Friday, June 6, 2008

Amory Lovins, Fount of Disinformation

Amory Lovins continues to advance the notion that he is a physicist, even though he he has never earned a degree in physics. Lovins' Wikipedia hagiography states:

Lovins entered Harvard University. After two years there, he transferred to Magdalen College, Oxford, England, where he studied experimental physics. He became a Junior Research Fellow in Oxford’s Merton College, where he studied for two years and earned a master of arts (M.A.).

Rod Adams learned that Lovins MA from Oxford amounts to a complimentary degree, which he received in connection with his academic appointment as a Junior Research Fellow at Oxford. In effect, Lovins had been given quasi-graduate student status at Oxford, without earning a degree.

Lovins, who had some minor academic duties while he was studying at Oxford, was considered a Fellow of an Oxford college. It is an academic irregularity for even a Junior Research Fellow, or as they are called in Oxford, a Don, to not hold any degree, so Lovins, was awarded a complimentary MA. His MA is not an earned physics degree. An earned physics degree would be a MSc.

The claim that Lovins is a physicist then rests on his rather brief career as a physics undergraduate at Harvard, where he dropped out twice, and his career as an Oxford student, where he also studied some physics in addition to his environmental and energy economics studies. Lovins is no doubt a very bright fellow, but his area of "research" cannot be characterized as physics.

At any rated Lovins's fame rest not on his stature as a physicist, but on his work as an energy economist. Now Lovins has even fewer credentials as an economist than he does as a physicist. Clearly then Lovins's pronouncements should not be given an automatic pass without examination.

Lovins recently posted on the internet a 52 page long essay called "The Nuclear Illusion", which he and Imran Sheikh co-authored. They get to the point almost immediately with the following statement:

"In fact, nuclear power is continuing its decades-long collapse in the global marketplace because it’s grossly uncompetitive, unneeded, and obsolete—so hopelessly uneconomic that one needn’t debate whether it’s clean and safe; it weakens electric reliability and national security; and it worsens climate change compared with devoting the same money and time to more effective options."

This clearly then is a statement about the economics of nuclear power, and contains sweeping and highly questionable generalizations. Furthermore many of the statements are falsifiable on their face. For example the statement that "nuclear power . . . weakens electric reliability . . ." is demonstrably false. A cursory review of electrical reliability data in the United States will demonstrate that nuclear reactors are the most reliable source of electrical generation in the United States. The claim that "nuclear power . . . weakens . . . national security" is not supported by any hard data.

Lovins backs his claims about national security with the following claims.

Yet commercial nuclear power is the biggest driving force behind that proliferation, providing do-it-yourself bomb kits—nearly all the needed materials, skills, knowledge, and equipment—in innocent-looking civilian disguise, all concealed within a vast flow of civilian nuclear commerce. Acknowledging nuclear power’s market failure would unmask and hence penalize proliferators by making the needed ingredients harder to get, more conspicuous to try to get, and politically costlier to be caught trying to get, thus revealing the motive for wanting them as unambiguously military. This would make proliferation far more difficult, and easier to detect sooner by focusing scarce intelligence resources on needles, not haystacks.

First, the proliferation cat got out of the bag a long time ago. Israel and India acquired the nuclear technology, on which they based their nuclear bomb program in the 1950's, before civilian nuclear power reactors became an option. Plutonium producing graphite pile reactors are the tool of choice for nuclear proliferation. Graphite pile reactors are not used in civilian power plants. North Korea built several as part of its nuclear program and appears to have recently attempted to export the design to Syria. Lovins establishes no direction connection between the civilian nuclear power industry in the United States and nuclear proliferation, thus his claim linking the two is untested and probably untestable.

What of Lovins's other claims? Is nuclear power in a global market collapse? Lovins states:

"most if not all other countries with big nuclear programs but no effective citizen intervention, such as Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union, also suffered substantial nuclear-cost escalation, and their nuclear construction forecasts collapsed in similar fashion.(18)"

Footnote 18 reads as follows: A.B. Lovins, “The origins of the nuclear power fiasco,” pp. 7–34 in J. Byrne and D. Rich, eds., The Politics of Energy Research and Development, Energy Policy Studies, Vol. 3 (Transaction Books, New Brunswick / Oxford), 1986, RMI Publ. #E86-29.

