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Japan's nuclear power subsidies to rural areas a case study in sick dynamics: how governments eviscerate local economies and addict them to what destroys them

June 12th, 2011 No comments

We can see the same phenomenon in extractive economies wherever governments own the resources, but locals own the risks – as in the Gulf of Mexico/BP (as I noted in a number of posts) accident, Nigeria, Ecuador/Texaco, etc.

We can also see this more generally with crony, corporation-based capitalism.

Japan’s version is more complicated and seductive: the locals get paid off – at the expense of electric power ratepayers who are subject to a government-supported monopoly – in a way that encourages them to abandon their own livelihoods and further dependent on handouts.

Below are excerpts from a May 31  article at the New York Times:  In Japan, a Culture That Promotes Nuclear Dependency


When the Shimane nuclear plant was first proposed here more than 40 years ago, this rural port town put up such fierce resistance that the plant’s would-be operator, Chugoku Electric, almost scrapped the project. Angry fishermen vowed to defend areas where they had fished and harvested seaweed for generations.

Two decades later, when Chugoku Electric was considering whether to expand the plant with a third reactor, Kashima once again swung into action: this time, to rally in favor. Prodded by the local fishing cooperative, the town assembly voted 15 to 2 to make a public appeal for construction of the $4 billion reactor. …

As Kashima’s story suggests, Tokyo has been able to essentially buy the support, or at least the silent acquiescence, of communities by showering them with generous subsidies, payouts and jobs. In 2009 alone, Tokyo gave $1.15 billion for public works projects to communities that have electric plants, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Experts say the majority of that money goes to communities near nuclear plants.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg, experts say, as the communities also receive a host of subsidies, property and income tax revenues, compensation to individuals and even “anonymous” donations to local treasuries that are widely believed to come from plant operators. …

In a process that critics have likened to drug addiction, the flow of easy money and higher-paying jobs quickly replaces the communities’ original economic basis, usually farming or fishing.

Nor did planners offer alternatives to public works projects like nuclear plants. Keeping the spending spigots open became the only way to maintain newly elevated living standards.

… Towns become enmeshed in the same circle — which includes politicians, bureaucrats, judges and nuclear industry executives — that has relentlessly promoted the expansion of nuclear power over safety concerns. …

“This structure of dependency makes it impossible for communities to speak out against the plants or nuclear power,” said Shuji Shimizu, a professor of public finance at Fukushima University.  …

Much of this flow of cash was the product of the Three Power Source Development Laws, a sophisticated system of government subsidies created in 1974 by Kakuei Tanaka, the powerful prime minister who shaped Japan’s nuclear power landscape and used big public works projects to build postwar Japan’s most formidable political machine.

The law required all Japanese power consumers to pay, as part of their utility bills, a tax that was funneled to communities with nuclear plants. …

Political experts say the subsidies encourage not only acceptance of a plant but also, over time, its expansion. That is because subsidies are designed to peak soon after a plant or reactor becomes operational, and then decline.

“In many cases, what you’ll see is that a town that was depopulating and had very little tax base gets a tremendous insurge of money,” said Daniel P. Aldrich, a political scientist at Purdue University who has studied the laws.

As the subsidies continue to decline over the lifetime of a reactor, communities come under pressure to accept the construction of new ones, Mr. Aldrich said. “The local community gets used to the spending they got for the first reactor — and the second, third, fourth, and fifth reactors help them keep up,” he added.

Critics point to the case of Futaba, the town that includes Fukushima Daiichi’s No. 5 and No. 6 reactors, which began operating in 1978 and 1979, respectively.

According to Professor Shimizu of Fukushima University, Fukushima Daiichi and the nearby Fukushima Daini plants directly or indirectly employed some 11,000 people in communities that include Futaba — or about one person in every two households. Since 1974, communities in Fukushima Prefecture have received about $3.3 billion in subsidies for its electrical plants, most of it for the two nuclear power facilities, Mr. Shimizu said.

Despite these huge subsidies, most given in the 1970s, Futaba recently began to experience budget problems. As they did in Kashima, the subsidies dwindled along with other revenues related to the nuclear plant, including property taxes. By 2007, Futaba was one of the most fiscally troubled towns in Japan and nearly went bankrupt. Town officials blamed the upkeep costs of the public facilities built in the early days of flush subsidies and poor management stemming from the belief that the subsidies would remain generous.

Eisaku Sato, who served as the governor of Fukushima Prefecture from 1988 to 2006 and became a critic of the nuclear industry, said that 30 years after its first reactor started operating, the town of Futaba could no longer pay its mayor’s salary.

“With a nuclear reactor, in one generation, or about 30 years, it’s possible that you’ll become a community that won’t be able to survive,” Mr. Sato said.

Futaba’s solution to its fiscal crisis was to ask the government and Tokyo Electric, Fukushima Daiichi’s operator, to build two new reactors, which would have eventually increased the number of reactors at Fukushima Daiichi to eight. The request immediately earned Futaba new subsidies.

“Putting aside whether ‘drugs’ is the right expression,” Mr. Sato said, “if you take them one time, you’ll definitely want to take them again.”

Eiji Nakamura, the failed candidate for mayor of Kashima, said the town came to rely on the constant flow of subsidies for political as well as economic reasons. He said the prefectural and town leaders used the jobs and money from public works to secure the support of key voting blocs like the construction industry and the fishing cooperative, to which about a third of the town’s working population belongs.

“They call it a nuclear power plant, but it should actually be called a political power plant,” Mr. Nakamura joked.


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WSJ article makes clear that dealing with nuclear power plants in crisis mode is very much experimental

April 23rd, 2011 No comments

I ran across an interesting WSJ piece today that I Tweeted as follows:

=EXPERIMENT: Tepco Let  Pressure Soar to Twice Design Limit Before Venting that then Exploded WSJ

Here are some excerpts of the WSJ article,”Reactor Team Let Pressure Soar

The operator of Japan’s stricken nuclear plant let pressure in one reactor climb far beyond the level the facility was designed to withstand, a decision that may have worsened the world’s most serious nuclear accident in a quarter century.

