Will the U.S. Follow the U.K. Into Power Shortages?

By Llewellyn King, the executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail address is lking@kingpublishing.com. Originally published at OilPrice

As Britain endeavors to build new nuclear power plants to avert an electric crisis in 20 years – with the retirement of nearly all the nation’s installed capacity, as it falls prey to age – the question arises whether the United States is destined for the same crisis.

Britain commissioned its first nuclear power plant back in 1954. For decades, Britain was at the forefront of the development of nuclear energy.

Then came natural gas. Discoveries in the North Sea coupled with improvements in gas turbine technology caused a boom in gas-powered electricity generation. At one point, it looked as though 50 percent more gas-fired electricity generation would be installed than needed.

The next surge of generating enthusiasm was for wind. Under the Labor government of Tony Blair, Britain planned to lead the world in wind generation, both on shore and off. Wind, as elsewhere, was subsidized because it was politically lovable. What better source of energy for a windswept island with a stormy coastline than wind, wind and more wind?

But the high cost of wind-generated electricity, coupled with intermittent availability, began to turn the country off wind. While the Conservative government of David Cameron is still pushing wind through subsidies, it has been forced into a painful re-think to avoid catastrophe.

Coal mines — the engine of the Industrial Revolution — began to be phased out under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government partly because of continuing labor problems, but primarily because its cost was rising as mines became less productive. Britain became an importer of coal.

Nuclear just languished; the fabrication capacity declined, the design shops closed up, and the universities turned out fewer graduates in the nuclear sciences.

Then came the gas boom of the 1980s and ’90s. The North Sea was full of it, the plants were cheap to build and operate, and the emissions were half those of coal.

But gas began to peak in Britain’s North Sea fields in 2000, and gas imports began to rise. The jig was up for cheap, non-controversial energy.

Cameron’s government, looking toward the day when the lights will fail, has supported an aggressive nuclear building program — none of it designed or built by British companies. The French government-owned utility, Electricite de France (EDF), will build the Britain’s first new reactors; the technology will come from Areva, the French nuclear plant builder, and some of the construction funding will come from China.

But to lure EDF, a mechanism called the “strike price” had to be negotiated. Under this deal, the British government guarantees a floor price for the electricity generated at the new nuclear plants. The strike price for the EDF deal is $154 per megawatt hour, or about twice the current wholesale price of electricity in Britain.

British industry is screaming that it will be driven offshore, particularly chemicals. The European Union is screaming that this is a subsidy by another name. And British consumer groups are screaming that it will kill off old people, who will not be able to afford the Gallic electrons.

The Cameron government has its fingers in its ears, because it knows the screaming will be far worse if the lights do go out.

Across the Atlantic, a sequel to the year the lights will go out in Britain may be in production. We are already shuttering nuclear plants; the total down from 104 to 99 with many more endangered as the plants either become uneconomic, as a result of competition from our gas boom, or too old. Four big new nuclear plants are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, but they are all that are likely to be built in the foreseeable future.

Currently, nuclear plants contribute 19 percent of our electricity, about the same percentage they contributed in Britain in the 1990s before plant retirements began. The numbers are being kept up by extraordinary operating efficiency gains and by upgrading– called “uprating” in the industry — the plants.

How long the gas boom will last is a matter of conjecture. The lifespan of the new hydraulically fractured fields is not known, but it is expected to be about one-third that of conventional fields. The full environmental consequence is not known either. Yet the euphoria of gas abundance is boosted by multi-million-dollar campaigns from the oil and gas industries, led by the giant American Petroleum Institute.

These advertisements give the impression that gas is forever in America. The way it was in the North Sea?

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    1. vlade

      1) it was really a military installation (primary purpose – generate plutonium for UK nuclear arsenal) with electricity generation slapped on to help to sell the whole thing. Calling it civilian is not really accurate.
      2) I’m assuming you refer to the 67 accident. Fermi 1 in Michigan melted down in 66.

      1. Paul Tioxon

        I always wondered how ideas were transmitted from one unschooled generation to the next and of course, folklore, music, sing song children’s rhymes etc let people know about important events of the past. Today, textbooks are political battlegrounds as conservatives and moderates and radicals try to fight over the transmission of history from one generation to the next. Here is a song about the Fermi disaster in Michigan.



