Economies and moralities in the nuclear field
Başak Sarac̣-Lesavre, The Beam Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester
A range of economic devices has long been deployed to ‘rationalise’ decision-making processes. Legitimised by the modern state, they have long remained invisible to scrutiny. However, in the last few decades, the penetration of various forms of economic reasoning into all dimensions of life has attracted a remarkable surge in interest. There is a growing body of research by sociologists, anthropologists and historians on the increasing uses of technologies of economic assessment in the development of public policy. For some, the economisation of – almost – everything heralds the end of morality, and even the end of the ‘political’. For others, it creates its own moral categories that society acts upon. The nuclear sector is not immune from such discussions.
In this lecture, rather than taking their ‘rationalising’ effect for granted, we will be looking at the ways in which the uses of different economic devices play a major role in the formulation of moral, political and social values, even in seemingly unexpected cases.
It was in around 2010 that I first started researching nuclear worlds. It was the moment when the Obama Administration abandoned the long-planned and highly contested Yucca Mountain geological repository project in Nevada, established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987 as the only candidate site for a nuclear repository for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in the United States. The abandonment of the project resulted in endless lawsuits against the federal government and regulatory agencies, brought, among others, by state governments and private nuclear utilities, who claimed that the federal government had failed to fulfil its political, contractual, and legal obligations towards them. At the same time, local communities and state governments in areas that were suffering from the prolonged storage of spent nuclear fuel or high-level defence waste at federal facilities or reactor sites started voicing their concerns in political arenas at various scales. Some demanded monetary compensation, others the accelerated clean-up of their land.
This moment was significant because it showed that a geological repository project is the result of a series of complex societal, environmental, legal, financial, and political arrangements that need to operate in coordination and synchronicity, in addition to the rocks and bolts to contain radioactivity from the biosphere. The end of the Yucca Mountain project has rendered such arrangements, long-invisible from the public view, visible.
In this lecture, my aim is to provide a better understanding of the evaluative frameworks and economic devices that are used intensively in the nuclear field, and to unpack the specific roles they play, among other things, in making futures present and actionable, in determining the ‘value’ of investments, in designating nuclear materials as ‘waste’ or ‘value’, in defining the roles and responsibilities of present ‘generations’ vis-à-vis future ‘generations’, or in assigning far long-term financial responsibilities associated with the undesirable by-products of nuclear activities.
Before giving three empirical examples from my existing research, let me first provide some background as to how economic technologies gained prevalence in the development of public policy and the valuation of almost everything, and underline what it means to scrutinise the relationships between economies and moralities.
From economic rationality to values inscribed in economic devices and their uses
According to Theodor Porter (1995), a prominent American historian, in the United States, beginning in the 1930s, a desire to base political rule on the authority of ‘rational expertise’ rather than on custom or personal leadership led to the systematic use of quantification in the formulation of public policies. Cost efficiency slowly became a means for public officials to justify the increasingly proactive role of the government. These officials considered that economic rationalisation would enable them to move away from the ‘distrust of unarticulated expert knowledge’ and the ‘suspicion of arbitrariness and discretion,’ both of which were grounded in a political culture that was sceptical of governmental power. Imbued with a moral capacity to eradicate ‘pork barrel politics’ and set a ‘universal standard of rationality,’ cost-benefit reasoning associated public investment decisions with an ideal of mechanical objectivity, which was seen as a means to address the public’s distrust of politics. In this sense, cost-benefit reasoning promised to solve not only resource allocation problems, but also problems of political legitimacy, by producing ‘trust in numbers’. By the 1970s, the role of cost-benefit analysis had gradually expanded across all regulatory agencies, turning the U.S., like many other modern states to varying degrees, into a ‘cost-benefit state’.
This raised scholarly questions about the processes and practices involved in quantification, as bringing a range of objects and problems into quantification first and foremost requires valuation. Valuation of what ‘counts’ is a prerequisite for quantification. Quantification does not eliminate questions around what constitutes a morally and politically ‘good’ and ‘desirable’ policy decision for society, it only changes where such questions are raised and answered.