Japanese nuclear-power companies are so leery of releasing radiation into the atmosphere that their rules call for waiting much longer and obtaining many more sign-offs than U.S. counterparts before venting the potentially dangerous steam that builds up as reactors overheat, a Wall Street Journal inquiry found.

Japan’s venting policy got its first real-world test in the chaotic hours after March 11’s earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power complex. By the first hours of March 12, an emergency was brewing inside the plant’s No. 1 reactor.

By around 2:30 a.m., the pressure inside the vessel that forms a protective bulb around the reactor’s core reached twice the level it was designed to withstand. Amid delays and technical difficulties, it was another 12 hours before workers finished releasing radioactive steam from this containment vessel, via reinforced pipes, to the air beyond the reactor building.

About an hour later, the reactor building itself exploded—a blast that Japanese and U.S. regulators have since said spread highly radioactive debris beyond the plant. The explosion, along with others amid overheating at reactors 2, 3 and 4, contributed to radiation levels that led to mandatory evacuations around the plant and the government’s admission that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster ranks alongside Chernobyl at the top of the nuclear-disaster scale.

Experts in the U.S. and Japan believe the venting delay may have helped create conditions that led to the blast. In one possible scenario, pressure built so high that it damaged gaskets and other parts of the venting system, through which highly explosive hydrogen gas leaked from the core into the reactor building. It was Japan’s cautious approach to venting, an outgrowth of its profound concern over nuclear contamination, that may well have made the accident worse, they say.

Containment vessels can withstand higher pressures, some studies have indicated. Among these are studies conducted in the 1990s by Japanese operators and equipment manufacturers, in preparation for Japan’s first set of severe-accident protocols, that say such vessels can withstand twice the design pressure. Many Japanese operators have adopted this as their benchmark for releasing contaminated air.

Tepco spokesman Yoshikazu Nagai confirmed that if there is a risk of releasing radiation, the company doesn’t vent until pressure hits roughly twice the design limit. “Venting is a last resort,” Mr. Nagai said.

General Electric Co., the designer of the vessel at Fukushima Daiichi, said it is unaware of any such Japanese studies or venting protocols.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it doesn’t have specific guidelines on venting and doesn’t comment on the appropriateness of actions taken in member countries.

U.S. protocols on handling accidents at similar reactors call for venting before pressure exceeds the design level. The same protocol is followed by plant operators using similar types of reactors in Korea and Taiwan, industry experts in those countries say.

I am reminded of the article by Bill Keisling on the Three-Mile Island that I cross-posted earlier; here’s a relevant excerpt for those of you who missed it:

Rule 1: Commercial atomic energy technology is a pseudo-science and is not based on proper scientific experimentation.

As we recently witnessed during the multiple nuclear accidents at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a damaged reactor (or reactors) often has broken controls, computers systems, and gauges that make monitoring a runaway nuclear reaction difficult, if not impossible.

Confusion and fright in the control room(s) at the time of emergency create what can almost be called A Fog of War. Indeed, war it is. They’re at war with a runaway nuclear reactor.

At Fukushima, as on Three Mile Island, operators wished they could simply peer into the containment building with their own eyes and dispense with the broken alarms, computers and gauges that tell them nothing, and often mislead them.

‘The nuclear power industry naturally doesn’t think very much of troublesome nitwits like Galileo, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and their ridiculous, old-fashioned ideas about experimentation, reproducible results, and scientific method.’

But that’s only a small part of the problem. Truth is, no one really understands the behavior of tons of melted nuclear fuel in a reactor.

For a variety of reasons, the commercial nuclear power industry and its government regulators never conducted a single experimental meltdown of a full-size nuclear reactor.

So, until one melts, no one knows how a runaway reactor will behave.

As most of us remember from high school, scientific knowledge has advanced over the centuries because of what’s called the Scientific Method.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Scientific Method as “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

In simple words, real-world experiments must be designed to test a hypothesis, and results must be reproducible.

As we know, cars and planes are rigorously tested and crashed all the time, in all manner of ways, in all sorts of conditions. That’s how designers and regulators learn how these complicated machines behave in real-world accidents, and whether they’re safe.

Not so nuclear reactors. For a variety of reasons, including half a century of financial and political considerations, regulators in the United States side-stepped or outright ignored the issue of full-scale reactor safety testing, and continue to ignore it to this day.

This inescapable and troubling fact is entwined with the history of atomic power regulation in the United States. 

Perhaps it’s time for us to try the experiment of ending all government support for nuclear power, “public” utility monopolies, and corporations in general (which could not exist in their present form without state grants of limited liability to shareholders)? Maybe then – when investors and power companies are faced with a greater share of the actual risks generated by their businesses – we will see a more responsible and prudent form of capitalism, one that generates true wealth, and noty simply moral hazard and risk-shifting, plus profits for a few?

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Post-tsunami radio clip of Jerry Taylor/Cato discussing the past and future of US nuclear power

April 7th, 2011 No comments

In the wake of the troubles at TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear power plants, on March 18, 2011, Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute discussed the past and future of U.S. nuclear power on WOR’s The John Gambling Show.

I note that Taylor has really only scratched the surface of the problems relating to nuclear power. For example, far from governments simply shifting the risks of nuclear power cost over-runs to ratepayers and taxpayers, this incentive structure actually compounds financial risks, as the contractors do not have to bear the amount of cost over-runs, and the utilities can put their hands into the pockets of others.

Further, Taylor has not addressed the further subsidies provided in the form of Federal liability caps and by “limited liability” state corporation laws that leave shareholders without ANY liability for damages that nuclear accidents may cause others – as has now materialized in Japan. Just as we have seen in our financial sector, the result is a loss of personal “skin in the game”, a concomitant reduction in critical oversight, unleashed moral hazard, poor decision-making and then hand-wringing and blame-shifting when the “black swans” come home to roost.

