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Checking the Data With Peter Asmus

Earlier this year, author Peter Asmus took to the pages of the Washington Post to attack the idea that new nuclear build could help provide affordable electricity in an environmentally sensitive manner. And though NEI Vice President Scott Peterson responded via a letter to the editor, Asmus is back again, this time in the pages of Alternet, making the same old arguments with the same old bad data.

Here's Asmus:
The underlying assumption of those now clamoring for a major expansion of nuclear power is that the threat of global climate change is so great, that we have no other choice. What a bunch of baloney! Wind and solar power have been the fastest growing power sources globally over the past several years, and we have barely begin to tap these abundant non-polluting and increasingly cost-effective sources of power.
First of all, while concerns over greenhouse gas emissions have played a significant role in nuclear energy getting a second look from the public and policymakers, it's not the only reason. Raw economics is equally important, as extreme volatility in American natural gas markets have helped make nuclear generation of electricity more competitive. Asmus also ignores the significant role that nuclear energy plays in supporting clean air compliance, something that my colleague Mary Quillian has pointed out before. For more on this issue, click here.

We've also seen the claims about wind and solar being the fastest growing power sources before, and as my colleague David Bradish has written, it's a claim that relies on some sleight of hand when it comes to data provided by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute:
The graph they provided is only looking at capacity (GWe). What you should be looking at is generation, the real result. Typically when looking at renewables, you need three times as much capacity as nuclear to produce the same amount of electricity. Nuclear power plants'’ capacity factor (how efficient a plant generates electricity) is the highest of any fuel source (90.5%). Renewables are in the 30% range, natural gas for cogeneration is about 40%.

The second reason the graph is misleading is because of yearly capacity increases. The reader only sees what was built in that year. What you should see in the graph is the total operating capacity in existence today. From the Department of Energy'’s Annual Energy Outlook 2005, a table here shows the total capacity in 2003 and projected capacity for 2004-2025. Cogeneration and renewables make up about 15% of the US capacity and nuclear only makes up about 10%. But as I stated above, cogeneration and renewables made up a combined total of 13% of US electricity generation while nuclear was at 20%. It's efficiency not quantity.
Later, after Lovins complained about David's analysis, David went back and checked his work again -- where it only got worse for Lovins.

More from Asmus:
Then there is the dirty little secret that during the nuclear fuel processing process, the uranium enrichment process depends on great amounts of electricity, most of which is provided by two extremely dirty fossil fuel plants releasing all of the traditional air pollution emissions not released by the nuclear reactors themselves (albeit relatively small sums of pollution in the grand scheme of things). Still, it is not entirely accurate to say that the US nuclear industry emits no emissions contributing to global climate change.
This claim is based on another blatant distortion peddled by Helen Caldicott, which we keep debunking over and over again:
[The] claim that uranium enrichment plants use electricity generated from "two coal plants" is untrue. There is only one enrichment plant in the United States - in Paducah, Ky. By contract, it obtains electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority's fleet of power plants, so about 40 percent of its electricity comes from non-emitting nuclear and hydroelectric power plants.
For more on how this disinformation keeps getting repeated, while folks like Asmus and Caldicott keep hoping that nobody double checks their data, click here and here.

As for the issue of the total life-cycle emissions of nuclear energy, David Bradish poked a number of holes in the research undergirding the claims that Asmus makes. For a third party look at the same issue, here's Tim Worstall.

Here's Asmus on cost:
The cost (and time involved) in adding a whole new fleet of nuclear reactors around the world is just as staggering as the alternative route: a gradual shift to all renewable energy fuels, including solar, wind, geothermal steam, biomass (including urban waste streams), hydroelectric, wave, ocean current and tidal power technologies.
Actually, going the route that Asmus suggests is far more staggering, something that our friend Rod Adams pointed out in a comment he left for us at NEI Nuclear Notes back in July:
Here are the sources that the Energy Information Agency considers in the "renewables" category and their relative importance within that category as of 2002, the latest year in which statistics are available.

