Nuclear professional explains why he strongly reacts to antinuclear statements
This post originated as a comment buried deep in a thread that already includes more than 100 comments. It clearly explains why nuclear energy professionals can become rather abrupt when engaging in conversations about energy with people opposed to nuclear energy that claim to be energy policy experts. That is especially true in cases where those who claim policy expertise have little education, experience or training in technical topics and where they might have vested interests in promoting competitive technologies by spreading false negative information about nuclear energy.
By Bill Rogers
@ Dr. Sovacool,
First let me say that I appreciate the forthrightness in your responses as I came at you fairly hard and you are coming into the lion’s den. Also Charles Barton raises several points in his response that are valid for me to consider. However, as I hope to explain, I have come to my opinions based on years of experience in the energy generation trenches.
I would like to start by somewhat reframing our respective professional positions. I would classify your position as a policy advisor who looks to develop various policies that advocate certain solutions. I am on the other end. I am on the policy implementation side who must find engineered solutions to the laws that are enacted which are heavily influenced by advisors such as yourself. The policy implementation side carries certain legal and financial responsibilities that must be fulfilled while still delivering low cost electricity to the ratepayers. I have also undertaken the personal challenge as has every one of us that post publicly about nuclear power to work to educate the general public as well as politicians that there are more solutions than just the wind, solar and energy efficiency options to power generation issues in relation to climate change concerns.
I – and any design teams I am a member of – put our names, PE licenses and future earnings on the line when we sign a design drawing or calculation that is then used by a customer. Those designs meet a need for our customer to allow them to continue to generate electricity at a fair price to their rate payers while meeting whatever current legal requirements must be met. Fair price is meant in the sense that long term system costs, O&M expense and other aspects of running a utility company such as HR concerns of retaining and hiring the best personnel available are covered. However in today’s world, hiring the best available is becoming more difficult due to a transformational shift in the job market and job preferences. But that is another discussion for another day.
The nuclear design arena is somewhat unique even in the power generation design world in that any major design is open to NRC oversight and “intervenor” review before it can be implemented. The word intervenor is an interesting choice by the NRC since it has legal connotations. Additionally many intevenors are actually professional anti-nuclear individuals or groups who have an agenda to stop nuclear designs. Alternately – as in the case of the UCS – if it is not the intervenor’s preferred solution being discussed then they will file formal protests which adds to the cost of the final solution to whatever problem is being resolved.
So every time those of us in the nuclear design arena sign a calc, design drawing, licensing document, etc. we must be aware that those documents will receive some level of outside review from people who are looking to invalidate the findings. Case in point, documents from 2003/2004 are being pulled out of the files regarding SCE’s decision on their steam generator replacement project. There have been formal discussions down to the level of debating individual words that the design team used back in 2003/2004 within the context of current events of 2012/2013.
This is the world that many of us have chosen to work in. It is challenging on many levels but can be individually rewarding when all parts come together. Personally, I am in a somewhat unique situation since I moved from nuclear to hydro for a period of years due to an unexpected career shift. So I have design, licensing and operational experience in both the hydro and nuclear worlds. I am back in nuclear so I am able to bring both sides of the discussion to the table at times like this.
But back to a primary reason I have been hard with my criticism on you and your reports. In my world, unverified assumptions must, repeat must, be kept to a minimum and must be defined as to why they are being used. Every unverified assumption is an open door for an intervenor to criticize which then may result in a design change or even force a work stoppage. Therefore if it looks like there will be unverified assumptions that require test data from field tests or surveys to resolve then that is what we must work to accomplish.
Now is that a perfect system? No it is not. Unverified assumptions get through, inaccurate models are used, groupthink sometimes sets in, etc., which is why we have the system of the public review process currently used by the NRC for nuclear power. Even scale models that cost millions to build can fail to resolve initial assumptions when actual real-life operators start operating the equipment as I’m sure you are aware. Or the costs of field tests are prohibitive so engineering judgment must be used but judgment based on sound engineering principles that must be able to be defended and not create a situation where work is stopped. But these are common issues to all design projects not just nuclear design work.
I would agree there are parallels between our respective worlds in social science compared to engineering design as far as how documents are produced since engineers and scientists must learn the same initial process. However, the difference is that nuclear designs and calcs are almost automatically reviewed unfavorably by people who have legal options available to them to stop the work that engineers in the nuclear design field have been contracted to perform. In contrast, any review your documents receive are performed within the halls of policy makers and academia, so unverified assumptions are accepted on face value, left out of the debates or their significance is not understood. Additionally, studies like your bird study are now being used to justify many positions that favor wind over nuclear when nuclear and wind are not comparable from a utility operations standpoint.
That is probably why I am quick to pull the hypocrisy trigger. And yes, I will admit I am too quick sometimes with that charge. But if I am too quick to invoke that word it comes within the context and understanding that many documents I am a part of producing may face a legal, possibly courtroom, challenge while documents you produce will not. And yes, I concur there is hypocrisy on both sides of the debate.