Here is the link to 10-minute clip (which Cato has so thoughtfully made easy to share, but unfortunately seems too big to upload here)


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Jerry Taylor/Cato at Forbes: "Nuclear power quite simply doesn’t make economic sense."

April 7th, 2011 No comments

I’m a fan of Jerry Taylor, an even-handed, level-headed guy working out of the Cato Institute who sometimes almost (but not quite) comes across as a radical envirofascist. (My earlier posts referencing him are here.)

Jerry’s Cato bio says he “is among the most widely cited and influential critics of federal energy and environmental policy in the nation … a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and National Review and appears regularly on CNBC, NPR, Bloomberg Radio, the BBC, and Fox News. His op-eds on public policy have appeared in the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and most other major dailies.’

Jerry and his collegaue Peter Van Doren have a new piece out at and Cato Institute on nuclear power; Jerry has kindly given me permission to cross-post it in its entirety here.

[Just added: Allow me to I note that Taylor has really only scratched the surface of the problems relating to nuclear power. For example, far from governments simply shifting the risks of nuclear power cost over-runs to ratepayers and taxpayers, this incentive structure actually compounds financial risks, as the contractors do not have to bear the amount of cost over-runs, and the utilities can put their hands into the pockets of others.

[Taylor also does not address the further subsidies provided in the form of Federal liability caps and by “limited liability” state corporation laws that leave shareholders without ANY liability for damages that nuclear accidents may cause others – as has now materialized in Japan. Just as we have seen in our financial sector, the result of these government interventions is a loss of personal “skin in the game”, a concomitant reduction in critical oversight, unleashed moral hazard, poor decision-making and then hand-wringing and blame-shifting when the “black swans” come home to roost. 

[Nuclear crony capitalism is just the tip of the iceberg of the vast, rotten and still metastasizing crony-capitalist mess that limited liability corporation laws have engendered: Beyond ‘Nuclear Crony Capitalism’: Does state-created corporations mean we are stuck with a wonderfully confused ‘capitalist’ mess of socialized risk?]

This is how the Taylor and Van Doren piece appears at Cato (emphasis added)

Nuclear Power in the Dock

by Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren

This article appeared on on April 5, 2011.  [TT: Here’s the Forbes link.]

The unfolding nuclear emergency in Japan has prompted a reconsideration of nuclear power here in the United States. Surprisingly, the political faith in nuclear power appears to be relatively unshaken at the moment, with opinion leaders on both the left and right cautioning against overreaction and politicians in both parties swearing continued fealty to the federal campaign to jump-start new construction orders.

This is unfortunate — not necessarily because nuclear power plants are a catastrophic meltdown waiting to happen — but because nuclear power makes no sense from an economic perspective and the political campaign to ram these plants down the market’s throat threatens catastrophic harm to both taxpayers and ratepayers.

The fact that nuclear power can’t come within light-years of passing a market test is painfully obvious to all who wish to see. Consider the feds are presently telling banks that if they loan money to a utility company to build a nuclear power plant and the loan subsequently goes bad, the U.S. Treasury (that is, you) will compensate the bank for up to 90% of its losses. And yet the banks still refuse to loan. For principled supporters of a free market, that should be information enough about the merits of this commercial enterprise.

There are all sorts of reasons why banks are saying “no” to nuclear. Two in particular, however, stand out.

First, nuclear energy is not even remotely competitive in power markets with gas-fired or coal-fired electricity now or in the foreseeable future. Even the more optimistic projections of new nuclear power plant costs — such as those forwarded by MIT — find that nuclear’s production costs over the lifetime of a new facility are about 30% above those for coal or natural gas-fired generators. So while we can only speculate about new plant construction costs (we haven’t tried building one for more than 30 years) and estimates vary a great deal, all parties agree on one thing: Nuclear is substantially more expensive than conventional alternatives at present.

That’s particularly the case when one figures in the revolution in natural gas extraction, which has significantly lowered the cost of gas-fired power. Exelon CEO John Rowe recently told the press that natural gas would have to cost more than $9 per million BTUs before nuclear power plants could compete — about double its current price and far north of the $5.3 per million BTU price over the next 5 to 10 years that forecasters predict for the future. MIT’s nuclear energy study, by comparison, projects a $7 per million BTU natural gas price (which makes nuclear energy seem more competitive than it actually is), but of course, the MIT study was based on 2007 data that failed to fully reflect the revolutionary advances in hydraulic fracking.

It’s worth noting, moreover, that nuclear’s hefty price tag would be even heftier if government subsidies were to fall by the wayside. One economist calculates that existing nuclear subsidies are equal to one-third or more of the value of the power produced. Tufts economist Gilbert Metcalf estimates that nuclear power plant operators face a negative 49% tax rate. Hence, banks betting on nuclear power are also betting on the longevity of such breathtaking taxpayer largesse — a risky bet indeed.

Second, the risk of cost overruns and, thus, defaulted loans are higher than the politicians would have us believe. Most of the nuclear power plants built in this country have cost three times as much to build as utilities initially advertised at the onset of construction.

While the industry swears that this is a thing of the past, new power plants being built in Finland and France by Teollisuuden Voima and Electricite de France, respectively — the only nuclear power plants being built right now in free-market energy economies — are already coming far above their advertised cost. The Finnish plant — which was supposed to cost only 3 billion euros — is already 2.7 billion euros above cost and is four years behind schedule. The French plant fairing a bit better, only 1 billion euros over budget and two years behind schedule.

The fact that both of these projects deploy state-of-the-art reactors built by French nuclear giant Areva — arguably the most experienced nuclear power company in the world — speaks volumes. Accordingly, both the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office expect about 50% of any future U.S. loans to default.

So why are utilities trying to build these things in the first place? Well, most aren’t. Those few utilities that are interested in going ahead do business in states where construction costs are automatically plugged into the rate base. So in theory at least, risks would be transferred from the utility to the ratepayer with utilities at least guaranteed to break even. Even so, the increasing cost gap between nuclear and gas-fired power makes it unclear whether any of these generators will actually get built.

As Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and former chair of the New York and Maine utility regulatory commissions, puts it, “In truth, the nuclear renaissance has always consisted of the number of plants that government was willing to build.” Regardless, federal attempts to jump-start the industry — as Herculean as they have been — haven’t come even close to closing the competitive gap with gas-fired generation. Events unfolding in Japan are unlikely to change that. And for that, at least, we can all be thankful.

Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren are senior fellows at the Cato Institute.

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For the disastrous failure of ‘Disaster Memory’ at Fukushima, we must thank – surprise! – nuclear crony capitalism

April 5th, 2011 No comments

Science reporter Andrew Revkin, writing at NYT’s Dot Earth blog, can’t seem to get his head around the complete failure of Tokyo Electric, its suppliers (GE, Westinghouse, Hitachi etc.) and the Japanese government to consider the possibility that large tsunamis might hit the Fukushima coast  history: (emphasis added).

‘Disaster Memory’ and the Flooding of Fukushima

Over the weekend, I mused on a question that’s bothered me since I read Roger Bilham’s report on the great earthquake and tsunami of March 11: Given the history of devastating tsunamis not far away, how could it have taken until 2006 for the word “tsunami” to show up in government guidelines related to the  Fukushima nuclear complex? (For instance, in 1933 a tsunami more than 90 feet high  erased coastal villages along part of the same stretch of  Honshu coast devastated on March 11.)

Revkin quotes from geologist Roger Bilham:

In hindsight it appears impossible to believe that nuclear power stations were located on a shoreline without recognizing the engineering difficulties attending prolonged immersion by a large tsunami. In 1896 a 33-meter high tsunami drowned the Sanriku coastline 200 kilometers to the north of Fukushima. A 23-meter wave surged on the same coast in 1933, and in 1993 a 30-meters wave swept over Okushira Island.

But to me, the puzzlement itself seems puzzling. I sent Andy the following tweet (emphasis added)

[email protected] Andy,as I emailed b4,there was so little ‘Disaster Memory’ at simply bc Govt absolved all from personal responsibility

Which I followed with this comment to his blog post: (emphasis added)


This really is not so hard. The problems at Fukushima are just the latest manifestation of poor decision-making, resulting from pervasive, institutionalized risk-shifting, brought to us by LEAVE IT TO US, WE’LL HELP YOU! governments. The snowballing rot started with the creation by government of that form of human association known as ‘corporations’, whose shareholders are freed from any liability for the harm that corporate acts may cause others. That lack of personal liability eliminated a need to closely monitor risks, managers and employees.

Injured citizens have insisted that governments step into the breach, but bureaucrats and politicians are oddly susceptible to influence from those firms whose profits and competitive advantages may depend on government regulation.

Beyond ‘Nuclear Crony Capitalism’: Does state-created corporations mean we are stuck with a wonderfully confused ‘capitalist’ mess of socialized risk? – TT’s Lost in Tokyo

“Rational Optimist” Matt Ridley blasts Japan’s “Nuclear Crony Capitalism,” fails to examine limited liability corps

Institutionalized moral hazard: Fun with Nuclear Power in Japan, or, prepare for a glowing twilight, with scattered fallout in the morning – TT’s Lost in Tokyo

Risk-Shifting,BP +now #Fukushima:Cliff Notes version of my stilted envirofascist view of corps+govt -TT’s Lost in Tokyo


“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman

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Beyond ‘Nuclear Crony Capitalism’: Does state-created corporations mean we are stuck with a wonderfully confused ‘capitalist’ mess of socialized risk?

March 31st, 2011 No comments

Last night I was Sleepless in Tokyo because Matt Ridley and one of his commenters rewarded, with nice words and questions, a comment I left there on his “Nuclear Crony Capitalism” post.

So naturally I wrote more.

Here’s the relevant comment thread, plus my excited scribblings at the bottom (now up; thanks, Matt!). Skip to the bottom if you’re in a rush:

Posted by, TokyoTom (not verified)

Matt, great post — but I think you’ve only barely scratched the surface on the ‘crony capitalism’ institutionalization of risk.

I’ve spent a bit of time delving into this at my blog that Ludwig von Mises Inst kindly hosts:

– Sorry, but I can’t resist asking: Feel Sorry for Tokyo Electric Power Co?,, a tribute to Lew Rockwell’s ‘Feel Sorry for BP?’)

– Institutionalized moral hazard: Fun with Nuclear Power in Japan, or, prepare for a glowing twilight, with scattered fallout in the morning:

– My posts exploring the ramifications of the state grant of ‘limited liability’ corporation status:

 – The case of BP:

 – Not surprisingly, similar issues arise with respect to the rest of the Govt-licensed energy sector and climate:

 Thus small things contribute to the Road to Serfdom: and

I hope you’ll take your concern for nuclear crony capitalism even further.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:39am


Posted by, Matt Ridley


very interesting. Thanks. will follow up.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:54am


Posted by, Robin Guenier (not verified)


This is an intriguing post …. If one agrees (and I do) that the moral hazard enjoyed by financial institutions is deplorable, then logically it’s impossible not to take the same view of crony capitalism and nuclear power. And, as j ferguson and Tom have pointed out, it doesn’t end there. For example, I’ve been involved with the UK defence industry and recently with the appalling NHS computer system – in both cases, I’ve seen huge overruns and vast sums wasted. Classic examples, I suggest, of “government and capitalists colluding against the market”: neither the government nor its suppliers are penalised; all the pain is passed onto the public. And, if that is unacceptable – and surely it is – it’s hard to dispute Tom’s conclusion that the state grant of limited liability may be the problem: “one of the key roots of snowballing corporate statism”.

And yet … and yet: the industrial revolution and the huge benefits it has provided to society were built on the foundation of limited liability. Moreover, many major projects that would not have been implemented without an alliance between capitalists and government have turned out to be widely beneficial despite seemingly inevitable delays and cost overruns.

