Friday, October 31, 2008

Science and its Enemies

I have grown increasingly convinced that the greatest threat to science today comes not from the usual suspects--creationists and the like--but rather from the "holistic science" movement. Unhappy with the findings of "reductionist" science, they attack the fundamental methodology upon which all modern science is based, usually in conjunction with a disgusting degree of self-righteous moral opprobrium. Take, for instance, this gem from (in)famous organic agriculture activist Vandana Shiva:
"In order to prove itself superior to alternative modes of knowledge and be the only legitimate mode of knowing, reductionist science resorts to suppression and falsification of facts and thus commits violence against science itself, which ought to be a search for truth. We discuss below how fraudulent this claim to truth is."
This is from her essay Reductionist Science as Epistemological Violence, which is in my view not merely an outstandingly wrong-headed document, but also the sociopathic ramblings of a dangerous fantacist:
"Medicine is generally presented as an area in which modern science has the most achievements and successes to its credit. But there is increasing evidence that modern medicine and therapeutics have themselves become a source of disease and death. According to Ivan Illich, diseases brought on by doctors are a greater cause of increased mortality than traffic accidents and war-related activities. Iatrogenic illnesses cause between 60,000 to 140,000 deaths in America alone each year, and leave 2 to 5 million others more or less seriously ill. The situation is worst in establishments which generate medical knowledge, viz. university hospitals where one in five patients contracts an iatrogenic disease which usually requires special treatment, and leads to death in one case out of thirty.

'Scientific medicine' extends its monopoly even to those cases of common diseases in which people would get well without therapeutic intervention. It only converts simple problems into serious or fatal ones."

This flies so far in the face of well-understood historical fact that it boggles the mind that this author is not only taken seriously, but is regarded as a great authority and even a "hero" by many in the west. I, for one, owe my life to the achievements of modern science and medicine--I was born with a condition that even thirty years ago was usually fatal. And as a historian, I am all too aware of just how much better the present day is than the "natural" past idealized by people like Shiva. Life in the not-to-distant past was nasty, brutish, and short--and the reason it's better now is because of modern technology that has been enabled by "reductionist" science.

Shiva concludes that:
"Protest against reductionist science is emerging in all spheres. In India, for instance, the famous 'Chipko' movement is a movement against reductionist forestry; organic farming movements are challenges to reductionist agriculture; and health-care movements are projecting alternatives to reductionist medicine.

Since the monopoly of special interest groups over peoples' lives is mediated by the state, these movements have political implications. The search for alternatives to reductionism is basically a political struggle which cuts across material and intellectual domains. The non-reductionist alternatives that people across the world are building together is a non-violent science that respects the integrity of nature and man and truth and seeks liberation of the people, which is what science is, or should be, all about. And when a large number of little people think alike and act together, major changes may well be in the offing, including a change in worldview."

Apparently, Shiva is under the unfortunate delusion that reality is some kind of political choice. Given the facts on the ground, I believe that what the world needs is more science, and considerably less pseudoscientific hogwash based on undefinable concepts like "the integrity of nature." Wishful thinking and misplaced nostalgia are the absolutely wrong prescriptions for the many challenges facing the world today. It's true that the gifts of science have all too often been used for destructive ends; but this is no more an argument against reductionism than the possibility of choking is an argument against eating solid food. I, for one, know what side I'm on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sovietology: No Appeals to "Common Sense" Allowed

In his HNN interview decrying Hiroshima "revisionism," Robert Maddox made the following statement:
VF: The peace movement condemns the attack as triggering the nuclear arms race. Is this the right cause-effect chain? If so, isn't it impossible to support the mission?

RM: This is absurd on its face. The Soviets had their own atomic program in place long before Hiroshima and knew through espionage all about the US effort. There would have been an arms race even if the US did not use the bombs against Japan. Can anyone imagine that, if only the United States had not used the bombs, Stalin would have permitted the US to enjoy a perpetual nuclear monopoly [with] the Soviets...helpless? The idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the arms race merely provides revisionists with another beat Truman.

To answer Maddox's rhetorical question, I can imagine it. Anyone who knows anything about Stalin's USSR knows that appeals to "common sense" don't work in this mileau. I've seen what Stalin wrote about the bomb in his own private papers, and the impression I get is that Stalin did not regard nuclear weapons as an effective weapon of war. Instead, he saw the bomb as a must-have prestige item. Not only would a Soviet bomb undermine belligerent anti-Soviet elements in the west, it would also prove that Soviet science and technology were equal to America's.

