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Scientific American, Please Stay on Track

by Brian Dunning, Mar 25 2010

I’ve been a Scientific American reader ever since I picked one up in my twenties at the home of my girlfriend’s parents (now my wife’s), as her dad was an exec at Hughes Space Systems and a top expert in photovoltaics. But I have to say, lately they’ve run a few opinion articles that I can’t completely agree with, focusing on energy. They seem to have adopted a clearly anti-nuclear bias (anyone who listens to my podcast knows that I’m a big nuclear fan), and are even critical of fusion research. The April 2010 issue features an article by Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and from what I can tell, something of a Luddite, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It smacks of a disturbing trend I see a lot of lately, where anticorporatism (which is as worthy a philosophy as any) is greenwashed with a supposedly environmental, scientific agenda (which is dishonest and does a disservice). We should not make science decisions that promote our favorite philosophies, we should make science decisions that best serve our planet and our people. They may coincide in many cases, but they don’t always. Here is a snip from a sidebar in McKibben’s article:

Job one, on almost anybody’s list, is conservation. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated in 2008 that existing technologies could cut world energy demand 20 percent by 2020. For supply, it makes financial sense to generate power close to home. Most communities spend 10 percent of their money for fuel, and almost all of it disappears, off to Saudi Arabia or Exxon. Yet in 2008 the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showed that nearly half of all American States could meet their energy needs entirely within their borders, “and the vast majority could meet a significant percentage.” Wind turbines and rooftop solar could provide 81 percent of New York’s power, for instance, and almost one third of Ohio’s.

I’ll begin by stating that McKibben and I agree in principal almost entirely. We do need to completely replace our fossil fuel driven power grid, and as quickly as possible. With that said, I disagree with virtually every single point he makes. Let’s go one by one:

Job one, on almost anybody’s list, is conservation. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated in 2008 that existing technologies could cut world energy demand 20 percent by 2020.

Conservation has never proven to be a satisfactory strategy to solve virtually any shortage. Spending money to replace refrigerators and air conditioners with Energy Star compliant models is money that should instead be thrown at the Big Solution: small, incremental steps are time wasted. If 20 percent is the maximum we can expect from this, it’s clearly a non-starter. We need 100 percent replacement of fossil fuels. We need the giant leap. And if you depend on people shutting off the water while they shave, or driving more slowly, or turning off the lights when they leave the room, your strategy is guaranteed to fail. Should they? Yes. Will they? No. The habits of Ed Begley Jr. do not represent those of most people. Don’t depend on something that won’t happen; solve the problem instead. This lesson has had to be re-learned every time we’ve depended upon people to choose to conserve.

For supply, it makes financial sense to generate power close to home… Wind turbines and rooftop solar could provide 81 percent of New York’s power, for instance, and almost one third of Ohio’s.

Only in rare cases, like rooftop hot water systems. Rooftop solar and wind? No way, not even close, probably not even if you depend upon the unsustainable government subsidies we now enjoy. Things like transformers and maintenance and upgrades are the realities of these systems. These are intractable for the average homeowner, but they are trivial for a centralized power station that has the personnel, the money, and the means. Significantly, they also enjoy vast economies of scale. One large transformer for a neighborhood is far more efficient than a thousand small ones; one giant wind generator with 100 moving parts and a team of dedicated technicians walks all over a thousand small, unmaintained generators with 100,000 moving, breakable parts.

Transmission loss is a real factor, to be sure. But it’s more than made up for by the tremendous economies of scale.

Most communities spend 10 percent of their money for fuel, and almost all of it disappears, off to Saudi Arabia or Exxon.

I have to call foul on McKibben for this one. Only a tiny fraction of our fossil fuel comes from Saudi Arabia, and almost none from hostile Mideast countries. We produce well over a third of it domestically, and most that we import comes from Canada, Mexico, and non-Arab OPEC countries like Nigeria and Venezuela. Most of what remains does indeed come from Saudi Arabia, but it totals merely about a sixth. Cries of “Buying gas and oil sends your money to those evil woman-hating, hand-chopping, Muslim Saudis” are weasel words designed to frighten and sensationalize. Are you enriching Exxon? Yes. Are you enriching Saudi Arabia? Hardly. That he puts them in the same sentence implies that they are both equally bad places to send your money. Exxon is evil to those who embrace anticorporatism; Saudi Arabia is evil to those who embrace human rights. Equating the two is a wonderfully debatable topic, which I’d love to hear; but it’s not science, and has no place in a publication purporting to offer science-based solutions.

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Scientific American, Please Stay on Track, 4.1 out of 5 based on 27 ratings

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58 Responses to “Scientific American, Please Stay on Track”

  1. “We should not make science decisions that promote our favorite philosophies, we should make science decisions that best serve our planet and our people.”

    This strikes me as a spurious distinction, or at least as a misuse of the term ‘philosophy’. Thing is, people may have legitimate disagreement over what will “best serve our people and the planet”, and they may base their judgment on various divergent principles.

    Philosophy, as I understand it and practice it – I’m a philosopher by trade, and an environmental ethicist at that – is a project of inquiring into such principles, trying to understand each in its own context, and to assess each on its merits.

    To dismiss McKibben as a mere dogmatic adherent to some arbitrary ideology (“anticorporatism”) is irresponsible, especially if that dismissal is itself based on an unstated and undefended assumption about what will “best serve our people and the planet.”

    If, in trying to put his own principles into action, McKibben has his facts wrong, that’s another matter. Even corrected, though, he may still have legitimate grounds for disagreement with the practical conclusion about nuclear power that is here just blithely assumed.

    • Green says:

      Sorry to be arguementative, but I think that Dunning is correct here. I’m currently a student at a university, and I’ve seen numerous socialist groups acting under the auspice of Green Environmentalist ideas. Now, I am concerned about the environment, and I do think that there is a problem, but when you attempt to use the problem to bring people to your side so that you can use a decieved majority to espouse a belief they do not hold, it’s rubbish. If you’re a socialist, or an anti-corporatist, explain your position, and advocate it. Don’t borrow the audience of Environmentalism to bolster your ranks. You shouldn’t abuse a scientific viewpoint in a non-sequiter attempt at recruiting those who don’t agree with your philosophy-Christianity tends to promote non-murder (Ten commandments, though of course there are contradictions, just making a point) but that doesn’t mean that you should use that aspect to attract everyone not in favour of killing people, as to do so is disingenous.

  2. CW says:

    If nuclear energy is not a renewable form of energy (uranium and plutonium), and building a nuclear power plant takes ten years, at a cost of about $10 billion dollars, then does it make sense to start investing into nuclear power now?

