Trimming the Data on Nuclear Costs
Merck Pharmaceuticals suppressed data on harmful effects of its drug Vioxx. As a result, many people died. Guidant Corporation suppressed data on electrical flaws in one of its heart-defibrillator models, and it too caused many patient deaths. Many similar examples reveal how financial conflicts of interest (COI) can skew biomedical research— especially when companies suppress data that could jeopardize their pharmaceutical profits. As a result, scientists and ethicists have long recognized the harm done by such COI. An Annals of Internal Medicine study recently showed that 98 percent of papers based on industry-sponsored studies reflected favorably on the industry’s products; a Journal of the American Medical Association article likewise concluded that industryfunded studies were 8 times less likely to reach conclusions unfavorable to their drugs than were nonprofit-funded studies.1 Does something similar happen in energy studies done by electric utilities?
Both coal and nuclear utilities appear to massively underestimate the costs of their activities. For instance, an association of coal utilities and producers, the World Coal Institute, said in 2009 that coal is “cheaper per energy unit than other fuels,” but as chapter 1 documented, the US National Academy of Sciences says that annual costs of coal-generated electricity often exceed their benefits, especially for older, dirtier coal plants. The academy noted that annual US health-related and CC damages from US coal plants are more than $120 billion annually, including tens of thousands of coal-induced deaths per year. Even in market terms, coal benefits often do not pay for its costs. A recent report of the Mountain Association of Community Economic Development showed that, for a typical coal-producing state, like Kentucky, annual state revenues from coal are $528 million, but they cost $643 in state expenditures—and these figures do not include any health damages.2
Nuclear-industry cost estimates are just as misleading. Jonathan Porritt, chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission and adviser to Gordon Brown, says, “Cost estimates from the [nuclear] industry have been subject to massive underestimates—inaccuracy of an astonishing kind consistently over a 40-, 50-year period.” 3 A UK government commission agrees, claiming that these “massive underestimates” have arisen because virtually all nuclear-cost data can be “traced back to industry