Thus the sole cited source of Lovins's "nuclear power, global market collapse" claim is something Lovins wrote over 20 years ago! What does this claim mean? When Lovins first made the global market collapse claim, a very large reactor building program was underway in France. That program, far from collapsing, was completed and today France receives almost 80% of its electricity from reactors. In 1986 Japan was in a significant reactor building program that continued. The Japanese built about the same number of reactors as the French did, and they currently have at least 8 more new reactors in the pipe line. After 1986 the Chinese completed 11 power reactors, and they have many more - perhaps as much as 60 GWs more - in the pipeline to be completed by 2020. The South Koreans completed 16 reactors after 1986, and plan to build 8 more. Between 1986 and the present, the Indians completed 15 power generating reactors, and they expect to complete reactors producing 20 GWs of power more by 2020. At the end of last year, the British government announced its intention to build new nuclear plants. Thus Lovins's 1986 prediction of a collapse of the nuclear power global market was mistaken, and his uncritical, self-referential repetition of the mistaken 1986 claim can only be characterized as bizarre.

Lovins buttressed his claims with numerous links to other web pages. I decided to test the references which Lovins used to support the statement: "Some advocates of hypothetical new types claim they would be far cheaper. There is no evidence for this." Lovins sited four internet sources to back up his claim, two were dead links. The third linked is to a web page called Noseweek. Noseweek appeared to be a South African Internet Tabloid whose content was behind a subscription wall. The brief public introduction to the hidden story stated that as of December 2005 the South African Energy company Eskom had not attracted investors to its Pebble Bed Reactor project. The fourth link to Nuclear Engineering International yielded the following report:

"Leaked internal documents from South African utility giant Eskom are said to reveal that a business-risk assessment found the planned pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) to be uncompetitive in the South African market. The assessment, sponsored by Eskom and inadvertently sent to environmental group Earthlife Africa, apparently also warns of excessive costs if Eskom is unable to attract partners to the project."

Thus we have an unsubstantiated report of leaked documents, with a brief account of those documents contents as sole proof for Lovins's statements about the PBMR.

Needless to say, Lovins does not quote from his sources. On a lark, I Googled Eskom and Pebble Bed Reactor. Guess what popped up? A May article in the Mail & Guardian Online which stated:

"United States-based Westinghouse, a unit of Mitsubishi rival Toshiba, already holds a stake along with the Industrial Development Corporation and Eskom."

The article added:

"According to PBMR's 2007 annual report, contributions from foreign and local investors in the project totalled R4,2-billion since PBMR was established eight years ago.

An updated business case has been developed and potential future investors are expected to start their due diligence process within the next financial year," PBMR said in the annual report

The real news of the article was that:

"Japanese engineering and heavy machinery maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is reportedly considering a ¥10-billion (R746,5-million) investment in South Africa's Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR)."

Clearly then by May 2008 the South African PBMR has attracted investments and the interest of at least one more large investor. Lovins won't tell us that. Any information which tends to contradict Lovins's 20 year old pronouncement that the global nuclear power market is collapsing does not fit into Lovin's a priori world view, and therefore does not exist in Lovins mind.

Thus Lovins's anti-nuclear report points to missing links, shallow and hidden sources, and what clearly appears to be outdated information. To say that Lovins had "cherry picked" his information on the PBMRs would appear to be an unwarranted compliment to his research technique. Lovins's reports on nuclear power are written with the sole purpose of hiding the failure of his decades old predictions on nuclear power to prove true. In his effort to obscure the truth, Lovins has become a fount of disinformation.


Anonymous said...


Excellent evaluation. You want to be nice to Lovins because he has predicted some good things about energy conservation, but his misrepresentations of nuclear are becoming bizarre and dangerous. I think he is delusional. The California Electrical Crisis of 2000 can be attributed directly to Jerry Brown and the rest of the state's decision to take him seriously. (By the way, you've misspelled his name a couple of times in the last paragraph.)