      2. Optimader

        Chappelcross was indeed a civilian reactor –at that time the duality of purpose ( generating feedstock for weapons) was not unusual.
        I perhaps unfairly disregard the Fermi 1 as it was an experimental reactor that produced modest power, it’s purpose was to serve as a design demonstrattion. The relevant rod failure did not actually release radiation into the environment,
        Chappelcross was a dual purpose civilian power plant reactor, staffed by civilians. I actually know someone who was there that night who was subsequently subject the british state secrets act as it was such an incredibly stupid chain of events that did result in an eviornmental release whether or not the british gov. concedes that yet. It was a dramatic event, as i recall on a stormy friday night going into a long weekend holiday and therefore staffed by the most junior operators. In true britsh class fashion of the time the responsible “adults” were not available when the it was going off the tracks during the storm. Could have easily been a much worse.
        The darkside of State secrets — the ability to hid incompetence

        1. Synoia

          The darkside of State secrets — the ability to hid incompetence

          It is not the darkside of state secrets. It is the purpose of State Secrets.

        2. vlade

          Fermi 1 was AFAIK owned and operated by a commercial entity.
          Chappelcross was at the time owned and operated effectively by UK govt (hence the secrecy too).
          Run and operated by civilians – well, Manhattan project had I believe more civilian employees than military. I also believe that the agency that run the UK nuclear plants at the time was split along three lines – weapons, research and industrial, which to me (but that’s clearly a personal preference) is more military than civilian – definitely more than commercial Fermi1.

        3. fajensen

          I know someone who worked at Sellafield (Windscale, Thorp or whatever it is presently called, the name seems to change every time there is a leak).

          They basically used “National Security” as a cover for dumping a lot of the crap they produced over the years, solvents, lead, asbestos and heavy metal waste … like plutonium … down an old mineshaft on the site. Eventually, this toxic mess blew itself up and spewed radioactive waste and toxic chemicals all over the beach. My colleague only found out because someone mentioned people in “moon-suits” picking up stuff from the beach – where it was quite normal for the families of the employees to go for a picnic.

          This level of “not giving a toss” pissed my former colleague off, so he quit. They still have pools with “stuff” that will require active cooling for 2000 years.

    1. Vatch

      Hi JJ. Thanks for this useful and depressing information. Here’s an article about the military nuclear accident at Idaho Falls in 1961, which could easily have been a civilian accident. There weren’t any nuclear weapons involved; it was just another reactor accident, except 3 people died:


      (I posted a message similar to this more than an hour ago, but it never appeared on the web site. So if both do eventually show up, I apologize for the duplication.)

      1. heresy101

        As a young boy in Idaho Falls in 1961, we used to play baseball and football until the buses came back from the site (Arco nuclear reactor). When the buses arrived with the fathers, it was time to go home to eat dinner.

        The nuclear accident was never reported in the news. Rumors of 3 people (if my memory is good after all these years) being killed in a nuclear accident. They were rumored to have been buried in lead and their families never able to see them.

  1. taunger

    why is this nuclear propoganda on NC? sure, generation capacity v. phasing out fossil fuels v. building out renewables is a very important issue, but isnt there a better context within which to discuss this? seems like the financiers TINA played out by the nuclear lobby!

      1. James Levy

        The problem is that there is no way to have an objective or dispassionate discussion of nuclear power, any more than there is to talk about Israel/Palestine or dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You either believe that the risks are worth it or you don’t. It’s all tied up in hypotheticals and subjective assessments of risk and cost. How many Fukushimas equal a 5 degree rise in global temperature? How the fuck can any of us know. People will always pop out of the woodwork and claim that no such rise will occur. Others will argue that Fukushima was a one in a million perfect storm of catastrophes and hasn’t been “proven” to be “all that bad.”

        And the entire exercise is shrouded in propaganda from both sides and state secrets on the part of governments. I see no way to resolve the issues other than to fight the propaganda. Let’s try to tell ourselves the truth as best as it can be determined. But the data, I fear, will never be adequate to resolve the issues until it is too late. So at some point, we’ve got to guess. We had better guess right.