    While it’s true that US dollars do not go to hostile Mideast countries, isn’t our reliance on oil still indirectly bringing in oil revenues to those hostile countries? If our reliance diminished, wouldn’t this mean a less of a demand on oil – lowering prices? And by getting off oil all-together, we could serve as a model for other countries to diminish their reliance on oil as well?

    • It’s not really a matter of whether nuclear is renewable or not.

      With reprocessing and breeder and high burn up designs that can run on natural uranium and thorium, there are extensive reserves of fertile and fissionable material. (As in thousands of years worth)

      Why go nuclear? Well, looking at it pragmatically (how the market is going to look at it), first and foremost, the bottom line is always money. -Is is the least expensive option?

      A distant second is sustainability. -How long will it last?

      An even more distant third is environmental impact. -Is it less harmful to our environment?

      (Safety basically gets split between cost and environmental factors.)

      The idea is that nuclear fission trumps fossil fuel on all points. (that, of course, can be debated)

      Nuclear fusion is a tantalizing option if we can ever get it worked out; it’s always been about 50 years away for the last 50 years or so.

      • tmac57 says:

        If only there were some existing fusion source somewhere, that we could harness for our energy needs, without us having to create fusion ourselves. Man, that would be great!

      • You mean like out in space somewhere? Yeah, that would be excellent.

        I’d worry about the radiation, though. We’d need some kind of shield around the Earth to protect us from that, you know, something like a magnetic force-field, and maybe some kind of layer in the atmosphere that could act kind of like a filter.

        Then we’d need to find some way to harvest it.

        It’s crazy, but it just might work . . .

      • And isn’t it great that the fusion energy in question always shines down on the surface of the earth uninterrupted by things like weather or night time, and that we have a power distribution system optimized to get that power from reliable sources to the end users? It’s also a good thing we have such affordable, cost efficient ways of harnessing that power that pay for themselves in only a few years.

        I’m not advocating ignoring other alternative power sources like visible spectrum electromagnetic energy from proton-proton chain fusion produced in a natural reactor located one astronomical unit away, but nuclear fission technology is the most mature, ready for market alternative to fossil fuels that exists today, period.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    The resistance to nuclear power is what convinces me that the “environmental” movement has little or nothing to do with “protecting the planet” and everything to do with romanticization of “nature” and sheer misanthropy.

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    Trimegistus: Please paint with a broader brush next time. In your comment above I think you missed a few people on the other side of the planet from wherever you are.

    Such cartoonish characterizations of entire groups of people are useless at best and often counterproductive and hurtful. It’s no different than saying all men are sexist jerks or all Italians are members of the Mafia, just to name two groups I belong to and two generalizations that don’t apply to me.

    I’m an environmentalist not out of “sheer misanthropy” or a desire to return to nature, but because I love humanity and feel the onus of intergenerational responsibility. I could easily say, “Screw everybody else. I’ve got mine, the world can burn and leave the kids nothing for all I care.” But I’ve chosen instead to fight what I consider to be “the good fight” and try to leave the best possible planet for future generations, even if it means I have to fend off false accusations.

  5. Robo Sapien says:

    Just to be clear, the term “renewable energy” refers to a renewable source of matter which can be converted into energy with a low amount of overhead. There is no such thing as an infinitely renewable source, as all resources are finite. Even bio-diesel has the far-off potential to run short one day if we relied heavily enough on it, although it would probably take a world population in the trillions to do so.

    The goal with energy technology is to find the optimal balance. It costs energy to produce energy, so it is prudent to use the tech that yields the highest return. There is also a balance between cost and reliability that must be observed. I like to conceptualize it as motherships vs nanomachines; a single high-output plant requires less upkeep but lacks the failsafe of a multi-node system.

    The issue of “what best serves our planet and people” isn’t really debatable, the facts are clear. Any argument based on political ideology (i.e. Exxon is bad) has no place in the energy forum, which is entirely under the jurisdiction of science.

    • MadScientist says:

      “… although it would probably take a world population in the trillions to do so.”

      Getting back to reality – with the 7B or whatever population we have now, many are undernourished and malnourished and yet we are already struggling to feed the population and rapidly exhausting resources. In many areas irrigation from deep aquifers is essential to help secure the food supply (less fear of a drought). Deep aquifers are ancient structures – many are hundreds of millions of years old. So much water has been pumped from some of them that there has been a subsidence of over 1m in areas over the past 50 years. Once an aquifer is depleted that’s the end of it. Some may still be recharged, but that’s a process which will take tens of millions of years, and many may simply never recharge. If you’re lucky you may be sitting above perhaps as many as 5 aquifers with water good enough to irrigate with. Anyway, short story: biodiesel (except as a new use for some waste) is out of the question. We are struggling to expand food production to meet demand and simply cannot afford the luxury of crop production for exclusive use as fuel.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Since you’re so fond of “getting back to reality” then you should read up more on desalination techniques like distillation or reverse-osmosis (less favorable). The designs are already in circulation for self-sustaining hydroponics towers with desalination systems that can run off sea water. Such towers can grow bio-fuel material (like hemp), powered by a combination of solar energy and a small amount of the fuel produced.

        Don’t give in to the alarmist idea that we’re going to run out of fresh water and die, it is just not going to happen.

      • MadScientist says:

        Desalination requires a huge amount of energy; where do you get that energy in a world which cannot provide low-CO2 energy sources? Not to mention, do you have any clue at all of the volumes of water we’re talking about for irrigation? I’d also like to know how you get that fresh water inland where many of these agricultural areas are – more canals and pumping stations = yet more energy. You could tap into saline aquifers where there are some, but what do you do with the high salinity waste produced? Dilute it and pump it into a depleted aquifer? These are not sensible or sustainable solutions.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Read: “self-sustaining hydroponic towers”

        There is no irrigation in hydroponics. Desalination is required only to replace the water consumed by the plants and that which is lost to evaporation. As for the waste, yes that is an issue that will have to be dealt with, but you can’t honestly say that we won’t have an effective way to handle it, in an age where we have landfills that harvest and burn methane (actually GIVING power to the grid).

  6. “The issue of “what best serves our planet and people” isn’t really debatable, the facts are clear. Any argument based on political ideology (i.e. Exxon is bad) has no place in the energy forum, which is entirely under the jurisdiction of science.”

    Sure, if everyone agrees on the standard of what is good, there may be little disagreement. That’s precisely the problem, though: there are serious and legitimate disagreements over what is good. Should we measure everything in terms of the satisfaction of extrinsic preferences, as do utilitarians and welfare economists? Or should we act instead to respect and protect the autonomy and dignity of each individual human? These principles are not the same, and they can lead to very different conclusions about what we ought to do in a given instance, though they do not necessarily do so in every instance.

