Regarding nuclear power and weapons proliferation, conflictive views are often invigorated by individuals whose influence far exceeds their relevant expertise or who display a palpable bias. Amory Lovins, a long-time anti-nuclear gadfly, has exhibited both pretentious expertise and publicized prejudgement. This Knol applies qualitative tests to Lovins’ 1980 predictions about (1) nuclear-power’s demise, (2) weapons-proliferation propensity, and (3) plutonium-demilitarization utility. NONE of his predictions have come to pass. His most egregious flaw is total lack of statistical context; his papers fail scientific-publication standards. Lovins has been so indifferent to scientific methodology that he should not be accorded credibility. While still adamant about nuclear power’s demise and proliferation risk, he now concedes that commercial reactors effectively demilitarize weapons materials. Constructive vigilance needs to be maintained so that (nuclear) policy is not misdirected.
Table of Contents:
A Bill of Particulars About Amory Lovins
Smell and Ripeness: The 30-Year Challenge
Alleged Proliferation Propensity
Lovins’ 1980 Foreign Affairs Paper
Lovins’ 1980 Nature Paper
The Nuclear Illusion or the Nuclear Illusionist?
Lessons of and about Skepticism
“Abolition” of Nuclear Weapons
Disclaimers and Warnings
This Knol pairs up with one previously posted: “NUCLEAR EXPERTISE: How Defined, How Abused.” Both challenge the self-attributed qualifications and published opinions of certain individuals who claim or exploit nuclear expertise, yet do not have demonstrable formal training or hands-on laboratory experience.
For example, one nuclear-inspection imposter was outed by the chief inspector of the U.S. team. My two Knols identify several individuals who have overreached or misused their relevant areas of expertise.
Before I retired from Argonne National Laboratory, a constrictive environment (reasonably) prevented me from unsanctioned publication. Since then, I have become free to inveigh against perceived abuses of — or shortcuts around — scientific methodology, particularly as revealed by exaggeration of radiation hazards, misplaced opposition to plutonium demilitarization, chronic bias against nuclear power, and overconfidence about global warming causation.
Some conflictive views about these seething issues come from individuals who have had influence far exceeding their established expertise in relevant technical fields or who have evinced a palpable long-standing bias. Both failings — insufficient expertise and publicized prejudgement — apply to Amory Lovins, a long-time anti-nuclear-power gadfly.
A Bill of Particulars About Amory Lovins
During a Friday, 13 February 2009, “Director’s Colloquium” at my former place of employment, Amory Lovins presented a panoramic evaluation of production and consumption for alternative transportation options, followed by a flawed analysis of energy-sector options. Most egregious, though, was his penultimate attack on the energy-viability and proliferation-security of civilian nuclear power.
Argonne’s nuclear role can be traced back to December 1942, when a team of scientists under physicist Enrico Fermi initiated the first controlled fission chain reaction at the University of Chicago. In decades since, many types of nuclear reactors, some predecessors to commercial- or military-scale reactors were built in the Chicago suburbs at Argonne. Now up to 80% of the electrical power supplied in the Chicago area is from commercial nuclear plants. (In the entire state, the average is about 50%, the remainder being coal-fired.) Of all states, Illinois produces the largest quantity of electricity from nuclear-power.
Before proceeding further, I should mention that I have an MS degree in nuclear-reactor engineering and a PhD in nuclear physics, and affirm that I carried out experimental and analytical work at Argonne for about 40 years, initially in nuclear-reactor metrology and related experimentation, later in nuclear-reactor safety diagnostics, and eventually in arms control, non-proliferation, and treaty verification. Moreover, I have published technical books and qualified articles and have had hands-on technical experience with the subject matter of this critique.
As for Lovins, he does not have any academic degree of public record at Oxford (Merton College).
Because Lovins renders no substantive academic or acquired nuclear credentials, the analyses he presents ought to be held to a strict standard of scientific credibility, such as that described by the Daubert U.S. Supreme Court decision. (see my Knol “Ethics in Science: The Exaggeration of Radiation Hazards”). This is in lieu of granting him interim benefit of doubt, a courtesy often extended to individuals who have an established scientific reputation (e.g., Hans Bethe, Albert Einstein, Pief Panosky, and others who have offered judgements in their field of expertise). In other words, I would advise treating Lovins’ renderings on nuclear issues with healthy, but not dismissive skepticism. His presentation and publications should be judged by standard scientific criteria, no more, no less.
Although Lovins seems to have completed some courses in experimental physics at Oxford University in England, he lacks any laboratory experience in nuclear physics or engineering. His vetted degree credentials are vague enough to induce caution, caveat emptor. Such a shortcoming has not prevented him from writing numerous articles, giving many briefings, and speaking frequently about nuclear technical policy. I am not challenging his accrued expertise as a comparative-energy analyst and non-nuclear physicist. Lovins has been a widely praised proponent of the so-called “soft-energy path,” as well has having been an habitual and readily available critic of nuclear energy.