        1. optimader

          Nuclear power technology is not amorphous w/ uniform risk. There are a variety of lower risk technologies that are not commercialized for a number of (wrong) reasons, perhaps most stupidly, the inertia of the existing technology/business model as a standard.
          Hint: The financial incentive for the suppliers is in the fuel rods…..

          1. hunkerdown

            Which helps explain why control of the fuel cycle was a particular goal of the West in some of the earlier Iran negotiations. It sounds like a credible anti-proliferation measure, doesn’t it?

    1. Vatch

      I think it’s good for NC readers to be exposed to ideas that we aren’t comfortable with. I happen to think that nuclear power is dangerous and quite expensive. But a heavy reliance on fossil fuels is very bad, too. And the conversion to renewable sources of energy is a huge task, with both scientific and political obstacles. Will we all reduce our energy needs by moving into Hong Kong style “dog cages”? I certainly hope not, but how will we provide adequate energy for the needs and desires of 7 billion people, soon to be 9 or 10 billion?

  2. Dan B

    it’s not really a gas boom; it’s scraping the bottom of the fossil fuel barrel. This is just like the so-called shale oil boom here in the USA: latest shale oil data indicate more wells drilled and less total extraction (production) at high average costs per well. Economic degrowth is our future -and virtually all modernist political perspectives will resist this understanding.

    1. James Levy

      Couldn’t agree more. Kunstler and others have maintained from the beginning that shale gas and tar sands are a scam, a bubble that could only burst and could never take the place of the light sweet crude fields of yesteryear. They are a byproduct of the reality that cheap oil is gone, that expensive oil is here to stay. And when the next credit crunch comes, the financing for all that endless drilling will dry up and blow away. The military and the rich will have access to the hydrocarbon economy for perhaps a century, but “market mechanisms” will be used, like in education, to ration access for the rest of us. My guess is that in 25 years fossil fuel consumption per person will, for the majority of people in the advanced capitalist world, back to where it was in 1920, and almost all of that will be in the form of electricity and a weekend trip to the market. The choices between light, heat, and travel will be crushing.

      1. Wat Tyler

        Very well stated.
        My definition of peak oil is that it will occur one person at a time as the price relentlessly increases and individuals are forced to reduce consumption or eliminate driving altogether. Think Asia where roads are full of bicycles and the occasional Mercedes.


  3. kimyo

    the magical thinking is strong in this one:

    “extraordinary operating efficiency gains and by upgrading– called “uprating” in the industry”

    crystal river retired after failed uprate attempt (wiki / duke energy (yes that duke energy):

    Crystal River is a pressurized water reactor that normally produces 860 MWe, but it has been offline since September 2009 when a refuelling and 20% uprate outage began. While the reactor was down, the old steam generators were to be replaced, but Progress Energy decided to save $15 million by managing the project itself, a job never attempted by a utility company.

    After completing a comprehensive, months-long analysis of costs, risks and other factors, the company determined that retiring the plant, instead of continuing to pursue a first-of-a-kind repair to the containment building, was in the best interests of customers and shareholders.

    san onofre retired after failed uprate attempt: (csmonitor)

    I’m still digesting last week’s announcement by Southern California Edison that the utility’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in Southern California will close permanently, nine years prior to the expiration of the facility’s operating license.

    U.S. is increasing nuclear power through uprating

    A case in point involved three uprated reactors in Illinois.

    In 2002, both reactors at the Quad Cities Nuclear Plant were restarted after having their capacity boosted by 17.8%. Pipes began to shake, and cracks formed in a steam separator, which removes moisture from the steam before it enters the turbines. In one case, a 9-by-6-inch metal chunk broke off and disappeared.

    Similar problems were discovered at the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, which had undergone a 17% uprate.

    Broken parts were replaced, but the problem continued. Exelon Corp., which owns the three plants, and the NRC were mystified.

    “The greatest concern is loose parts that you can’t find,” John Sieber, a nuclear engineer on the NRC advisory committee, said during a 2004 meeting. “Are they in the bottom of the reactor vessel? …. Is it floating around where it can damage internal parts of the core?”

  4. Jim Haygood

    The strike price is because EDF and its partners are financing the £16 billion project. Britain could finance the project itself and produce power at cost. But it wants to offload the risk onto EDF. A floor price of £92.50 per megawatt hour, indexed to the RPI (Retail Price Index), is the cost of not taking the DIY route.

