The merging of the economic and the political power of big nuclear corporations

Big money, nuclear subsidies, and systemic corruption, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Cassandra JefferyM. V. Ramana | February 12, 2021,  ”………… the long-term impact of legislation that favors nuclear energy firms involves the great economic and political power that these large utilities possess. To better understand the basis of the economic power of these corporations, we analyzed financial data from electric utilities listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) between 1970 and 2019 on the standard Compustat database.

The first trend that is evident is one of increasing market concentration. From the 1970s through to the mid-1990s, there were roughly 80 to 85 companies listed in this sector on the NYSE. By 2000, that number had dropped to 56. The reason was a series of mergers and acquisitions through which large companies absorbed smaller companies. For example, Commonweath Edison became part of Unicom in 1994. Unicom and the Philadelphia Electric Company merged in 2000 to form Exelon. Similar mergers and acquisitions have continued, and by 2019 there were only 36 utility companies operating in the United States.

Measured through their market capitalization values, these 36 corporations are not equal. By and large, the corporations with the largest market cap values are the ones that own nuclear plants. Exelon is a good example, owning 17 of the 94 nuclear units that are operating in the United States as of November 2020. In 2019, Exelon’s average market capitalization was $44.3 billion. But Exelon is by no means the largest utility. Nextera Energy ($118 billion), Dominion ($69 billion), Duke ($67 billion), and American Electric ($47 billion) dominate the industry in terms of market capitalization. All of these five companies had a higher market capitalization in 2019 than the largest utility that did not own nuclear plants: Sempra Energy ($44.1 bn).

Over the last six years, when there have been no mergers or acquisitions among these companies, 11 out of the 14 companies that own nuclear assets have consistently held market capitalization values well above the median (based on 36 companies in all). Two of the remaining three hover near the median value, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. (The one remaining utility, El Paso, was recently bought out by JP Morgan, and will no longer be a publicly traded company.) On the whole, companies with nuclear plants have recorded larger market capitalization values than the median of 22 utilities that don’t own nuclear assets.

The legislative means used to take money away from electricity consumers and bail out economically failing nuclear plants owned by these large corporations helps further their market power, as illustrated by Dominion’s value rising from $49.5 billion in 2018 to $69.4 billion in 2019. While it is well known that wealthy corporations have a lot of political power, it seems from these examples that the converse might also be true: The political power enjoyed by these large corporations is at the root of their economic power. Indeed, as political economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler have argued at length, the standard economic concept of capital symbolizes “organized power writ large,” challenging the conventional division between politics and economics. The various bills passed in state legislatures offer a political assurance to investors that revenues for these utilities are assured for the foreseeable future, which naturally translates into higher stock prices and market capitalizations.………

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