This and two other of my Knols that deal with nuclear expertise are not about pecking order, formal credentials, or elitism: They are intended to point out that expertise alleged should not be considered credible simply because of personal experience, widely publicized image, or self-declared credibility — which can be crafted as concatenating substitutes for substantive technical analysis and publication. The individual being challenged should follow the same established guidelines for scientific analysis and peer-reviewed publication as the rest of us have during our professional careers.
At the Friday colloquium, Lovins presented what appeared to be an informative but complex analysis of potential transportation-sector energy savings. It was difficult to sort through the extremely “busy” tables and graphs. From an audience perspective, it seems that his extrapolation from laboratory model to production product is unrealistic, being deficient in practical marketplace engineering. Faulty reasoning and extrapolation often reflect a lack of hands-on construction experience. Lovins did not put into evidence anything he actually built or was responsible for constructing, other than a viewgraph of a fancy banana greenhouse situated on his Aspen, Colorado, property.
Overall, his presentation(s) could be considered more of an evangelical tirade against nuclear power, rather than a systematic case for balanced and alternative energy sources. A key indicator of stridency is the absence of explicit statistical characterization; Lovins presents almost everything in terms of absolutes, without conceding a range of uncertainty. Take a look at his papers and try to find any treatment or awareness of statistical uncertainty. What’s notably odd is that doubt/uncertainty is part of the natural order of things; to avoid recognizing it, especially in a paper about technical issues, is quite unnatural and unusual, and more indicative of proselytization for a cause.
At the outset of the Q&A period, I introduced myself as a one-person truth squad (not literally following him around, but unavoidably comparing his past presentations at Argonne with this latest). When first invited to Argonne some thirty or so years ago, Lovins exhibited the same vigorous anti-nuclear-power stridency with which he has since been continuously and openly associated. We have occasionally directly clashed with each other in print, especially with regard to plutonium demilitarization and nuclear proliferation (see my Knols on those topics).
During his earliest visit to Argonne, we agreed to disagree on nuclear subjects, but the two of us did find a different area for common agreement – three or so decades ago – that hybrid cars were a viable and promising direction for automakers.
I’m now retired (from Argonne, but not from societal responsibility). Meanwhile, Lovins has conducted some interesting and detailed analysis of the comparative benefits of various energy sources and alternatives. If his Friday presentation remained within that scope, he might have appropriately represented himself in acquired expertise.
A physicist he is, maybe so; a nuclear physicist, he’s not, having performed no nuclear analytical or experimental work, nor published such work in refereed journals. He might be considered an engineering or analytical physicist on alternative energy sources, having ample publications and some practical home-engineering experience.
Smell and Ripeness: The 30-Year Challenge
In prefacing my Friday question to Lovins, I suggested that we should see if that which he proposed 30 years ago would have passed the “smell” test – you know, did it smell bad then, or does it smell bad now? (Experienced engineers have a feeling or sense for things like that.)
[Smell test (idiom). A metaphoric test used to determine the legitimacy or authenticity of a situation. This fragrant phrase comes from the idea of smelling food in advance as a test to see if it has gone bad.]
The smell test subsumes eventual and ultimate “ripeness” tests.
[Ripeness: The state or quality of being mature, fully developed, ready enough, actualized]
Less colloquially, ripeness is a test of materialization and/or fulfillment. (In the course of time, one would expect both the magnitude and direction of a predictive industrialization vector to be reasonably defined.)
Lovins has evinced a blatant anti-nuclear power prejudgement since appearing on the public scene. Let’s see if the nuclear-power shutdown he publically espoused 30 or so years ago at Argonne would pass a smell and ripeness test now.
In the past 30 years, Illinois has gone from close to zero nuclear to 70-80%. Illinois, is essentially the most nuclearized state in the Union. That would not have been the case if Lovins had his way. So here’s a situation that has ripened enough for comparing actual outcomes with his original counsel.
My ComEd electrical bill issued this 28 January was $113.16. It indicates that I used 948 kWh (residential, single family home in a suburb near Chicago). That’s about 12 cents/kWh (At the symposium, I said about10 cents/kWh). The Electricity Supply Charge listed was 7.4 cents/kWh (I was going on memory and incorrectly stated 2 or 3 cents/kWh – that’s actually more like the uranium-refuel-charge portion). The rest of my bill was composed of customer surcharges, taxes, and fees for metering, distribution, and transmission. If Lovins had his way 30 years ago, I would be paying about the same, but it would all be from coal-produced electric power. On the basis of cost, or feasibility, or environmental benefit, electric-power utilities and the state regulators would have been ill-advised if they adopted his anti-nuclear advice (at least in Illinois).