    Even if everyone agreed on the utilitarian/welfare-economic view of the good, there may still be legitimate disagreement about the relative weight to be given to certain harms and certain benefits. Nuclear power commits us to a particular kinds of investments and particular kinds of economic and political institutions, and it is at least debatable whether we would be better of making our investments elsewhere.

    It is just possible, then, that McKibben’s take on nuclear power is a well considered judgment based on reasonable principles rather than mere ideology. In any case, to dismiss it off-hand as mere ideology smacks of mere ideology.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      “Sure, if everyone agrees on the standard of what is good, there may be little disagreement.”

      But that is turning the issue over to consensus, which has no bearing on the science. The majority view might be that generating power from hamster wheels at the cost of carrots is the best solution, but that doesn’t make it correct.

      If people care about their autonomy and dignity, then let those individuals protect their own. Those are viable concerns when talking about civil rights, but not with energy policy. Nuke power is the clear winner in the utilitarian arena, which is the only one that counts here. Rejecting it for any other principle IS ideology.

      • No, not consensus, but critical ethical inquiry.

        This is a policy question: Where ought we to invest our money, our time, our effort. our hopes for the future . . . and to what end?

        Yes, this is a policy question in which scientific knowledge carries a lot of weight, but it can’t do all the work by itself. There are still questions of value and obligation here that have to be worked out through ethical deliberation, and rights have just as much place in such deliberation as utility.

        This may especially be so in the case of nuclear power, where much of the public concern arises over the distribution of risks and benefits. A core idea of a rights- or respect-based ethical framework is that people ought not to be exposed to undue risks without their consent. Now, people may be misinformed about what the risks are, but that does not reduce the moral requirement of respecting their autonomy.

        (The same principle applies to scientific research itself, when that research involves human subjects: whatever the utility of the proposed research, it is unethical to impose risks on research subjects without their consent.)

        I would think the goal of skepticism would be to inform people’s judgment, to make sure they are fully exercising their autonomy by thinking critically and clearly. This is a goal ill-served by an ideological commitment to utilitarianism above all, trying to use science to dismiss or belittle even the most considered judgments of people who disagree with you.

        (This brings me back to a really irritating question I’ve asked before in this forum: As it is practiced here, is skepticism itself just another ideology, just another faction in the cultural and political life of the nation?)

      • Robo Sapien says:

        But how is that not resorting to consensus? Energy is an important issue that cannot afford poor judgement, but what you suggest puts a lot of that judgement in the hands of the misinformed.

        All we would really be protecting is a person’s right to avoid dealing with an irrational fear. If the science and economics dictate that nuclear is the superior option, we have an obligation to pursue it.

      • Yes, well, I guess that’s just democracy, isn’t it?

        Our goal should be to inform people’s judgment as much as possible, not only with scientific knowledge but with the capacity to engage in reasoned deliberation on policy questions. That, at least, is my goal as an educator and as an author.

        What’s the alternative to democratic decision making? Technocracy? Rule by an allegedly enlightened scientific elite?

        Surely we would want people to be skeptical enough not simply to place their unthinking trust in experts and their claims to special insight into reality.

        (Where have we seen that kind of unthinking trust before?)

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Helping inform people is always important, but we have to be realistic about degree of success with it. We also have to be realistic about democracy. Representatives of the people are elected to make decisions on their behalf (albeit subject to abuse, but that is a different discussion). If every individual issue was left to a vote of citizens, nothing would ever get accomplished.

        The fact is, most folks just don’t care enough to take in all the information, analyze and make rational judgements. They want to elect someone who does care, that they can trust to make the right decision for them, so they can get through their workday and enjoy liberty in the evening.

        So it is vital that the people who ARE deliberating these issues are taking the right actions based on what the science says is optimal.

        Really, we need to hold the democratic process up to the same scrutiny as the scientific process.

      • “Really, we need to hold the democratic process up to the same scrutiny as the scientific process.”

        I’m not sure I understand what you mean by this. What is the standard to be applied in subjecting both processes to scrutiny? Can it be the same standard in the two cases? The purpose and the goals of democratic deliberation are different in kind from those of scientific inquiry, though (if Dewey is to be believed) they may have some things in common.

        Then, is the process of scrutiny itself to be subjected to scrutiny? Or is this something you’ll be able to do yourself, ex cathedra, and we’ll all just have to take your word for it?

        (I did say I’m a philosopher by training and by trade.)

        I’ll say what I read in your statement: we should only be allowed to make decisions by democratic means if the “work”, if they achieve some particular (unquestioned) end; otherwise, we should just unthinkingly trust the technocratic elite to make decisions for us, because they’re solutions are more likely to “work”.

        But to what end are these thing supposed to “work”? What is the goal? That’s a question neither scientists nor philosophers are in a position to answer. That has to be worked out in the public sphere . . . by democratic processes.

      • (Sorry, sloppy proof-reading on that last note: “if they work” instead of “if the work”; “their” instead of “they’re”.)

      • MadScientist says:

        Ethical inquiry? So, do educate us about the ethical concerns over the use of nuclear fission to provide the energy to generate electricity? All I ever see is scaremongering about how horrible the nuclear waste is and how there is no way to store it safely (the stuff is dangerous, but it can definitely be stored safely). I’d like to know if there are any genuine ethical concerns.

      • I love this forum! Here, we can discuss facts and ideas in the cool light of reason, never dismissing the views of others based on limited personal experience, never being snide . . . or ironic.

        Yes, there are ethical issues.

        Safety is one of them, quite apart from any scaremongering, in part because safety itself is a matter of judgment based on values. It’s not just a question of what is the probability of a harm of a certain magnitude, but how much risk is acceptable, how much people may reasonably be expected to put up with. “Acceptable risk” is an ethical category, not only a scientific one, and it is wrapped up in questions of informed consent, and so on.

        The particular problem of nuclear waste is especially knotty, because it involves our responsibilities to people (and perhaps to other living things, though that’s controversial) who aren’t even here yet. We may be quite responsible in our handling of waste now, and we may take what precautions we can to prevent harm in the long run, but we can make no guarantees. It’s a case where the responsibilities we incur far outstrip our capacity to follow through on them, simply because our lives are so short. We should at least pause to think about this a bit, and take it into account in our decision making.

        Then there are questions about institutions, some of which are hinted at in the above post and in these comments. What kind of society ought we to strive for? In what kind of economic/political/social/cultural system can we live the best kinds of lives for human beings? Is it one that requires centralized technocratic control? Or should we aim for something a little looser and more free, something at a smaller scale?

