Bushies and anti-nukes

An analysis of some strong parallels in political and rhetorical style, which no doubt will outrage both sides of the comparison.

The comments to Kevin Drum’s and Matt Yglesias’s nuclear power posts paint a picture with four features that are common in such debates but which I hadn’t really noticed before.

1. There’s a strong similarity between the Bushies and the anti-nuke forces in the way they deal with dissent. If someone who used to be on their side of the argument (about Iraq or nuclear power) comes down on the other side, it’s always from some character flaw or venal motive, never because thinking about it caused him (or her) to have a change of views.

Under these rules of engagement, apostasy makes any credibility the heretic might have built through expertise or devoted service instantly disappear. Moreover, any nasty thing you can think of to say about that person is worth saying, no matter how remote from the merits of the case. Take a look at the hit-piece on Moore at SourceWatch (made up to look like a Wikipedia entry) and linked to by David Rogers of Grist. Why should Burton-Marsteller’s record with the Argentine junta be of interest to someone who wants to know who Moore is? Is the fact that Moore had an op-ed in a newspaper that also publishes Henry Kissinger’s column really an argument against paying attention to his arguments?

2. Again, under these rules, the fact that a position is supported by someone your side has demonized (Michael Moore, say, or George W. Bush) proves not only that the position in question is evil but that anyone who supports it is mad, bad, or just plain stupid. And scatological insults are the most appropriate form of refutation.

Consider this from Matt’s comments (riffing on Matt’s remark that he hasn’t studied the problem carefully but leans toward the pro-nuke side):

I don’t know that much about it… but it all seems so scary and frightening to me that I think I will throw in with the crowd that brought us The California Energy Scam, Enron, Iraq, Katrina, and Iran. I am so scared, I think I just messed my pants. Please help me Mr. Bush!

Or, as one of Kevin’s commenters wittily remarks:

anyone favoring nuclear power is a homicidal, suicidal maniac.

and an erstwhile totalitarian

(Well, you wouldn’t really expect someone utterly ignorant of economics and engineering to know where the shift key is or what “erstwhile” means, would you?)

3. Bushies and anti-nukes are also alike in their faith in proof by assertion and repetition. If you say often enough that things are going well in Iraq, that proves that it’s so, and that the emerging civil war is merely imaginary. If you say often enough that there’s no way to dispose of nuclear waste, that instantly renders infeasible the proposal to: (1) recycle the plutonium into new fuel pellets: (2) store the small amount of truly “hot” stuff in swimming pools for a few decades until it cools down; and (3) vitrify (i.e., make glass bricks out of) the vast bulk of not-very-radioactive waste, including the “hot” material after a few of its half-lives, and build a pyramid somewhere in the desert, creating a glow-in-the-dark manmade wonder that ought to be good for the tourist trade.

4. Anti-nukes come in (at least) two flavors, not unlike the split between the social conservatives and the supply sider/neocon faction among the Bushies. One group of anti-nukes argues that of course we can have (and the third world can come to have) all the consumer goods we want without nuclear power and without cooking the planet. In lieu of explanations, that group then mumbles some mantras: “wind,” “solar,” “tidal,” and (the most potent incantation of all) “conservation.”

The other group of anti-nukes argues that of course we can’t and shouldn’t have worldwide prosperity on the consumer-capitalist model, and that the problems with nuclear power just illustrates that we need to learn (and to teach starving Africans and Asians) that less is more. In particular, central-station power generation is inherently, as an objective matter, pro-fascist, and all power must be generated in backyards as a matter of political principle. Amory Lovins has invented entirely new principles of economics and physics that prove this is perfectly feasible.

What’s fascinating is that the two groups, diametrically opposed on the central question of whether it’s OK to consume lots of energy, never criticise each other; they’re united against the common enemy.


None of the above is to say that Patrick Moore is actually worth listening to. According to the Honolulu Observer (in a story that has a link from the Wikipedia entry on Moore) Moore seems to have told a biotech convention that global warming is good because it will increase the amount of arable land. If that’s what he really said, he has a screw loose somewhere, and if he really believes it then it’s not clear why he should count reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants (as opposed to other noxious emissions from coal plants) as a benefit of going nuclear. That article is a much more potent reason to discount Moore than SourceWatch’s slime-and-defend on behalf of environmental orthodoxy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

24 thoughts on “Bushies and anti-nukes”

  1. RE the "more arable land" — somebody observed a couple of years ago that, yes, with global warming it wlli be possible to grow peaches in Alaska, but you won't want to stand in line at Disneyland.