Nuclear power is not only commercially competitive, but extremely safe (no coal miners dying), no air pollution at all, no greenhouse gas emissions (such as carbon-dioxide). Nuclear-plant lifetime is being doubled from 30 to 60 years (which utilities, investors, and ratepayers appreciate). If Lovins had his way 30 years ago, considerably more particulates and gases would have been vented to the local and regional atmosphere from coal-fired plants (aside from the greenhouse gases emitted).
Moreover, if Lovins had his way, we would not have conserved the electricity-equivalent in domestic coal, imported and domestic oil, and domestic and imported natural-gas resources and reserves that we have for 30 years. A typical nuclear power plant each year avoids consumption of 3.4 million short tons of coal, or 65.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas, or 14 billion barrels of oil. (The United States has ample uranium resources.) So Lovins was wrong in implying that nuclear had no overriding societal or environmental benefits.
Incidentally, it’s no accident that Illinois has the highest concentration of nuclear-power plants in the United States: Argonne National Laboratory can be proud of its half-century nuclear stewardship. (California, by the way, generates more electricity from geothermal, solar, and wind energy sources combined than any other State.)
Lovins displayed complex viewgraphs that, he purports, show that nuclear is the costliest of “low-or-non-nuclear resources.” Yet, in the last 30 years, nuclear has displaced half the fossil-fuel combustion in Illinois while still being competitive. Inasmuch as nuclear-power plants emit no byproduct carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere, surely his claim that it is the costliest of low-carbon-emission sources fails the smell test.
Most of Lovins’ pricing and cost/benefit comparisons are based on “new delivered electricity” which frames the cost of U.S. domestic nuclear construction in the least favorable light.
He declares nuclear power an economic failure. Can someone explain that to my bank account which has benefitted from compounding competitive electric power savings for the past 30 years? His rimy claim certainly fails the ripeness test.
On the issue of electrical-grid reliability, Lovins asserts that there is no such thing as a “outage-free” source of electrical power. He must think that nuclear power runs by government fiat. Nuclear is a fixture on the grid because it is more economical to operate as base-load supply, while sources less reliable, intermittent, and more costly (such as wind, solar, and gas) provide supplementary power. During the past 30 years in Illinois, I don’t recall having the electricity supply and cost problems that California has had after it prohibited nuclear-power plants from being built within its borders. By the way, average U.S. nuclear capacity factor was about 92% in 2007. That’s excellent. Lovins pitiful effort to undermine the reliability of nuclear power egregiously fails the smell test.
Alleged Proliferation Propensity
Lovins continues to chronically demonize civil nuclear power, especially on the grounds of a hypothetical weapons-proliferation risk, a topic he brought up again at the Friday colloquium. Even if he had his way 30 years ago, there would still have been no attributable proliferation resulting from access to nuclear-power plants or nuclear-power fuel.
So, I asked him openly, is there any good reason why government-supported incentives shouldn’t now be applied to build more nuclear-power plants in United States? (Lovins opposes subsidies for nuclear plants, but favors them for other energy sources.) His rambling answer reverted mostly to alleged proliferation risk.
Nuclear energy is expanding at an astounding rate overseas (contrary to Lovins’ denials), but he is still is opposed to building new nuclear-power plants anywhere, especially in the United States. He claims, for one thing, that they are more expensive than other options, calling them an economic failure. Tell that to the consumers in Illinois and other states who have benefitted from competitive rates for 30 years while being environmentally conscious stewards avoiding noxious emissions from the coal-burning alternative.
Lovins says that only central-planing economies (aka, non-democratic nations) choose and build nuclear power plants. However, France (a central-economy planning nation) is reaping a huge income from exporting nuclear electricity to Germany and other nations that would rather not build more nuclear plants. (Meanwhile, six German nuclear plants were among the top ten for gross world-wide electricity generation in 2007, an impressive demonstration of technical maturity and high staff qualification.)
There are now about 440 nuclear-power plants in worldwide operation (with 35 reactors under construction in 12 countries.) Sixteen nations are considering new reactors, with 100 plants planned and 250 more proposed. Does that sound like the demise of nuclear power?
(Nuclear power is a capital-intensive technology, with electricity from new plants selling from $30 to $57/MWh, depending on investment cost, discount rate, construction time, licensing delays, economic lifetime [25-40 years], load factor, and carbon/pollution cost levelization. Typical parameters are: 1.6 Gw rating; 36% thermal efficiency; 60-year lifetimes; 90% capacity factor; and 5-7 year construction time. Investment cost is in the range of $1800-2500/kW, and fuel cost is $4-5/MWh.)
[CLARIFICATION (2/28/10): Thanks to the attached Comment from an anonymous reader, I have added a clarification that the above-cited cost estimate was for “busbar” availability (in the United States).]