        I realize the line of discussion I raise in the last paragraph will bring sneers and gales of derision – I’ve come to expect nothing less of those who fancy themselves reasonable, skeptical people – but these are honest and serious questions. I offer no utopian dreams, I simply ask: What kind of society would we have to have for widespread use of nuclear power to be possible, and would that be a society worth living in? What kind of social and political control would have to be exercised? Would it make us more or less free, more or less happy, than a society in which we sought other options, even at the cost of giving up some of our current conveniences?

        It’s all very well to talk about sustainability, but we first have to ask: What is it, exactly, that we ought to sustain?

        That is an ethical question.

      • MadScientist says:

        The question of sustainability is a huge issue, but getting back to energy production, oil gas and coal are limited resources. We may laugh at “Peak Oil” people today, but one day they will be right (people in industry are guessing at ~70 years of oil, almost twice as much for gas, perhaps 600 years of coal at current consumption rates). If we really only have perhaps another 70 years of oil we’d better be developing solutions now. Nuclear power is not inexhaustible because the mineable materials are quite limited. The waste products can in fact be stored quite safely for geological time periods; storage is only a huge problem because of this extreme fear people have of anything with the word “nuclear” in it. If we want an immediate solution to provide large amounts of power while cutting down CO2 emission, nuclear is one of the most economical options and should probably be used while other schemes are developed. However, technology cannot work miracles and defy the laws of nature; for me one of the greatest ethical issues is how to responsibly decrease the planet’s human population. It is something which must be done if we ever want a sustainable society, but it is in direct opposition to current economic goals (increase population to increase production, support the older generation, etc).

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I enjoyed this discussion up to this point, but I’ve given up. I’m just a cable guy, I can’t keep up rhetoric vs a bona fide philosopher, just makes my tiny brain hurt. You know what they say about arguing on the internet…

      • W Hooke says:

        How much risk is acceptable is indeed a key question in this debate. Fortunately, this discussion can be informed at a practical level by the levels of risk that we currently accept in other areas. I’ll leave the (numerous) deaths caused by particulate pollution from coal burning for another time. Look at the example of the toxic chemical by products of the micro-chip industry. Some of these chemicals are much more toxic than anything produced by the nuclear industry. Their storage and disposal are regulated in some countries, but not to a standard that approaches the regulation of nuclear materials. And their toxicity lasts forever; it doesn’t reduce to background levels over time. The fact that one stays toxic forever, while the other’s toxicity diminishes over time seems to be a factor arguing _against_ acceptance of the decaying one in the minds of many people.

        If one of our goals is to try to ensure the safety of future generations (which I obviously agree that it should be) the relatively short time scales that it takes for nuclear waste to reduce in radioactivity to around background levels (~1000 years) means that it is a far less important problem than dealing with the toxicity of substances which last forever, and are more toxic to begin with. We currently have our priorities backwards, because we are addressing them based on their relative importance to various ideologies, instead of their importance to public health, now and in the future.

  7. WScott says:

    “In any case, to dismiss it off-hand as mere ideology smacks of mere ideology.”
    Couldn’t have said it better (or more succinctly) myself.

    I do think more nuclear power is part of the solution. But until/unless we all have plug-in electric cars, nuclear power won’t do anything to decrease our oil dependency.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      The flip side to that is we won’t have electric cars until electricity is a cost-effective means of power. Liquid fuel is still the most space-efficient, and may always be the case. We may end up all driving vehicles that run on biofuels produced at plants that are driven by nuke power.

    • As it happens, I’m coming around to the view that nuclear power may be a necessity in the short term. I actually like the way James Howard Kunstler puts it in his angry diatribe, The Long Emergency. To paraphrase: If we want to remain civilized, we have to keep the lights on. If we want to keep the lights on, we will have to rely on nuclear power, at least in the short term.

      This is not to say I don’t have serious qualms about nuclear power, and serious concerns that it be pursued with due regard for other values and obligations we have as members of a (putatively) civilized society. It’s just that the project of civilization is important enough that, if there is good evidence that nuclear power is the only means we have to keep the project going, we ought to try it.

  8. Robo Sapien says:

    I can agree with that. I think that as science progresses and we observe and recreate more naturally occurring processes, we will ultimately end up with a myriad of technologies that harmoniously transfer energy just as nature does. To me, nuclear seems a logical step in that direction because our entire existance begins with that process.

  9. In his post, Brain Dunning wrote “Conservation has never proven to be a satisfactory strategy to solve virtually any shortage”, and he says that people won’t choose to conserve. I didn’t read the Scientific American article, but lowering the demand for energy often has nothing to do with any projected shortage. The argument for conservation now is usually about lowering CO2, and the mechanism for achieving conservation is through laws and regulations not individuals directly choosing to conserve. Assuming our country remains a representative democracy, how this plays out will depend on how people feel about whatever laws and regulations are passed.

    • Or, we might hope, it may depend in part on what and how well people think, rather than just how they feel.

      (Of course, given how the debate over health care has gone, I’d say we’re about as far from realizing that hope as we’ve ever been . . . It’s still a good idea, though.)

    • I see conservation as being even less effective when the motivation is about reducing CO2 emissions rather than preserving a diminishing resource. Try telling 1.3 billion Chinese that they need to curb their economic growth because the standard of living we’ve already obtained is bad for the environment, and we can’t add too many more computers, flat panels, cars, or power plants in the rest of the world.

      The best you’re realistically going to be able to accomplish is to control the rate at which energy demand/consumption grows. We’re not realistically going to actually reduce energy demand/consumption. Even if the US went back into the stone age, you’ve still got hot emerging markets like China and India rushing into the modern, industrialized age, creating enough new demand for energy to offset any conservation efforts.

      It would seem obvious that focusing on better, cleaner, and more cost efficient sources of energy is going to have far more impact in controlling CO2 production than conservation efforts.

      • ..and realistically, better and cleaner aren’t going to cut it by themselves without the more cost efficient part included.

        Oil and coal are way too cheap to force the world to aggressively pursue cleaner alternatives with any serious, large scale, and significant effort.

        “…as a species we’re just really bad at understanding costs that come later on. Instead, we assign a disproportionate amount of importance to what’s immediate and tangible.”

        -Barbara Kiviat of Time.com writing about credit cards but applicable to far more.

  10. Max says:

    “Are you enriching Saudi Arabia? Hardly.”

    Instead of looking at US imports, look at Saudi exports.
    Saudi Arabia exports 20% of its crude oil to the US, and only 5% to Europe, so yes, we Americans obviously enrich Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia uses the money to fund Middle East Studies programs in the US and madrassas that promote Wahhabism throughout the world.

