Sunday, September 27, 2009

David Roberts and intellectual narcissism

In January 2007, David Roberts wrote,
Each nuke plant is fantastically expensive, uninsurable, subsidized out the wazoo, vulnerable to terrorist attack or accident, and constantly generating waste that we still don't know what to do with. Nuclear is a market Frankenstein, kept alive with jolts of taxpayer cash and bully-pulpit support from political, military and business elites.
What does Roberts think we should use instead of nuclear?
Natural gas really does seem like an important tool when it comes to short- and mid-term reductions in the electricity sector. Efficiency—getting more power from less fuel—should be the top and overwhelming priority, but natgas can certainly help at the margins.
Why does Roberts take such a drastic position?
Of the nuclear debate, I said that there's an array of great arguments against nuclear power, and one real argument in its favor: There's no other way to cut our CO2 emissions fast enough. That argument, I said, "strikes me as decisive if it's true."

Since then it's become clear to me that it's not true. The pressing realities of climate change argue against nuclear power, not for it, because they argue for the cheapest, fastest, most adaptable and resilient response, and that's not nuclear power. Money spent on capital-intensive hard infrastructure (run by a rent-seeking, politically connected industry with a crappy record of regulatory compliance) is money that would have more positive effect spent on distributed renewables and efficiency. The opportunity costs of nuclear power are too high.
My problem with David Roberts is that Roberts reaches numerous conclusions about nuclear power, but never tells us upon what facts those conclusions are based.

I wrote several comment to post by David Roberts, in a comment dated Jun 7, 2007 I pointed out that David's anti-nuclear stance was leading to a failure of green goals, and was actually promoting the interests of coal
David, rather losing patience with congress, we ought to focus on what can be learned from this fiasco. First we ought to recognize who we are. There are two different constituencies that are concerned about the CO2/Global warming problem. One might be called the post-carbon based economy constituency. The post-carbon based view wants practical solutions for transferring the energy economy from carbon-based fuels, to non-carbon based fuels. The post-carbon view holds that environmentalist goals like habitat and species diversity preservation are likely to be untenable if there is significant global climate change. The post-carbon view is that priority should be given to proven solutions to the carbon-fuel replacement problem. The post-carbon viewpoint is not opposed to alternative energy sources, including wind, tidal, solar generation of electricity. But the post-carbon perspective harbors serious doubts that a successful transition to a post carbon economy can occur without a replacement of coal fired electrical generating plants by nuclear reactor generated electricity.

The second constituency is the environmentalist community. To say the least, environmentalists seem to be confused. I have pointed out that global warming will defeat many environmentalists' goals. Environmentalists have traditionally opposed Nuclear power. In light of the CO2/Global warming crisis, continuing this opposition seems highly irrational. Environmentalists seem to think that nothing has changed since Three Mile Island. We are now a generation later. There have been a lot of changes in thinking about nuclear safety. New reactor designs are both safer and cheaper to build. Practical solutions for the disposal of nuclear waste are available as well. In light of these developments, environmentalists ought to rethink their opposition to nuclear power. Some have. But many have not.

We see coming from the environmentalist community proposals that we turn to unproven technologies as replacements for carbon-based technologies. Thus we see claims being made for geothermal power that are quite unrealizable with current technology. We see questionable claims being made about the potential for biomass energy sources. We see claims about the cost of wind power, that reflect the costs of wind power as a part time supplement to coal based power generation. The basic problem with wind that in most places the wind only blows part of the time. To have electrical power available when the wind is not blowing is going to be very expensive.

The problem with the part of the environmentalist community that opposes nuclear is that their thinking about other power options is weak. What seems clear is that the anti nuk environmentalist community has no practical alternative to coal. Thus the anti-nuk message of environmentalist like you David, serves the interest of the coal industry. People who are concerned about global warming need to get their message straight. They need to focus on practical solutions. They need to speak with a single rational voice.