I’d bet that ComEd in Illinois has sold nuclear-produced electricity to neighboring states on the grid, and I don’t hear them complaining. Just let them try to get along without it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lovin’s home in Aspen might have been kept warm and lighted by nuclear electricity gridded from Illinois at one time or another.
Lovins deplores nuclear proliferation. Me too. I daresay, though, that none of the nuclear fuel from Illinois reactors in the past 30 years has been used for making nuclear weapons. However, some reactors might very well be burning (consuming as fuel) weapons uranium or weapons plutonium right now. In fact, burnup in nuclear reactors is the only realistic way to actually destroy (sometimes optimistically called “abolish”) nuclear weapons. If Illinois and the rest of the United States hadn’t embarked on building more than 100 nuclear reactors (ignoring Lovins’ advice), we would not be able to actually rid ourselves now of weapon-source materials.
In his response to my question, Lovins mentioned he now agrees that nuclear-power reactors can serve a weapons-material burnup role. That’s a major change in position for him, which he still does not acknowledge up front or publicize. He had long stubbornly advocated and published a contrary position.
If we heeded Lovins opposition to nuclear power 30 years ago, we would not have the benefits we have now (especially in Illinois). There’s no reason now to concede him nuclear credulity; his opposition still doesn’t pass the smell test.
Lovins claims that nuclear plants depend on continuing high subsidies. Not so. With hundreds of reactors now producing power, it would not be financially feasible for subsidies to sustain the nuclearized economy. It would be a Ponzi scheme that would have fallen apart by now. That claim also fails the critical smell and ripeness tests.
As for new reactors, some type of government investment or guarantee is probably needed in order to overcome the difficulty of raising capital in a recessed economy. On the other hand, smaller outlays are required for incremental improvements in solar and wind, but subsidies are still needed to encourage and even maintain their installation. One way or another, for the added purpose of cleaning up the environment and reducing CO2 emissions, it will cost money.
In a rather pitiful distortion, Lovins tries to make a case for avoiding nuclear by citing a single instance: delays in completing a reactor in Finland. Be that as it may, Finland is now building or planning five new reactors.
Of course, none of us in the audience at the Friday colloquium were armed with or given an opportunity to display contradictory facts, being overwhelmed by his multi-faceted graphs and tables of minutiae. Even so, other members of the audience raised doubts about his presentation.
In ensuing sections of this Knol, I contribute scope-limited technical critiques of two relevant papers that Lovins had published in 1980 and one now posted on the Internet. Through those papers, he has fatally wounded himself with his own petard.
Lovins’ 1980 Foreign Affairs Paper
In support of and in response to questioning Friday, Lovins cited his coauthored 1980 paper “Nuclear Power and Nuclear Bombs,” published in Foreign Affairs, a magazine for political scientists, pointedly not a journal for publication of reviewed technical analysis.
Let’s parse relevant propositions of the Foreign Affairs paper of 1980; here are some quotes, and my comments follow in brackets:
The nuclear proliferation problem, as posed, is insoluble. All policies to control proliferation have assumed that the rapid worldwide spread of nuclear power is essential to reduce dependence on oil, economically desirable, and inevitable; that efforts to inhibit the concomitant spread of nuclear bombs must not be allowed to interfere with this vital reality; and that the international political order must remain inherently discriminatory, dominated by bipolar hegemony and the nuclear arms race….
[Oratorical, yes; sensible, no. Although Lovins proclaimed horizontal proliferation as “insoluble,” it has remained contained to a few nations for the 30-year time span since this ominous prediction. Moreover, the more dangerous prospect of vertical (superpower) proliferation has come to a halt and is now in the process of being reversed.]
In fact, the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing. De facto moratoria on reactor ordering exist today  in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, and probably the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Canada. Nuclear power has been indefinitely deferred or abandoned in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Iran, China, Australia and New Zealand. Nuclear power elsewhere is in grave difficulties. Only in centrally planned economies, notably France and the U.S.S.R., is bureaucratic power sufficient to override, if not overcome, economic facts….
[Attention grabbing, yes; sage, no. “The nuclear collapse” that Lovins, et al, so confidently proclaimed ex cathedra in 1980 did not occur in the 20th century and is premature for the 21st century. He announced its demise prematurely. There has been a significant worldwide expansion in nuclear-power plant planning, orders, and construction.]
We shall argue that the collapse of nuclear power in response to the discipline of the marketplace is to be welcomed, for nuclear power is … the main driving force behind proliferation…
[I wouldn’t buy a lottery ticket from him; the odds are worse than usual. It should be readily transparent to anyone who follows current events that nuclear-weapons proliferation (India, Pakistan, and North Korea) occurring since his ominous 1980 prediction has taken place primarily for geopolitical reasons and is very loosely linked to energy capability or resources.]