  2. I don't think you're being entirely fair to the anti-nuclear argument – most of the posters went straight to the ad-hominems, it's true, but how is that different from a Mac/PC platform war?
    I'd be interested to see your response to Gar Lipow's argument, early on in the thread (he doesn't mention pebble-bed reactors, but then they don't quite exist yet, either, so I'm not ready to call foul):
    No nuclear is not the answer.
    Let's look at his arguments
    >In 2004, the average cost of producing nuclear energy in the United States was less than two cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with coal and hydroelectric.
    Nonsense. This like saying the cost of driving you car is a bit more than a penny per mile, because that is what gas cost. You have to include amortized capital cost. Grids with large amounts of nuclear in the mix cost more than those without. The cost of light water nuclear electricity is usually estimated to average around 11 cents per kWh or higher
    Moreover he is advocating breeder reactors as a way to get rid of nuclear waste, though he uses the term "recycling". There is good reason for this. Uranium is a fairly common element on this planet; but if you extracted the uranium from your back yard it would require more energy than you would produce. Uranium has to be mined from rich ore, and there are limited amounts of this. There is plenty to run our current levels of nuclear production, but if you greatly increased nuclear use (as you would if you expected nuclear energy to play a serious role in greenhouse gas emission reductions) then you would hit peak uranium in five to twenty five years. So any advocate of seriously increasing nuclear power use has to support breeder reactors – which are much more expensive than light water. (Every attempt at commercial breeder reactors to date have failed; either they end up being shut down or converted to light water; breeder reactors simply are not cost competitive.)
    So are there alternatives? Once you understand that the cost comparison is not coal, but breeder reactors there certainly are. Solar thermal can provide electricity for 11 cents a kWh. High temperature heat is much less expensive to store than electricty. Molten salts can currently store solar heat for the equivalent of $40 a kWh. to make a solar thermal plant full dispatchable (as reliable as a coal or nuclear plant) molten salt storage adds 4-5 cents per kWh. So you can generate fully dispatchable solar thermal electricty for 15-16 cents a kWh – lower than breeder reactor costs. Of course we should avoid this high cost where possible. We can use variable sources for up to 20% of electricity within a grid without compromising reliability, probably more. Variable wind costs about 4 cents per kWh hour to produce; so this could greatly bring the average cost of renewable power down. Hydro has been developed to 2/3rds or more if potential worldwide – so we are not going to increase that a great deal; but existing dams do provide inexpensive dispatchable electricity. Economically feasible undeveloped geothermal electricity represents a tiny percentage of projected demand, but it is inexpensive, and even more reliable than hydro – so again helps bring down your cost average. Sustainable biomass that does not compete with food production is another limited but useful source that helps provide dispatchable power, lower average costs. Low temperature solar energy in buildings to provide space heating, space cooling, and hot water can again displace a percentage of other sources used for that purpose.
    However whether we go the renewable path (which I favor) or the breeder reactor path, energy supply is going to cost a great deal more than at present. If we want to avoid serious economic problems from this, we are going to have to squeeze more GDP out of each unit of energy so that higher energy prices don't mean higher percent of our GDP is used to purchase energy. So the most important energy technology, regardless of source, willl be efficiency increases.
    I'm not going to deal with questions of nuclear safety, except to note that the evaluation of Chernobyl and 3-Mile Island are from associations with promotion of nuclear energy as part of their mission statement, and have been questioned by very serious sources. Given that we have less expensive renewable alternatives, I don't think this has to be main focus of debate.
    Posted by: Gar Lipow on April 16, 2006 at 4:06 AM | PERMALINK

  3. Well, let's see now….a study, or musing, anecdotal by nature, becomes even more so by quoting two or three out of several hundred comments by basically anonymous commenters.
    But, by a happy coincidence, Mark is probably right. If a process is democratic in a very large democracy, the law of averages will have a lot of room to work. And almost everyone thinks they have a dog in the fight- who doesn't use power, or wish it were cheaper?
    Parallelism, though, is a seductive hook, kind of like dumping two boxes of toothpicks on the floor and trying to decide if the contents are largely parallel or not.
    Ooops! I dood it again! I told you it was seductive…

  4. These characteristics are common not just among some Bushies and anti-nuke environmentalists–they're common among dogmatists and extremists generally. (This is the part where someone who failed logic will respond "Listen, butthead, not all anti-nuke environmentalists are extremists!").

  5. Mr. Kleiman,
    As someone who watched this group in action when Bjorn Lomborg published The Skeptical Environmentalist, all I can say is good luck. They will accuse you of eating your young.
    BTW, if I recall correctly, Moore is a bad apple–but don't let that stop you from making sense on the issue.

  6. Tom Scudder has raised the only credible anti-nuke argument that I have yet heard: that if we ramp up nuke production enough to make a dent in coal usage, then we will reach peak uranium in 5-20 years.
    IF that's true, then I will stop arguing for nuke. Can you cite sources, Tom? (And yes, I do need to see more than one.)

  7. >he doesn't mention pebble-bed reactors…
    I should have. They are building one in South Africa; the current projected cost is over $8,000 per KW of capacity and rising.