Here let me turn to the seminal work of the economic sociologist Marion Fourcade (2011). To unpick what it means to use ‘money as yardstick’ for ‘pricing the priceless’, instead of adopting a moral position à priori, Fourcade empirically explores the monetary valuation of nature in the cases of three historic oil-spill disasters in France and in the United States (Exxon Valdez in Alaska and Amoco Cadiz and Erika in Britany). She points out that economic valuation techniques are numerous and varied, whilst the production, selection and application are highly contingent and deeply political. She suggests that economic devices and techniques ‘emerge and gain authority in social contexts and only make sense in relation to the systems of expertise, social relations, and cultural narratives prevalent in these contexts. It is also at this stage that local politics becomes important to understanding outcomes—it influences which methods were developed, which were selected and endowed with authority, and which were pushed aside or discarded’.
Analysing the relationships between calculation systems and culture, she reveals that it is the different cultural conceptions of nature, such as wild space in the U.S. and lived space in France, that have led to the adoption of different evaluation methods, resulting in enormous differences in monetary compensation. Therefore, economic calculations have not only mediated the monetary valuation of ‘nature’, but have also produced concepts of what ‘nature’ is.
To articulate the relationship between economy and morality, in line with Marion Fourcade, Jean Finez (2014) explores changes in how ticket prices were set in the French rail service between 1938 and 2012. The first system was based on the distance travelled by each passenger, the second, introduced in the 1960s, was based on marginal costing, and the third, introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, was based on yield management. According to Finez, shifting from one pricing system to another, the engineers in charge of pricing deployed different economic theories that they considered relevant in specific political, economic, technical and social contexts. In the first pricing system, it was the distance travelled by each passenger that set the basis of ‘equity’, allowing all passengers to be treated in the same manner. In the post-Second World War period, as the rail company faced financial difficulties, economic engineers suggested a different conceptualisation of ‘equity’, one aimed at helping the company reach financial equilibrium for the ‘common good’ through the introduction of marginal pricing that entails setting the price of a product based on the extra cost of producing an extra unit of output. In the third period, the company abandoned pricing systems based on costing and introduced a system based on yield management, which relies on the ‘utility’ the service generates for individual users. This time, morality was embedded in the increased ‘wellbeing of individuals’ in society.
Unfolding the types of moral and political values embedded in the apparent objectivity of economic calculations that are produced within the confined milieu of economic expertise is a challenging task for those who are not familiar with its specific technical language. However, political and moral values (regardless of whether they are highly contested or widely shared) are always present, even though they may be obscured beneath several layers of sophistication. In the following sections, let me provide some elements of the questions we will be addressing during the full-lecture:
Contested and competing values inscribed in nuclear investments
It is widely acknowledged that making energy investment decisions is a challenging task. What makes a technology ‘good’ for investment is neither given nor stable. By exploring the uses of a standard method that is widely adopted in the nuclear sector, the levelised cost of electricity, we will examine how concerned groups engage in the comparisons of different energy investments. We will see that although all concerned actors deploy the same economic instrument, they all reach quite different results. Each concerned group enacts its own priorities, assumptions and values regarding the electricity market in which the technologies would/should operate, the identity of potential investors, the reason of investment, the role to be given to the ‘State’ and the characterisation of ‘spent nuclear fuel’ as a potential ‘resource’ or as ‘waste’. We will discuss how, over time, the continued use of this method, whose history parallels the history of electricity, became contested.
To that purpose, we will analyse the levelised cost of electricity calculations that intensively circulated in scientific literature and among policy circles around the adoption of alternative nuclear fuel cycle technologies between the George W. Bush and Obama administrations in the United States. We will contrast this case to an historical case studied by Gabrielle Hecht on the French civilian nuclear programme (Hecht, 2009). Hecht examined the emergence of the French civilian nuclear programme following the end of the Second World War. In her work, she describes the competition between the French Atomic Agency (CEA) and the French Electricity Company (EDF). Both institutions sought to enrol the French government in the deployment of their own reactor designs. Whereas the CEA increasingly politicised reactor choice by articulating the primacy of French military strength and insisting on the physical efficiency provided by its technologies, EDF chose to economise its decision by highlighting the economic efficiency of its technologies and by giving priority to the production of each unit of electricity at the lowest cost. Hecht spelled out how economisation entailed making politics by other means. We will ask ourselves how, in the 21st century, the practices of valuation that revolve around the definition of future nuclear investments differ from those in the post-WWII period?
Financing a million years?
