Friday, March 06, 2009

Retired Nuclear Physicist Busts Out Amory Lovins

(Hat tip to Charles Barton.) Alexander DeVolpi, a retired nuclear physicist from the Argonne National Lab in Illinois, pretty much tore up Amory Lovins's credibility, his false nuclear claims and his outrageously inaccurate predictions from 30 years ago. Here are a few nuggets:

During a Friday, 13 February 2009, “Director’s Colloquium” at my former place of employment, Amory Lovins presented a panoramic evaluation of production and consumption for alternative transportation options, followed by a flawed analysis of energy-sector options. Most egregious, though, was his penultimate attack on the energy-viability and proliferation-security of civilian nuclear power.

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In prefacing my Friday question to Lovins, I suggested that we should see if that which he proposed 30 years ago would have passed the “smell” test – you know, did it smell bad then, or does it smell bad now? (Experienced engineers have a feeling or sense for things like that.)

[Smell test (idiom). A metaphoric test used to determine the legitimacy or authenticity of a situation. This fragrant phrase comes from the idea of smelling food in advance as a test to see if it has gone bad.]

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[Ripeness: The state or quality of being mature, fully developed, ready enough, actualized]

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Lovins displayed complex view graphs that, he purports, show that nuclear is the costliest of “low-or-no-carbon resources.” Yet, in the last 30 years, nuclear has displaced half the fossil-fuel combustion in Illinois while still being competitive. Inasmuch as nuclear-power plants emit no byproduct carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere, surely his claim that it is the costliest of low-carbon-emission sources fails the smell test.

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Lovins claims that nuclear plants depend on continuing high subsidies. Not so. With hundreds of reactors now producing power, it would not be financially feasible for subsidies to sustain the nuclearized economy. It would be a Ponzi scheme that would have fallen apart by now. That claim also fails the critical smell and ripeness tests.

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Here are some more observations about the content of the Ambio preprint (which I will advise of my critique for their “further peer review.” As I’ve emphasized repeatedly in this Knol, I find almost no indication of what I would call statistical humility, that is, quantitative assertions being accompanied by estimates of random or systematic error. This is an egregious flaw that is offensive to the scientific credibility. For example, he asserts that “all sources of electricity are unreliable.” Without statistical qualification, that’s utter nonsense. It’s clear that what Lovins is trying to do is to undermine the reliability of nuclear power on the grid, and that can only be done by being categorically vague.

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In short, Lovins’ latest publication, “The Nuclear Illusion,” lacking the fundamentals of a scientific discourse, would be better titled, “The Nuclear Illusionist.”

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As a career physicist, I frequently shun technical data presented without expressions of incertitude: they just don’t pass the smell test. As far as I can see in Lovins’ publications, the chronic absence of error bars, estimates of deviation, or statements of uncertainty should immediately discount or nullify the value of his publication.

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Even though we’re conditioned to expect death and taxes as a certainty, the reality is we don’t know when the end will come and how much the taxes will be. That’s called uncertainty, and when you come across something that seems too certain, it is. Uncertainty, or incertitude, or statistical confidence, or error range – they’re all manifestations of complexity and reality. If you come across someone who is so sure of something, leaving no room for error, beware: That’s a sign of a charlatan or a scam. If you find someone touting something without acknowledging a range of natural imprecision or human error, stand clear.
Well said! For those who missed it, here's NEI's slam dunk of Lovins's "study" from last year.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

No one -- including Amory Lovins -- is above critical analysis. But this Nuclear Energy Institute blog post is embarrassingly bad. It preaches to your figurative choir, and not to people who are genuinely trying to understand these issues.

David Bradish said...

It preaches to your figurative choir, and not to people who are genuinely trying to understand these issues.

Did you check out NEI's analysis of Lovins's study from last year that I linked to in the post? I'd say it "genuinely" presents facts for people to understand the issue. As well, did you see that our analysis is on Lovins's Wikipedia page?

DV8 2XL said...

I thought it was a good post. It's high time someone cut Amory Lovins' a fresh one, and Alexander DeVolpi did just that.

Anonymous said...

Stop with the red herrings. Your post pushes a writing by Dr. Alexander DeVolpi that criticizes Amory Lovins, inter alia for working to halt the spread of reprocessing technologies and plutonium.