Stalin was infuriated by the failure of the United States to involve him in the decision to develop and use the atomic bomb. It is true that Communist spies within the Manhattan Project kept the Soviet government apprised of American progress, but the available evidence suggests that whatever information about this reached Stalin made little impression on him. Stalin, after all, was no scientist, even if he had pretensions to the contrary. Contemporary records show that Stalin and his inner circle were shocked and disturbed by the news of Hiroshima--quite possibly because it threatened their hoped-for gains in their campaign against Japan which began August 8th. Stalin craved acknowledgment from other nations that the USSR was a fully-fledged great power, and the decision to develop and use the bomb without so much as mentioning it to the Soviets was interpreted by him as a sign of Western disrespect at best and a willful insult at worst.

The Soviet atomic project began in 1941 but received only minuscule funding and attention until late August of 1945--several weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After this it became a top priority, but it was never high enough to cannibalize other projects Stalin regarded as critical. On the military front, Stalin was determined to expand Soviet naval power to world-class standards, expending enormous resources on ship construction. Domestically, major prestige projects in Moscow alone consumed several percent of overall Soviet GDP. Regarding his own capital's low skyline as a retrograde embarrassment in comparison to modern American cities, Stalin ordered the construction of a group of bizarre ornamental skyscrapers in Moscow. The Moscow Metro and its highly ornamented stations also sucked up vast amounts of Soviet blood and treasure--even in a period when famine was widespread in the USSR. Stalin's priorities were plainly irrational--a point which should be kept in mind.

Most significantly, Stalin saw little need to develop a means to deliver the few nuclear weapons available during his twilight years. The earliest Soviet delivery system for nuclear weapons was the Tu-4A--a modified version of the Soviet clone of the B-29. As the earliest Soviet nuclear weapons were copied from the American Mk-III that was dropped on Nagasaki, these had to be modified to carry a weapon considerably larger than would easily fit in the bomb bay; however, only three of these bombers were built. More credible delivery systems only became available only around the time Stalin died. What this means is that Stalin was perfectly pleased to be "helpless"--he did not order his followers to build less skyscrapers and more bombers to carry his handful of weapons. Furthermore, the Tu-4A would have had difficulty reaching Britain from the USSR without refueling, much less the United States. It appears that no Tu-4s were built with both refueling equipment and the ability to carry nuclear weapons--meaning that the ability of the Soviet Union under Stalin to project nuclear force was essentially non-existent. Soviet delivery capabilities lagged far behind Stalin's infant nuclear arsenal, and as far as I can tell the dictator did not regard this as a problem.

What implications does this have for our understanding of Stalin's intentions? I am inclined to draw the conclusion that Stalin regarded nuclear weapons as a gimmick, at least until the end of the 1940s. Flush from Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, he placed his faith in the Soviet Union's colossal land forces rather than America's strategic aviation and nuclear arsenal. I can easily imagine Stalin being content with his armies and tanks in a world where nuclear weapons remained a murky, undemonstrated secret. After all, to a considerable extent he was content without a credible nuclear deterrent despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not because Stalin was a peacenik at heart, as he wasn't; it's because Stalin failed to understand the power of the bomb and its effects on Soviet security. He wanted the bomb because it was source of American pride, and because it convinced the Truman Administration it did not need to accommodate Soviet interests in the postwar world. If neither of these factors came into play--and if the atomic bomb had not been used, it's hard to imagine how they would have--it's hard for me to see why Stalin would have thought it necessary to build a Soviet bomb.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fact Check: Joe Romm on New Nukes

Joe Romm manages to be quite a chameleon when it comes to nuclear power. On certain occasions, he manages to be quite reasonable--as when he admitted that the Russians have no good non-carbon energy options outside of fission. He insists that he's not "anti-nuclear." But much of the time his writing on the subject is more reminiscent of Paul Gunther than of an even-handed, sober-minded analyst. And for someone who has been bashing nuclear power in the national media for years, Romm seems to have a difficult time keeping basic facts straight.

Take, for instance, this statement that Romm inserted into Finrod's comment to this post on Climate Progress:
JR: Gimme a break Once there is a price for carbon dioxide that reflects its actual damage to humanity, wind and solar will do just fine, thank you. Right now, new nuclear plants get all of the subsidies that wind gets, plus this absurd 80% loan guarantee, full liability protection, and expedited licensing.
In this comment Romm makes four claims, which I will go through one at a time.

Claim #1: New nuclear plants "get all of the subsidies wind gets."
It's hard to boil the complex reality of US energy subsidies to a short statement, but all things considered I don't believe this is a fair assessment. It is true that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 expanded the Production Tax Credit of 1.9 cents per kW/hr to the first 6000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity. However, with current reactor designs this only represents 4-5 units, when there are dozens currently being planned for the US. The act calls for allocating the 6000 MW among various reactors, with each of them receiving a fraction of the credit.

