Frankenstein alternatives to nuclear energy

Listening to others

by Andrew Teller

Always adept at coining expressions that strike the imagination of the public, the opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMO) have described their use in agriculture as giving rise to “Frankenstein food”. You might be surprised to hear that their cousins, the anti-nuclear, are not immune to this kind of tinkering: they fabricate Frankenstein alternatives to nuclear energy. What I mean is that they pick and choose bits of information and assemble them to make their case against nuclear energy without worrying about the consistency of their constructs. Examples of this strategy abound in the anti-nuclear literature. Let me elaborate my point with a recent example.

“The Nuclear Bailout” is the title of a report published in June 2010 by an organization named Environment America (EA). Its publication aims to argue against the grant of a government loan to Georgia Power, an American utility that intends to build a new reactor on the Vogtle site. Its line of attack consists, as usual, in listing all the shortcomings of nuclear energy and in claiming that improved energy efficiency and other carbon-free energy sources will make it unnecessary to add any nuclear generating capacity in the USA. Forty-five pages long, supported by 205 notes and almost as many references, it has all the trappings of a serious research paper. But does it really belong to this category?

There are many ways of showing that it does not. One of them consists in exploiting the Frankenstein metaphor. To illustrate how life is breathed into Frankenstein arguments, I shall focus on the treatment reserved in the report to the interruptible nature of wind and solar energy. EA’s point is made in two stages. EA starts by pointing out (page 24) that

“Nuclear reactors produce electricity in huge blocks of power and are incapable of reacting nimbly to changes in electricity demand.”

While the first half of this sentence is correct, the second one is plain wrong: the French reactor fleet has amply demonstrated that it is perfectly capable of adjusting to demand. The argument is pursued as follows:

“[…] when power is supplied in large blocks by large central power plants, the failure of any individual power plant or power line carries a great risk of widespread electricity supply disruption.”

This again is not supported by the facts, in Europe at least. The European grid counts around 140 nuclear units and is highly reliable. Grid breakdowns are generally due to insufficient capacity of the high voltage transmission lines, a fact that is actually acknowledged by the authors of the report on the following page and confirmed by the European case which features a robust, highly interconnected transmission network. Let us say nothing more on this for the moment and turn to the second stage of EA’s argument: the alternatives to nuclear power plants. In the array of solutions permitting to dispense with the construction of new nuclear units, the authors of the report give wind energy a prominent place. I am not questioning the usefulness of wind energy, but the way the case is made on page 28 of the report is not acceptable. Quoting an estimation made by the US Department of Energy, EA indicates that wind energy could provide 1500 TWh at a cost ranging from 6 to 10 cents per kWh?, this estimate including

“estimated transmission costs, assuming that the existing grid has 10 percent spare capacity that could be used for wind, and that appropriate planning will allow new lines to be constructed as needed.”

But spare capacity and new lines are precisely what is needed to avoid the grid failures ascribed to large-size power plants. So the authors of the EA report are not comparing like with like: nuclear power plants are denied what is granted to wind farms. The rules of the game are changed to suit their purpose. Their reasoning applies to an artificial world, in which elements are taken into account or dismissed without regard to consistency1. It is nevertheless crucial to their analysis since it is needed to put wind and nuclear energy on a par as regards continuity of supply. If wind and nuclear were really equally interruptible, the case for nuclear would be reduced to next to zero.

It should strike anybody that picking and choosing one’s facts on the sole criterion that they suit a given purpose is not a sound investigative procedure. The proof of this statement is found in the fact that it would be equally possible to adopt the same procedure to “demonstrate” the opposite conclusion. A procedure that can demonstrate anything demonstrates nothing.

All this betrays ordinary faulty thinking and would not be worth mentioning if it did not highlight an important and dangerous tendency of the human mind. The authors of the EA report are perfectly capable of thinking critically: a quick look at the table of contents of their report shows that they devote three times as much space to criticizing the nuclear option as to describing replacement solutions. Part of their criticism is understandable (e.g. nuclear energy is rather expensive, it has not yet been proven that future projects will be risk-free).  However, many mistakes are also made. The funny thing about them is that they all contribute to reinforcing the conclusion reached. If they were due to simple ignorance, they would be subject to chance and more or less equally spread between arguments for and against nuclear energy. The only way of explaining the overwhelming majority of mistakes going the same way is to posit that the critical power of the authors is exercised selectively: arguments going against their position are dissected without mercy; arguments supporting their conclusion are accepted without further examination. There is nothing surprising in such behaviour. This is the spontaneous reaction of anybody. The important thing is to be aware of this trend and to react accordingly. This can be done by subjecting one’s reasoning to permanent scrutiny: are there elements that would give the lie to my statements, what if my opponents used symmetrical arguments? (Such an attitude is called self-regulation; see my column titled “Critical Thinking” in the spring 2006 issue of ENS News.) Failing to do so2 indicates that one is interested only in the conclusion and not in the way it is reached, i.e. that the conclusion is actually the starting point that generated the demonstration instead of the demonstration leading to the conclusion. Those who feel an urge to engage in such faulty thinking will be too biased to notice that they have reversed the causal link between demonstration and conclusion. As a result, Frankenstein arguments appear doubly dangerous. First, they are of course capable of swaying the unaware on spurious grounds. Second, and more surprisingly, they lead those who devise them to convince themselves that their conclusion is based on their reasoning while it is exactly the opposite that has taken place. We’d better be aware of this danger in order to better fight it, otherwise we’ll stand no chance whatsoever of saving the planet.

1 To make a comprehensive analysis of the argument, I must address one possible objection: the cost of transmission lines is already included in the case of wind energy whereas it would come in addition in the case of nuclear energy. If this was true, wind energy would come out noticeably cheaper than nuclear energy. But this is not the case: the range quoted agrees with marginal values coming from other sources. The kWh cost quoted does not therefore include the cost of replacement energy, and replacement will be needed aplenty. The authors of the report commit the sin of mixing up generating capacity (MW) and generated energy (MWh). However one looks at it, the arguments does not take all relevant factors into account.

2 One might ask how I know that I am not prone to exactly the same mistakes as the people I criticise. The answer is quite simple: I can’t be sure. The only thing I am sure of is that trying to avoid such traps will give better results than not trying at all.

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