In this section, we will interrogate how the ‘polluter pays’ principle has been translated into practice within the context of the U.S. nuclear waste programme. After decades-long debates among economists about the treatment of ‘externalities’, the ‘polluter pays’ principle was first formalised in 1972 with the preparation of the Environment and Economics: Guiding Principles Concerning International Economic Aspects of Environmental Policies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In the United States, the principle was transposed into law with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980, also known as Superfund, providing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a set of tools to effect hazardous waste clean-up. The legislation construed environmental pollution as ‘negative externality’, a term used by economists to characterise the undesirable consequences of an economic transaction, and placed retroactive financial liability on its producers.
The translation of this principle into policy arrangements has been controversial among economists, for some, what matters is ‘equity’ requiring a ‘fair’ distribution of costs between ‘polluters’ and ‘victims’, for others, what matters is ‘efficiency’, entailing internalisation of environmental costs. During the full-lecture, going back to the initial steps preceding the formulation of a mechanism to finance the U.S. nuclear waste programme, and following its trajectory over time, we will reflect upon the following questions: Which kinds of negotiations take place in qualifying what ‘pollution’ is, identifying who the ‘polluters’ are, and in calculating how much they are to ‘pay’? Which relations of responsibilities do the translation of the ‘polluter pays’ principle into economic arrangements establish across different temporal and spatial scales?
In this section, we will zoom in on another economic device that is used to render futures present and calculable; discounting. Previously, I have mentioned the prevalence of cost-benefit analysis in determining whether governments and their agencies should adopt a policy, a regulatory standard, or finance a project/programme. Discounting is an integral part of that analysis. It is used to render projects and programmes with different temporalities commensurable, once the costs and benefits are translated into monetary values. It is a highly contested and almost universally used tool both for policy making and implementation.
Depending on the level of discount rate used in the assessment, discounting gains the power to determine the fate of regulatory standards or government projects. When discounting is used to evaluate projects that are expected to generate long-term benefits that are hard to value in monetary terms, it often results in the abandonment of such long-term projects in favour of short-term projects with calculable monetary benefits. It is therefore, criticised, firstly, for privileging projects with short-term monetary benefits, secondly, for inviting the increased monetisation of values that were previously considered incommensurable, and thirdly, for hindering contemporary society’s capacity to account for future generations and their well-being, particularly when the responsibilities at hand span long scales of times (whether this is climate change mitigation, nuclear waste management programmes or environmental remediation).
In the full-lecture, instead of focusing on whether or not long-term discounting is a ‘good’ or ‘desirable’ means to make futures, we will take a step backwards and unpack the competing and contested moralities embedded in its various calculations. We will see how its calculations are the result of debates deep-rooted in moral philosophy. Analysing the uses of discounting within the contexts of the US and French nuclear waste programmes, we will not only unfold economic, societal, and planetary futures embedded in the choices of specific discount rates but also, the ways in which such rates mediate the conception of specific political and moral relations among ‘generations’.
Briefly, in this lecture, we will take a step towards the democratisation of economic expertise. Therefore, to conclude (Saraç-Lesavre, 2021a):
‘Technologies of assessment are critical for science and democracy. It is therefore crucial that their designers and users, whether those are academics, practitioners or policy makers, acknowledge and explicate logics of valuation they rely upon, and audiences they address. Defining which moral and political values are to guide policy-making and long-term futures, is of collective concern and not solely of those who hold the capacity to produce specific expertise about them’.
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Finez, J. (2014). La construction des prix à la SNCF, une socio-histoire de la tarification, Revue Française de Sociologie, 55(1), 5–39.
Fourcade, M. (2011). Cents and sensibility: economic valuation and the nature of ‘nature’. American Journal of Sociology, 116(6), 1721-77.
Hecht, G. (2009). The radiance of France: Nuclear power and national identity after World War II. MIT Press.
Muniesa, F., Doganova, L., Ortiz, H., Pina-Stranger, A., Paterson, F., Bourgoin, A., Ehrenstein, V., Juven, P-A., Pontille, D., Saraç-Lesavre, B., and Yon, G. (2017). Elements for a Social Inquiry into Capitalization. Presse des Mines, Paris.
Porter, T. M. (1995). Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Saraç-Lesavre, B. (2020). Deep time financing? ‘Generational’ responsibilities and the problem of rendez-vous in financing now and the next million years, Journal of Cultural Economy.
Saraç-Lesavre, B. (2021a). Styles of revaluation: The case of the levelized cost of electricity, Nuclear Technology, forthcoming.
Saraç-Lesavre, B. (2021b). Deep time: The end of an engagement. Issues in Science and Technology, (April 2021).