…and [nuclear power is the] least effective known way to displace oil: indeed, it retards oil displacement by the faster, cheaper and more attractive means which new developments in energy policy now make available to all countries…
[Another 1980 prophecy unrealized. Nuclear power, despite being capital intensive, has been one of the most viable and proven (politically and economically) means of stable, indigenous, and affordable means of “oil displacement.” Nuclear power has ingrained its role as one of several dependable and notably cleaner, healthier energy contributors. No doubt, some viable supplementary and complementary sources will emerge. Moreover, in shifting to pollution-free electric plug-in vehicles. as part of a strategy to displace oil consumption in the transportation sector, nuclear-generated electricity now looms ever more important.
It should be probatively clear that commercial nuclear power is exceedingly competitive in price, benign for the environment, and not an actualized source of proliferation (i.e., nuclear power has passed the ripeness test).
Lovins’ 1980 Nature Paper
Somehow Lovins managed to get a fairly reputable scientific journal, Nature, to publish his article “Nuclear weapons and power-reactor plutonium” (Vol. 283, pp. 817-823, February 28 1980, 7pp). For the paper, Lovins identifies himself as a Consultant Physicist, UK Friends of the Earth.
The Summary banner says:
With modest design sophistication, high-burn-up plutonium from power reactors can produce powerful and predictable nuclear explosions. There is no way to ‘denature’ plutonium. [Emphasis added by me] Power reactors are not implausible but rather attractive as military production reactors. Current promotion of quasi-civilian nuclear facilities rests, dangerously, on contrary assumptions.
[It seems that now, nearly 30 years later, Lovins has at long last backed away from his emphasized position. At the Friday colloquium, if I understood him correctly, he conceded that weapons plutonium can be ‘denatured’ enough to prevent its immediate reuse in military devices. This realization has also come to others who formerly thought otherwise. (Here’s another logical precept not reflected in Lovins’ papers: that policy should be built not entirely on the basis of something that might occur, but more on the basis of something likely to occur). Moreover, it was nonsense then and is incontrovertibly now to so categorically associate nuclear power with military functions.]
The five topical Sections of the 1980 paper in Nature are as follows.
Weapons physics and reactor-grade plutonium
[Weapons] Performance as a function of design
Weapons effects and the implications of uncertain yield
[The topics are impressive for anyone to address knowledgeably, especially so for a “Consultant Physicist” who had little or no graduate physics education and no laboratory or field experience. In any event, the citations represent a widespread collection of relevant literature, including my 1979 book Proliferation, Plutonium and Policy. This is not the place, however, to give a comprehensive technical critique of his paper, although I and others have done so in the past. Suffice it to say, Lovins sifts the literature well but demonstrates a selective appreciation.]
The Conclusions of his article position a strawman to be easily decked:
…It is therefore incorrect to state categorically that bombs made from reactor-grade or deliberately ‘denatured’ Pu are less effective, less powerful, or less reliable than those made from weapons-grade Pu.
[While Lovins convinced the editors and reviewers of Nature that a neophyte had figured out nuclear weaponry enough to become an publishable expert, his inverted conclusion is not supported by theoretical or anecdotal evidence.]
The foregoing argument also implies that power reactors are not an implausible but are rather potentially a peculiarly convenient type of large-scale military Pu production reactor….
[Coming from a neophyte who might never have seen the inside of any of those reactors, it reflects a hoary belief system that was as untenable then as now. Just show me a civilian power reactor that has been used to make military plutonium. This published proposition of his fails the ripeness test in 2009, just as it failed the smell test back in 1980.]
In short, the somewhat greater technical difficulty of using power-reactor Pu for effective military bombs — assuming the reactor is actually operated at high fuel burn-up — may be more than counterbalanced by the greater political and economic ease of obtaining that Pu. It should not be lightly disdained in favour of purer material from dedicated facilities.
[This pitiful conclusion is the foundation of Lovins’ nuclear-proliferation belief system. It too, long ago, failed both the smell and ripeness tests. Incidentally, note the absence of measures of incertitude in this so-called technical paper.]
In the Friday colloquium, I take it that Lovins nimbly disowned this 1980 Nature article when obliquely indicating that he no longer opposed burning up weapons plutonium in reactors, if I understood him correctly. (We already routinely burn up weapons uranium in reactors.)
Nature should be ashamed for having published an article that failed to incorporate probabilistic measures. Now that Lovin’s premises and conclusions have faltered. I think Nature should do the decent thing; it’s not too late to explain the lapse and cleanse its sullied reputation. (I don’t expect as much from non-scientific journals.)
The Nuclear Illusion or the Nuclear Illusionist?
Lovins rails in a downright arrogant, unscientific tone against nuclear power in his latest broadside posted on the Internet. He is coauthor of The Nuclear Illusion (Ambio Nov 08 preprint, dr 18, 27 May 2008, [52-page] DRAFT subject to further peer review/editing), which starts out as follows:
A widely heralded view holds that nuclear power is experiencing a dramatic worldwide revival and vibrant growth, because it’s competitive, necessary, reliable, secure, and vital for fuel security and climate protection.