DeVolpi's piece goes further to deny that civil nuclear programs have "attributable" (his word) connections to nuclear weapons proliferation: "... the little proliferation that has occurred had nothing to do with the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, contrary to his predictions."

This, despite the fact that India and the now-disarmed South Africans in the 1970s, North Korea in the 1980s and 1990s, and now Iran in the 2000s all used civil nuclear power and fuel-production activities/claims as cover for their bombmaking or bomb-relevant activities.

Finrod said...

If the South Africans are 'disarmed', it is through their own choice.

I'd be fascinated to read the details of the North Korean civilian nuclear power program. I don't recall hearing about it before. Likewise, if some solid proof has come to light revealing definate nuclear bomb-producing activity by Iran, that information had better be provided to the approriate authorities as swiftly as may be.

DV8 2XL said...

The poster who will not identify himself would have also called the Haber–Bosch process just a cover for making explosives, ignoring the people fed by the fertilizers make through this process.

I don't see how this argument linking nuclear power, and nuclear weapons is itself, anything but an attempt to red herring the real issue at hand: that Amory Lovins habitually practices dissemination and lies outright on the topic of nuclear energy.

Charles Barton said...

The Anonymous poster offers unsupported assertions. He is no doubt "preaching to a figurative choir, and not to people who are genuinely trying to understand these issues." His analysis is far to shallow to offer any examples of arguments in Bradish's analysis of Lovins that are difficult to understand.

De Volpi certainly raises valid questions about the desirability of preventing the spread of reprocessing technologies, at least to existing nuclear powers. In so far as De Volpi demonstrates that these technologies are very unlikely to lead to nuclear proliferation, it is hard understand why Anonymous thinks that the spread of reprocessing technologies is such a bad thing.

Finally Anonymous thinks that the use of claims of civilian purposes as cover for military nuclear programs by South Africa, North Korea, and Iran is a valid argument against the use of civilian nuclear technology in the United States. This argument is so profoundly shallow and silly that they are worthy of Amory Lovins, if our Anonymous comments do not come directly from Lovins.

D. Kosloff said...

Amory Lovins should be first in line for critical analysis. Yet his shallow opinions are often trumpheted, with no analysis, as solutions.

Anonymous said...

It goes without saying that increasing the number of nuclear plants in the US has absolutely no impact on weapons proliferation. The same goes for any nation that already has nuclear plants and/or the bomb. Anti-nukes are trying to conflate this issue. Note that such (already nuclear) nations are responsible for 80-90% of the world's energy energy use and CO2 emissions.

And no, increasing nuclear in the developed world will not lead to more nuclear power programs in the developing world. The reverse is true. If we use less nuclear, and as a result, more gas for power generation, world gas & oil prices will increase dramatically, and oil/gas will run out faster.

This increases the economic incentive to start a nuclear program, and in the case of a gas/oil exporter (i.e., the Middle East), it increases the amount of money they have to support the development of a nuclear program (as well as supporting terrorist organizations, perhaps). Finally, increased gas/oil prices (and rate of exhaustion) increases world tension and geopolitical conflict, which leads to more terrorism, Iraq wars, etc..

Nations that want to develop a bomb will do so, and being able to say that it's for a peaceful program does not affect their ability. Everyone knows what's going on. Also, as Iran shows, countries that want a bomb can skip nuclear power plants entirely and just build enrichment plants and use the uranium directly.

Jim Hopf

perdajz said...

Nice job by Barton and Hopf here in rebutting what is the absolute dumbest reason to oppose nuclear power: the ostensible link to weapons. The two things are orthogonal. Besides, what the theocrats in Teheran and crackpots in Pyongyang see as their geopolitical goals has nothing to do with how we will get our electrical power in the decades to come.

One fine point on the anonymous comment. India and SA are bad examples, even if you atavistically insist that nuclear power and nuclear proliferation must be linked somehow. India never signed the NPT. SA only signed the NPT in 1991. India never promised anything to anyone, and always openly insisted that if China can have one, India can have one too. SA held a similar view until it came clean, and has made good on their commitments since then.

But again, what Indian or South African history have to with nuclear power in the U.S. is beyond me.

Max Epstein said...

First, I must temper these remarks with the fact that I do support nuclear power, think Amory Lovins is a hack, and admire Dr. DeVolpi's considerable expertise and national service. However, I do think he stepped a bit out of his expertise in some of his economic criticisms.