  11. MadScientist says:

    “Wind turbines and rooftop solar could provide 81 percent of New York’s power, for instance, and almost one third of Ohio’s”

    Hahaha … what world do you have to live on to believe that one? Or is it something they’re snorting/smoking/swallowing/injecting? Given the latitude of New York and Ohio, that claim about solar is absolutely ridiculous. A few years ago I calculated that with the emerging LED lighting technology (and it’s getting very good now – just still very expensive) I would need about 2KW of solar panels and about 20 car batteries just to light 5 rooms 16 hours per day, run my laptop for 14 hours each day, and run the LCD TV for about 6 hours – this at a latitude of 40 degrees, so that’s about right for Ohio and not too far off for New York. (I still need gas for cooking and heating.) 20 car batteries is a hell of a lot and I wouldn’t want the general public to have access to such a huge battery; a short circuit across that would be disastrous (and people have been known to drop things like wrenches across such batteries). My calculations also rely on not having neighbors in taller buildings shading my solar panels. Oh – and what about buildings? Sorry, no hope in hell of using solar panels there. For years people have been talking of semi-transparent photovoltaic devices to use on or as windows on buildings, but in places like New York City (or Chicago, or even San Francisco) that wouldn’t work either because the buildings to all sides of you will shade you – you’ll be lucky if your costly panels work at 5% capacity at any time during the day.

    The private wind thing is another load of nonsense. The huge turbines on giant poles work well (but are very expensive and resource intensive compared to the ol’ super-giant turbine generators in coal-fired plants). To generate a decent amount of electricity at home you’d want a 50KW generator – nothing near the size of the typical 2MW units but far larger than the piddly 200W units which are popular on the ‘net. Not to mention, when the wind’s not blowing you still need that electrical grid – unless your 50KW generator charges up a few dozen car batteries …

    Now another thing with wind power is that you do need the generators up on a pole so that nearby structures (the neighbors’ houses and your own) do not interfere with the operation due to the turbulence they create in a wind. If we had one house per 40 acres then the 50KW personal turbines could be a viable solution – and they only cost about as much as a house. Just look at any wind farm out there today and see how far apart the turbines are; the spacing is necessary to maintain efficiency – you don’t want to be in another turbine’s turbulence and you don’t want to be downwind of too many turbines because they do act as windbreaks.

  12. Miko says:

    “Spending money to replace refrigerators and air conditioners with Energy Star compliant models is money that should instead be thrown at the Big Solution: small, incremental steps are time wasted.”

    It’s possible that this is the case, but very unlikely. Suppose that we have some unit of “goodness” that quantitatively measures how good a certain policy would be to achieving an overall goal and functions f(x) and g(x) which measure the amount of goodness resulting from, respectively, incremental steps and the “Big Solution” (whatever that means). Then, ideally we’d want to find the constrained maximum of h(x,y)=f(x)+g(y) subject to x+y=N where N is some constant. (If we know f and g, this is a fairly standard Calc I problem, or Calc III if more than two functions are involved). Your proposed solution is the “corner” (0, N). It could be that this is the constrained maximum, but anyone who’s had a bit of calculus will know that it isn’t necessarily the solution and certainly shouldn’t be asserted to be the solution without a thorough mathematical argument.

    Also, talking about the “Big Solution” is counterproductive. More likely there are multiple good solutions that should be used in some combination, determined by a maximization process similar to the above. Worse, instead of leading to a practical solution, looking for an exclusive solution leads only to constant in-fighting between the proponents of various solutions.

  13. Jeff says:

    Great post Brian. You will never convince the anti-nookuular folks. :) IMO many who’d be reading this blog, and commenting on it, occupy an odd position. They have legitimate concerns. However most are *unwilling* to listen to, or accept, legitimate solutions to their concerns. An odd position for anyone calling themselves a skeptic or rationalist. They have simply decided that they know the nuclear story, science and all, and that is that. Very much like the woo’ers of the world. :(

    • rustle says:

      The tone of your comment reminds me of comments I’ve read from truthers and anti-vaccine promoters. To paint people who might not agree with you as “*unwilling* to listen” because they don’t believe as you do is exactly the kind of thing they engage in. Calling people who have reservations about ‘nookuular’ (see what I mean?) ‘woo’ers’ and characterizing them as misguided and uncritical is just dismissive and lazy.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        He didn’t call them woo’ers, but he did draw a crappy comparison. A lot of otherwise rational folks do have a hard time accepting the facts of nuclear energy, some prejudices are tough to break. I wouldn’t liken them to woo’ers though, that is just ad hominem. There is nothing wrong with being skeptical of the pro-nuke arguments. We might have superior technology now, but the lesson of Chernobyl requires that we proceed carefully.

  14. David S. says:

    I fail to understand why there is such rift in the energy sciences. It might seem shorthanded, but this debate is increasingly more political than scientific. Also, while I agree that some comments McKibben’s article are somewhat dismissive, I can’t bring myself to say SciAm has taken a complete anti-nuclear bias. If you could point out the pieces that you feel make that point, your point would be clearer.

    Back to my main point, reading over the comments makes me blink more than once. The whole “THIS! Instead of THAT!” seems like we’re all talking about a dichotomy, when such dichotomy does (or should) not exist. It’s like arguing what’s the best crop to plant. You could argue all day about the nutritional and economical benefits of rice over wheat, corn over rice, potatoes over everything, but that just doesn’t make sense. Different conditions exist all over the world. Crops are planted due to historical or practical reasons.

    Shouldn’t energy infrastructure follow the same reasoning? It should be evident that solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and nuclear power have their niches where they should be planted. Instead of lobbying for one over the other, maybe we could lobby for their own particular niches. Or maybe I’m being too goody goody on this.

  15. tmac57 says:

    “If 20 percent is the maximum we can expect from this, it’s clearly a non-starter. We need 100 percent replacement of fossil fuels. We need the giant leap. And if you depend on people shutting off the water while they shave, or driving more slowly, or turning off the lights when they leave the room, your strategy is guaranteed to fail. Should they? Yes. Will they? No. ”
    I really don’t understand this attitude. Even if we met all of our demands for power with nuclear plants, wouldn’t it be desirable to need 20 percent fewer of them? Thats 20% less building costs, 20% less raw materials used, 20% less water for cooling the reactors, 20% less land use, 20% less nuclear waste to dispose of. The same argument goes for whatever technology, be it wind, geothermal, solar, or whatever. I think that the increasing costs of energy, will cause people to use less, in any case. Even though overall energy usage has increased in the US, per capita usage is already declining by about 1% per year, probably largely due to increased efficiency, but costs are likely to be having an effect too. At any rate, the US uses about 40% more energy than most of Europe,per capita, so there does seem like there is some low hanging fruit to be picked.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      That is a good notion, but the problem is the economics. If 80% of the energy market stays in the saturated and competitive fossil fuel industry, the cost difference might drive all the new tech vendors out of business.

