Should Libertarians Support Nuclear Power?

The Reason Foundation has posted an on-line debate between William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey, and the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor over whether libertarians should support nuclear power. Tucker argues that nuclear power would be economical were it not for political interference, and should be a key element of America's energy future.

The current problem with nuclear is not its underlying economics but the current political climate in the U.S. that is hostile to nuclear and doesn't offer a level playing field. Coal is familiar and politically entrenched and so people don't question the danger it poses. Solar and renewables are showered with subsidies and mandates because they have won popular favor even though they are very low density energy sources.

The real solution then to making nuclear energy economically feasible may lie in changing the popular perception of nuclear as forbidding and dangerous. People should consider nuclear as natural as the ground beneath their feet (hence I have titled my forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy). The slow breakdown of uranium atoms is what heats the core of the earth to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. When we build a nuclear reactor, we are only reproducing this process in an isolated environment. Yet it is so powerful that its environmental impact is 2 million times smaller than fossil fuels or the various forms of renewable energy. If powering the world with virtually no environmental impact can't be made economical, what can be?

Taylor is more skeptical, suggesting that (like many other energy sources) nuclear power cannot compete without massive government subsidies.

Nuclear energy is to the Right what solar energy is to the Left: Religious devotion in practice, a wonderful technology in theory, but an economic white elephant in fact (some crossovers on both sides notwithstanding). When the day comes that the electricity from solar or nuclear power plants is worth more than the costs associated with generating it, I will be as happy as the next Greenpeace member (in the case of the former) or MIT graduate (in the case of the latter) to support either technology. But that day is not on the horizon and government policies can't accelerate the economic clock. . . .

Those who favor nuclear power should adopt a policy of tough love. Getting this industry off the government dole would finally force it to innovate or die - at least in the United States. Welfare, after all, breeds sloth in both individual and corporate recipients. The Left's distrust of nuclear power is not a sufficient rationale for the Right's embrace of the same.