The Price‐​Anderson Act: Is It Consistent with a Sound Energy Policy?

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Of all the seemingly endless debates in American society,certainly one of the most needless has been the debate overthe safety and economic viability of nuclear energy. Citingstatistics and using arguments that range from sophisticatedsophistry to incredible idiocy, a vast army of politicians,intellectuals, academics, and lobbying groups has been debatingthis issue for almost three decades. In all, the debate hasbeen an excellent example of Thomas Sowell's point that sometimes the only ultimate validation of an idea is if it soundsplausible enough to people or to the right People.[1]

While the debate goes on, usually centered on the role ofgovernment, few individuals seem to realize that nuclear powermight not exist in the absence of government intervention.The conservative, usually in favor of more nuclear power, generally sees the problem as a surfeit of regulation.[2] Theliberal, generally opposed to nuclear power, sees the problemas one of too little governmental regulation of this dangerouspower source and reacts with such suggestions as Ralph Nader'sproposal to hire one million government guards for nuclear power plants.[3]

There are many forms of government subsidization of thenuclear power industry. These subsidies include the sponsorship of research, enrichment of fuels, and disposal of nuclearwastes. Through payments by the nuclear utilities into a trustfund, the government is to take possession of all used fuelby 1998.[4] In spite of its free-market rhetoric, the Reaganadministration has favored extending financial backing to thenuclear industry, including the Clinch River Breeder Reactor.As Richard Holwill of the Heritage Foundation writes, the Reagan administration "gives the appearance of being for a freemarket in all things conventional, but virtually socialist onnuclear power."[5]

These subsidies do not necessarily establish the nonviability of the nuclear power industry, in that it is conceivablethat these functions could be taken over by private industry.However, the one government-furnished privilege that the nuclearindustry could find it hardest to live without is the Price-Anderson Act's limitation on a nuclear power plant's liabilityin case of an accident.

Barry Brownstein

Barry P. Brownstein is an associate professor of economics and director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Baltimore.