      • tmac57 says:

        I think that is what they have been hoping for. But I believe that supply and demand will take care of that, coupled with concerns over carbon emissions. Only time will tell I guess.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Then again, demand for clean tech could plummet if AGW is publicly discredited enough and people lose concern over being “carbon neutral” — but you are right, only time will tell.

    • People buy Priuses because it’s what they want. They go to see Avatar because it’s what they want. The only thing you can depend on is that people will continue doing what they want to do.

      If you consider “Let’s fine people for buying something other than a Prius” or “Let’s fine people for seeing Avatar and hope they see Super Size Me instead” you are setting up a fundamentally broken system. It may do some of what you hope in the short term, but it’s a situation that’s unsatisfactory for everyone, and will not last.

      • tmac57 says:

        Brian, your response seems like a non-sequitur to my comment, if that was directed at what I posted.
        My point is that decreasing energy use through increased efficiency in incremental steps is neither a waste of time nor a non-starter as you suggested in your article. It is creating a false dichotomy between a partial solution and a complete solution. I am not sure that you meant it that way, but that was the way I interpreted it.
        You will notice, that I did say in a subsequent comment, that “I believe that supply and demand will take care of that, coupled with concerns over carbon emissions…” in regards to the idea that fossil fuels will continue to dominate.
        Also, you might want to consider the notion that maybe the reason that nuclear energy has not flourished in the US is, to use your own idea, that it is not what people here want to do. Is it a correct notion? I can’t answer that, but it looks like so far at least, the market has spoken, and nuclear is not winning out in the market place.

  16. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    I had been an avid reader of Scientific American since the 1960′s, when they were a journal in which scientists were proud to first publish their serious original research.
    It was in the 90s, if I recall correctly, that the mag took the heading toward “rag”.
    Now, it is the equivalent of what was in the 1960s “Popular Mechanics”.
    It did not take the anti-nuclear dogma to convince me that it had shed its academic standards in favour of popularity.

    • I totally hear you, but I would not go quite that far. SciAm does not pretend to be anything other than a consumer publication, and it’s still among the best if not the best. But as you point out, even the best has imperfections.

  17. Vince says:

    Re: The McKinsey energy productivity (conservation) study. If anyone wants to read the actual study it can be found here: http://bit.ly/cRlJEM . That’s just a summary page. To get the full report you have to sign up , but it is free.

    While not adamantly opposed to nuclear power I remain unconvinced it is the panacea that some claim it is. It is expensive, prone to cost over runs, vulnerable to black swan catastrophes, and it is extremely bad at being a scalable energy source. Just look to France to see all the problems it has with growing to meet demand in efficient ways.

    Putting that aside, the claim that a 20% reduction makes it a nonstarter is a head scratcher. Why does reduction have to come 100% from one thing (or several as long as they are “big”). This is especially puzzling if the reductions can be achieved in a much more cost effective way by energy efficiency. Reducing energy demand growth in cheap ways reduces the need for some of the new, more expensive, power plants to be built in the first place. It isn’t like the gains go away at some point. If higher standards are set on appliances then all future appliances will require less energy (assuming the standards aren’t repealed.)

    The McKinsey report doesn’t ask anyone to become Ed Begley. Simply that people who were already buying new appliances, or building new homes, should buy more efficient ones (due to higher mandatory and voluntary standards. ) I.e. it isn’t based on the idea that everyone will rush out at once and buy new appliances whether they need them or not. What in the world is wrong with that?

    The other suggestions in the report are mostly market based. Remove protections from government owned and subsidized companies to let them feel the full market pressures to upgrade energy consumption. Provide better incentives to arbitrage companies so they expand in to places like rental properties. This last is based on the idea that landlords have little incentive to put in energy efficient equipment since they aren’t paying the electric and heat bills. These arbitrage companies put up the capital up front and then reap the rewards from the energy savings presumably by becoming the tenant’s energy company when they move in.

    So all in all there is no valid complaint with that part of the McKibben article. Conservation is on the top of the list because it gives the most bang for the buck. I would add that it also starts to give benefits immediately, instead of after decades, and has a much much lower risk of failure.

  18. GoneWithTheWind says:

    The problem that those on the anti-corporation/anti-fossil fuel side refuse to address is that there are no viable alternatives. Wind power costs about 6-10 times what conventional power does. PV is much worse. The largest PV manufacturing plant in the world was recently built in China and a coal fired power plant was built beside it to power it. Wouldn’t that have been the most logical place to showcase the effectiveness of PV? It wasn’t done because PV is so impractical they could never build PV panels with PV power and still be able to compete.
    As for the arguement that nuclear power takes ten years to build and costs billions this is true! It is true because anti-nuclear groups have used legislation and courts to make it true. If the federal government cut the red tape and mandated them they could be built in 18 months for about 1/10th the cost. Oregon State University has developed nuclear power plant designs being exported all over the world that can be built in factories in a few months and trucked to the installation site. For just the subsidy the federal government has wasted on PV and wind alone we could have built 50 of these nuclear power plants.
    The solution to our problem is: 1)Stop subsidizing! This only rewards the dishonest who buy off our politicians to be the “choosen” solution. A viable energy alternative by definition would not require a subsidy. 2)Create a “challenge” contest where designers and inventors can compete for a cash prize by meeting real goals and staff the judging with real scientists. Create an environment where results win and hype is useless. We need alternatives but the current system is not bringing them out.

  19. GoneWithTheWind says:

    One more point: Many argue that we should not mine more coal or drill for more oil and NG. As an alternative they offer things like ethanol from corn (which is an environmental and financial disaster), PV which is impractical everywhere but only reaches it’s full potential in lower latitudes with constant sunshine (like the desert Southwest) and wind power which costs 6-10 times as much to build as conventional power plants but runs only 20% of the time at best. These alternatives are not practical solution and mislead us into believing we are on the right track so therefore we can just shut off the fossil fuel spiquet. This fallacy will eventually catch up with us and energy will become unavailable or too expensive for common use. When this becomes a serious social problem and people are suffering and even dying because affordable energy is unavailable the voters will throw the anti-fossil fuel politicians out. When lack of fossil fuel becomes a serious problem we will drill and mine it where ever it is. You would have to be naive to believe human nature will be suspended and that people won’t act in their own self-interest. We have a window of time to find a solution to this problem. We still have viable supplies of fossil fuels and if we use this time to find alternatives we may be able to transition seemlessly to a new energy future. If we waste this opportunity subsidizing government approved “winners” the future will be bleak. What those of you who are pro-PV and wind should do is become believers in “survival of the fittest”. Use this window of time to find solutions not anoint your favorite bias. I also agree that there will be no 100% solution. There is much work to be done and few actual good ideas out there.

