Being a player in the nuclear industry is very much like being a big, lumbering baby learning to walk. You blunder along putting one clumsy foot in front of another, safe in the knowledge that if you look like you're going to fall, a big pair of comforting hands will be there to catch you, pick you up, give you a lollipop, and make it all better.
Take the companies bidding for the contract to decommission the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria in the north of England, for example. According to documents recently seen by the Observer newspaper, the four consortia involved (which include Fluor, Bechtel, Washington Group and CH2M Hill, Areva, Toshiba, Serco and Amec) have clenched their little fists and stamped their little feet and demanded that the British government bail them out in the event of an accident at the site.
The government (meaning the British taxpayer) will pay out for any 'property damage' or 'damage to human health', 'cost of measures of reinstatement of significantly impaired environment' and 'the cost of preventative measures'. The companies will also be compensated for any loss of income after an accident even - and this is the best bit - if they caused the accident themselves.
It's a pattern that you see repeated across the world wherever these strutting, dynamic nuclear behemoths, with their bold promises to save us from everything from rocketing oil prices to global climate cataclysm, decide to set up shop. The building of the Olkiluoto reactor in Finland, as another example, has relied on funds from export credit agencies, money usually reserved for projects in the developing world.
The titans of nuclear energy won't lay a single brick in a new reactor if there's the slightest hint of financial risk. To put it another way, if you crashed your car into a nursery and you weren't insured, there's a good chance you're going to jail. Irradiate that same nursery with your power plant and, well, don't worry, here's a cheque.
But who do you blame for this state of affairs? The complacently wobbling child who might topple any second or the over-protective parent hovering nervously mere inches away? This is the price paid for relying on nuclear energy and these companies for vital issues such as power generation.
If the lights go out or there's a nuclear accident it's the government that will get the blame from the people and the media. There are political reputations at stake. Witness the British government's desperate bailout of a failing British Energy a few years back, showing a history of government subsidies that now extends to the proposed new generation of nuclear power stations.
One wonders whether this baby can ever walk unaided, or whether it should just give it all up as a bad job. From a political standpoint, if the baby ends up with a bump on its head, who looks bad? It's certainly us tax payers who'll end up paying for the bandages.
Update July 11 2008: For updates on this, see the Fallout from July 11 2008.