That’s all false. In fact, nuclear power is continuing its decades-long collapse in the global marketplace because it’s grossly uncompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete — so hopelessly uneconomic that one needn’t debate whether it’s clean and safe; it weakens electric reliability and national security; and it worsens climate change compared with devoting the same money and time to more effective options.
Yet the more decisively nuclear power is humbled by swifter and cheaper rivals, the more zealously its advocates claim it has no serious competitors. The web of old fictions ingeniously spun by a coordinated and intensive global campaign is spread by a credulous press and boosted by the nuclear enthusiasts who, probably for the first time ever, now happen to lead nearly all major governments at once.
[What a pity, according to Lovins, that knowledgeable leaders who have come into office are driven by realistic expectations.]
Many people have been misled, including four well-known individuals with long environmental histories — amplified by the industry’s echo box into a sham but widely believed claim of broad green endorsement—and some key legislators.
[I suppose among the turncoats is the former head of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, who now strongly and vocally supports nuclear power. I didn’t realize that three other leading environmentalists have come aboard too. Bully for them.]
As a result, the U.S. Congress in late 2007 voted $18.5 billion, and the industry will soon be back for another $30+ billion, in new loan guarantees for up to 80% of the cost of new U.S. nuclear units. And the long-pronuclear British government, abruptly reversing its well-reasoned 2002 policy, has decided to replace its old nuclear plants with new ones, although, it claims, without public subsidy — a feat no country has yet achieved. Thus policy diverges ever farther from market realities.
[Lovins, I suppose, is the arbiter of “market realities.” Oh, isn’t it nice to be unaccountable! This paper seems to be the source of his cool graphs flashed at the Argonne Friday colloquium. Now that I can study them, I find no error bars, no concession from absolutism. Assertions made without statistical humility cause a reflexive turnoff for a professional scientist.]
[It should be noted that I’m not the first to critique Lovin’s qualifications and this paper of his posted on the Internet: For example, one review [Charles Barton, 6 June 2008] explicitly associates Lovins with “disinformation.” It also challenges the preceding generalizations as “sweeping and highly questionable,” many statements being “falsifiable on their face,” especially those in regard to reliability in electrical generation. Barton also takes note of circular sourcing. missing links, and shallow or hidden sources used by Lovins.]
As foreign scientists inferred during World War II from the “dogs that don’t bark,” it is often possible to glean information from what is not published. In this 2009 Ambio paper, Lovins does not mention his previously vigorous objection to nuclear power based on the (invalid) argument that reactor-grade plutonium can be readily used to make nuclear weapons; nor does he give recognition to the converse, that commercial nuclear reactors can and are being used to destroy weapons uranium and plutonium. Somewhere along the line, without public confession, his mantra fell be the wayside.
In perusing his Ambio article title “The Nuclear Illusion,” I find only one paragraph out of 52 pages mentioning nuclear proliferation. Moreover, the single paragraph conveys neither of the two arguments that composed about two-thirds of his anti-nuclear-power case in his 1980 articles reviewed above. Indeed, in the 30 years that transpired, the sky has fallen on his case about (1) proliferation propensity and (2) demilitarization disutility of commercial nuclear reactors. Its omission, besides being professionally disingenuous, reflects his inability to sustain a case that should never have gained any substantive traction 30 years ago. However, the way Lovins has let it slip by is professionally unconscionable. Perhaps the article is, after all, aptly titled “The Nuclear Illusion.”
Here are some more observations about the content of the Ambio preprint (which I will advise of my critique for their “further peer review.” As I’ve emphasized repeatedly in this Knol, I find almost no indication of what I would call statistical humility, that is, quantitative assertions being accompanied by estimates of random or systematic error. This is an egregious flaw that is offensive to the scientific credibility. For e xample, he asserts that “all sources of electricity are unreliable.” Without statistical qualification, that’s utter nonsense. It’s clear that what Lovins is trying to do is to undermine the reliability of nuclear power on the grid, and that can only be done by being categorically vague.
Lovins asserts, moreover, that “renewable’s electrical supplies will be more [sic] reliable than current arrangements. Show me the numbers and the statistics. He throws in that “nuclear power’s unreliability is all too real.” Show me, like a real scientist would (Ouch!).
One of his bulleted conclusions is that “A major accident or a terrorist attack at any nuclear plant could cause most or all others in the same country or even in the world to be shut down…” Maybe so; give me some properly conditioned numbers. However, I read about an 6.7- magnitude earthquake just 20 miles away shut down and partially disabled a 7-reactor complex near Kanagawa, Japan,in 2007, but the only thing that really happened to the reactors was that a barrel of liquid was knocked off its pedestal and leaked into the drainage system. Of course, there was significant harm and damage elsewhere in the vicinity, but nothing else of consequence to the reactors.