William Tucker, author of the forthcoming book, Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Can Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey

Charles Barton said...

William thank you for the compliment. I am less than comfortable with Lovins position of energy efficiency, because it defies a well know principle of resource economics, Jevons Paradox. To date Lovens has not come up with a good explanation as to why Jevons Paradox would not apply in the case of energy efficiency. Thus I regard Lovins argument that energy demand can be lowered purely be greater efficiency to contradict well established economic theory, and unlikely to be proven true by future realities.

Falstaff said...

Blackout of 2003? I believe the above response to Lovin's statement about how nuclear "weakens" the electric system confuses grid reliability with capacity factor. Yes nuclear power has by far the highest capacity factor of available power sources, exceeding 90% in the US. Yet this has nothing to do with grid robustness in the case of a fault or a source shut down. Lovin's point is that large centralized power sources, of any kind, are more likely to cause systemic failures than small distributed power. And, in the case of nuclear power, once a plant trips off line for some reason it can take quite some time to restart the plant and rematch the power to the grid load. The south Florida blackout in Feb 2008, and most notably the blackout of 2003 demonstrated chain reaction shut downs of nuclear plants. None of this applies to dozens and dozens of widely distributed small power sources, e.g., smallish 100MW(e) gas turbines.

Charles Barton said...

Falstaff, You are not making an ojjective case nor does Lovins. Reliability should be measurable and the capacity factor of reactors is a good measure of their reliability. The Texas Grid was nearly blacked out n February 2008, by a sudden decrease of electricity from small distributed wind generators. You tell a couple of stories about exceptional circumstances, and use them to justify Lovins' sweeping generalization. Logicians call this hasty generalization.

Charles Barton said...

At any rate Falstaff Nuclear Green advocates the use of small decentralized nuclear power plants that fit into the distributive model.

Falstaff said...

Perhaps the instances I site do not provide an objective case, but neither have you. Capacity factor does not equate to reliability, as it may have little to do with unplanned outages. Fossil fuel plants like gas turbines are often idled intentionally in favor of operationally cheaper nuclear plants. Such idling lowers the recorded capacity factor of gas and coal in this country, but that says nothing about their reliability.

Regarding small nuclear: Sounds great, but apparently it is not economically feasible. Of the twenty new nuclear plant proposals currently on file with the NRC, including the ABWR, US EPR, AP1000, ESBWR, and USAPWR; the designs without exception are greater than 1000MW(e). This is to be expected, since the cost of new plant filings, environmental impact studies, security measures, etc do not scale down well. This is unfortunate, but it is the current reality.

Falstaff said...

I would not become an apologist for wind, but I am aware of the February 2008 Texas ERCOT incident and I don't see that 'nearly' applies to any aspect of it. Let's clarify: there was a 1400 MW(e) drop in wind power over a period of three hours, not quite sudden, and yet there was no blackout of uncooperative customers. Some load-as-demand customers who signed up willingly apriori were temporarily cut off. Clearly this is not comparable to other actual blackouts (e.g. 2003) in which the presence of large nuclear plants contributed to a) the suddenness of the event and b) it's longevity.

Charles Barton said...

Fakstaff, I am aware of the present reality and If you are aware of the stance of this blog, you would be aware of my argument that the present reality needs to be changed. Capacity factors might not be a measure of reliability of fossil fuel plants, but the are measures of the reliability of nuclear plants, and wind and solar facilities. Capacity factor may not be a perfect measure, but it is better that pointing out two exceptional incidents over the last 6 years and then claiming that those incidents prove something about nuclear weakens the grid. Ass it Lovins has no measure by which we can test his assertions, and given his long history of substituting BS for facts, I don't expect him to produce any.

Charles Barton said...

Falstaff reports in texas at the time, and I live in Texas, spoke of it as a near thing. The incident could have been much worse if wind had a 20% penetration of the ERCOT grid. By the way Amory Lovins counts all wind as distributive generation systems.

System outages run into NRC safety regulations. Reactors are automatically tripped by outages because it is deemed safer. Once reactors are tripped all NRC rules myst be followed before they can be restarted. The problem is not with reactor size, but with over regulation.


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