Michael Grunwald Thinks Lovins Is A Guru And Believes Nuclear Is Too Expensive To Matter – He's Wrong

Foreign Policy has published an article by senior Time Magazine correspondent Michael Grunwald titled Seven Myths About Alternative Energy that reinforces the Amory Lovins inspired myth that nuclear energy is too expensive and too slow to be considered a useful tool in fighting fossil fuel addiction and global climate change. Here is a quote from the article:

But nuclear power cannot fix the climate crisis. The first reason is timing: The West needs major cuts in emissions within a decade, and the first new U.S. reactor is only scheduled for 2017 — unless it gets delayed, like every U.S. reactor before it. Elsewhere in the developed world, most of the talk about a nuclear revival has remained just talk; there is no Western country with more than one nuclear plant under construction, and scores of existing plants will be scheduled for decommissioning in the coming decades, so there’s no way nuclear could make even a tiny dent in electricity emissions before 2020.

The bigger problem is cost. Nuke plants are supposed to be expensive to build but cheap to operate. Unfortunately, they’re turning out to be really, really expensive to build; their cost estimates have quadrupled in less than a decade. Energy guru Amory Lovins has calculated that new nukes will cost nearly three times as much as wind — and that was before their construction costs exploded for a variety of reasons, including the global credit crunch, the atrophying of the nuclear labor force, and a supplier squeeze symbolized by a Japanese company’s worldwide monopoly on steel-forging for reactors.

That passage comes close to plagiarism of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s recent work on the topic. It does not provide any off setting critical thinking or recognition of the vast increase in interest from start-up companies like NuScale, Hyperion, TerraPower, or Thorium Power and established industry heavyweights like Westinghouse, Areva, Shaw Group, Northrop-Grumman or Southern Company in designing and building fission power plants that make use of 50 years worth of lessons learned. Atomic power plant designers are taking a variety of paths to solving known issues like pursuing smaller units, standardizing designs, using fewer components, increasing fuel options, applying modular construction principles, exploring alternative financing options, and adding capacity for manufacturing components and training people.

Nukes KNOW that the historically chosen nuclear plant construction techniques of building part of a plant, waiting for months for the next round of permissions, tearing up part of what has been built, borrowing money at usurious rates, and assuming the customer will pay whatever costs are expended will not work in today’s more competitive energy market. Not surprisingly, the people that are spending their own money and that of their investors have learned these lessons far more accurately than critics like Lovins or Grunwald.

Here is how Grunwald concludes his section on nuclear energy:

Nuclear lobbyists do have one powerful argument: If coal is too dirty and nukes are too costly, how are we going to produce our juice? Wind is terrific, and it’s on the rise, adding nearly half of new U.S. power last year and expanding its global capacity by a third in 2007. But after increasing its worldwide wattage tenfold in a decade — China is now the leading producer, and Europe is embracing wind as well — it still produces less than 2 percent of the world’s electricity. Solar and geothermal are similarly wonderful and inexhaustible technologies, but they’re still global rounding errors. The average U.S. household now has 26 plug-in devices, and the rest of the world is racing to catch up; the U.S. Department of Energy expects global electricity consumption to rise 77 percent by 2030. How can we meet that demand without a massive nuclear revival?

We can’t. So we’re going to have to prove the Department of Energy wrong.

Read that closely. He acknowledges the limitations of many of the suggested alternatives, but he once again shows that he has accepted the Lovins-inspired line that it is possible to stop the growth in electricity consumption.

I listened to a rather well done interview by Steve Inskeep with Grunwald on NPR on the way to work yesterday morning. Grunwald bragged about how California and the Pacific Northwest had, with a “simple” change that allows electric utilities to make money without selling electricity, managed to keep per capita electricity use flat for the past 25 years. Inskeep, a good journalist with a questioning attitude, said:

That’s an amazing statistic, but even flat doesn’t get you anywhere near an 80 percent reduction.

Grunwald answered that challenge by making an even more illogical comment:

Well, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done nationwide, and that’s why you’re going to need more efficiency mandates for server farms and computers and plasma TVs and things that we weren’t thinking about 30 years ago.

But ultimately, you know, when people see the kind of not particularly expensive changes that can be made without dramatically overturning our lifestyles, reason will win out.

Creators continue to develop new devices and applications that use the amazing properties of electricity to make people’s lives better, more comfortable and more enjoyable. Grunwald even lists some of them, so he knows they exist and are growing in popularity. How does Grunwald propose that we convince people to adopt not just energy conservation language, but actions that actually reduce the use of electricity? Does he really want to live in a place where we succeed through numerous mandates?

Grunwald concludes his entire article with another unacknowledged bow to his guru by making it sound easy to achieve enormous energy reductions:

More with less will be a great start, but to get to 80 percent less emissions, the developed world might occasionally have to do less with less. We might have to unplug a few digital picture frames, substitute teleconferencing for some business travel, and take it easy on the air conditioner. If that’s an inconvenient truth, well, it’s less inconvenient than trillions of dollars’ worth of new reactors, perpetual dependence on hostile petrostates, or a fricasseed planet.

This type of language is what tells me that people who follow the advice of Amory Lovins are either illogical, uninformed, or possibly just happy with the way that fossil fuel dominates the world’s energy markets. Lovins has been very successful for thirty years by seducing people into believing that energy conservation is an easy and painless path to a nirvana where we have all the energy we “need” and where the energy that we do use does not do much damage to the environment. If we really need to make big changes in our use of fossil fuel and in the total amount of pollution that its use releases to the environment then “every little bit” is still going to be a LITTLE BIT.

When I was the sound silencing officer on board a submarine, I tried to set priorities for my people by repeating the following mantra:


If you want to be quiet, you have to fix the big noise first.

If we need to make BIG improvements we need to make BIG changes, like drastically reducing our energy uses by moving to much smaller homes or apartments near mass transit stations, putting up with humid July and August days without air conditioning, walking instead of driving, giving up trips to visit friends, family and interesting locales and wearing lots more clothes in the winter. Perhaps the f
ur industry should revive?

We could also engage in what the Nature Conservancy has called “Energy Sprawl” and carpet huge areas with biofuels farms, solar collectors and wind turbines. The other big alternative would be a large and growing investment in atomic fission power sources that can REPLACE oil, coal and gas without any need for backup or installing a lot of infrastructure that will be idle 70-80% of the time.

That is the big alternative that I recommend – I am a lazy person who likes the creature comforts that modern society can provide. I do not want to carry my groceries home on the back of my bike. I do not want to take cold showers after exercising. I LIKE the creative uses of electricity that people in Silicon Valley and other hotspots of entrepreneurial activity develop. I LIKE to travel and I think that the world is a better place when everyone has access to the kind of comforts that I have enjoyed as a middle class American over the past 49.75 years.

Proving sufficient electricity generating capability using atomic fission is not going to be easy and it is not going to be done tomorrow. There is going to be a lot of money changing hands, moving into the pockets of skilled workers, engineers, long range planners, regulators, and local governments.

In other words, much of the often touted high cost of nuclear fission development is going to generate jobs and economic development right here in America!

Update: (Posted on August 28, 2009 at 0807) One Atomic Insights commenter suggested a related article by Robert Bryce of The Energy Tribune that deserves to be read as a supplement to this story – Green Energy Advocate Amory Lovins: Guru or Fakir?

About Rod Adams