Lovins nicely sets up ths strawman:
Nuclear power is promoted as “the only energy option available today that can provide large-scale electricity 24/7 at a competitive cost without emitting greenhouse gases.” Each part of this case, as we’ll see, is false, but two important parts … require deeper discussion….
However, I find no ensuing statement of probability; it’s as though there can be only one answer and no shades of gray.
Frankly, I like Lovins’ discourse on “micropower,” “balanced “ or “diverse” energy “portfolio,” technology “drawbacks,” “efficiency” upgrades, “reduced energy intensity,” “cogeneration,” “renewables,” end-use efficiency, “wind-power potential,” “negawatts,” “environmental” and “economic” “priority,” “dry-hole risk,” “distributed renewables,” “supply-side carbon displacements.” These are things I need to learn more about.
But when it comes to his renderings on nuclear-reactor life-extensions, subsidies, capacities, performance, underfilled expectations, unauthorized Chinese reactors — and so on, all without caveats —Lovins’ strident anti-nuclear messages come off as a stalking horses for an evangelical agenda.
In short, Lovins’ latest publication, “The Nuclear Illusion,” lacking the fundamentals of a scientific discourse, would be better titled, “The Nuclear Illusionist.”
Lessons of and about Skepticism
When encountering overly annotated documents or proponents that tend to obscure the message, caveat emptor. I advise the smell and ripeness tests. Be vigilant for charlatans. Be wary of glibness; it’s often distracts autonomous reasoning.
Those who promote technical solutions without scientific humility (which requires admission of established scientific norms for quantified or qualified uncertainty) are more in tune with evangelicalism than physics. A major overriding test of validity is the evaluation or concession of uncertainty. It is a sine-qua-non for scientific validity. The nose knows.
Regrettably, policy and decision makers are often (at best) “political scientists,” who can be susceptible to scientific hucksters and opportunists. It is somewhat easier to snooker politicians than to mislead experienced physical scientists who evaluate more on the basis of demonstrable evidence. Only lawyers and others familiar with the Daubert Supreme Court decision have a better chance of being characteristically skeptical.
As a career physicist, I frequently shun technical data presented without expressions of incertitude: they just don’t pass the smell test. As far as I can see in Lovins’ publications, the chronic absence of error bars, estimates of deviation, or statements of uncertainty should immediately discount or nullify the value of his publication.
Be wary when statements of incertitude are not expressed in either explicit or implicit terms. Too much data and alleged results are published without proper or any treatment of data uncertainty (the latter being a chronic flaw in all of Lovins’ dissertations).
Inappropriate or inadequate statistical characterization is unfortunately true of the on-going debate about the scale of anthropogenic contribution to global climate change. (See my Knol on “Global Climate Change: Statistical Expectations and Humanistic Perspective.” I do not know where the technical debate on anthropogenic contributions will take us, but in that Knol I identify statistical data-treatment deficiencies and inconsistencies in the voluminous and comprehensive IPCC report, despite its impressive compendium and constituency.)
Incidentally, I suggest Argonne should take steps to remedy the Lovins travesty, not for the earlier visits, but certainly for elevating him to the Director’s podium, for not vetting him carefully, and for not providing a counterbalance. In contrast, the Laboratory not too long ago sponsored a colloquium on global warming, structuring a healthy debate between acknowledged experts.
All of this suggests, at least to me, the continued importance of the instantaneous smell test and the timeworn ripeness test.
In order to energize the message of this Knol, I suggest a phrase — constructive vigilance — representing positive actions, watching for perpetrators of scientific misdirection. (I’ve deliberately avoided calling for “zealous” vigilance.)
Furthermore, we must remain particularly watchful lest regulators, inspectors and business interests override or corrode ethical standards, making them impractical to enforce. Coming immediately to mind are the beneficial aspects of NRDC, Greenpeace, and UCS public vigilance.
Some individuals that I tagged in my nuclear-expertise Knol have made positive societal contributions to arms control and nonproliferation: Examples that come quickly to mind are Frank von Hippel, Chris Paine, and Tom Cochran. They have had very constructive personal involvement in common cause to counter nuclear-weapons expansion and vertical proliferation.
My Knol “Ethics In Science: The Exaggeration of Radiation Hazards” identifies a number of physicists (mentioned below) who have made positive contributions to science policy but have misjudged the consequences of minor radiation exposures.
Besides Lovins, some political and physical scientists have notoriously misused scientific methods (see below). In Volume 2 of Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry, a few are identified. They too failed the smell and ripeness test; nevertheless, the problems these individuals created often fade without corrective recompense.
