Michele Kearney's Nuclear Wire

Major Energy and Environmental News and Commentary affecting the Nuclear Industry.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Honor the Truth from The Nuclear Green Revolution by Charles Barton

My point of view as a blogger has been to always honor the truth. I have sought to discover what is the truth, in the case of Nuclear Green the truth about the energy. The truth is found by seeking the answers to simple and clear questions which arise from common sense. The truth is found by obeying the rules of logic, and by testing answers through observations drawn from experience.

The questions which lead to the creation of Nuclear Green, arose innocently when I ask anti-nuclear renewables advocate, David Roberts how electricity was to be produced at night or when the wind does not blow. Roberts suggested that the answer lay with energy storage. I asked next, "How much does renewable energy plus energy storage cost?"

Roberts did not have a good answer then, and three and a half years later, he still does not have a good answer. Beyond his failure to offer good answers to my questions, Roberts failed to honor the truth. Roberts offered propositions, which he was subsequently not able to justify. For Example Roberts argued,
Nuclear power costs more than renewables.
In order to prove this assertion true, Roberts needed to show how much a nuclear power electrical system would cost, and how much a renewable electrical system would cost. Roberts was either unable or unwilling to establish the comparative costs. If Roberts honored truth, he would have backed down from his claim that
Nuclear power costs more than renewables.
Roberts did not do that. When asked to demonstrated his contention, Roberts ignored the request. I further offered Roberts well attested information that contradicted his contention.
Roberts response was to ignore my request for proof of his contention, to ignore the contradicting information, and incidentally to ignore me, since Roberts seemingly had made himself available for conversation on Grist, but had failed to respond to my attempt to engage his in a serious dialogue on Post-Carbon energy costs. Our problem did not stem from a disagreement, rather it came from Roberts failure to offer proof for his assertions, and his failure to acknowledge the existence of well attested information that simply contradicted his viewpoint.

Nuclear Green has repeatedly, during the last 3 years, set out evidence and arguments that suggest that not only would future nuclear generated electricity cost less than renewables generated electricity from a post carbon grid, but that numerous steps can be taken to lower post carbon nuclear generation costs. No similar cost lowering steps have been proposed for renewable generation sources, by the way. The case for new nuclear generation technology has been won by a slam dunk, because the supporters of renewable generation technology, have completely ignored the arguments of Generation IV nuclear power supporters.

The backers of renewable generation technology have also lost their debate with the supporters of traditional nuclear power, because the renewables backers continue to use arguments that are 30 years out of date, and have failed to answer arguments that nuclear supporters have repeatedly made. The whole approach of the anti-nuclear renewables backers, has been to ignore the weakness of the evidence for their own case, while at the the same time ignoring the strength of the evidence for the case for nuclear power.

It is astonishing that I have been able to conduct an argument about energy despite having no professional training in the field. Indeed I began to argue about energy issues after a laps of over 30 years, during which I systematically ignored them. Although I maintained a brave front on the Internet, I have during the last three years maintained that I was not well qualified to argue many of the issues I argued on Nuclear Green, but no one better qualified was publicly arguing them, so until better qualified people showed up, as inadequate as I was, I was the best qualified person available to argue the case. Fortunately better qualified people are now showing up.

Fortunately the anti-nuclear renewable advocates adopted the strategy of ignoring me early on. One is fortunate in debate, if one encounters incompetent opponents, and the anti-nuclear, pro-renewables crowd has yet to prove their competence. I initially built my case by using flawed sources. I was aware of some of the flaws, and acknowledged them. In effect I crafted better than nothing arguments. I noticed that renewables backers were using better than nothing arguments too, and that my arguments were based on more recent, and better quality sources than the sources used by the renewables crowd. I kept looking for better quality sources, and reported them whenever they emerged. Because I was attempting to construct arguments, I was in a good position to critique the argument construction of the other side, which is always a useful skill for renewables backers.

Eventually I became aware that the tactics of renewables advocates involved systematically ignoring information that supported the case for nuclear power, while relying on studies that contained well documented flaws. Perhaps no energy related research is more flawed than the sustainability research paper "Nuclear power the energy balance," by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, often referred to as "Stormsmith." The Stormsmith paper focused on the CO2 emissions associated with nuclear plants during their lifetime, as well as the sustainability of uranium as an energy source. These are serious areas of research for specialists like Roberto Dones of Paul Scherrer Institut who has coauthored several peer reviewed papers on the topic, papers that were published in respected scientific and academic journals. In contrast the "Stormsmith" paper was funded by an association of European political parties, and it has never been published in a peer reviewed journal.

Now if the association of European political parties that had commissioned the "Stormsmith" paper had wished to commission an accurate and credible account of CO2 emissions and uranium sustainability, they would have no doubt asked Roberto Dones to write it. These politicians wanted anti-nuclear, pro-renewables propaganda, not accurate information.

