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Where the Truth Lies

A mini-debate over at Business Week’s appropriately named Debate Room blog highlights something we often see when pro-nuclear energy meets anti-nuclear energy. See if you can spot it.

First, NEI’s Vice President of Communications Scott Peterson:

Nuclear plants alone won’t improve our air quality but coupled with renewable energy sources, they are a sustainable energy resource that will produce electricity for 60 years or more. As the auto industry develops electric vehicles, using carbon-free nuclear energy to charge them is a win-win for our environment and national security. One nuclear energy facility could charge more than 1.8 million electric cars each night and power mass transit, homes, and businesses during the day.

And Greenpeace’s Nuclear Policy Analyst Jim Riccio:

Our best bet for reducing pollution from coal plants is energy efficiency and renewable energy. These solutions can be deployed more quickly and affordably than wasting billions on a new nuclear reactor. In the past two years, even in tough economic times, the U.S. installed more than 15,000 megawatts of wind power; there hasn’t been a new nuclear plant ordered and completed in the U.S. since 1973.

Let’s leave aside Riccio’s dismissive tone vs. Peterson’s broad embrace of multiple energy sources. What’s interesting is the use of numbers.

Peterson uses simple math – he knows how much electricity a nuclear plant produces, he know how much electricity electric cars need and he divides one number into the other. He  might be lightly dinging solar energy for its virtual absence at night, but that might be a bridge too far.

Riccio, however, Is practicing a rather steeply deceptive game with numbers, counting on the reader not to know details that he himself should know.

Let’s look again:

In the past two years, even in tough economic times, the U.S. installed more than 15,000 megawatts of wind power; there hasn’t been a new nuclear plant ordered and completed in the U.S. since 1973.

In its specifics, this is exactly true. But here’s what missing: wind turbines can produce 15,000 megawatts - if the wind blows 100 percent of the time, but it doesn’t. It blows about a third of the time, thus 15,000 megawatts of installed capacity equals about 5,000 megawatts actually produced over a given period of time.

Conversely, Riccio assumes that nuclear energy facilities have remained utterly static, puttering along now as they always have. But one of the benefits of a plant with a 40 to 80-year lifetime is that it can increase its production as the plant is upgraded with new and improved equipment and as workers become more efficient (at refueling the reactors, for example.)

Nuclear energy plants have, as a fleet, dramatically improved their performance, increasing from a high 60 percent capacity factor in the 1990s to over 90 percent now. As the following chart shows, this is the equivalent of building 29 more 1000-megawatt facilities over the last 20 years. That’s a heck of a lot of windmills.


Now, none of this is to say anything about wind energy one way or another – wind energy advocates know that wind isn’t yet appropriate as a baseload generator of electricity – that is, energy that is produced all the time – and it isn’t they who want to use wind energy as a club with which to pummel nuclear energy.

But using these numbers this way, as Riccio does, leaves audiences with an unusually warped picture of the energy market. This is what is meant by cherry picking – in fact, so much so that it no longer means “to pick cherries” – but picking a number out of a larger set to make the point you want – even if the other numbers in the set disprove your point.

It’s a bad practice, resorted to when choices become limited. That’s what’s Riccio is doing – because his arguments against nuclear energy are so shallow as to be meaningless.


Rod Adams said…
My personal approach is to aim for the heart. Even if you covered the entire southwest desert with solar panels, you would not charge a single electric automobile at night. Counting stored heat from daytime irradiation does not count - nuclear plants could be fitted with heat storage systems just as easily.

The Energy Information Agency also provides detailed production statistics that are useful comparisons against nuclear electricity production statistics.

Wind production first exceeded 0.05 billion kilowatt hours in 1989. In the 22 succeeding years, it has grown from 2.1 billion kilowatt hours in 1989 to 70.8 billion kilowatt hours in 2009. From 2004 through 2009, the numbers are as follows (in billion kilowatt hours) :

14.1, 17.8, 26.6, 34.4, 55.3, and 70.8. My best guess is that 2011 numbers for wind will end up in the range of 130 - 150 billion kilowatt hours. The rate of improvement is impressive, but not compared to the similar period of the first 25 years of nuclear energy development.

According to Table 1.2, the nameplate capacity for wind in 2009 was 34.7 billion kilowatts. There are 8760 hours per year, so a 100% CF would be 304 billion kilowatt hours. Using very simple division, I calculate that the 70.8 billion kilowatt hours of production indicates a fleet average CF of just 70.8/304 = 23%, which is substantially below the generous assumption of 33% that the post uses.

IMHO - The best defense against an aggressive deceiver like Ricco is to aggressively point out his logical errors.

Of course, I am not an industry group with influential dues paying members who love making money from selling inherently unreliable products that also need another product to back them up. It is good business to sell two products to do the job that one could do just fine.

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