Is there a distinction to be drawn and, if so, where?


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 07:32am


Posted by, Matt Ridley


Yes. I agree with both points you make and see what you mean about limited liability’s role and the importance of govt-driven infrastructure. Compulsory purchase for railways and canals springs to mind: easier in Birtain than in France.

Not quite on the same lines, but sometimes I get criticised for being too hard on government and I reply that if Carnegie and Rockefeller and Maxwell were bad, then they weren’t half as bad as Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot.

I hope to get time to dig further into this issue.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 10:59am

My follow-up thoughts (readers may be disappointed that I haven’t loaded this down to cross-references to relevant posts from this blog):

Robin, your statement that “the industrial revolution and the huge benefits it has provided to society were built on the foundation of limited liablity” is a statement of fact – not one necessarily of causation – but so has been our financial house of cards: banks are corporations, shareholders have limited liability (and megabanks are public cos in which shareholders are even further removed from oversight), and depositors are insured by Uncle Same. As a result, depositors don’t bother to check out what a crapload of risk that traders and execs are piling on in order to get bonuses, and Uncle Sam and his legions of wizards set up regulations that the smart boys at Goldman and lawyers figure out how to finesse to load up ever more risk at the lowest possible capital – BANG! And all thanks to the wonders of institutionalized misincentives!

Sure, we got wonderful things from complex organizations, all of which remain in check somewhat by competitions. But there’s been a lot of abuse, alot of risk-shifting, alot of Superfund sites, alot of barriers to entry raised by the very regulations whose purported intent is to rein in the bad behavior, massive statism, and a ball and chain of costly and intrusive IP legislation and enforcement.

I’ve given a very short summary of the dynamics at this post but it’s a fairly obvious and understandable game of whack-a-mole, where government and the big boys – with their unlimited lives, purposes, facelessness, deep pockets and revolving doors – always seems to benefit while ordinary citizens and smaller firms and potential rivals get whacked.

It is very clear that limited liability of shareholders is a gift from government at the expense of un-consenting creditors (‘victims’ IOW), and thus is a subsidy from the public as a whole to the wealthier classes who owned corporations and still by and large are the shareholder class.

Corporations used to be very rare – the grants have a very dubious history, typically one of false justifications of offering a ‘public good’ in exchange for monopoly rights. The owners of very limited life, limited purpose firms somehow always managed to get the special deal extended. So we got bigger firms and more corruption, and labor unions and then regulations and workers and citizens finally started to get fed up.

The widespread statism and government-provided social welfarism – now falling into cynical kleptocracy and fuelling a breakdown in initiative, integrity and other virtues Hayek saw are necessary for market-based wealth generation to works to work – we now see are part of the price we’ve paid. The other part of course is damage to peoples’ lives, property, communities and to whatever public or community property that corporations can get their hands on and strip, without have an owner’s incentive to balance possible revenues over the long run.

Is this kit and caboodle a necessary part of “capitalism”? I don’t think so. Wall street banks and investment firms were private partnership for most of their lives, Amex was a listed corporation who owners had UNLIMITED liability, and Lloyds of London itself was not a firm but a private MARKET of names who all had unlimited liability. Many firms used to have only partially paid-in shares, so that managers had a call in case more capital was needed for new projects or to pay off debt.

Just because we’ve democratized corporate formation by opening the floodgates of socializing risk to anyone doesn’t mean ways can’t be found to put an end to institutionalized moral hazard. Eliminating unlimited liability would shift risk and responsibility for oversight back to a conveniently truant shareholder class from government and the public at large. It would of course mean that people not in a position to evaluate risks would be less likely to invest, making firms work harder to earn trust and get capital. Credit evaluation, rating agencies and insurers would all compete to step into the breach and to lower and spread risk.

Better-managed firms are more profitable than the big Frankensteins we have lumbering around these days; while reform would not happen overnight, it is not only desirable but possible. Firms whose shareholders bear the risk that they may be held liable for damages can be expected to be more cautious and thus could be exempted from the regulations that have been found needed for the Frankensteins. Thus both risks and barriers to entry could be lowered, and consumers and could determine what works best. Other initial steps could be to encourage firms whose shareholders have only fractionally paid-in shares. In the US, at least, corporations are creatures on state law, so just one state is needed to start such an experiment (which would be possible and protectable under the Constitution).

Well I’ve run on quite a bit in my excitement. My sincere apologies! Let me toddle off for a wee bit of sleep.



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Matt Ridley, the "Rational Optimist," blasts Japan’s "Nuclear Crony Capitalism" but fails to examine limited liability corporations

March 30th, 2011 No comments

Matt Ridley, British author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, and populat TED presenter “When Ideas Have Sex“), has a couple of blog posts out in response to Japan’s troubled post-earthquake and post-tsunami nuclear reactors owned by TEPCO.

In a somewhat ironic post, “Nuclear Crony Capitalism“, Ridley first notes that the troubles at TEPCO’s Fukushima plants have caused environmentalist George Monbiot to change his mind about nuclear power  — and to SUPPORT it, as demonstrating the low risks of nuclear power. (I find this perverse by both Monbiot and Ridley, as radiation releases from four of the reactors have already done substantial damage to people, property and livelihoods in the Fukushima region, as well as to cause grave concerns in Tokyo and indeed, globally. Moreover, the situation is not yet stabilized, strong earthquakes continue, and strong radiation in the vicinity of the plants is seriosuly hampering efforts to regain control over the plants and ope-air spent fuel rod pools.)

Yet despite his views on the safety of nuclear power (he noted a few days ago in the WSJ that much safer designs may be available, and that the TEPCO designs are a product of the Cold War and nuclear bomb production designs), Ridley castigates Japan’s government and nuclear power industry.(emphasis added) [readers, html is a pain. If the quote isn’t here, it’s the italicized text that wants to be at the bottom.]