Charles Barton
My plea to David Roberts fell on deaf ears. David was not interested in being rational. David repeatedly argued that nuclear power would be too expensive to serve as a post-carbon energy solution. But when I looked at Roberts preferred post carbon energy solutions, I found that they were far from cheap. In pointed out in a Grist comment how expensive offshore wind had become in 2007
The idea of off shore power is neat, but the offshore wind in the United States is far more expensive than nuclear power. Wendy Williams, in an December 9, Op-ed in the New York Times discussed the some of those costs. A 40-turbine offshore wind project off Long Island was finally scrapped after the price rose to nearly $1 billion. At full capacity, the facility was rated at 140 megawatts. Even if it produced half of it's rated power the facility would have produced power at 11,000 per KWh. David, had this been a nuclear facility you would have been screaming bloody murder, but since it is green you ignore the cost issue. The same Op-ed mentioned the Cape Cod 468-megawatt off-shore wind project which might cost as much as $1.7 billion the project is expected to average 182 MW. The Cape Cod project is a real deal, only $9,400 per KW. Cheep enough to make David Roberts jump flips.
Despite my use of sources like the New York Times David ignored the issue and continued to insist that nuclear alone was too expensive.

This lead to the question of whether David was engaged in the logically fallacious debate tactic of special pleading. That is setting up rules intended to apply to nuclear power alone, even though the same rules when applied to renewables suggested that David's favorite power sources were even more expensive than nuclear.

David did not answer this argument, he ignored it. This was a typical David Roberts debate tactic. David would set out an easily falsifiable position. critics would point out the factual errors and logical weaknesses of David's position, David would then then ignore the criticism and repeat the same erroneous assertions. Reality for David Roberts was what ever he said it was, and no evidence to the contrary could prove him wrong.

Roberts appears to believe that anyone who disagrees with him is narcissistic
But most irksome is Brand's (and Tierney's) decree that the pro-nuke stance represents the "scientist" wing of environmentalism, as opposed to the anti-nuke "romantics." You see a lot of this kind of thing on blogs and forums: the guy -- and it's usually a guy -- who insists that he alone is being rational and that his interlocutors are mired in emotion, if not hysteria. The self-proclaimed rational people are also prone to martyrdom: when they can't convince the benighted, irrational masses to accept their positions, they become, in their own eyes at least, brave "heretics." Nuclear proponents love this kind of intellectual narcissism.
No wonder David does not acknowledge what nuclear supporters tell him, we are all engaged in intellectual narcissism. David Roberts is of course so closed minded to think that anyone who disagrees with him has to be wrong, and there fore has nothing to say worth listening too let alone responding too. Anyone who disagrees with Roberts is clearly guilty of intellectual narcissism.


Laurence Aurbach said...

I have been a nuclear skeptic and I've posted my skeptical comments to Grist and other sites. Compared to fossil fuels, I see LWR's as a "less bad" option for decarbonized baseload power, but that doesn't mean I am enthusiastic about them.

On the other hand, LFTR's resolve 90% of the concerns I have with LWR's. They are far more robust and forgiving of error, and the volume of waste is much less and it's shorter-lived. And your ideas about modularity are very important from a financial and political point of view. Smaller, cheaper reactors are far easier for investors and utilities to sign on to compared to the multibillion dollar behemoth reactors that are the status quo.

I think one thing that would help generate enthusiasm for LFTR's is a comprehensive FAQ written for laypeople. The introductory material that's available doesn't cover all the important issues that policymakers, environmentalists, investors, and other potential supporters need to make their own judgments. If I could write it myself I would -- I can think of a lot of questions, but I don't know a lot of the answers.

The North Coast said...

The saddest thing about the environmentalist crowd is that even when they're trying to do right, like press for the removal of that ticking bomb on the Colorado River, the Glen Canyon dam, they emphasize the least relevant points in their arguments while blowing past the ones that matter the most. The Bureau of Reclamation decided two years ago to leave the bomb in place, after twenty years of anti-dam campaigning by the Sierra Club and other environmentalist groups. When I read the anti-dam lit, I can see why the movement to remove it failed, for all the literature blew right past public safety concerns, mentioning the threat of dam failure last and only in passing, as though that were the least important aspect of the whole issue.

If the threat to public safety had been emphasized and harped on repeatedly, and had been the first thing spoken of, that structure would be removed.

Nuclear proponents need to harp on the safety issue, loudly and repeatedly. We also need to educate people on the issue of nuclear waste, and how these materials can be profitably put to work to produce more energy.

Anonymous said...

One of your buddies put this list together. It's missing Zimmer, Cherokee, DCPP, SONGS, WHOOPS and others but it's a good indicator of what costs have been. Way too high.


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