Over the past week, I have been spending quite a bit of free time participating in another debate about nuclear power. I have mentioned it a few times on this blog, but here is the link one more time Pro-Nuke? Anti-Nuke? Talk About It With the Experts. Mother Jones, the hosting publication, invited four panelists to participate and answer questions. The panel included Judith Lewis, Stewart Brand, Harvey Wasserman, and Jonas Siegel. Stewart, Harvey and Judith put quite a bit of time into participating and represented well three positions in the debate – a reluctant switcher, a religiously committed No Nukes campaigner, and a journalist with a lot of remaining, honest questions about all aspects of the energy supply decision process. Mr. Siegel did not post much but is a representative of the school of thought that cannot separate weapons from power production.
There were a few anti-nuclear commenters, but there was also a core of people that posted some amazingly detailed and useful commentary explaining why they favored nuclear power development and questioning why some of the people on the other side refuse to perform any computations or to recognize the scale of the challenge of providing a world containing 6 billion people enough energy to live a reasonably comfortable life. Please, go to the debate page and at least skim through the discussions and see how the arguments are developed. If you have a forum or a platform, post a link to the discussion so that others can see the work that was done. It is really quite valuable.
My contributions to the debate ranged around a bit, but, partially because of what is happening in the news as petroleum companies release their quarterly profit reports, I focused on showing that there is a link between fossil fuel profits and the long term success of anti-nuclear activity. My final post turned into something that I think I will work on for an expanded article, so, to make sure I do not lose track of it, I have decided to post it here as well. It loses a bit without the full context of the discussion, but I think it stands up okay on its own. (Note: “Stewart” is Stewart Brand.)
After reading through my posts discussing a link between the interests of people who make money from the world’s addiction to fossil fuel (and that group is – emphatically – not limited to a few big oil companies) and the interests of people who fight nuclear power, you wrote:
“I know of no case where an nonprofit organization or individual has been suborned by money to oppose nuclear. I continue to doubt that one can be found.
Nobody paid me to be anti-nuclear for years. Nobody paid me to change my mind to favor nuclear. That’s the norm in this debate. Figure aching sincerity on all sides, and that’s good. Someone who broadcasts a certain opinion just for the money is not permitted a mind change.”
I think you are probably such a sincere, thoughtful person that you have projected that attitude onto the rest of the world. I am sorry to report from the trenches that your optimistic view of how people work, talk, and think is not terribly realistic.
In many human conversations, especially those that involve almost unimaginable sums of money, there are hidden currents of innuendo, winking and nodding, code words, backscratching, damning with faint praise, coalition building, and sometimes vetoes by the real power in the room that are used to achieve a desired result. Not only did I study English literature as an undergraduate with a focus on the satire of Jonathan Swift and Joseph Heller, but I have served for 7 educational years in a supporting role at the headquarters of an organization that employs more than 600,000 people and has an annual budget of about $120 Billion.
Often, a conversation – like the debate on the goodness or badness of particular energy supplies – does not reach a point where people agree, but each day decisions are made one way or another. During the energy conversation that we have had this week, the real fact of the matter is that about 75% of the electricity used to power our computers and the internet pipes used to deliver the conversation to each other came from burning fossil fuel. No fossil fuel suppliers appeared during the conversation, but a lot of fossil fuel suppliers are just a little bit richer because we continued to use their product.
During the nuclear power debate, a continuing human conversation that has been in progress since the fight over a Consolidated Edison proposal to build an emission-free power generation source at an existing power plant site in Ravenswood, Queens (1962), there have always been some vocal, sincere people who loudly proclaim their opposition to and/or fear of nuclear power. In many cases, these people, quite frankly, come from parts of society that do not control the decisions. They are often narrowly educated with little formal schooling especially in subjects like physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, calculus, differential equations, electrical engineering or fluid flow.