I commend you for attempting to have Wikipedia correct their entry but in some sense it is a little too late at this point since the study is now taking a life of its own, which was one of the main points of Dr. Lorenzini’s initial article. Now I also recognize you can’t control how people will use your studies and do not fault you for those that take what you write out of context. However, I would remind you that everyone of us who publishes either research articles or design calculations need to consider how that document might be used once it is released from our hands. That is one of the tenets I mentor other design engineers as it was a point that was drilled home to me.
At this point though my response is going incredibly long so let me conclude with several reasons why I respectfully disagree with your list of very smart people.
My opinion of relying on energy efficiency as a solution to a problem that stretches into hundreds of years is best explained by the following Breakthrough Institute article which also encompasses my own impressions of Amory Lovins:
Additionally I find Mr. Lovins’ benefit projections of his Reinventing Fire proposal significantly overly optimistic regarding the full cost of the required societal dislocations versus the potential for economic benefits and financial gains if we were to follow his plan as a blueprint. My lens that I use to make that statement is based on years of working on the policy implementation side not the policy advocacy side.
My cynicism of solar and wind advocates is best addressed by discussing the RPS issues regarding hydro generation. RPS legal limits for hydro facilities are set at 30 MW in every state in the US that has an RPS enacted. Anything below counts towards a utility’s renewable portfolio, anything above does not – even 1MW above is not allowed a waiver. There have been attempts to remove this restriction in California and Washington but some of the most vocal groups who oppose changing this restriction are the solar and wind advocacy groups. So is this debate about climate change or their preferred energy generation source?
Additionally at the utility I worked, the State RPS allowed a natural gas co-gen plant that was rated below 30MW’s to meet the renewable portfolio formula. So we were asked to begin to prepare a cost estimate about mothballing a perfectly good hydro facility that was slightly over 30MW’s and install a co-gen plant run by natural gas just to meet an arbitrary legal requirement. Thankfully for the rate payers, the management decided to begin to educate the politicians about how there were other solutions that could achieve the same goals without decommissioning hydro facilities before we spent too much time preparing the estimate.
Based on some initial assessments I was able to review before I moved to my new position, if the 30MW restriction was removed from all hydro facilities in the Western US there potentially wouldn’t be a need for any new wind, solar, geothermal or biomass facilities for about the next 7-10 years in the Western states. The near-term estimates for future electricity demand indicates those “renewable” facilities are under consideration primarily to meet the 20-30% RPS goal of the respective states, not because they are needed to meet expected power demands. So what may happen is a situation where functional non-nuclear facilities may be mothballed strictly to meet legal RPS requirements with the added complication of more natural gas being burned in peaking plants to maintain grid stability. These points were raised this past year when California began to reconsider the 30 MW hydro restriction. Hence there is a significant financial motivation for the solar and wind groups to resist the removal of this legal definition from the RPS statutes.
Finally these discussions regarding wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and distributed generation are like a Yogi Berra moment for me: It’s like deja-vu all over again. I was discussing these very same subjects about 30 years ago during my first trip through college before I joined the Navy. So as to my supposed hasty criticisms of the various groups that you believe are sources of good info; I hope by this time I have provided adequate reasoning on why I do not concur with your assessment and why I have not arrived at my opinions or conclusions in a knee-jerk fashion.
Very well said. I am an engineer as well. I understand from where Bill Rogers speaks.
Side note: RPS = Renewable Porfolio Standard. We are suffering under this here in Washington State. As Bill points out, we already had a substantial amount of renewable power generation with all the large dams along the Columbia River and elsewhere. But they don’t count. What counts are increases in hydro generation capacity (small efficiency improvements), wind and solar. Of course, wind and solar generation is favored with take or ‘pay anyway’ provisions in the law. Due to this, we have had incidents of near grid instability on windy days in Spring (with high river flows) when there was too much power (that must be taken!) . The grid was controlled (barely) by engineers putting their careers and billions of dollars of equipment at risk. The reward for the engineers was their regular paycheck and a few ‘atta boys’. The makers of this policy causing this mess get to skate free, and blame the engineers if anything does goes wrong.
Thank you Bill.
This is why in the debates between folks, my opinion leans toward those whose name goes on the legal paper, who must be prepared to legally defend every word, as opposed to those who get to make wild and unproven claims of any type and kind without having to defend themselves or their statements in court. Policy wonks get to blow a scam society’s direction without having to prove what they say.
Wind and Solar are SCAMS. A way to extract extra funds from folks for something they don’t need and which will not fix what they really need. I have long viewed the whole global warming thing as an excuse to extract much more money from people for the exact same product.
While the science on AWG might even be unassailable (I not sure about this), once I understood where the money was flowing I could see that those selling stuff were not at all interested in actually reducing CO2. They were interesting in selling as many devices as they could, as many “solutions” (smart grid) as they could before anyone figured out they were paying a whole lot of money for something that would be a failure. An establishment scam.
I have lived in rolling blackouts. Do you know how many electronics need to be replaced when voltage spikes and browns?
So, what’s our shopping list for poor lonely companies that only need to make a dollar.
