What is the economic cost of nuclear power? That turns out to be a very difficult question to answer.
The United States and other countries have plentiful experience building and operating nuclear power plants. Currently 438 nuclear reactors with a combined capacity of 379,000 megawatts generate more than 10% of the total electricity used worldwide.
The US has the largest fleet, with 99 reactors generating almost 20% of US electricity. France has the second-largest, with 58 reactors producing 77% of its electricity. The Chinese fleet of 27 reactors generates under 3% of its electricity.
Nevertheless, there is great uncertainty about the cost of building new plants. The existing fleet in the US and most developed countries is very old, dating back to a period of intense growth in the 1960s and 1970s. In the US, the most recent construction permit for an operating reactor was issued in 1978, although completion work on a couple of stalled projects and “uprates” – capital refurbishment that increases capacity – have occurred at a number of units.
New construction fell off in other developed countries, too. The few additions made since 1990 were mostly in Japan, Korea, Eastern Europe, Russia and China.
Supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement under negotiation between the United States and 11 other countries, make this case: Trade between countries is always good, and more trade with more countries is even better. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw goes further in a recent New York Times piece, arguing that anyone opposed to trade deals does not understand elementary economics.
The arguments made by these advocates do not match the reality of the modern world and are not helpful for thinking about what is at stake in the TPP. It’s not a question of understanding economics. It’s a question of knowing precisely what we’re agreeing to when we sign the TPP.
In the simple models of introductory textbooks, countries improve their respective economic outcomes by specializing in their “comparative advantage” — the goods they produce more efficiently than their trade partners — thereby increasing the supply of goods and lowering prices. No government subsidy is involved, nobody cheats, everyone is well-informed about the nature of the deal, and pretty much all parties come out ahead. If anyone loses their job, in those models either they get another good job or they can be fairly compensated by the people who gain extra income.
Stock markets continue to respond strongly to China’s economic woes, fearing a crippling slowdown since China suddenly devalued its currency two weeks ago — a move widely interpreted as a desperate attempt to support growth.
But Chinese growth in the future will be limited until the government makes fairly substantive structural reforms.
China’s growth model is one in which the role of the state in the economy has become more intrusive. For years, many US observers hailed China’s government-led and investment-heavy model as a pillar of strength. Their favorite comparison is between the spunky new airports in Beijing and Shanghai and the supposedly dilapidated New York JFK and Los Angeles airports. While comparison has an element of convenience to it — you have to depart from a US airport and arrive at a Chinese airport when you visit China — the “airportology’’ is flawed, because it doesn’t take into account that China has clearly overbuilt, and at a considerable cost to its middle class.
In his new book, Superpower, Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer suggests three strategic options for America to remain a global superpower. But while many lawmakers appear to be taking his preferred option of an “Independent America” to heart, we believe it’s the wrong choice. In fact, Bremmer leaves out a fourth approach that we feel is the best strategy for America to win not only on the current global chessboard, but on the next one as well.
With the US reluctantly being drawn back into putting out fires in the Middle East, warily watching Russian aggression, facing a stop-and-start “Asia pivot,” and on the sidelines the Greek crisis unfolds or Chinese stock markets go through turmoil, reviewing these options is timely for President Obama; they may be even more important for his successor.
MIT Sloan alumna Aliza Blachman O’Keeffe, SM ’90, and chair of the alumni board, sits down with Dave Vellante and Stu Miniman from theCube for the live post-show to the MIT Conference on the Digital Economy: The Second Machine Age. O’Keeffe discusses the purpose of the MIT Sloan Alumni Board and how its members are using technology and innovation to reach a global alumni base.
On April 10, 2015, the MIT Digital Economy Conference: The Second Machine Age, led by Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy, and Andrew McAfee, co-director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy, featured a series of discussions that highlight MIT’s role in both understanding and shaping our increasingly digital world.
Aliza Blachman O’Keeffe, MBA ’90, is chair of the alumni board.