Saturday, December 15, 2007

Some Bad History from Harvey Wasserman

Harvey Wasserman has trotted out his old saw about the Paley Commission Report again.

According to Wasserman:
In 1952, President Harry Truman's Blue Ribbon “Paley Commission” Report showed that the future of American energy was with the sun and wind. Predicting 15 million solar-heated American homes by 1975, the administration pointed the way to a green, energy efficient economy. One that would have avoided the current climate crisis, and rendered the nation energy self-sufficient.

But in December, 1953, at the behest of the nuclear weapons industry, President Dwight Eisenhower told the world its energy would come from atomic reactors. The “Peaceful Atom” would provide electricity “too cheap to meter.” When no utilities would invest in it, the Republican administration offered massive subsidies, and federal insurance against liability for accidents and terror attacks. When it became clear the industry had no answer for its radioactive waste problem, the government promised to take care of it. Federal agencies promoted the technology while allegedly regulating it.

Readers who saw my earlier post on the Paley Commission know that this is a load of balderdash, but I'd like to particularly call attention to Wasserman's claim that the report "pointed the way to a green, energy efficient economy." The Paley Commission predicted the United States consuming several times as much coal in 1975 as it actually does in 2007. It predicted that nearly every imaginable natural resource would be used as fast as it could be pulled from the ground. Its predictions were, with almost no exceptions, wrong.

Much like Wasserman himself.

As for "Atoms for Peace," this isn't the way it happened... at all. There was no "behest of the nuclear weapons industry," as the nuclear weapons industry was probably the most socialized entity in US history in its early years. (My entire hometown was planned, owned, and operated by the U.S. government until 1959. I grew up going to church in a standardized, Army Corps of Engineers-issued chapel.) Also, Wasserman's claim that "no utility would invest in it" is simply wrong. American utilities risked considerable amounts of their own capital on the first-generation nuclear plants knowing that they would be unprofitable. It's true that there were subsidies, but the construction of fossil fuel plants was heavily subsidized in the 1950s as well. Simultaneously, the Soviet decision to pursue civilian nuclear technology was made before Eisenhower's 1953 speech- at a time when nuclear resources were desperately needed by the Soviet military. Indeed, Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" strategy was to try and cripple the Soviet nuclear weapons program by convincing them to divert fissile material to an international repository of fuel for civilian nuclear enterprises. This is widely understood by historians, but for some reason Wasserman seems incapable of acknowledging it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Interesting Article on Lovins

I just found this piece on Amory Lovins in the Energy Tribune:
Green Energy Advocate Amory Lovins: Guru or Fakir?
It says all the things I've been trying to say, with much better eloquence and evidence.

A representative quote:

The facts plainly show that Lovins has been consistently wrong about the ability of renewables to take large amounts of market-share from fossil fuels. He’s been proven wrong about the long-term ability of efficiency to reduce overall energy consumption. And yet, despite being so wrong for so long, he keeps getting awards and prizes by the forklift-load. And the fact that the Lovins love-fest continues unabated causes no small bit of antipathy among some long-time energy watchers. One of them is Vaclav Smil, the polymath and distinguished professor of geography at the University of Manitoba who has written numerous books on energy. “Inexplicably,” Smil wrote recently, Lovins “retains his guru aura no matter how wrong he is.”

The article strongly supports my case that Lovins simply does not understand Jevons' paradox:

Lovins refuses to admit that his forecast was flat wrong. In an e-mail, Lovins said he couldn’t verify the quote and that the Business Week piece was “widely misquoted.” In his initial response to the question, he said that “the general sentiment is correct in its historical context.” What that means, I have no idea. A few days later, after I sent him the full text of the Business Week story, Lovins sent another response, in which he again declared that the magazine had misquoted him and that “Cost and climate pressures and revolutionary efficiency techniques will ultimately make electricity demand stabilize and then decline in most states as it has begun to do in some. Most electricity is now wasted, and eventually economics wins. New central plants are uncompetitive and getting more so.”

In fact, the author actually asked Lovins directly, and got this response:

Despite the evidence stacked against him, Lovins insists that Jevons – and Smil, and especially Mills – are wrong. In an e-mail response to my question of whether Jevons was wrong, Lovins replied, “Broadly, yes.” He goes on to try to turn the point into a non sequitur by saying, that if his thesis were true, if we wanted to save energy, “we should mandate inefficient equipment.”