What worries me is the economics of an electricity generating industry that requires massive capital projects, whose costs usually over-run and whose costs per kilowatt hour are roughly double those of the newest gas turbines. … But a perceptive article by Shikha Dalmia explains where nuclear’s flaws come from — its symbiotic relationship with government. Nuclear power requires, demands and gets subsidies of many different kinds.

That’s exactly the problem with crony capitalism, whether in finance or energy or anything else. The `market’ and `capitalists’ are not on the same side and against `government’. No, its government and capitalists colluding against the market, which is on the side of the people. The `financial market’ proved to be no such thing; it was a casino for favoured clients run by central banks. The `energy market’ is no such thing. It is a scheme run by governments for favoured clients in the nuclear, renewable and environmental-pressure group industries.

As Adam Smith so astutely observed,

The proposal of any new law or regulation which comes from [businessmen], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.


Nice to see Ridley both recognizing the corrupt and skewing dynamics, AND taking not merely government but the industry itself to task, TEPCO and its finaciers are, after all, real people who have moral responsibility for their own actions – right? – whether they are aware of such responsibility or not.

Unfortunately, Ridley, like Dalmia, fails to extend his analysis to the state-created corporate structure itself, which systematically shifts risks from shareholders and managers to the public at large, particularly via the grant of limited liability to shareholders, which reduces incentives for shareholders to care about risks to others and exacerbates the “agency problem” which leaves managers as essentially unsupervised actors who typically do not bear liability for so-called “corporate torts” – thus leaving the “corporation” as a legal fiction without a clear locus of responsibility or liability.

The grant of limited liability is of course the driving feature for choosing the main corporate form over other alternatives (Amex was long a coproaton whose shareholders had unlimited liability), and why corporations establish subsidiaries (US nuclear plants are virtually all held by different legal entities), and why traditional partnerhips have pushed for LLC and LLP entity forms that retain partnership-like tax treatment but no personal liability.

One hopes that some day our leading lights will devote a little time to exploring the obvious perverse incentives and massive negative consequences generated by the state-created corporate form. What we have instead is a sympathy for faceless corporate “victims” of a faceless state, and a beside-the-point defense of the poor existing, irresponsible shareholders, which didn’t bargain for a downside risk. Shall libertarians forever defensd this Heads I Win, Tails You Lose mentality? Do they have so little faith that, if limited shareholder liability was NOT granted by the state, that shareholders would not increase their diligence, or engage insurers to mitigate risks?

I note that I pointed out the issue of the corporate form itself to Matt Ridley, he responded with a “very interesting”. Stay tuned!



Posted by, TokyoTom [follow link to cross-post here]

Matt, great post — but I think you’ve only barely scratched the surface on the ‘crony capitalism’ institutionalization of risk.

I’ve spent a bit of time delving into this at my blog that Ludwig von Mises Inst kindly hosts:

– Sorry, but I can’t resist asking: Feel Sorry for Tokyo Electric Power Co?, ‘a tribute to Lew Rockwell’s ‘Feel Sorry for BP?’)

– Institutionalized moral hazard: Fun with Nuclear Power in Japan, or, prepare for a glowing twilight, with scattered fallout in the morning,

– My posts exploring the ramifications of the state grant of ‘limited liability’ corporation status:

– The case of BP:

– Not surprisingly, similar issues arise with respect to the rest of the Govt-licensed energy sector and climate:

Thus small things contribute to the Road to Serfdom:

I hope you’ll take your concern for nuclear crony capitalism even further.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:39am


Posted by, Matt Ridley


very interesting. Thanks. will follow up.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:54am
Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Institutionalized moral hazard: Fun with Nuclear Power in Japan, or, prepare for a glowing twilight, with scattered fallout in the morning

March 26th, 2011 4 comments

Thanks for indulging the rambling title, dear readers. My thoughts wander even as try to gather them.

I thought I would share with you some of the observations I’ve been making – tweeting, largely – on the troubled nuclear reactors that TEPCO so thoughtfully lined up on the Fukushima coast to meet the massive tsunamis on March 11.

A environmental journalist who posted the Atomic Boy’s Upset Stomach YouTube video called it little more than government-industry propaganda that glosses over the colossal abrogation of responsibility that led to the Fukushima crisis.”  While I don’t think the video was government- or industry-sponsored, I share his further sentiment (emphasis added):

there’s a gaping omission right at the beginning. Nuclear Boy has a stomach ache. No kidding. Why? …. Could it be because the government of Japan let the Toyko Electric Power Company build a series of nuclear reactors next to a seismically active fault line?

Sticking with the bowel-malfunction metaphor, perhaps the video’s creators could have produced a few frames testifying to the reality that Nuclear Boy’s parents fed him some poison because they forgot to read the label carefully. Something along those lines.

Is that too much for Japanese kids to swallow (so to speak?) I don’t think so. Responsibility is something we all try to teach our children as early as possible. It’s important that Japanese leaders acknowledge the real reasons why they (and their children) are going to have to spend tens of billions of dollars to replace the Fukushima reactors years earlier than expected. Reactors that require an independent source of electricity to maintain coolant levels are, of course, a bad idea, and one that today’s generation of reactor designers have abandoned. But building them in an earthquake zone is tantamount to lunacy.

This prompted me to leave a comment with some of my thoughts (emphasis added):

 James, your criticisms are almost spot-on.

The risk-shifting start with ‘limited liability’ corporations that frees shareholders from responsibility, escalates with ‘public companies’ (regulations isolate managers from shareholders and create barriers to entry), and is ramped up even more for utilities, which are effectively granted monopolies and guaranteed returns on investment by government. Operators of nuclear plants are then given express liability caps for damages that radiation releases may cause others.

None of the utility managers/executives will have PERSONAL liability, of course.

Given all of these government policies that truncate responsibility, can there be any surprise that risk analysis and decision-making produces obviously flawed results — and ongoing efforts to cover up and hide blame?