  20. Bob says:

    I gave up on SciAm in the mid-90s when they started giving more page count to politically trendy topics and softer sciences. Today the magazine is where Popular Science was in 1980, and Popular Science today seems to be glorifying military hardware the way Popular Mechanics was in 1980.

    Regardless, my feeling is that few people have a reasonable grasp on energy issues especially those with the political clout to move matters forward. While gains in efficiency are always welcome, there are still few geographical areas where solar and wind make will any economic sense in the forseeable future. Transmission and distribution (T&D) losses make shipping power from the deserts, plains, and coasts (where these technologies excel) even less economical. Solar and wind have moderate capital costs, wind has higher operation & maintenance (O&M) costs, and the strong coupling between plant output and weather/planetary rotation make them difficult to manage and unsuitable for baseload generation. Again, they aren’t bad per se (no fuel cost, very low operational emissions, risk, and social cost) but they are expensive in terms of overall $/kW and uncontrollable in their output.

    Hydro power is tapped out in the US. Done. Some areas are looking to get rid of dams for environmental & economic reasons (salmon.)

    Natural gas is a non-starter; it’s expensive and limited and is best used as a chemical feedstock and as home heating & cooking fuel. Gas turbine peaking units have obscene fuel costs but are popular because of their relatively low capital costs and regulatory red tape.

    Much of the problem stems from the combination of the public utility regulatory system and for-profit energy companies. The public utility commissions (PUCs) are supposed to act as advocates for the consumer, trying to stabilize prices while providing a fair profit and managing rate increases to fund future growth. I do not envy the PUCs because they need to balance a number of social needs (reasonable profit vs reasonable costs vs sensible infrastructure planning) all within a political framework.

    So to get back to gas turbines: The low capital cost and less awful emissions of natural gas, coupled with the ability to pass the gas fuel charge to the consumer made gas turbines a real winner in the 90s because there was less financial risk in borrowing to build a new 30MW unit than there was for building a 1000MW coal unit or (God forbid!) a 600-1600MW nuclear unit. Still, gas turbines were a holding action, very attractive only because of the regulatory and banking framework.

    Coal power has a strong lobby – mining interests. While they fight safety improvements and environmental law, they blow the tops off mountains and pollute the nearby water sources, scarring the land in ways that make strip-mining look gentle. Aside from acid rain components sulfur- and nitrous oxides, coal bottom ash is laden with heavy metals and, perversely, coal plants emit more radioactive material per watt than nuclear plants, all unregulated. And we haven’t even considered carbon footprint. Coal is all bad, all the time, but remains the overall least cost option for baseload generation.

    Twenty years ago, nuclear fusion power was only twenty years away, just like it was twenty years before that. Then again, if only (as fusion researchers will tell you) it had adequate funding. A note though: nuclear fusion is the only technology aside from photovoltaic solar that might promise direct generation of electricity, compared to the [energy source -> boiling water -> turbine -> generator] model of power generation. If we discovered that invisible pink unicorns gave off energy, the engineer’s first thought would be to use them to boil water and pass the steam through a turbine to turn a generator.

    Solar-thermal (vs photovoltaic), solar satellite, ocean thermal gradient, ocean wave, and geothermal are all part of the long tail of energy generation technologies. Interesting, maybe even promising, but nothing anyone’s seriously pursuing, probably not since Jimmy Carter was president.

    Refuse-derived fuel is a pretty cool two-birds-with-one-stone solution but the focus on carbon footprint has probably doomed this landfill-reducing idea (coal + trash = power – landfill.) It was a nice try in the 90s.

    Conservation and efficiency improvements are always important to pursue but neither generates power and we are talking about power generation technology. The concept of ‘negawatts’ is a distraction.

    Which brings us around to fission power, the polarizing Obi-wan Kenobi of very-low-carbon baseload power generation. The two main problems with fission generation are public perception and economic risk. The environmental impact is known and low compared to other baseload technologies.

    The waste issue is entirely political, not technical. There are many ways to dispose of high-level wastes, from vitrification and monitored, retrievable storage in geological repositories to diversion-proof reprocessing and ‘burning’ long-lived fission products by putting them back in a reactor core. ‘Burning’ them in an accelerator is stupid as is launching the wastes into the sun (both seriously proposed) and while by policy the US prohibits offshore disposal, there’s something to be said for roughly infinite dilution over the very long term, provided you care more about humans than whatever might live at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Regardless, NIMBY and head-in-sand (in)action rule the day on waste disposal, especially since Harry Reid shuttered Yucca Mountain. I can’t fault him, the way Yucca Mountain was selected as a waste site, though to be fair Yucca Mountain is right in the middle of the freakin’ Nevada Test Site which is irrevocably crapped up from above- and below-ground bomb test and the notorious one-point-safe tests that blew plutonium all over the place. Still, the nation screwed Nevada so now Nevada has screwed the nation – such is politics.

    If you’ve listened to Brian’s podcast on nuclear power, he hit the nail squarely on the head regarding risk. It’s a non-issue in the plants being sold and built today. A lot of lessons were learned from Three Mile Island and several decades of operational experience. First, less hardware is less hardware to test, maintain, and make redundant and less hardware which can randomly break. Second, use passive means of fluid circulation and heat removal wherever possible. Both of these are central to the most recent reactor designs, making them much safer than the already extremely safe plants already running.