This latter point deserves some amplification. Not only are there published or presented errors of commission, there are significant errors of omission to be found. One of these is that some predictions are laid out with great fanfare, only to fail the test of time. And who is there to clean up this garbage? Maybe the answer is, only some retirees like me. The Lovins charade is a particularly egregious case, because it requires someone to look past his current promotions and have enough expertise and awareness to dig back into the technical literature and to recall past discourse.
None of Lovin’s predictions have come to pass. That’s startling in itself, except that he keeps shifting to new topics, dropping the worn out ones. He’s still flailing nuclear power, but 30 years later it keeps on going. He’s still faulting its proliferation propensity, but not a single instance can be found in 30 years. Only by the processes of uncovering omissions or directing inquiry can one find that he now realizes that commercial reactors can effectively demilitarize weapons materials, a position he adamantly and eloquently opposed for the past 30 years.
Since there are no assigned traffic cops in this business, it is left up to some of us volunteers to try to straighten things out. Nevertheless, Lovins has a strong reserve of believers for his soft-energy goals. I too share some of that optimism, but not at the sacrifice of quantitative evaluation and humble context for alternatives. However, when his enthusiasm spills over into matters of which he has no expertise — trained or acquired — everyone should be wary.
Lovins, of course, is not the only one who has dazzled recipients. I recall for example, Professor Albert Wohlstetter of the University of Chicago, an illusionist who (by linear extrapolation without statistical gauges) predicted a growth of nuclear proliferation that never came about (and it took decades to demonstrate his folly).
Dr. Ernest Sternglass comes to mind as another discredited physicist who would display before audiences viewgraphs purporting to show an anomalous increase in cancer near nuclear power plants.. However, as soon a someone would show flaws in the viewgraph, the older one would disappear and another would appear in its stead. He ended up being severely and publically reprimanded by his peers.
Regarding radiation exposures in the range of background levels, names like John W. Gofman, Frank von Hippel, and Thomas B. Cochran come to mind as publically-minded individuals who have clung to their beliefs about the deleterious effects of low-level radiation exposures without admitting statistically confounding factors that have undermined their predictions. (See my other Knols on this topic)
“Abolition” of Nuclear Weapons
Soon to be needed in U.S. national policy will be a timely and well-advised decision on what it means to “abolish” (or even to “irreversibly reduce”) nuclear weaponry. Do we (as a nation and as a community of nuclear-armed nations) want nuclear arsenals to be reduced, not just put out of sight, but drawn down in an irreversible and verifiable way? If so, we will need to burn (consume, destroy) the weapons uranium and plutonium. This will put a big damper on the potential for weapons proliferation or reversion. Nuclear reactors are the logical (only practical) means for demilitarization of weapons materials, contrary to earlier, now revised assertions (Lovins has admitted a major turnabout in his published position about demilitarization).
As an expert contributing tothis important topic, I have written five Knols on nuclear demilitarization, posting these to make the analysis more available in the public domain than it is in my books and technical publications.
With regard to nuclear demilitarization, the new presidential science advisor, John Holdren, is a rare special case: He has candidly and publically recanted his earlier ill-advised views and stewardship about the viability and utility of (MOX) reactor burnup of plutonium. That public retraction was huge, in my estimation.
Disclaimers and Warnings
This Knol is not intended to be about elitism, jealousy, political correctness, or other inequities in scientific assessment. It is meant to bring to the forefront inconsistencies and inaccuracies of one particular scientific gadfly, challenging his chronic misrepresentations of data and credentials.
In reflecting on this critique, I find it necessary to stress that I disavow any rigid pro-nuclear position. In fact, once many years ago I testified in court against the licensing of a nuclear-power plant that did not have a cooling tower. Lovins, however, is blatantly anti-nuclear-power.
I am supportive of the “soft-power” options and balance once highlighted by Lovins, and I recognize the need to employ government subsidies for emerging energy options so they have a chance to compete in the long run. I favor a balanced menu of clean energy sources. As a lifelong dedicated environmentalist, I appreciate all measures to share and preserve our living quarters.
Even though we’re conditioned to expect death and taxes as a certainty, the reality is we don’t know when the end will come and how much the taxes will be. That’s called uncertainty, and when you come across something that seems too certain, it is. Uncertainty, or incertitude, or statistical confidence, or error range – they’re all manifestations of complexity and reality. If you come across someone who is so sure of something, leaving no room for error, beware: That’s a sign of a charlatan or a scam. If you find someone touting something without acknowledging a range of natural imprecision or human error, stand clear.
Here’s some reiteration for emphasis: I’m not saying there isn’t an important role for ad-hoc critiques irrespective of credibility. However, if someone presents an overwhelming aura of credentials or certitude, that’s reason enough for skepticism.
Most useful are the smell and ripeness tests. Ask an experienced engineer. The lack of humble uncertainty is an instant killer in communication.