    King omits to mention that if over the next 35 years, the market price exceeds the strike price, EDF must pay back the difference to the government. Effectively, the UK has locked in the real price of power for 35 years. If energy becomes scarce, they’ll look like geniuses. If not, Britain will be stuck with high power costs as the rest of world booms.

  5. allcoppedout

    The Saudi Arabia of marine power lies just off Scotland. You chop 20 feet off a wind turbine, waterproof and sink it. Then you’re cooking on gas! Oil will flow from the Falklands so liberally we’ll invade Argentina to bring democracy and steal their beef. The Bowland frackerjack up the road has sufficient reserves to power Britain for 60 years. No doubt this will leave us having to store and drink rainwater above ground. Not sure I fall for any of this or that our coal got too expensive, though deep mining is strictly uncompetitive, as are all production processes subject to global wage arbitrage, the removal of long-term worker conditions, pensions and so on.

    The US might have a competitive advantage because it is so profligate in energy terms, such that sensible use might bring huge savings. Even this might just free up cheaper supply for competitors. More current nuclear provision will look very silly if the fusion prototype works, but this has been round the corner since 1953. Even Brazil’s wonderful hydroelectric plants may be hitting the snag of running out of water. Crocadoodle-do!

    Beyond varieties of misinformation, we have no economic or business model that allows sensible investment and returns to build social capital. Whatsapp is the classic model now. We hardly need it, it employs 50, is worth billions … yet we can’t do sensible investment in energy or the environment. The disinformation on energy is as severe as that on ecocide on Easter Island. Rather than the fascinating story of a people tranced into stone carving and tree-felling, this turns out to have been about European slaving and sheep monoculture for short term profit (which left only 36 Rapa Nui at one point).

    The dash for gas argument that it was all rather short-term was made in Thatcher’s day. I suspect there are no arguments worth making. We are too fascinated by trivia to care. Humans probably are the economic sheep monoculture of the Enclosures, the means of bubble profits dot.con diseased tulip bulbs. What would the cost, say, of Scottish tidal power making our hydrocarbons from air be? Why don’t we know? I have seen costings on getting all the UK’s food from Brazil on the grounds it is all so much cheaper there. They left out the drought factor. My guess is we can’t debate energy sensibly until we work out our means of money-reckoning is bust and perverts all other argument.

    1. Christopher Dale Rogers

      Here, here – bloody good informed rant.

      Wish I’d penned this – it really is all beyond me.

      Perhaps R.D. Laing was right all along.

  6. The Dork of Cork

    This is a very shallow piece .

    One cannot think of England and later the UK as a banking state with its own domestic hinterland.
    Its a Bank of St George type operation with various Corsicas giving it surplus goods both of the primary and secondary variety.

    UK and US energy independence is based on sowing discord in various energy & population heartlands.
    Under this view the Uk has been very successful in securing its continued existence.

    They now take coal to Newcastle for Christ sake.

    The objective of Uk nuclear policy since the euro mercantile zone got going has been to talk and talk and talk.
    The most striking observation of European physical environments has been the dramatic greening of the English countryside and the Industrialization of former mostly agrarian countries such as Ireland and Iberia.
    You see it all fits together,

    The coal dust era of the UK became the Get Carter period of transition in the 70s and now a classic deficit zone in the heart of the Euro Soviet mercantile experiment.

    A fantastic coup me thinks.
    They enjoy the benefits of Industrialization but without the costs.

  7. The Dork of Cork

    The UK continues to see a explosive increase in its goods deficit from the Rhine / lowlands area.
    Germany / Netherlands / Belgium
    Goods balance £ Billion
    Y2011 : -26.697
    Y2012 : -32.476
    Y2013 : -41.743

    These are mostly high value / added value goods…..
    The rich can have their toys without dealing with coal miners and the like.
    A wonderful setup don’t you think ?

  8. Hugh

    Not sure I would trust the Cameron government to collect the trash. It’s important to remember that kleptocracy is the world politico-economic paradigm. Kleptocrats do looting. They do not do serious future planning.

    This looks like Cameron is locking in a privatized energy future for the UK. So it will be the energy companies’ bottomline and not the public good which will count. I also have to wonder who owns stock in EDF and whether the City of London is going to be handling the financing. In deals like these, it is important to look for the profit/looting points.