  8. I'd like to see his sources, too. My understanding is that identified reserves of high quality ore stand at about a 50 year supply at current usage rates, but that exploration basicly stopped back in the 1980's because the price tanked, and identified reserves were already more than adequate to supply the market. There's no reason to suppose that most of even the good ore has been already located, and given that fuel costs are a tiny fraction of the cost of the nuclear energy cycle, we could feasibly resort to some awfully low quality ore. Granite, for instance, is said to have enough uranium and thorium to be a feasible ore.
    Best estimates I've heard is that we could rely entirely on fission power for several thousand years. I expect we'll be on a (Space based) solar power economy in under a century.

  9. Also I note that most of the reserves, discovered and undiscovered are much pricier than the current spot or contract market price for uranium. That means we are already talking less rich ores – which will not only be more expensive to mine, but more expensive to mill. So a substantial increase in use of nuclear power will already get us to the more expensive ore which will raise the cost nuclear electricity.

  10. I do rather take it as a given that if we make an effort to use nuclear to replace fossil fuels in a big way, we're going to do breeding and reprocessing. To do otherwise would be madness. So calculating how many years fuel reserves would last if we excusively relied on light water reactors, and disposed of the rods as soon as they were isotopically poisoned, is silly.
    OTOH, if nuclear makes a comeback, it IS going to be the light water reactors that come back first, just because utilities are going to want to test the waters before they enage major expense for new reactor designs.

  11. >I do rather take it as a given that if we make an effort to use nuclear to replace fossil fuels in a big way, we're going to do breeding and reprocessing.
    That is really what I was trying to establish with light water fuel reserves. Because breeder reactors have higher capital costs than solar thermal electricity with storage. So then the question becomes, if the capital costs are the same, and the storage makes solar as dispatchable as breeder reactors, why choose breeders over solar?

  12. Because breeders take up these itsy bitsy little areas of land, (Potentially could even be built underground.) while solar requires that you essentially pave over a significant fraction of the planet's surface, if you're trying to power an industrial civilization.
    Personally, I like forests.
    Bottom line, though, I've got no problem if nuclear ends up being rejected on a rational cost/benefit analysis basis. I do think, however, a willingness to consider it rationally is pretty important.

  13. You know, the obvious response to a post like this is to point out the heretofore unseen similarities between pro-nuke liberals and liberal hawks hankering for a showdown with Iraq/n. I just had never seen the way that proud centrists liked to jump on a hack op-ed in the post to shout down the smelly hippies before.
    Lambert's pretty tough to beat on Moore. Make an argument on the merits, please.

  14. >Because breeders take up these itsy bitsy little areas of land, (Potentially could even be built underground.) while solar requires that you essentially pave over a significant fraction of the planet's surface, if you're trying to power an industrial civilization.
    The old land area canard. Solar thermal requires less than 2% of world desert land. The ground covered would be about the equivalent of the current road area.
    Incidentally I would like a comparison between the full breeder system and solar thermal, not just the plant. You still need processing, waste storage – depending upon the type of breeder even mining and disposal of mining waste.
    If you put breeders underground, that adds to the cost too; also many breeder advocate support things like pebble bed reactors that aren't mature yet. The comparison is no longer is no longer solar thermal electric but PV. We can probably bring down the cost of pebble bed reactors, but that applies to PV. PV can be put on land that is already paved. You can put it on buildings, parking lots, highway walls, and if neccesary roads. (PV does not use the parts of the visible spectrum the human eye prefers – so if you roof over roads over and parking lots, you can still let daylight through to see by.) So if we can develop PV to the point where it is cheap enough you have zero net land use; failing that, as I said solar thermal uses less land area than coal, about the same as road. You are not taking up forest and you are doing less damage to the desert than coal and uranium mining.

  15. So far I've dealt with actual issues rather than the sheer nastiness of the main post. Citing Moore as environmentalist is like citing Joe Klein as a liberal. At least Matt did not combine this with calling critics of nuclear power smelly naderites. Gee what a shock that this provoked some ad hominem, that some of the posts were repetitive of each other, and that some of criticisms were from people who otherwise disagreed with one another.

  16. Sorry to make a third post in a row, but I somehow call Kevin "Matt". Not that it is an insulting comparision, but to very different bloggers…

  17. I write to address some confusion found in this sentence: "Take a look at the hit-piece on Moore at SourceWatch (made up to look like a Wikipedia entry)…."
    Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the phrasing of this sentence makes it sound like SourceWatch faked up their entry on Moore to look like a Wikipedia article, presumably to confuse readers into thinking it was one. But the reason the two look similar is not necessarily because SourceWatch copied Wikipedia. It's because both are running the same software; namely, MediaWiki. See http://www.mediawiki.org.

