Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog and Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute have been friends for years. They talked about nuclear power and came to two different conclusions. When Stewart came out in support of nuclear power some time ago Amory demolished his arguments in a carefully reasoned way that touches on the four following main points that proponents continue to use to this day. These false points are still being pushed by Brand, Hansen, Stone and other pronuclear people despite the fact that they have been thoroughly refuted time and time again. Amory’s arguments are elegant, concise, and irrefutable. It is time to look at them again.
Here are the four arguments proponents continue to use:
- Baseload: Wind and photovoltaics can’t keep the lights on because they can’t run 24/7.
- Footprint: Photovoltaics need about 150-175 times, and wind farms from 600+ to nearly 900 times, more land than nuclear power to produce the same electricity.
- Portfolio: We need every tool for combating climate change, including nuclear power.
- Government role: The climate imperative trumps economics, so governments everywhere must and will do what France did—ensure that nuclear power gets built, regardless of economics or dissent.
These claims are unsupportable as Amory lays out in the following paragraphs. It is well worth spending the time to look at what he has to say as these same arguments continue to emerge in our conversations when tabling, at NRC meetings, and on Face Book. Keep these paragraphs on hand and use them in letters to the editor or any other communication. Lovin’s last point that nuclear power is being pushed in countries with “socially planned energy systems” – China, Russian, India, South Korea – while renewables are thriving in democracies and free markets is especially relevant today.
Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition
Baseload: The electricity system doesn’t rely on any plant’s ability to run continuously; rather, all plants together supply the grid, and the grid serves all loads. That’s necessary because no kind of power plant can run all the time, as Stewart says they must do to meet steady loads. I repeat: there is not and has never been a need for any particular plant or kind of plant to run all the time, and none can. All power plants fail, varying only in their failures’ size, duration, frequency, predictability, and cause. Solar cells’ and windpower’s variation with night and weather is no different from the intermittence of coal and nuclear plants, except that it affects less capacity at once, more briefly, far more predictably, and is no harder and probably easier and cheaper to manage. In short, the ability to serve steady loads is a statistical attribute of all plants on the grid, not an operational requirement for one plant. Variability (predictable failure) and intermittence (unpredictable failure) must be managed by diversifying type and location, forecasting, and integrating with other resources. Utilities do this every day, balancing diverse resources to meet fluctuating demand and offset outages. Even with a largely (or probably a wholly) renewable grid, this is not a significant problem or cost, either in theory or in practice—as illustrated by areas that are already 30-40% wind-powered.
Footprint: Stewart understates nuclear power’s land-use by about 43-fold by omitting all land used by exclusion zones and the nuclear fuel chain. Conversely, he includes the space between wind or solar equipment—unused land commonly used for farming, grazing, wildlife, and recreation. That’s like claiming that two lampposts require a parking lot’s worth of space, even though 99% of the lot is used for parking, driving, and walking. Properly measured, per kilowatt-hour produced, the land made unavailable for other uses is about the same for ground-mounted photovoltaics as for nuclear power, sometimes less—or zero, for building-mounted PVs sufficient to power the world many times over. Land actually used per kWh is up to thousands of times smaller for wind power than for nuclear power. If land-use were an important criterion for picking energy systems, which it’s generally not, it would thus reverse Stewart’s footprint conclusion.
Portfolio: The one paper he cites as proof that we need all energy options (Pacala & Socolow’s “Stabilization Wedges”) actually says the opposite. There is no analytic basis for his conclusion, and there’s strong science to the contrary. We can’t afford to stuff our energy portfolio indiscriminately with some of everything, and we shouldn’t: some options are less worthy and effective than others. The more you fear climate change, the more judiciously you should invest to get the most solution per dollar and per year. Nuclear flunks both these tests.
Government: If nuclear power isn’t needed, worsens climate change (vs. more effective solutions) and energy security, and can’t compete in the marketplace despite uniquely big subsidies—all evidence-based findings unexamined in Stewart’s chapter—then his nuclear imperative evaporates. Of course, a few countries with centrally planned energy systems, mostly with socialized costs, are building reactors: over two-thirds of all nuclear plants under construction are in China, Russia, India, or South Korea. But that’s more because their nuclear bureaucracies dominate national energy policy and face little or no competition in technologies, business models, and ideas. Nuclear power requires such a system. The competitors beating nuclear power thrive in democracies and free markets.
The original article appeared in Grist. You can find the article and subsequent comments and discussion at
Supporting technical details and citations for this post can be found here: “Four Nuclear Myths” (PDF).
Whole Earth Discipline, by Stewart Brand (Viking, 2009 http://www.rmi.org/images/PDFs/Energy/2009-09_FourNuclearMyths.pdf