Geothermal 4.13%
Hydro 75.25%
MSW/Landfill 5.75%
Biomass 0.76%
Solar 0.16%
Wind 2.95%
Wood 11.01%
(Source: Table C6. Total Renewable Net Generation by State, 2002 - Energy Information Agency)

In other words, take away conventional hydro power and you have very tiny contributions from "renewable" power. Take away combustion based - i.e. polluting - "renewable" fuels and you are down to the real contribution of new renewable power supplies after 30-40 years of heavy government subsidies.

Between wind, solar, and geothermal you get about six tenths of one percent of the electricity produced in the US. Since electricity is only about 1/3 of the total energy consumption, that means that all of the noise about wind and solar power is about something that produces two tenths of one percent of the energy used in the US each year.
More from Asmus:
Of course, the prime problem with nuclear power is that it is really the most expensive power source there is. No other technology requires greater subsidy and government intervention than nuclear... Fresh and outrageously generous tax credits for nuclear power were also just signed into law.
Asmus is referring to production tax credits, the same exact kind of production tax credits that renewable sources of energy like wind and solar have enjoyed for many years.

Here's what I wrote last month on nuclear energy and renewables:
Saying that the world has to decide between nuclear energy or renewables is a false choice. The fact of the matter remains that future energy demand will rise so much, that there will be more than enough room for nuclear energy and renewables in the marketplace. It's just that over the next few decades, we're going to need baseload power generation, and right now, the only technology that can provide that baseload power is nuclear energy.
POSTSCRIPT: One of the devices that Asmus uses is putting "scare quotes" around the word "environmentalists" when referring to James Lovelock, Stewart Brand and Patrick Moore. But the fact is that all three aren't just environmentalists, they're scientists as well. In fact, Lovelock isn't just the progenitor of the "Gaia" theory, he actually created many of the precision instruments that were first used to detect elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Asmus also conveniently forgets to link to any source material that would give a reader a chance to evaluate their arguments on their own. Click here for Lovelock's piece in the Independent from 2004 where he took his stand in favor of nuclear energy as a wedge against greenhouse gas emissions. Click here for Brand's article, "Environmental Heresies," that appeared in MIT Technology Review. In that piece, Brand touched on exactly why folks like Asmus are able to get public traction with their views even though sound science doesn't support their claims:
The success of the environmental movement is driven by two powerful forces -- —romanticism and science—— -- that are often in opposition. The romantics identify with natural systems; the scientists study natural systems. The romantics are moralistic, rebellious against the perceived dominant power, and combative against any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change direction. The scientists are ethicalistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm, and combative against each other. For them, admitting mistakes is what science is.

There are a great many more environmental romantics than there are scientists. That's fortunate, since their inspiration means that most people in developed societies see themselves as environmentalists. But it also means that scientific perceptions are always a minority view, easily ignored, suppressed, or demonized if they don't fit the consensus story line.
For those interested in Moore's take on this issue, his congressional testimony from earlier this year would be a good place to start. One last thought about Moore: While he is a supporter of the expanded use of nuclear energy, Asmus neglects to mention that Moore is a big fan or renewables himself, including the potential of geothermal for residential heating -- just another example of how pitting renewables against nuclear energy is deceptive and counterproductive to honest public debate.

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Anonymous said…
I found your article very informative. Peter Asmus is WAY off. I wonder what he'd say about re-licensing efforts, or if he's even done enough research to know what that is. My dad works for one of the big utilities and headed up the relicensing project for two of their plants (4 reactors). It was one of the first half dozen applications and they have a couple more either done or on their way. That same utility (which I won't name) has been thinking about adding 2 more reactors to one of these sites in the very near future. I hope they are allowed to, because if not, they'll just put in a big coal plant. Money is money and the big utilities just want to make it however they can. They'd prefer to do it with clean, cost efficient nuclear, but if they can't they'll do it however regulations allow them.
Anyway, I found this article about the founder of greenpeace, who has come out as pro-nuke. I don't know if the founder of such a wack-job is really worth listening to on any issue, but it's at least interesing.
David Bradish said…
It's amazing how much of the same anti-nuclear rhetoric is repeated and not even checked. When all is said and done there are only about 3 or 4 claims made against nuclear and everyone else just repeats them, much of the time not even sourcing their information. I thought that was something everyone learned in high school. Guess not.

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