Of Markets, Regulated and Deregulated

I’ve been studying the history of nuclear power for some time now. With that in mind, I found Fortune’s November story on “Southern’s Big Nuke Bet,” in which Geoff Colvin interviewed Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, to be quite interesting. In the article, Fanning responds to the following question from Colvin:

[Geoff Colvin:] A couple of other utilities have decided to get out of nuclear. Constellation got out of plant development earlier this year, and NRG pulled out of its nuclear project in Texas. Is this just a case of differing business judgments, or is there something else?

[Tom Fanning:] It goes back to scale, credit quality, and credibility. When you think about the challenges that a small company will face building a $14 billion deal, that gets rather daunting.

The U.S. really is divided into two electricity markets. Some years ago many states deregulated, and they have what’s called merchant markets, where the price for electricity is largely set a day ahead or week ahead or month ahead. Remember this is going to take 10 years to build, and it’s going to be the largest capital asset in your portfolio, and you’re going to need to run it 30 to 50 years to earn that money back. Putting that magnitude of capital in a deregulated merchant market is exceedingly risky. Thankfully, Georgia Power operates in a vertically integrated regulated market where legislation and regulation are stable and constructive and will support this over time.

In other words, the major reason Southern Power is able to undertake the construction of a new nuclear power plant is because it operates in what looks a lot like a planned market. This is a point that some in the U.S. seem to ignore. For instance, in an article for the Heritage Foundation, Jack Spencer claimed that federal loan guarantees were not essential to the continued development of nuclear power in the United States, but that instead, free markets could be counted on to intervene in the government’s place.

But rather than being driven by “market” forces, history reveals time and again that the construction of nuclear power plants depends almost exclusively on state intervention. For instance, in recent years, EDF, Rosatom and China have been three of the most active developers of nuclear power projects worldwide. All are essentially state entities. As of January 2010, the French government owned 84.48% of EDF. While Rosatom and the Chinese nuclear industry are entirely owned by their respective governments.

Meanwhile, in the US, the nuclear “renaissance” is now essentially limited to Southern Company’s planned Waynesboro, GA facility. Of the other approximately two dozen applications submitted over the past few years, none are being actively being pursued at this time. By comparison, not only has Southern Company received $8.2 billion in loan guarantees from the federal government, as the interview above makes plain, the economic viability of the project additionally hinges on the fact that Georgia remains a regulated energy market, meaning that the ultimate costs of the project (whether the currently projected $14 billion, or more) will ultimately be borne by Georgia electricity ratepayers. This effectively offers the company a state-level guarantee on top of its federal loan guarantee.

In short, the preponderance of the evidence from both the US and the rest of the world suggests that heavy governmental subsidies, loan guarantees and/or liability exemptions — either explicitly or de facto — are essential to the development of nuclear power. By comparison, all of the literature I have read on the topic suggests that the market has yet to build a single nuclear plant.