Here are some recent tweets on this:

Nagao versus TEPCO:Case of now dead nuclear worker reveals how Japan protects corps that exist to fulfill state policy

Japan megabanks to extend TEPCO $25 billion lifeline,as Govt is sure to limit TEPCO’s liability for damages #eqjp #p2

These days,it’s ‘capitalists’ who r the biggest socialists:’Japanese Gov prepares to protect TEPCO frm liability’ #jpeq

Moody’s on the obvious:”business risk of operating nuclear pwr plants in Japan is higher thn previously contemplated”

Cato’s Jerry Taylor: Nuclear power is “solar power for conservatives”+needs “a policy of tough love” TT’s Lost in Tokyo

Posted by: TokyoTom | March 25, 2011 9:12 AM

More in posts to come.



Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Stop the nuclear industry bailout

March 3rd, 2010 No comments

And now a public service market  announcement (with the captioned title) from your friendly local mankind-hating envirofascist, courtesy of Dave Schwab of Green Change, who is apparently the author of the following missive that found its way into my email inbox:

Dear Tokyo,

President Obama has proposed a whopping $54 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear power plants.

What does that mean? If the costly new nuclear plants aren’t finished, then taxpayers cover the huge financial loss.

If they are built, then we’re stuck with power plants that generate
overpriced electricity and create deadly radioactive waste that will
remain toxic for thousands of years.

Either way, the nuclear industry wins, and we lose.

Tell President Obama to stop the nuclear power boondoggle.

Nuclear power creates deadly radioactive waste, from the mining process
onwards.   It’s got a scary history: think Chernobyl and Three Mile

Just recently, a nuclear plant in Vermont was ordered shut down after
radioactive tritium, which is linked to cancer, leaked from the plant
into local water supplies.

Nuclear power is so financially risky that even Wall Street won’t bet
on it.  It’s a public health and financial disaster waiting to happen.

Instead, our government should promote energy efficiency and a
decentralized power system based on safe, clean, renewable energy.

Tell President Obama today: don’t risk our future with nuclear power subsidies!


Dave Schwab

Online organizer
Green Change

Note that I strongly disagree that nuclear power presents serious health risks; it seems to me that the health hazards and risks from nuclear power activities are orders of magnitude less than those presented by coal and other fossil fuels. Nuclear “waste” has been well-managed, and is waste only because the government has stopped industry from re-using it as fuel in breeder reactors. So while I understand the “scary” nuclear power theme (a consequence of the massive and counterproductive role of government in developing and testing nuclear weapons), I think it is counterproductive.

I am in favor of nuclear power (though NOT in favor of subsidies), and believe we’d see alot more if coal was full-costed (it receives federal and state subsidies via licenses to mine, pollute the air and pollute land and water with wastes). I’ve blogged more on nuclear power here. As Cato’s Jerry Taylor put it: Nuclear power is “solar power for conservatives” and needs “a policy of tough love”.

However, I do feel strongly that we ought to encourage energy efficiency – by removing public utility power monopolies.

We ought likewise to eliminate subsidies for other types of power production, and instead let free markets and consumer and investor choice work their wonders.

[Update] Cato’s Jerry Taylor: Nuclear power is "solar power for conservatives" and needs "a policy of tough love"

February 24th, 2009 No comments

After decades of loathing nuclear power as the ugly, monstrous child of a big government Dr. Frankenstein, climate-change-fearing enviros like George Monbiot are finally coming around to the relative benefits of nuclear power.  This is a welcome change – as it is clear that coal has generated and continues to generate much greater environmental impacts (not only in extraction, but in acid rain, particulates, heavy metals, released radiation and fly waste) – but that doesn’t mean that libertarians or conservatives ought to support throwing any more taxpayer dollars at nuclear power.

Rather, as Jerry Taylor (a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and well-regarded energy/environment expert) argues (as noted in the excerpts below), we should push nuclear power off the federal dole, deregulate power markets, and – IF we decide that climate change risks merits a constraint on greenhouse gas emissions  – we should do that through pricing mechanisms rather than by having the federal government further involved in the business of trying to guess what technological approaches will be successful via massive subsidies for nuclear or other “clean” technologies.

I pretty much agree with Taylor in principle (including on tackling power market regulatory issues), but believe that he both (1) dodges the massive pollution costs imposed by and rent-seeking conducted by coal firms and coal-fired utilities and (2) understates the economic case for carbon pricing, as I have noted elsewhere.

For those interested, I’ve collected below a few pieces of analysis and debate from Jerry Taylor on nuclear power:

– at on June 21, 2003:

The federal government has always maintained a unique public-private partnership with the nuclear industry, wherein the costs of nuclear power are shared by the public but the profits are enjoyed privately. In an attempt to resuscitate this dying industry, the current Senate energy bill proposes unprecedented federal support for nuclear power. …

But nuclear power was ultimately rejected by investors because it simply does not make economic sense. In truth, nuclear power has never made economic sense and exists purely as a creature of government.

In fact, a recent report by Scully Capital Services, an investment banking and financial services firm, commissioned by the Department of Energy (DOE), highlighted three federal subsidies and regulations — termed “show stoppers” — without which the industry would grind to a halt. These “show stoppers” include the Price Anderson Act, which limits the liability of the nuclear industry in case of a serious nuclear accident — leaving taxpayers on the hook for potentially hundreds of billions in compensation costs; federal disposal of nuclear waste in a permanent repository, which will save the industry billions at taxpayer expense; and licensing regulations, wherein the report recommends that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission further grease the skids of its quasi-judicial licensing process to preclude successful interventions from opponents.

But even these long-standing subsidies are not enough to convince investors, who for decades have treated nuclear power as the pariah of the energy industry. Nuclear generated electricity remains about twice as expensive as coal- or gas-fired electricity. Although the marginal costs of nuclear are lower, the capital costs are much higher. In light of this resounding cold shoulder from Wall Street, the federal government is opening the treasury wider than ever before.