The list of federal incentives (which represent de facto or explicit subsidies) for renewable energy sources is actually pretty extensive. Fortunately, there's a handy website that lists and explains them all. You can go through them at length if you like, but I would like to direct readers' attention to the Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI). This is not the same thing as the Production Tax Credit (PTC). As the DSIRE website explains:
The Federal Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI) provides incentive payments for electricity produced and sold by new qualifying renewable energy facilities. Qualifying systems are eligible for annual incentive payments of 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour (in 1993 dollars and indexed for inflation) for the first 10-year period of their operation, subject to the availability of annual appropriations in each federal fiscal year of operation.
As new nuclear systems are ineligible for this significant federal subsidy, I believe that we can dismiss Romm's first claim as demonstrably false.

Claim #2: New Nuclear Plants receive "this absurd 80% loan guarantee" in addition to all the incentives received by new wind capacity.
I find this sentiment quite ironic, given that the DOE program that provides the loan guarantees provides the same incentive to renewable power projects. Here's the nuclear power solicitation, and here's the renewable power solicitation. Seems like nuclear projects possess no advantages that renewables do not from the loan guarantee program, with the exception of the $18 billion limit for nuclear plant guarantees (vs. $10 billion for renewables). Doesn't strike me as all that "absurd."

Claim #3: New Nuclear Plants receive "full liability protection."
This is one of the longstanding myths about the Price-Anderson Act. Buried in the intense legalese of the law is a section that nullifies any guarantee of legal protection above the Price-Anderson limit. The relevant text is here:
(2) In the event of a nuclear incident involving damages in excess of the amount of aggregate public liability under paragraph (1), the Congress will thoroughly review the particular incident in accordance with the procedures set forth in subsection (i) of this section and will in accordance with such procedures, take whatever action is determined to be necessary (including approval of appropriate compensation plans and appropriation of funds) to provide full and prompt compensation to the public for all public liability claims resulting from a disaster of such magnitude.
(3) No provision of paragraph (1) may be construed to preclude the Congress from enacting a revenue measure, applicable to licensees of the Commission required to maintain financial protection pursuant to subsection (b) of this section, to fund any action undertaken pursuant to paragraph (2).

Translation: In case of a nuclear incident resulting in claims greater than the Price-Anderson limit, Congress can pass measures to extract revenues from the licencee to cover the cost of liability. This means that if the "American Chernobyl" that anti-nukes like Harvey Wasserman fantasize about somehow actually happened, Congress would use its powers to expropriate everything the reactor operator owned. That doesn't sound like "full liability protection" to me. The provisions of the law are a considerable deviation from how liability law normally works, but that sword cuts both ways--take, for instance, this clause in the legislation:

The Commission or the Secretary, as appropriate, may incorporate provisions in indemnity agreements with licensees and contractors under this section, and may require provisions to be incorporated in insurance policies or contracts furnished as proof of financial protection, which waive
(i) any issue or defense as to conduct of the claimant or fault of persons indemnified,
(ii) any issue or defense as to charitable or governmental immunity, and
(iii) any issue or defense based on any statute of limitations if suit is instituted within three years from the date on which the claimant first knew, or reasonably could have known, of his injury or damage and the cause thereof.

Basically, under Price-Anderson licencees waive their right to several defenses that they would be fully entitles to use in conventional liability cases. Full liability protection? I think not. At the same time, the law is very helpful in case of incidents with claims below the Price-Anderson limit, as operators are not individually liable for the full sum under such cases. So it is a subsidy--just not anywhere near as advantageous one as its detractors imagine.

Claim #4: New Nuclear Plants Receive "Expedited Licensing"
A semantic quibble, but current NRC procedures are only "expedited" in comparison to the way they worked prior to the 2005 Energy Bill. Under current circumstances, all the new plant designs still require NRC approval--and the shortage of qualified NRC staff to evaluate them isn't making things progress any quicker. If the NRC was rubber-stamping applications, that would be one thing; but so long as it takes four years or more for new designs to be approved, licensing is anything but "expedited."

So on the whole, I think Romm's aside has a somewhat tenuous relationship with legal reality. Wind power receives a lengthy list of subsidies not available to new nuclear plants, wind and nuclear receive the same 80% loan guarantees from the same DOE program, Price-Anderson allows Congress to expropriate the assets of reactor operators in case of a serious accident, and 48+ months is still a long time. But somehow I doubt that he will admit any of this.