    There are two classes of risks with the currently operating fleet of reactors: inability to shut the reactor down and inability to keep the core cool. The former risk goes by a completely baffling acronym – ATWS, or Anticipated Transient without Scram (“scram” being the colloquialism for stopping the chain reaction. Some claim it’s an acronym but nobody really knows where the term comes from. Like the SL-1 accident, it’s surrounded by rumors…) Anyway, ATWS is an exceedingly rare event, being relatively rare in the risk assessments performed on plants. The major risk is ironically the total loss of electrical power at a power plant, aka the “station blackout” or SBO. Without offsite power or power from the 3 or more locomotive-sized diesel generators onsite, it is simple to turn off the reactor but difficult to remove the residual 6-7% of thermal power the core gives off from short-lived fission products. By contrast, after a few years, spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored in dry sealed casks with nothing more than ambient air circulating around them for cooling. But just after the reactor drops from full power, it takes about a day to drop to 0.5% of full power. Since electrical efficiency is about 35%, you can estimate the thermal power a core gives off by multiplying it’s electrical output by three. 1000MWe is about 3000MWth so at shutdown the core will put off about 200MWth and a day later it’ll be down to 15MWth. The game, as it were, is to make sure that the fuel stays under the magical 1800 C temperature when the zirconium alloy tubes (cladding) holding the ceramic fuel pellets starts to exothermically react with steam to make hydrogen gas. Also, when the cladding reacts, it loses its structural strength and the fuel pellets fall into the lower head of the reactor where they are much more difficult to keep cool and where they tend to soften the reactor vessel and whatever instrument penetration welds there are down there. Once fuel is damaged, you’ve lost the game and the question going forward is how badly you’ve lost. Will the core end up on the floor? Will the hydrogen blow up and break the containment building? Important questions, yes, but better to never have to ask or answer them, at least not in reality.

    Precisely one light water reactor core has been damaged in the US in the entire history of the civil nuclear power industry – 1979 at Three Mile Island, Unit 2. Had everyone in the control room run away or been shot at the beginning of the accident, the automatic systems would have kept the core cool and the plant (like its sister unit) would be operating today. Operations management and training is far, far better today then it was then precisely because a lot hard reflection and analysis coupled with industry and governmental regulation went into ensuring this level of human error could not happen again.

    So between much better design, lessons learned from risk assessments, and decades of operational experience, the risk issue is essentially moot, at least to those running and regulating plants. Public perception is another matter, and there are groups who profit from exaggerating the risk posed by nuclear power, not necessarily the anti-corporate anti-technology crowd.

    Fuel stocks are not a problem. At present uranium stocks are high enough that there’s substantial pressure to limit production to keep prices in the profitable range for the mining interests (remember them?) But looking at the current uranium market compared to estimated worldwide stock of fissile and fertile (breedable) material is like the difference between weather and climate. Last I looked into this (early 90s) we had about another 100 years of fission fuel at the current consumption rate, assuming a wasteful once-through fuel cycle. Adding breeder reactors and reprocessing stretched this to 500 years. So while this is a relatively short span compared to the recorded human history, it does buy us a lot of time to find better power sources.

    Make no mistake – fission is a stopgap measure. While I will strongly advocate it as the best choice at present for baseload generation, like coal it is a technology which should should be phased out as more economical, more reliable, safer technologies become available. And despite what the wind and solar and conservation advocates may claim, they are not here yet. The key word is ‘yet’, at least for solar and wind; substitute “ever” for conservation since, as said before, it’s not a method of power generation.

    The one final point I haven’t addressed is the major one – financial risk. Power costs are traditionally divided into three categories: fuel, O&M, and capital costs. Solar and wind have effectively no fuel costs, but solar has awful capital costs (in $/MWe.) Wind has better capital costs but gets killed in O&M (those turbines take a lot of maintenance in $/MW.) Coal plants have moderate capital costs in $/MW but since they are large baseload plants, the capital costs are large in an absolute sense and it’s hard to get permission from the PUCs to recover the capital costs from ratepayers especially when the plant won’t pay for itself for 10-15 years. Gas turbines have high fuel costs and moderate O&M costs but relatively low capital costs so they break even in about 5 years which makes them very attractive to utilities and ratepayers. Too bad they screw the environment and cost more to ratepayers overall in the long run. Nuclear fuel is dirt cheap for the amount of power it generates, but the killers are O&M costs due to the complexity and scale of nuclear units, and the capital cost of building the plant in the first place. Due to the high capital cost, nuclear units take a long time to pay off but are very economical long-term. The problem is that with fickle regulators, hostile intervenors, the current adversarial PUC/utility framework, and the uncertainties that crop up in such large and complex construction projects, building a nuclear plant is a serious financial risk, one that few lenders will take on and one that few for-profit utilities will embark upon. Federal regulation has been streamlined somewhat with the combined construction/operating license (COL) model. Previously you needed one approval to build the plant – a CP or construction permit – and a second approval – an OL or operating license – to actually run the plant. This preserves the public voice in the licensing process but prevents what amounted to economic guerilla action by intervenors to drag out the licensing process.

    Further, one of the problems recognized by the regulators was that each plant was unique, meaning each plant design needed to be analyzed individually in order to issue an operating license. Worse yet, a lot of plant designs were only about 80% complete when construction started and the last 20% would be filled in during the 3-7 years a plant was being built. This ate a lot of regulatory resources and made ongoing regulation difficult. To that end the regulators stipulated that plant vendors should submit a complete, standard reactor design for regulatory analysis and approval. Once approved, the theory went, a utility could order one of the standard and approved plant designs and provided the plant site was acceptable (ground not too mushy, not in New Madrid, Missouri, not in downtown Manhattan, etc.) a combined CP/OL would be issued, and provided the plant was built as designed there would be little last minute bureuacratic screwing around and the plant would go online as planned. This newer regulatory regime is in the process of being tested now. It’s not perfect but it beats the hell out of the situation we had in 1980. The only people who lose are the professional whining class and even a lot of them have given up their anti-nuclear crusade now that the reality of global climate change is sinking in.

    Energy policy is a very complex matter and without both broad and deep research into regulatory affairs, technology, environmental science, history, and economics, you end up with prima facie stupid statements like ‘too cheap to meter’ (made up by a journalist, not an engineer) or ‘New York could generate 80% of its power from rooftop windmills’ (technically but not realistically.) No energy source is a panacea; each has risks, environmental effects, costs, and benefits and it’s important as skeptics to make sure each of these are fully investigated. Of particular importance is the fuel, O&M, capital cost breakdown – all methods of energy generation fit this model and looking at them through this lens puts them on comparable economic footing. Solar and wind suddenly become a lot less attractive when their zero fuel costs is balanced by their capital and O&M costs. A further question is how to fairly and consistently factor in the social cost of fossil fuel and nuclear (though at least nuclear pays for its own waste disposal and decommisioning; who’s left paying for last year’s giant coal ash pit failure or all the mountains with their tops blown off…?)

    Full disclosure: I worked for a nuclear plant from 1992-1995 doing risk assessment and radiological analysis (e.g. estimating offsite dose as a result of postulated accidents.) From late 1995 to late 2008 I worked as a web programmer and sysadmin. Eighteen months ago I returned to nuclear engineering as a consultant, working on probabilistic risk assessments for German nuclear plants, fire risk assessment for Swedish nuclear plants, and most recently, safety analysis of proposed transport and storage of radioactive sludge and fuel debris as part of the cleanup of the former plutonium production facilities in Hanford, Washington.