Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Debunking Paul Josephson and the Anti-Nuke Talking Points

Back on July 30, the LA Times ran an op-ed from Colby College history professor Paul Josephson entitled, The Mirage of Nuclear Energy. Like so much we read about the industry through the eyes of anti-nuke activists like Josephson, it read like a laundry list from a long-forgotten time.

Today, the newspaper finally got around to running some dissenting viewpoints. Here's one letter from Times reader Joe Vitti:

Paul Josephson should first check with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to see how farfetched his arguments are about the "mirage" of nuclear power. The lowest cost clean power (10%) delivered to the customers of the city of L.A. is from the Palo Verde Nuclear Power facility in Arizona. He speaks of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents that occurred almost 30 years ago but does not mention the 103 nuclear reactor plants that have been operating safely and economically throughout the U.S. for 40-plus years, providing up to 20% of the power in some East Coast states. He writes about the French experience but fails to mention that it has the cheapest energy costs and the cleanest air in Europe -- 85% of its power is from nuclear facilities, and it also exports electricity to its neighbors. He comments about nuclear aircraft but fails to mention the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered ships and submarines that have operated without problems throughout the world for decades. It is unfortunate that a teacher of history would be so irresponsible in his assessment of the industry.
And here's another from Devon Showley:
Josephson -- not a nuclear engineer or scientist but a historian -- warns us that the sky is falling and nuclear energy is the cause. France (what does it know that we don't?) now has nearly 90% of its electrical energy produced by controlled fission reactors -- not by oil or coal, which, unlike reactors, increase the greenhouse gases by huge amounts and cause pollution. Certainly our oil supplies from the Middle East are problematic. For nearly four decades, France has gotten more than two-thirds of its electrical energy from reactors -- with not one accident. If the French can do it, why can't we? It can be done here. Oui.


JimHopf said...

What I want to know is why a non-engineer who "has written about nuclear energy" (an unqualified nobody, in other words) not only gets to have a full-length Op-Ed, but gets to have that Op-Ed reprinted in scores of papers all over the country.

Meanwhile, people like me, who have not only been writing extensively about nuclear energy, but are also a professional in the field, are somehow not worthy of writing an Op-Ed, even for our local paper. This is what our local paper told me, along with the president of our company (a nuclear engineering firm in the local area), when we asked to write an Op-Ed in response to a similarly unqualified person. We were told that we could write a puny, 125-word letter, but that an Op-Ed was not in the cards. I just wrote another puny, insufficient letter in response to this piece.

I would seriously like to learn what's involved in some of these editorial decisions. Why would such an article, by such a nobody, get so much national attention, whereas the voices of much more qualified/informed people (including my own) are not to be heard. What strings are being pulled. What influence is being wielded? Is it that they have to dig down in the barrel because there aren't many qualified anti-nuclear voices out there? Did anti-nuclear organizations inform the news outlets that they want to see this piece published nationwide?

Edward Geist said...

In all fairness, Josephson isn't an "unqualified nobody." He is the author of _Red Atom_, the only published scholarly monograph about the history of civilian nuclear power in the USSR/Russia. Unfortunately, historians studying nuclear issues tend to be reflexively anti-nuclear while simultaneously lacking any real understanding of nuclear technology, which has resulted in the publication of a lot of dubious scholarship glorifying the anti-nuclear movement and grossly exaggerating their historical impact. By the standards of professional historians, Josephson's knowledge of nuclear technology is actually pretty sophisticated- although the anti-nuclear bias in his scholarship is certainly noticeable, it's much more reasonable than this editorial might suggest. I was actually very disappointed by it- even though I knew he was anti-nuclear, I expected him to make a much better-reasoned and more nuanced argument than this. Instead it seems to consist of dubious and unsupported declarations that the problems of nuclear power are unsolved, and by implication unsolvable. Oh well.

Mitch Singer said...


Welcome to the world of most of the mainstream news media. They ostensibly crow about being open to all points of view, but in reality only those that agree with their position. The Los Angeles Times is one of the most biased newspapers in the country that, as suggested by the precipitous decline in its readership, has been losing credibility for years. To their way of thinking expertise such as yours in the subject matter is a drawback, but the patina of ivory tower status in a totally unrelated field is a mark of credibility. Only, of course, if they share the same philisophical bent. Yes. You're living in the Twilight Zone.

JimHopf said...


The "unqualified nobody" characterization was unjustifiably harsh, in retrospect. I drew that conclusion based on the description given in the article, i.e., "Paul Josephson writes about nuclear power and teaches history at Colby College." I suppose this limited description did not do him "justice" (at least to some extent).

Indeed, one of the reasons for my post was to ask if there was something more about him (beyond what was given in the one-sentence "bio") that made his voice important enough to be given such a high profile. You've answered that question to some extent, and things make at least a little bit more sense.

That said, I still don't believe that his background gives him more authority to be heard on nuclear power issues than myself or any of the other nuclear professionals who are well studied on (and have written extensively about) nuclear and/or energy issues. Another part of what I'm asking is what I/we need to do to get similar consideration from the news media.

Apparently, a historian is a more worthy voice than a nuclear engineer, as far as the media is concerned, and I consider that to be a problem.

David Wogan said...

Very well put.

I have a few posts on my site related to nuclear energy: www.davidwogan.us

Posts of real interest:

here and here.