Saturday, June 20, 2009

Scientific American in the Era of Confusion

Once again Scientific American has disgraced itself by hyping a shoddy, unprofessional hit peice against nuclear power, this time by a Ralph Nader's lacky. The SA internet post begins:
Nuclear power plants may not emit greenhouse gases, but they sure could suck in the tax dollars.

An analysis by economist Mark Cooper at the Vermont Law School claims that adding 100 new reactors to the U.S. power grid would cost taxpayers and customers between $1.9 and $4.1 trillion over the reactors’ lifetimes compared with renewable power sources and conservation measures.
I will quickly demonstrate that there are many red flags on the Mark Cooper study. Beyond that there is no evidence that Mark Cooper is an economist, his exact relationship to Vermont Law School is murky, and it is questionable if any part of the study was produced in Vermont. The study was not published by the Vermont Law School, and aside from from the cover claim that Mark Cooper is a Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment of the Vermont Law School, nothing links the study to the School. Nothing except the fact that the study can be downloaded from the Institute's web site. Most similar studies will acknowledge the relationship between the study and the institute from which itwas said to have originated. For example, the MIT Study "The Future of Nuclear Power" carries the following inscription
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology. All rights reserved.
ISBN 0-615-12420-8
Curiously the Cooper study carries no Copyright.
The Forward and Acknowledgements of the MIT study notes:
This study also reflects our conviction that the MIT community is well equipped to carry out interdisciplinary studies intended to shed light on complex socio-technical issues that will have a major impact on our economy and society. Nuclear power is but one example; we hope to encourage and participate in future studies with a similar purpose.

We acknowledge generous financial support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and from MIT’s Office of the Provost and Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.
The Mark Cooper study had no Forward and carried no acknowledgement of financial support.

The Press release announcing the MIT study clearly stated
The press release for the Cooper study failed to include mention of Vermont Law Scholl asside from noting Cooper's alleged title.

On the cover page of the Cooper study, Cooper is described as a
Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis
But on a Vermont Law School page that mentions the Cooper study, Cooper is described as a
Senior Research Fellow for Consumer Energy
Despite this claim Cooper is not listed among the faculty of the Institute for Energy and the Environment of the Vermont Law School. Indeed I can not find any evidence that Cooper has ever been on the Vermont Law School campus.


SA readers were not reticent to tell that once august journal that it had uncorked a stinker with its Cooper study story.
Duncan M noted
enewables at 6 cents per kilowatt hour. That's pretty funny, since they require direct production subsidies of 15 cents per kilowatt hour for wind to 35 cents per kilowatt hour for solar, with no reasonable hope those costs will fall significantly

Meanwhile, nuclear is cost-competitive with hydro in Europe.

This magazine doesn't deserve to keep the word Scientific in its name if it's publishing political jeremiads like this.
Rogeregon responded
LOL! Duncan M, I've noticed, more and more, how Scientific American has been taken over by a bunch of ultra-left wingers who seem to be mostly pushing political agendas, rather than actual science!
uvdiv was blunt
This article is criminally dishonest. It brings up a "12c-20c/kWh" cost range for nuclear, and then also cites an MIT study as calling nuclear power "uncompetitive". Which is interesting because I've READ that MIT study, and it concludes the levelized cost for new nuclear power is 8.4 c/kWh - well outside the other range the author quotes. Does the author point out this discrepancy? No; he ignores the inconvenient parts of his own sources, selectively cherry-picking the quotes and datapoints that support his position.

The report is available for free here:

And further when the MIT report calls nuclear power "uncompetitive", it is referring ONLY in comparison with coal and natural gas power, and ONLY when completely ignoring the costs of carbon emissions. In fact, by the studies' numbers, just a very small carbon price would make nuclear as cheap as coal. (2009 update, Table 1)

The cited MIT report also directly conflicts with the "$1.9-4.1 trillion" figure for 100 new reactors. It estimates a capital cost figure of $4/W for new reactors (based on real-world figures from recent reactors in Japan and South Korea, which fell in the range of $2-3/W*, and extrapolating from that with commodity price increases). At the this cost, 100x new 1 GWe reactors would carry a pricetag of $400 billion, which is majorly conflicts with his other (presumably fradulent) numbers. Since when did commercial power reactors reach $41/W???

*These are discussed in a supplementary paper to that report, which is here under "Update on the Cost of Nuclear Power":

Again, it is despicable that a self-proclaimed "journalist" would so blatantly misrepresent his sources, twist them to support his political ideals.

To append one thing to my comment - I want to preempt any argument that lifetime operation or decommissioning costs explain away the huge discrepancy with that $1.9-$4.1 trillion figure. Construction costs are by far the largest component of nuclear power costs, and other lifetime costs are comparatively trivial. Again citing the same MIT study (the supplement paper): Table 6C compares these. A full 72% of total costs are the initial construction costs (which would be $400 billion for one hundred 1 GWe reactors under this MIT study). A tiny 11% are operation and maintenance costs, 10% are fuel costs, and 7% decommissioning.

