, just like we’re trying to regulate the fossil fuels business out of business.”

Sanders countered that the nuclear power industry would not be able to exist in the United States were it not for the liability limits in federal law and the government’s obligation to cover excess costs related to a catastrophe.”

Sanders did not counter with the fact that reliable, cheap, and long-serving electrical providers – which is what nuclear power plants are – is something that benefits every American on the grid. The nuclear power industry doesn’t exist because the limits are in place; it exists because the people need and demand power, and entrust both politicians and regulatory agencies to ensure their safe and consistent operation.  It’s the same reason roads exist.  Airports.  Curbs.  A Postal Service.  Where does Bernie think electricity will come from if he shuts down 20% of its generation with the stroke of  a taxpayer-funded pen?  Since coal and natural gas make up 67% of the energy produced in this country, is Bernie no longer a global warming believer?  Is Bernie investing in coal-mining companies on the sly?

Bernie's vision of our power future.

Bernie’s vision of our power future.

Sanders frames this discussion like existing regulation is a big favor that’s being done for nuclear power companies. The reality is that they require a massive capital investment (with negotiated pricing, which means margins are at risk), are massively regulated, and the power demanded by the public would not be available without the plants’ operation. He’s arguing that because the USG covers the excess of any potential disaster that is not covered by Price-Andersen, that his august group (aka “The Senate”) should consider deregulating, or failing to renew, this long-standing agreement.  The results of which the Senator won’t have to deal with, except politically, but for the rest of the country, it will mean more expense and less available power.  Which seems a lot like what Bernie voted for in Obamacare (higher costs and less available care), so maybe this is the start of a trend, but this effort allows him to wash his hands in the de-regulatory absolution pool.  What comfort the Senator must take from speaking from both sides of his mouth with a straight face.

“He suggested this was ironic, given that Republicans had given “speech after speech” arguing that that it is government that is preventing industry from succeeding.”

The real irony here is that Sanders hints at anything ironic, considering how no new ground has been broken on new nuclear power plant construction between 1974 and 2013, and that the regulatory delays and opportunities for groups to file in ongoing licensing hearings means that both the cost of the power people ultimately need to buy goes up, and its availabililty becomes more scarce – which probably does not fit the layman’s definition of supplying a public good in a cheap and effective way.

Sanders plods forward, unbowed:

“I wonder if any of my conservative friends would co-sponsor with me legislation to repeal Price Anderson so that we can leave the nuclear power industry alone and not get involved with government,” Sanders said. “I look forward to working with Senator [David] Vitter [R-La.] or Senator Inhofe on getting the government out of the nuclear power industry. Any volunteers at this point?”

Hilarity ensues. I’m searching in vain for Sanders’ calls for de-regulating the agency that hands out hundreds of millions in subsidies for solar power that wind up being utterly thrown away, yet there’s very little evidence that Sanders is interested in deregulating the things he approves of, and piles of evidence that he’s quite happy to insert the government into every nook and cranny of our lives at the drop of a hat.  He’s also quite happy to congratulate himself for spending federal dollars for solar power projects, which will never supply cheap, reliable energy, and also have massive environmental impacts that he happily ignores on his way to next media event.  From the article:

Cadmium, tellurium, gallium, arsenide, germanium, and indium are just a few of the chemicals used in the manufacturing of some solar cells. Although the currently popular crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells don’t use these chemicals they do use lead and produce various waste products such as sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride which is 17,000 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  

One can only hope Bernie assumes this pose more often in the future.

One can only hope Bernie assumes this pose more often in the future.


But hey – it’s solar.  “Solar is good.  Nuclear is bad.”  If politicians just keep repeating that to themselves, and to the public, they’ll be re-elected.  And then they won’t have to think too hard about the realities that they’re subjecting the proletariat…er, the people to.

After leaving the hearing early, Sanders told Global Security Newswire he could introduce legislation repealing the law as early as this year.”We may very well — we’ll look at it,” Sanders told GSN. “I think it’s important to deal with some of the hypocrisy.”

Here’s another way to deal with hypocrisy, Senator: Take your Senator’s paycheck that the rest of us provide to you, and go buy a mirror.


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