Some have academic records that might appear okay, but their true performance would never prepare them for a fact-based profession like engineering. Amory Lovins comes to mind as one vocal leader in the anti-nuclear camp who has been held up for decades as a “consultant experimental physicist educated at Harvard and Oxford”. You can find out about the truth of his real training and academic performance (he dropped out of both schools and has no actual degree at all) with a Google search on “amory lovins academic career”.
It is fascinating – though a bit depressing at times – to work through the process of understanding how people like Brower, Lovins, Ehrlich, Wasserman, Nader, Tom Adams, Gunther, Caldicott, and a few other leaders in the movement managed to have a measurable effect on what really was a very powerful commercial enterprise. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in designing, building and operating nuclear power plants in the 1960s-1990s. They were producing a completely new form of power that has a number of real, quantifiable benefits over the existing fuel sources that drive the world’s economy.
I agree with your statement that the vocal anti-nukes are generally sincere and have not been “bought”, but I do not believe that they would have had any hope of success or of sustaining their nearly full time opposition for decades (everyone’s got to eat) if their message was not one that fit well with the interests of people with political and economic power. The anti-nuclear movement provided great covering fire and became – probably unwittingly – part of “deception operations” to further the interests of people that want to sell as much fossil fuel, at the highest price that the market can possibly bear.
It will be difficult to impossible for me to find an example of a straight forward transaction where a fossil fuel executive hands over an envelope stuffed with cash, but I know that the following Amory Lovins quote has to delight people who participate in the continuing market to supply our energy addiction at the most profitable possible price. “It would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we might do with it.”
Paul Ehrlich, another of the surprisingly powerful anti-nukes, expressed a very similar thought with a bit more bombastic language: “Giving society cheap, abundant energy . . . would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” I know that if I sold coal, ran Burlington Northern railroad, built gas pipelines under the Baltic, built LNG tankers, manufactured solar panels, erected windmills, or drilled for gas off shore, I would certainly hate life if someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “You can
quit working now; nobody will buy what we have worked so hard to produce because “vim” is now available at 1/3 the price with no downsides.”
There have been some intriguing interviews and articles in the Wall Street Journal (if you want to understand how business people think, you have to read their bibles) during the last couple of days. Petroleum (that is both oil and natural gas) company quarterly profit reports have been released. The companies have been facing a real PR challenge – they want to celebrate with their stockholders and promote the fact that they are amazingly profitable. At the same time, the rest of us are hurting really badly at the pump, when we pay our monthly gas bill, and when we watch the PUC’s allow another fuel adjustment based price increase. Many of the people who are hurting are not little guys – GM reported a multi-billion dollar loss as people have stopped buying their profitable automobiles and trucks and moved to smaller vehicles. However, salt of the earth people like truckers, plumbers, carpenters, machinists, injection molders (I was one of those), and taxi drivers have had to cut a lot of optional spending out of their budgets.
This exchange between a WSJ interviewer and Chevron’s CEO David O’Reilly caught my attention. His company – which he describes during the interview as “a very, very small producer” with only a 2% market share, recorded a 2007 after taxes profit of $18.7 BILLION. Read the below with the same eye that your literature teachers taught you to use. What is really being said?
“WSJ: What lessons have you learned during your eight years leading Chevron through a period of phenomenal change in the commodity markets?
O’Reilly: It’s a long-term business, and you make investments for the long term. You have to be resilient and tough and committed and stay with your plans. Don’t get down too much when you’re going through bad times, but don’t get too exuberant when you’re going through good times because neither of those are representative of the long term.” (WSJ, May 1 page B1, available on line via search if you have a subscription.)
I do not know how many people have been reading the discussion but I sure hope that Mother Jones keeps it on the web for a very long time. The long tail of readers will keep coming back; it is a great example of the stark differences between those of us who think, observe, study and compute and those who are religiously committed – sincerely, I am sure – to a cause that just happens to support the interests of some very unfriendly and incredibly wealthy people.
One final thought – there is an entire industry made up of people who can be paid to say almost anything and who will change their mind as soon as the paychecks stop or someone else bids a higher price. You might not pay much attention to Madison Avenue, but they do have some influence.