Again that paper is available here for free:
Patrice2 commented
Contrary to the study’s finding that “nuclear power cannot stand on its own two feet in the marketplace” nuclear energy is expected to be among the most economic sources of electricity. To cite one example, an independent comparative study published in January 2008 by the Brattle Group for the state of Connecticut estimated that nuclear energy (at $4,038/kW) may have the highest capital cost, but still produces the least expensive electricity, except for combined cycle natural gas with no carbon controls.

New nuclear reactors have been affirmed as the least cost option for new generation by the Public Service Commission (PSC) in South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. The analyses supporting the PSC reviews found nuclear to be cost competitive with other forms of baseload generation in addition to helping to address climate change.

Various recently-released academic studies have also found the cost of nuclear energy to be competitive.

It’s useful to think of it like this:

• The cost of building advanced reactors is about the same as advanced coal plants with carbon storage, but nuclear energy has the lowest fuel cost over decades of electricity production.

• By comparison, natural gas plants are relatively cheap to build, but the supply and price volatility is a major drawback. The fuel cost for natural gas plants makes up 90 percent of the power cost. The cost of power from coal and gas-fueled power plants would rise in a carbon-constrained world, further increasing their electricity costs.

A new licensing process, coupled with construction and project management experience from nuclear energy projects globally, will provide useful experience with new reactor designs in the United States.

Put simply, credible estimates of the total cost of new nuclear energy facilities show that electricity from nuclear energy will be competitive with other forms of baseload generation.
Finally JimHolf made a point familiar to Nuclear Green readers
It must be noted that while nuclear opponents often claim that renewables are cheaper than nuclear, they are NEVER willing to put that assertion to any kind of market test. Just the opposite. They say they're cheaper, but then insist on policies that prevent any fair market competition between renewables and other means of reducing emissions, including nuclear. Under current/recent policies, renewables are massively more subsidised than nuclear, and there are also outright mandates for their use (regardless of cost or practicality), just in case even those subsidies are not enough. If the relative cost of renewables was anything like this article's study, none of these policies would be even remotely necessary.
I see no point for a further review of Mark Cooper glorified trash talking of Nuclear Power. The Scientific American readers once again have proven that, even if journalists no longer have sound judgement, some of their readers do. While Scientific American's coverage of nuclear issues reflects the current dream era of confusion, it is clear from the Scientific American comments, that some people are very much awake already. Oh for those of you who are curious, Dr. Mark N. Cooper is a Washington lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America, a Ralph Nader front organization. Cooper's official title is Director of Research. Cooper spends his days talking to politicians not consumers.

Update: Two more Reader comments from Scientific American.
1. dbakerpe
The assertion that nuclear will have high long term costs is based on cost overruns on the first generation plants. It false on its face, because those same first generation plants are now the lowest cost power sources on the grid except hydro. Large power projects are built with borrowed money, so the power is always expensive to begin with to pay back the loans. A new nuclear plant will likely last 60-100 years. After the loans are paid back the power will be cheap. If we are going to have a real economy that produces real products, they are the only environmentally acceptable solution.
2. sethdayal
The MIT 4000 a kw is just a (WAG) wild guess based on suspect figures.
1) It is based on a few Asian reactors with some rather dubious conversions to US Dollars.
2) In the middle of the worst depression in a century it assumes without proof that nuclear plant cost inflation is 15%.
3) It assumes 11% cost of money at a time when public power ie governments can borrow at 3%.
4) Ignored are Westinghouse's sale of four ap-1000 reactors for 5.5 billion to China a little over 1300 a kw and Hyperions sale of six of its 25 mw units for $25 million each again $1000 a kw with 45 mw of free heat leftover to warm the town.
5) Ignored also is Westinghouse's contention that with mass production techniques it can produce these reactors for around $1000 a kilowatt. With a World War Two hell bent for leather lets save the planet from global warning type effort ramping up quickly to hundreds of plants opening worldwide every year, costs for mass produced reactors would drop drastically.
5) It assumes every country is like the US where a large portion of costs are a result of an army of attorneys, bureaucrats and insurance companies lined up for and against any proposed private power company nuclear plants.

Renewables cheaper. What a joke.


Jason Ribeiro said...

Charles, good job picking apart this ideologically driven propaganda piece. It's such a shame what's become of SciAm.

M. Simon said...

I wonder if he is related to D.B. Cooper?

Anonymous said...

In relation to dbakerpe's comment
"The assertion that nuclear will have high long term costs is based on cost overruns on the first generation plants"

Why is it unreasonable to assume new plants won't have the same cost overruns? Especially if the new generations of plants will involve new technologies?

Charles Barton said...

Anonymous, it is unreasonable to assume the same cost over runs if the same factors that caused the over runs are not present. Those factors included plant designs that changed after construction began, a gigh underlying level of inflation that effected the whole economy, and changing regulations that forced major reactor redesigns half way through construction. Why is it that you anti-nuclear types never recognize the roots of the problem?


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