One area the article doesn't go into, however, is the area in which Lovins' claims are closest to my field of study- nuclear proliferation. I'm planning a future post on this issue.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

USA Today on New Nukes

... leaves a lot to be desired.

From the article:

Nuclear reactors generate heat that produces electricity when uranium atoms split. In the reactor core, uranium is kept in water to prevent it from overheating, melting down and releasing radiation.

A meltdown by itself typically would not be disastrous because the reactor sits in a concrete containment structure to prevent radiation from escaping.

However, a meltdown could cause a buildup of temperature and pressure that ruptures the containment building. A massive release of radioactive gas into a surrounding community could destroy or damage human cells and cause death or cancer.

Lots of uncritical reporting from a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report, too. But note one bright spot in the UCS press release:

"The risks posed by global warming may turn out to be so grave that the United States and the world cannot afford to rule out a substantial expansion of nuclear power," said Dr. Gronlund."

Can you imagine a UCS scientist making this statement even five years ago? Perhaps there's hope for them after all. We should make every possible effort to build bridges with the open-minded and reasonable "nuclear power skeptics"- the long-term outcome of the current nuclear debate depends on it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Disarmament Should Be

Recently on Physical Insights I expressed the opinion that Helen Caldicott is just as much a liability to arms control as she is to the movement against civilian nuclear power. As my readers know, I'm a vociferous advocate for the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. At the same time, I'm in favor of doing everything possible to reduce the threat of nuclear war. As much fun as it may be to poke fun in the writings of people like Caldicott, I feel like I need to be more positive and introduce figures whose efforts on behalf of disarmament are worthy of praise and acclaim.

In general, I believe that arms control has suffered from the fact that many of its proponents have conceived of it as a mass protest movement, rather than as an exercise in intellectual debate or policymaking. Although some of the greatest intellects of the 20th century wrote learned treatises against nuclear war- Bertrand Russell, for instance- it seems to me that too little attention has been paid in the disarmament field to the matter of sitting down and doing the requisite research. Another problem now is that many of the people who did this work in the past have died or retired, leaving too many puppet-wielding marchers, and not enough scholars.

Another problem was that the disarmament community lacked competent Soviet specialists. (This was not limited to disarmament: knowledgeable Sovietologists were always quite rare, so the government was only slightly less deprived.) Before Gorbachev western knowledge of the Soviet nuclear complex was extremely limited, and rumor and hearsay substituted for fact.

In my opinion, the disarmament debate needs the following qualities:
1. The highest levels of intellectual rigor, research, and decorum;
2. Thorough knowledge of the societies, cultures, and governments possessing nuclear weapons or contemplating their acquisition;
3. A Realist policy outlook (at least in the near-term) that eschews wishful thinking in favor of real, foreseeable measures that are achievable in the current geopolitical environment.

I believe that Pavel Podvig is the best current example of an arms control expert who embodies these three qualities. Firstly, Podvig's research is nothing short of first-class. His edited volume on the Russian nuclear arsenal, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, is without a doubt the best work available on the subject. I seriously doubt that there is anyone outside of the Russian government whose knowledge of the subject is broader than Podvig's. On the second point, Podvig benefits from the fact that he is Russian, and was educated at first-class Russian educational institutions. On the third point, Podvig understands that the only way to restart disarmament in the near term is to try and repair the fraying relationships between the Russian and American governments and militaries that were forged in the 1980s and 1990s. Closer US-Russian cooperation is the key to arms control.

I don't agree with Podvig on everything. I have a very different take on the motivation behind some of the recent decisions made by the Russian government- the MIRVing of the Topol-M missile, for instance. But I utterly respect him. Furthermore, Podvig has been extremely hospitable to me and (I presume) to others who send him inquiries. He also has a wonderful blog that I heartily recommend. In my humble opinion, we need more people like Pavel Podvig.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sticking Up For "Our Man Adams"

I noticed that Amory Lovins' economic analysis of nuclear power was referenced on a thread on Deltoid, Tim Lambert's weblog, and I posted a link to Rod Adams' many excellent posts on the subject. This received a rather hostile response:

Try actually reading the posts-"

My Dear D'oh (Sovietologist):

I did read the first sentence of Adams' post and it is an ad hom attack.