– at NRO on Jan. 26, 2006:

Nuclear power is solar power for conservatives — an energy source with every merit in the world save for the most important — economic merit. Investors — not environmentalists — are the parties that have turned against nuclear and there’s no reason for government to second guess the businessmen …

– at a Rountable on Nuclear Power and Energy Independence at Reason Foundation on October 21, 2008: [worth reviewing in whole]

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

But nuclear power plant construction costs are so high that it would take a very, very long time for nuclear facilities to pay for themselves if they only operated during high demand periods. Hence, nuclear power plants are only profitable in base-load markets. Gas-fired power plants, on the other hand, can be profitable in either market because not only are their upfront costs low but it is much easier to turn them off or on unlike nuclear.

Nuclear’s high up-front costs don’t just mean delayed profits, it also makes nuclear a more risky investment, especially since 20 states have scrapped policies that used to allow investors to charge rates that would guarantee their money back. This means that investors in new nuclear power plants are making a multi-billion dollar bet on disciplined construction schedules, accurate cost estimates, and the future economic health of the region. Bet wrong on any of the above and the company may well go bankrupt. Bet wrong on a gas-fired power plant, on the other hand, and corporate life will go on because there is less to lose given that the construction costs associated with gas-fired power plants are a small fraction of those associated with nuclear plants. …

Investors are also wary of nuclear plants because of the construction delays and cost over-runs that have historically plagued the industry. …  Nor have these construction delays had anything to do with regulatory obstruction or organized public opposition.

If nuclear power plants are so uneconomical, how then to explain the blizzard of permit applications for the construction and operation of new nuclear power plants that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received? Easy: These applications cost little and oblige utilities to do nothing. Industry analysts maintain that federal approvals will not translate into actual plants without a federal promise to private equity markets that, in case of default by power plants, the taxpayer will make good on the full sum of all bad nuclear loans.

Nuclear supporters often counter that construction costs would be a lot lower if regulators didn’t impose insanely demanding safety standards, byzantine and time-consuming permitting processes, or endless public hearings, any one of which could result in the plant being stopped in its tracks. Investors would also be more likely to invest, we’re told, if there were a high-level waste repository in place or more political support for nuclear power.

I would love to tell that story. I do, after all, work at the Cato Institute, and blaming government for economic problems is what keeps me in business. But what stops me is the fact that those complaints are not echoed by the nuclear power industry itself.

On the contrary, the industry in the early 1990s asked for – and got – exactly the sort of safety regulations, permit review process, and public comment regime now in place. Both public and political support for nuclear power is running so high than even a majority of Democrats in Congress are happy to not just tolerate nuclear power, but lavish even more subsidies upon it. And while Yucca Mountain may not be open now or ever, everyone seems reasonably content with the current on-site waste storage regime.

Indeed, if government were the reason why investors were saying “no” to their loan applications, I would expect that industry officials would be the first to say so. But they do not.

There’s another good reason why the industry is not protesting government intervention these days — the industry would not exist without it. Take away the 1.8¢ per kWh production tax credit available to the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generation built prior to 2021, for instance, and Metcalf calculates that the levelized cost of new nuclear power plants jumps by 30 percent. Replace accelerated depreciation tax rules with regular depreciation rules and costs jump another 9 percent. Even zero taxation on nuclear power would increase costs by 6 percent because right now nuclear power enjoys a negative effective tax rate. Indeed, this jump by itself would make nuclear much more expensive than conventional coal, “clean” coal, and natural gas. Finally, repealing the $18 billion in federal loan guarantees recently promised the industry and eliminating regulations that relieve nuclear plant owners of the responsibility to pay third-parties to accept the risks associated with waste disposal would dampen market interest in nuclear power even further.

But the final nail in the coffin for the industry would be if the federal cap on the liability that nuclear power plant owners face in case of accidents (the Price-Anderson Act) were to be lifted.

Given all of this, how do France, India, China and Russia build cost-effective nuclear power plants? They don’t. Government officials in those countries, not private investors, decide what is built. …

Conservatives project nuclear power as the solution to greenhouse gas emissions. But they should resist that argument. If we slapped a carbon tax on the economy to “internalize” the costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions – the ideal way to address emissions if we find such policies necessary – then the “right” carbon tax would likely be about $2 per ton of emissions according to a survey of the academic literature by climate economist Richard Tol [As noted in the update further below, Taylor has subsequently moved from this low figure after reviewing Tol’s more recent work]. That’s not enough to make nuclear energy competitive against coal or natural gas according to calculations performed by the Electric Power Research Institute. In any case, if nuclear offers a cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it should have to prove it by competing against alternatives in some future carbon-constrained market.  …

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.

follow-up discussion on Reason Foundation’s “Out of Control” blog, involving Jerry Taylor and co-essayists William Tucker and Shikha Dalmia (also moderator) and various blog commenters. 

    One interesting point made in the follow-up discussion was that while our regulatory scheme is much tougher on nuclear power over risks that so far have been speculative, Taylor ignores the much heavier health damages (on the order of 25,000 deaths per year) generated by coal.  Taylor’s response:  perhaps so, but coal’s extra environmental cost should be directly addressed by being tougher on coal, not by subsidizing nuclear power.


[Update:  On the carbon pricing issue, subsequent to the October 2008 Rountable referred to above, I pointed out to Jerry that his reference to Tol was dated (based on a 2005 study rather than on Tol’s more recent 2008 study.  Jerry reviewed and summarized Tol’s most recent study at Cato in December 2008;  in this, (1) Taylor notes Tol’s conclusions that (a) the social cost of carbon emissions
is positive, that (b) there is so much uncertainty regarding costs that “a
considerable risk premium is warranted,”
and that, (c) consequently,
“greenhouse gas emission reduction today is justified,” and (2) Taylor concludes that “Given our skepticism about the underlying logic of discount rates of 1%
or less, any number between $3 per ton and $24 per ton seems
However, Taylor remains conerned that “the political and economic transaction costs associated with imposing a carbon tax … likely exceed the benefits,” and argues that “there may be less expensive ways of reducing harm.”]