  18. Gary
    I was just going to add how much I enjoyed your posts.
    After reading ‘The Weather Makers’ by Tim Flannery I am reasonably convinced that global warming is *the* problem of the 21st century. To be a bit Jared Diamond like about it, how we handle it will determine whether we still have a civilisation in 2100, or whether we are in a new Dark Ages. Flannery incorporates all the latest research, which shows the problem is accelerating.
    2 degree per centigrade rise in average temperature is certain. What is now likely is a 5 degree one, which will cause enormous problems for coastal areas of the US and other countries, and also for the inhabitants of Africa, Asia.
    What Flannery highlights very well is that 10 degrees (or more) is possible. And a complete destabilisation of the ecosystem.
    On that basis, our priority has to be doing something about Global Warming.
    I am the son of a nuclear engineer. I don’t have an instinctive distrust of nuclear safety or nuclear energy.
    However the economic case for nuclear has not been made. For example, the pebble bed reactor that was built, nearly melted down when a pebble jammed. The UK as I have highlighted has a£70bn decommissioning problem.
    What the nuclear industry has always been in denial about is the level of explicit and implicit government subsidy.
    Nuclear cannot be more than a tiny part of the solution, and a complete distraction from actually dealing with the problem of global climate change.
    We have the technology, even now, to meet the bulk of our electric power requirements with solar panels on every rooftop, and wind farms. The cost would be large, but on the order of winning a major war ie 60% of GDP over 10-20 years (so say 5% pa). There are ways we could solve the storage problem. And this assumes no positive technological change.
    The streets of London are already filling with 100% electric cars- -they cost about £8k each ie no more than a small car. Many of our transport problems can be solved in a way that onlyl relies on electricity generation *if* we can find a way to generate electricity without producing CO2.
    What i fear about re-embracing nuclear power is that it is essentially another stalling tactic, to refuse to face the real problems and tradeoffs confronting us.
    As an example of the interaction effects one of the key figures in the British Nuclear industry has admitted we cannot use most of the existing reactor sites for new plants. All the British reactors are on the sea coasts, and it is likely by 2050 these will be submerged, if not wholly, then during winter storms.

  19. thanks John. In making the case for renewables I'm a bit worried about the U.K. – Most nations are on continents – and thus have solar thermal generations within extended grid distance. As an island, this is not a UK option. Most nations without such access have extenssive hydroelectric. Again the UK doesn't. You don't seem to be one of the luck nations with good hydroelectric potential either. So while you have plenty of variable renewable sources (lots of wind, lots of waves), you don't have really good base load or dispatchable ones. In short how to get UK fully renewable without putting a huge percent of GDP into produceing renewable electricity is a good question. I suppose the 2% of electricity you produce from hydro could be converted to pumped storage. But I don't know how that would affect irrigation or urban water supplies – probably not well. The Japanese have been experimenting with sea water pumped storage (lining the dam with rubber so no salt water infiltrates the water table, using the salt water dam for recreation, then dumping the salt water back into the sea. The water is cleaned a bit before being stored in the dam (not desalinated, just filtered) – so the scheme does a bit of pollution removal as well. That would be a lot cheaper for the UK than hydrogen storage. Don't know how many thousands of acres of cliff tops you want to convert to salt water dams though. I'm sure you could do some, but whether you want to store slightly under 1% of UK consumption is another question. Still if you could convert a portion of current hydroelectricty to pumped storage without compromising water suppies, and install some saltwater pumped storage you might come close. The UK is a rainy climate. Any figures on how much water comes from dams, vs. groundwater sources? Could you do without the former and rely entirely on the latter with decent water conservation?

  20. No. It looks like surface water accounts for about two thirds of supply, and you are already overusing ground water.

  21. Gar
    re the UK base load
    In the short run, gas will do it. Possibly also some form of coal with carbon sequestration (I have my doubts about that technology, because no one has come up with a safe place to guarantee that the CO2 will stay where it is sequestered. The ecological and human consequences of a big CO2 release from a North Sea reservoir or a coal mine are pretty frightening).
    The UK gets more sun than you might think. But I agree the storage problem is vexing.
    It would be difficult in a country this crowded to build massive new pumped storage reservoirs. Also they would have to be in the West (Wales) and North (Scotland) whereas demand is in the South and East, so transmission losses would be big (there is about 500MW of pumped storage right now).
    Agree that tapping existing dams is a non starter– the South of England actually gets less rain than Portugal. We are at the dryest point in 120 years right now, with no evidence that it will break.
    This is probably the strongest argument for nuclear, but I think we can get 70, 80% of the way there without nuclear. A small English terraced house (row house) can run itself on solar PV panels– even in our climate.
    I was talking to a wind power investor the other day. In Ireland, wind is competitive without subsidy against a new gas fired station. In the UK, the gap is about 20% (4 v 5pence per kwhr).

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