    I am suspicious that energy alternatives, especially the sustainables like solar, wind, tidal were not considered. That the author so lightly dismisses wind is certainly a tell. No mention is made of the downsides of nuclear. Yes, there is the risk of meltdowns. But people have been talking about peak uranium for years. Nothing is said about the costs of decommissioning and storing radioactive wastes anywhere from years to millennia. There is also the where such storing would take place. Are they going to ship it off to Africa, for example, as I believe currently happens with French radioactive wastes? Even if the UK is determined to go the nuclear route, why isn’t relatively safer and more abundant thorium being used?

    And if real future planning were the object, why is there no effort to look beyond the internal combustion engine? None of this looks like real energy planning but just more ideological/kleptocratic business as usual.

  9. The Dork of Cork

    Interesting little show about the late Ian Nairn on BBC4 (tv) land tonight.


    The 1970s was the end of local Industrial / wage Britland and its total replacement by income on assets which reside outside the local hinterland.
    The UK first started to import coal in 1970~
    The petro economy of long distance and value added trade became primary feature of inter european and Asian trade

    If you look at the energy balance of the Uk in 1948 you will come to realize most of the energy inputs is local coal and coal gas.
    No nat gas until the late 60s
    Most of the oil used in 1948 was to hold the empire together ( food / raw material imports from Oceania and the like) or used by the upper middle class and above.

    Almost no oil was used by the working or lower middle class.

    This is in complete contrast to the US of the 40s or even the 1920s

    1. paul

      The nairn programme was fucking brilliant…especially his fondness for/emphasis on places people could simply commune.

  10. heresy101

    This article is so far off the mark that it is basically nuclear propaganda. The strike price is what is required for conventional nuclear power plants because of the huge capital costs (~$8,000/kW). The author makes it sound like that is excessive but is only excessive relative to the market. Combined cycle natural gas plants are about $900/kW, reciprocating engines are $1,200/kW, wind is about $2-3,000/kW, utility scale solar is about $1,500-2,500/kW, and geothermal is about $3,000/kW. The reason several nuclear power plants have been cancelled in the US is cost (with a little help from protesters).

    The author doesn’t mention, or know, whether this $154/MWh is a levelized cost (LCOE), is fixed for 30 years, or what. Assuming the $154/MWh is fixed for 30 years, that may not be a high price (I’d have to do the analysis).

    Compared to natural gas and renewables, the cost is high, though. We had a 20 year contract for geothermal power of $115/MWh (developer couldn’t get his act together to build it). Our 30 year old geothermal is generating at $28/MWh. We have 20 year biogas (landfill) contracts in the high $50’s/MWh. These 10 year old contracts would be priced in the $90’s today because developers can charge what the market will bear. Other local utilities reaped the benefit of solar at $75/MWh as PV costs have dropped. Combined cycle natural gas plants are in the $65-70/MWh. All the previous $/MWh costs are all in: capital, fuel, and O&M.

    The baseload advantage of nuclear is shared only by coal, biogas, and geothermal. Baseload is very important (that is why we have geothermal and landfill), but it is not the only solution. Nuclear is just the most expensive solution.

    From what I’ve read about wind energy in Britain, it is not like in the US. It has a low capacity factor (CF) and is quite expensive, especially offshore wind. Our wind contract normally generates at about 30% CF and is in the high $50’s/MWh.

    The CA Independent System Operator (CAISO) is able to operate under 25% renewables currently and plans for operation without outages in 2020 when the renewables are 33%.
    Beyond 33%, there are huge ramping issues as the duck curve comes into play. It is very likely that there will be a 50% renewable mandate by 2050, or earlier. To solve the duck curve, dispatchable resources such as hydro or combined cycle are necessary. A baseload resource such as nuclear is not that useful!

    California has just shut down the Songs nuclear plant and prices haven’t skyrocketed and blackout haven’t occurred. The real issue is what will happen when once through cooling plants are retired en masse in the next 10 years.

    If you want to look at the future of electricity, look at the liquid fueled thorium reactor (LFTR).
    This video gives an excellent presentation on LFTR (this is the long version, search for shorter versions if you have no patience).