Let’s see, Windmills (Ka-ching)
Solar panels (Ka-ching)
Smart Grid (Ka-ching)
constantly replaced electronics (ka-ching)
overpriced power (Ka-Ching)
I mean what’s not to like? (sarcasm alert).
Rod – thanks for pulling this out of the comment thread and giving it the prominence it deserves and needs. Bill – thanks for putting in the time to write this. It’s so important to know just what the signoffs mean for engineers (and businesses!). I have never had anywhere near that level of responsibility; I’ve just been a beneficiary of all the infrastructure that professionals like you create and maintain. Thank you!
@ Bill, I agree – this is a very thoughtful post. I wanted to paste two paragraphs from my own response to Bill only because they help frame why social science research still has “value” even if it’s not as rigorous as Bill’s legal testimony:
“Yes, the type of social science research that I do is both more difficult, and less precise, than the work that you do. I have had the pleasure (or displeasure) of doing legal testimony before, and then it was as you said: every fact is double checked, every word examined, every paragraph edited, and usually in a team process. If social science had to hold up to that scrutiny I’d bet most (maybe even more than 90 percent) wouldn’t cut it. Why? Well, for one, the methods used are often qualitative, not quantitative, and my own favorite method is not meta-analysis (what I’d call this avian study and my greenhouse gas study) but field research, which is messier still. Second, doing testimony and fact checking it your way is expensive and very time consuming. Most universities and departments wouldn’t be able to afford it, after all we’re in the public sector, not the private. Third, in some ways designing and engineering are “simpler” than trying to decipher why the US fails to transition away from fossil fuels, or to understand some paradox involving what we think society should be doing, but that it isn’t. This is why I often tell my students that doing social science research is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.
That said, I appreciate your professional position, and I understand that much of my (and the research of others) wouldn’t “cut it,” so to speak, under your standards. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since social science is usually judged according to different standards. For instance, the motivation for my avian study in the first place was a sort of “Everyone talks about birds and wind energy, but I wonder if other energy systems have similar impacts that nobody has talked about …” It started with that simple puzzle, or question, and it led me to look into it as best I could (perhaps not as good as others like yourself could have done). But I love that about social science: I identified a problem, put together a method (however narrow or flawed it may have been), collected the data, wrote up what I found, and contributed to the discussion. I think having this type of “experimental” method where anybody can do research has its merits, and as long as one is explicit in its limitations and assumptions, as I try hard to be, we end up learning more (as a community) than we otherwise would. For example, before my study nobody even thought about birds and other energy systems. Now, this discussion and its 80+ posts are proof that they are.”
I find it interesting that while your premise “Everyone talks about birds and wind energy, but I wonder if other energy systems have similar impacts that nobody has talked about …” is a general question, I am curious as to why nuclear power plants were singled out for comparison when obviously fossil fueled and solar thermal plants have all the same issues only on a larger more destructive scale. I see similar bias when people compare the time frame for building a 1.7 Gigawatt nuclear power plant as being too long but comparing it to a 7.5 megawatt wind generator instead of the 680 it would require to produce about the same amount of power.
“That said, I appreciate your professional position, and I understand that much of my (and the research of others) wouldn’t “cut it,” so to speak, under your standards. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since social science is usually judged according to different standards.”
I think you should reexamine that last sentence. Many of the horrible decisions and waste that have occurred over the last decade happened precisely because social science is not held to high standards.
It could be held to higher standards, but the people setting the standards don’t bother. I’m sure this is beneficial to the folks who like to have the facts twisted and obfuscated for their personal benefit, but make no mistake, it is not doing society any favors.
Let me put this in definite terms:
Your profession’s lax standards are doing real harm to society on a massive scale. Millions have died because of the lies and careless errors which slip through.
I admire that you are here having a discussion with us. I believe that you are exploring the possibility that you should strive for a higher standard in your own work. I think this may be difficult for you to face.
The fact is, and I say this as both an engineer (aerospace and electrical) and an attorney (St. Bar of TX since 1992), using social science standards to make decisions regarding the infrastructure of society is a formula for negligent killing, or manslaughter on a massive scale.
Folks like to say, “Oh, it’s only money. So what if things are a little more expensive.” Well, the folks at the bottom of the social ladder aren’t that fortunate. In the aggregate, small increases in cost add up to deaths at the bottom of the social/economic ladder, and the air pollution which would have been eliminated if engineers rather than policy wonks set energy policy kills everybody, regardless of income.
Our politicians accept reports containing reasonable sounding conclusions from policy wonks, which would get most engineers fired. It’s no excuse that the politicians don’t know any better. They’re **depending** on the wonks to supply them with reliable information — except when they’re paying them to lie and reach a predetermined conclusion despite the facts.
When a wonk writes a report to reach a predetermined conclusion, his guilt rises from manslaughter to at least reckless killing and probably all the way to knowingly killing people. At least, as a social scientist, paid to examine the effects of social policy decisions, he should realize that lying (paid advocacy, by any other name) about policy issues will lead to inefficiencies and needless deaths.
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