First, he says Illinois is 70-80% nuclear, though its a bit under 50%. EIA lists November 2008 data as 7,891 thousand MWh nuclear out of 16,157 thousand MWh total produced. Admittedly this is a bit trivial.

But more important, the fact that his energy bill goes down is due to low marginal costs of production, and doesn't address Lovins' argument of prohibitively escalating capital costs and construction risk for new plants (besides a passing reference later to capital costs for new builds of $1800-2500/kW). I do think this argument of Lovins' is garbage for a few different reasons, which I've commented on in grist multiple times. But it is important to address the actual underlying points of those we debate to avoid just talking past them and preserve any hope of converting some. This is of course never going to happen for Lovins but I hold out hope for some others.

Its also important to note this same misunderstanding or equivocation of marginal costs and levelized costs is what leads many wind advocates to claim wind already only "costs" 2-5 cents per kwh.

I do want to finish by commending Dr. DeVolpi for acknowledging a couple points he had made from memory that he found subsequently to be incorrect (e.g. power charge of bill being 7 cents instead of 2-3). He clearly is trying to foster an open and honest discussion, which is far more than can be said for Lovins.

skyler said...

this is a great article, blowing holes in a already shaky, empirically fraudulent opinion is always a joy to watch. that would have been a great interview to witness first hand. I think a nuclear system underpinning western energy needs is the way to go. I don't know if any of you have read www.abetterenergyplan.ca but they seem to be making the same argument for nuclear.

Anonymous said...

Max,

I think the most effective economic argument we can make is a simple one, which addresses all the "analyses" put out by Lovins and others in one fell swoop.

We should simply repond by saying that the best way to sort this all out is to leave it up to the market to decide. Just tax or limit CO2 emissions (and/or air pollution and energy imports from unfriedly/unstable regions), and let the market decide how to respond (i.e., what to build).

If there are any subsidies, they should be even handed. For example, all non-emitting sources get the same loan guarantees or tax credits, etc... If the loan guarantees must be limited, there should be a fair and objective competition between non-emitting sources.

After saying the above, we would point out that such fair, objective and even handed policies are exactly what anti-nukes have fighting tooth and claw all along. They insist on massive subsidies for renewables and none for nuclear. In case even that isn't enough, they insist on mandates that a certain amount of generation be renewable.

When it was humbly proposed (in the stimulus bill) that all non-emitting sources be allowed to freeley and fairly compete for $50 billion in loan guarantees (in addition to providing $100 billion in loan guarantees for renewables only), the "environmentalists went ballistic. As a result, they stripped that part out and only left the $100 billion for renewables only (other non-emitting sources need not apply).

They have no response to the above argument. We have them dead to rights. Their actions are totally at odds with their words. If renewables were more economic than nuclear, none of these policies they insist on would be necessary. Their behavior makes it obvious that they don't really believe what they're saying about renewables being cheaper.

We should hammer this point relentlessly.

Jim Hopf

Max Epstein said...

Jim, I completely agree. Unfortunately though, I'm afraid that debate does inevitably get murky. What I always hear in comment debates from Lovins acolytes is that no nuclear is being built with "private capital." Of course that's nonsense, but the problem is that the government will always be tinkering with the energy supply so that everyone will always have some subsidy or preference to rail against for their least favorite power source.

But I completely agree that anyone who claims renewables are at least as economic as nuclear should be asked to put up or shut up - support a price on carbon and forget about the renewable portfolio standard or PTC/ITC, or ditch the economics argument.

Its admittedly though hard to think of an argument clear enough to wield against someone who says "what about the cost of the waste" while the NWF continues to go unspent and ameliorate our deficits to China every time the Treasury floats bonds.

Anonymous said...

"... they insist on mandates that a certain amount of generation be renewable."

An interesting gambit to try sometime would be to say, okay, you pro-"renewables" insist on a certain percentage of generation be "renewable", then pro-nuclear types should insist that a certain percentage of all generation be required to be nuclear. What should that percentage be? A fair way would be to pro-rate it based on economics, availability, and installed capacity (as a measure of development potential). That would really drive the enviros over the edge, mandating that nuclear generation be used. But that is no different than what they demand of their sources.

If they don't go for it, then call their bluff and insist as a matter of "fairness" that the whole scheme of mandating a percentage of supply be a particular type be tossed, and let the market decide.