    Finally, contrary to the coal and nuclear advocates, renewables work well as part of a diversified portfolio. I do not regret for a minute of helping add $250M of renewables to our small portfolio!

  11. Francois T

    But the high cost of wind-generated electricity, coupled with intermittent availability, began to turn the country off wind.

    Why can’t the UK generate electricity from wind at a reasonable price? The cost of production is dropping like waterfall, to the point that GE anticipate cost parity with subsidized coal and nat gas in 2015.

    Could it be because the UK refuses to upgrade their stock of turbines?

    1. fajensen

      One can do that – but – since there are no good ways of storing electricity, it requires that society reorganises itself in a way that that makes it possible to match electrical consumption with varying production.

      This is very hard to do with the current “hard-connected” and centralised electrical distribution system. One have to break up the net into smaller “islands”, separated by HVDC links and power electronics, just to control the power flow in the network (and to allow network segments to go black, without dragging the whole grid with them). This costs money, time and trouble: some industrialist will whine about the need for them to install their own electrical generators, some pensioners will end up dead on the front-page of the Daily Mail, and a new generation of power engineers is needed (they are currently going through university).

  12. H. Alexander Ivey

    My two bits: The piece is nuclear propaganda (and a suck up to Cameron). The give away? The first paragraph. When we close down the existing nuclear plants, the lights will go out. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Japan has shut down its nuclear plants and their lights are still on – and if you want to argue about brownouts, slow downs, blah, blah, that is not what the first paragraph said. And it is not what is happening in Japan right now either.

    Then all the other options are breezily considered and rejected, due to the not clearly stated requirement that energy must be cheap, cheap, cheap. Especially germane is no mention of conservation, or how previous projections of energy consumption has proven wrong.

    Don’t miss the mention of Cameron and an apocalypse event at the midpoint, gotta show how the government is thinking of the future of its citizens – all evidence to the contrary.

    Then the real reason why the project is being done – pay back to government supporters – dressed up as a “hard choice” made by the country’s leader – note the line about “the screaming will be far worse if the lights do go out.” YBG, IBG, if that were ever to happen.

    The rest continues with fudgy, dodgy financing and cost estimates, still ignoring conservation, and never, ever, mentioning the extreme dangers of (US, UK, Russian, and Japanese) built nuclear reactors (notice no mention of Fukushima’s 4 reactors) and the widespread damage when nuclear generation goes bad.

    Finally, consider this: you have a tradeoff with energy production: high density sources, with their high risks of danger (nuclear, for example), or low density sources (wind and water) with their very large footprint of construction and unreliable production. There is not free lunch. Responsible discussion of energy policy should include conservation targets and means.

  13. The Dork of Cork

    H. Alexander Ivey.

    “When we close down the existing nuclear plants, the lights will go out. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Japan has shut down its nuclear plants and their lights are still on – and if you want to argue about brownouts, slow downs, blah, blah, that is not what the first paragraph said. And it is not what is happening in Japan right now either”

    Ehhhh – both the UK and Japan are highly populated islands with few resources. ,Japan perhaps more so but both are the biggest consumers of LNG in the world..

    did you happen to notice what happened to UK LNG supplies from Qatar after the explosion ?
    Now the UK is a expert of at transferring its losses elsewhere but the present energy situation is very real.

  14. paul

    At the bottom of my street, there is around a hundred years of coal, but unfortunately its been given away. Why our first minister is not shouting about this I cannot say
    Theft of Scotland’s coal
    One thing that baffles me about peak oil is why so many sources are being taken out of the picture, Libya, Iraq, Iran,Egypt, Somalia…

  15. The Dork of Cork

    Burning domestic coal at current rates (mainly imported) means reducing the rate of profit as you would have to pay many more workers in domestic primary industry.

    The UK has always worked via extraction of other hinterlands……..the central belt of Scotland and England would not have industrialized without increasing the rate of extraction from Ireland and western Scotland. (turning these areas into sheep ranches)
    From the UK based oligarchs perspective they are getting free goods of both the primary and secondary variety from elsewhere.
    Why would you need to Industrialize under present circumstances ?
    Both the euro and Asian mercantile zone is producing the goods albeit mainly for the people with enough cashflow to maintain a credit line.

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