Friday, 28 January 2005

Small world watch, volume 30

I ran into one of the half-dozen or so students who was in my first-year class in grad school at the University of Mississippi (he subsequently changed majors, worked for a while as the assistant dean of student affairs at Ole Miss, and got a Ph.D. in education) today at Brookshire’s; he’s now living in Jackson and serving as the education policy advisor to the governor.

More on grades

Orin Kerr discusses law school grading practices, including the notorious (and universal) use of strict curves, without as much overthinking as I engaged in earlier this week.


Just a helpful hint for Gmail users: if you catch a spammer in the act of “phishing”, you can open the email and choose “Show Options” to report it. This seems like a good thing to do. I suspect that one of the reasons that spam filters are better in recent years is that people mark items as spam and the email providers can use the information to improve their algorithms. Similar network effects should be useful in fighting phishing.

Nuclear power

Chris’s earlier entry on nuclear power got me thinking. I spent a few years in the industry and got to witness it change from a horribly inefficient industry to one that is quite competitive—after deregulation of generation, of course. The time is certainly ripe for new plants, since the existing fleet’s licenses begin to expire in the next few years.

My guess is that with a simplified design and a simple licensing process, new plants would be built in short order. Deregulation is something that worked amazingly well. Indeed, far better than this capitalist oppressor ever imagined. When I started in the industry, fresh out of college, I had pretty much taken it for granted that power generation—just like the power lines themselves—was a natural monopoly.

Once deregulation was in place, though, peoples’ thinking seemed to change. Before deregulation, the nuclear plants seemed to compete to see who could stay offline the longest. The plant operators were quick to take a plant offline to demonstrate their commitment to safety. Somewhere during the transition to a competitive generating environment, both the regulators and the plant operators figured out that the best run plants were also the ones that were the safest. In other words, the NRC and operators started asking why a shutdown was required. Why didn’t we know that the conditions requiring a shutdown were emerging, and how can we claim to know how to run the plant if we can’t see these things? In short, incentives matter.

As long as they can be run safely and economically, I would love to see some new plants come online. The issue of dealing with spent fuel is another problem—it’s a huge unrecognized liability and it’s unclear to this day whether Yucca Mountain will ever be available as a permanent repository for spent fuel. Even so, having nuclear power as a continuing alternative for energy needs is a great idea as I see it.