That's all I need to read.

If "Adams is a genuine nuclear energy expert" as you claim, he would not need to resort to such attacks.

I don't read ad hom crap.

Your man Adams is pathetic.

Well, besides the fact that Rod's "ad hominem attack" is really a series of factual, if unflattering statements about Lovins (quote: "One of the great ironies in today's America is that a two time college drop out and Friends of the Earth campaigner who spent a lot of time advocating the use of coal is often held up as a hero of the environmental movement while also making a lot of money as a consultant for the natural gas industry, Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense."), I don't know what to say. Are we going to let this outrage stand? I beseech the readers of this blog to go and stand up for "our man Adams" over at Deltoid. Just remember to be polite!

Why Does Andrew Cuomo hate Poor People?

The NYT has reported that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has declared that he wants Indian Point shut down immediately. This raises the obvious question: why does he hate New York's poor?

Obviously, Cuomo doesn't have any idea of the sheer magnitude of the problems that shutting down Indian Point would create for his constituents. Maybe he thinks blackouts and the social chaos that follows them are a good thing. Maybe he believes that New Yorkers will gladly pay $20+ billion dollars in additional electricity bills over the next 25 years.

Maybe he has no idea just what hardship these problems would cause for New York's least privileged. Maybe he just doesn't care.

In any case, Andrew Cuomo is no more a friend of the poor than predatory lenders or Dick Cheney. Closing Indian Point? Not progressive, not democratic.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Little Historiography

I apologize for the lengthy interlude since my last posting. I've been tied up with end-of-the-semester responsibilities.

One of the great frustrations of my field of study is the fact that it is (to my judgment) dominated by people who aren't very knowledgeable about the real issues. My specialty is the history of nuclear technology in the Soviet Union, but the study of the nuclear arms race is dominated by Americanists. These fall into two categories:

1. Cold War Triumphalists. The premier example of these is John Lewis Gaddis, the "doyen" of Cold War studies. The problem with these scholars is that they generally know little or nothing about the USSR, so their historical narratives are very one -sided. They also tend to have little or no technical knowledge about nuclear technology. Although historians in this category are often famous, they're actually fairly rare in my experience.

2. Peace Movement Hagiographers. A good example of one of these is Lawrence S. Wittner, who wrote an enormous three-volume history of the anti-nuclear movement that claims that it was the efforts of protesters that shaped the history and outcome of the arms race. These scholars tend to glorify the peace movement because they participated in it themselves. Unfortunately, this generally blinds them to the fact that the movement was and is an utter failure. These scholars dominate the nuclear field outside of political and military history- i.e., they tend to write histories of Atomic Culture. At the same time, they generally have no knowledge of the USSR or nuclear technology either.

In my view, both of these groups are deficient. No-one without at least a superficial knowledge of Soviet history and culture can claim to understand the dynamics of the arms race. This is not to say that there aren't some fine scholars (and some fine scholarship) in both categories; it's just that most of what's been written is just plain inadequate.

What causes problems for me is that my particular sub-field (civil defense) is dominated by a particularly uninformed and dogmatic division of the latter group. All of them are Americanists, and the average level of scholarship is simply abysmal. There are some exceptions to the rule- I value Kenneth L. Rose's One Nation Underground and Laura McEnaney's Civil Defense Begins At Home. Neither of these scholars is knowledgeable about Russian history, nor are they experts on nuclear weapons effects; however, their arguments are restrained and fairly well-researched.

And then there's this.

It's kind of hard to describe my enormous frustration with this book. As someone who has done extensive archival (and non-archival) research on civil defense, I can assure you that the author's thesis (that the "civil defense protest movement" killed civil defense) is totally unsupported by the historical record. It's also obvious if you search old H-Net postings that she came up with this idea back in the early 1990s, and that she had decided before doing her research that this would be her argument. (A little aside: I used to have this kind of take on civil defense too. Then I went to the National Archives and went though Record Group 304.) In any case, check out the endorsement from Helen Caldicott herself!

My problem is that these are probably the people that are going to review my research when I submit it for publication. No amount of fact or reason will save me from the fact that they are simply anti-nuclear. I'm hoping the worst of them retire soon.