Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Metaphor alert

Black swan events.  That's the au courant metaphor for an unlikely situation that -- because of its seriousness if it does happen -- merits our preemptive consideration. Because, the theory goes, when one assumes something won't happen, one is wholly unprepared when it does.

Never mind that since the Roman poet Juvenal began all this black-swan stuff with his comment, "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno," it's become known black swans do exist -- image at left (thanks to J J Harrison and Wikipedia). Keep that irony in mind.

(And bear with me. I will get to a technology matter, something well within the purview of this blog. And to another metaphor.)

I won't dwell on the current market crack-up, because people with far more qualifications than I have already weighed in on the topic. All you can bear to read about this mess is only a googling away. That said, one thing is clear: the present global financial panic originated in a black swan event.  (Or two. We have both the once unthinkable S&P downgrade of US sovereign debt and the unraveling of the Eurozone to thank.)

It is a panic. As one trader observes in "Why markets are melting":

"Stocks aren’t selling because of the Washington debt deal or now even because of yields in Italy. They are selling because they are selling. Apple this week is not a company with 12 percent less business than last week; Caterpillar is not about to sell 30 percent fewer earthmovers in China or Brazil. China is not about to purchase 25 percent less iron ore."
My issue: How do these market-moving events merit the label of black swan -- that is, unthinkable? Did anyone not see these macroeconomic fiascoes coming? Has it not been a matter of public record for years that nations are spending beyond their means, are accumulating debt at unsustainable rates? Did no one have cause to notice that a demographic tsunami of baby boomers is reaching Medicare and Social Security eligibility age? Hasn't European sovereign-debt contagion been festering, and metastasizing, for a year?

Of course everyone saw these trends. The true black swan event (or psychotic episode?) would be the serious observer who didn't know disaster must strike sovereign budgets. Hence, the applicable metaphor should be, rather than a black swan event, a slow-motion train wreck.

Here's another slow-motion train wreck: inadequate storage of nuclear waste from power plants. In the Fukushima Daiichi earthquake/tsunami/meltdown falling-dominoes situation in Japan (that was a black swan, IMO), we see the folly of keeping nuclear waste above ground and in many places.

In the US, it has been the law since 1982 that the federal government will take such wastes off the hands of utilities for safe storage. Since 1998, the feds have collected 0.1 cents per kilowat-hour generated by nuclear plants, to fund this program.

And the $25 billion the feds have collected? It's in the lock box next to your social-security funds.

Good one, Ed! No, that money -- a tax on electricity users -- has been squandered. The feds have, to date, accepted no wastes from nuclear plants. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, eons in the making, was killed off by politics before ever opening for use. And so, nuclear waste keeps piling up on the grounds of power plants across the US. And so, too, swells the eventual certain cost to fulfill the federal obligation to accept nuclear waste from utilities.

(If we're lucky, that will be the only price to be paid for this national shortsightedness. SF author that I am, it's no challenge to imagine things that could go wrong ....)

There's more about this slow-motion train wreck at "Nuclear Waste Piles Up As Repository Plan Falters," a National Public Radio story. Or from the other end of the opinion spectrum, if you subscribe to The Wall Street Journal (see start of today's article online at "Nuclear Waste Piles Up--in Budget Deficit):
"A decades-old promise to dispose of the waste has become another unfunded liability, starting with a $25 billion ratepayer fund gone astray and $16 billion or more in estimated legal judgments to compensate utilities for their storage expenses."
Again from NPR, see what can be done when there is the will: "In Sweden, A Tempered Approach To Nuclear Waste."

When a nuclear black swan rears its hideously mutated head in the US, don't say you didn't see the train wreck coming ...


Mike said...

We can’t reprocess waste because Carter signed an executive order banning it. So instead of spent fuel being recycled into new fuel and low level waste, it sits as high level waste. We can’t bury in a central location it because while places like Nevada were more than willing to take the $10’s of billions to construct the storage site, they don’t want to actually open it and the administration folded to get Reid reelected. We cant store it on site in dry casks because its not “safe” … look at the feces storm when Prairie Island planned on moving fuel from its wet storage to dry cask a decade ago. So it sits in the spent fuel pools.

The nuclear waste issue is entirely political in nature and the anti nuke lobby realized a long time ago that spent fuel disposal was the Achilles heel of the industry. They figured that if they can throw up enough roadblocks reactors would have to shutdown because they eventually fill up their fuel pools and cant take in new fuel.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Are you frustrated Mike? Tell us how you really feel ;-)