I should point out that the Philip Smith of this dynamic "Stormsmith" duo was dead by the time I began writing about "Stormsmith," but that Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen was very much with us. It is not clear how much Smith knew about the topic or what he contributed to the paper. Yet, what ever credibility "Stormsmith" had rested with Smith who was a professor of physics. But after Smith's death, Storm van Leeuwen appears to have assumed the mantel, with other anti-nuclear, pro-renewable advocates, such as David Fleming, relying on "Storm's" authority. Storm van Leeuwen had not enjoyed a career that would have vested him as an authority on nuclear technology. This does not mean that what Storm van Leeuwen had to say was wrong or inaccurate, but it did mean that attaching his name to a statement about nuclear technology did nothing to enhance the likelihood that the statement was truthful. And people like Roberto Dones who were real experts had raised questions about "Stormsmith's" truthfulness. In 2007, Dones wrote a note which offered some criticisms of "Stormsmith."
The estimation of energy uses and corresponding greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the nuclear energy chain by Storm van Leeuwen J.W. and Smith P. (last available version: SvLS 2005)1 is often quoted especially by nuclear opponents who question the characteristic of nuclear energy to be near GHG-free. SvLS guesstimate relatively high to very high energy requirements and hence corresponding CO2 emissions for the electricity of nuclear origin, the highest to be found in the literature circulating in Internet,2 especially when low grade uranium ores are considered. The main explanation for SvLS’ high figures lies in their extreme assumptions (often rough guesses, as the authors admit themselves) and partially flawed methodology.
However, because of ideological connotations of the opposition to nuclear energy, often the quotation of (SvLS 2005) is not accompanied by citation of and comparison with the tens of other relevant technical studies that have been and are being produced on the subject, with different results although prevalently converging to relatively low GHG emissions. An opponent to nuclear energy likely chooses the reference that best matches his presumptions, without undergoing the process of critically analyzing and comparing its assumptions and results vs. other studies. Symmetrically, a supporter of nuclear energy may wish to refer only to those studies that conclude that nuclear energy is the best performer among electricity options with respect to GHG emissions. Correct approach would be to use transparent life cycle assessment (LCA) studies best fitting specific conditions being addressed,3 with inclusive boundaries, and compare/quote the obtained results with other likewise transparent and possibly reviewed studies to capture the likely ranges in order to account of uncertainties.
Dones's note was by no means the only serious criticism of "Stormsmith." Associate Professor Martin Sevior of the School of Physics, of the University of Melbourne, wrote a couple of popular critiques of "Stormsmith" that appeared on the well known Internet energy related site, the Oil Drum (here, and here) . The second post was in fact a somewhat revised version of the earlier post. The two post drew more than 600 comments, and comments on the first post influenced revisions that went into the second post. This post and comment process can resemble a peer review process in a scientific journal, and because it is open to anyone who wishes to express an opinion, the comments can be considered an example of the open science process. The open science process offers a path to credibility.

Sevior did not explicitly discuss the "Stormsmith" paper in his Oil Drum post, but "Stormsmith" was part of the background of his posts, and was mentioned something like 30 times in the 2 discussions. An Australian debate, earlier in the decade had drawn Australian attention to "Stormsmith. " Sevior had been on a committee of Melborne University scientists who had attempted to assess "Stormsmith's" contentions. Sevior documented his conclusions on a web site named, Nuclearinfo.net. Hidden in the bowels of this web site is the record of a debate between Storm van Leeuwen and Sevior. (Links can be found on this page.) Sevior notes that "Stormsmith" had offered a formula that predict that the Rossing uranium mine located in the African nation of Namibia,
should require 2.6 Giga-Watt-Years of energy for mining and milling. The total consumption of all forms of energy in the country of Namibia is equivalent to 1.5 GigaWatt-Years, much less than the prediction for the mine alone. Furthermore, yearly cost of supplying this energy is over 1 billion dollars, yet the value of the Uranium sold by Rossing was, until recently, less than 100 million dollars per year. Since Rossing reports it's yearly energy usage to be 0.03 GigaWatt-years, SLS overestimates the energy cost of the Rossing mine by a factor of 80.
This was one of a number of huge blunders which Sevior found in "Stormsmith's" work. Professor Sevior tells this story in an offhand fashion, but once the story is laid out "Stormsmith's" complete lack of credibility is clear.

We all make mistakes, and I have made mine. Integrity requires us to acknowledge our mistakes from time to time. Dispute the repeated telling of the story of the discrediting of Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith's "Stormsmith" report, misinformation in that report continues to be spread. At a certain point, once misinformation continues to be spread, the word "lie" becomes appropriate.

"Stormsmith" is not the only case in which anti-nuclear propaganda can be said to dishonor the truth. It is of course not automatically the truth that support for nuclear power is always founded on respect for truth. It is of course easier to honor the truth by criticizing the errors of others, than by acknowledging ones own errors. This makes us human, and requires that science be based on well founded criticisms of mistakes.
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