Why Are We Failing to Address Climate Change?
Electric power generation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The warming that those gases cause is, as we all know, a major global concern; an impressive array of prominent people proclaim it the greatest challenge of our era. And yet, I have sat through many two- and three-hour symposia on solutions to climate change over the past 20 years – all of them attended by, and addressed by, those same people – where renewable energy is invoked repeatedly.
But a bigger source of zero-carbon-emitting electricity generation, nuclear energy, is not mentioned even once.
Why? The implied reason for this omission has been that nuclear power is too dangerous. But the number of deaths caused by nuclear power per kilowatt-hour has been less than for every other electricity generation technology, including wind and solar.
The failure to even mention nuclear energy is a mystery. What is the reason for this neglect of what would seem the world’s best hope for abating carbon emissions?
Why Nuclear Power Has Been a Flop an important but far too-little read book, tells the strange and sad – indeed, tragic – story. Written by Jack Devanney, an engineer with master’s and PhD degrees from MIT, it chronicles how nuclear power transmuted in the last 70 years from being the great hope for low-cost energy, to being too scary, then to too expensive. Extricating ourselves from this mess in the United States is going to be extraordinarily difficult. But fortunately – at least for the climate – other countries are doing it: China, Russia, and South Korea.
Devanney’s story can be summarized in symbols this way: Ban the Bomb => LNT => PRA => ALARA => $$$$; or in words, Ban the Bomb led to Linear No Threshold which led to Probabilistic Risk Analysis which led to As Low as Reasonably Achievable which led to Too Expensive.
Let me explain.
The ban the bomb campaign
The trouble started with the ban the bomb campaign of the 1950s and 1960s. According to Devanney, the Rockefeller Foundation, a major philanthropic institution, had severe guilt feelings because it had funded much of the research that led to the development of the atomic bomb, which was used to kill at least a hundred thousand people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II in August, 1945.
The belief of the Rockefeller Foundation and many of the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan project to develop the bomb was that there was no alternative but to ban nuclear weapons entirely; otherwise, the world would surely end in a nuclear holocaust.
As a step toward banning the bomb, the United States needed to stop its atomic bomb testing. Furthermore, they believed, the testing caused “fallout” in the form of radioactive rain. The deadliness of this radioactive rain gained an icon in the form of a song, What Have They Done to the Rain, composed in 1962 and sung by an aging folk singer with a grandmotherly crackling voice, Malvina Reynolds. It was also recorded by The Seekers, Marianne Faithfull, Joan Baez, Melanie, and The Searchers, whose version reached number 29 on the U.S. charts. The supposed deadliness of nuclear fallout had also received a boost in 1959 from the classic movie “On the Beach,” in which an exchange of nuclear weaponry wipes out much of the civilized world. The resulting radiation cloud eventually reaches the Australian beaches, wiping out humanity there too.
The assumption of the ultimate and final deadliness of nuclear bomb fallout was useful to ban the bomb advocates, because it scared the living daylights out of their intended audience. They probably believed it too; there was as yet insufficient knowledge and evidence about the short- and long-term effects of varying levels of radiation. The assumption that any emission of nuclear radiation was deadly found its scientific crystallization in a theory called “linear no threshold” or LNT.
The LNT theory
LNT is a strange theory. It implies that if 365 aspirins taken all at once will kill you, then an aspirin a day for a year will kill you all the same. If the background radiation dose where you live for a year won’t kill you, then the same radiation dose delivered all at once for two seconds won’t kill you either; and conversely, if a radiation dose delivered all at once over two seconds will kill you, then the same dose delivered over a year will kill you too, even if the average dose is below background radiation.
It doesn’t make any sense. Yet it was the prevailing theory used to estimate the number of deaths from a release of radiation for decades. In an important (but of necessity tedious to read) chapter, Devanney recounts the long scientific struggle between those whose research showed LNT was false and those who maneuvered to keep it. The do-gooder impulse was to keep it because it had been so useful in stoking panic over radiation fallout from nuclear bomb testing. But that sometimes led to digging in on distortions of the science.
There are any number of reasons to believe that LNT is dead wrong. Some studies have shown that people living in many areas with higher background radiation have lower incidences of cancer. The state of Colorado, for example, where people live at higher altitudes in thinner air and experience higher rates of background radiation from the sun and cosmic rays has one of the lowest cancer rates. Studies of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that mothers who gave birth soon after the bombings had children with rates of genetic defects no greater than the average. Devanney recounts the available studies, and the evidence is overwhelming. Not only do moderate levels of radiation over time not cause cancers, but moderate levels of radiation are associated with fewer cancers than lower still levels of radiation – a phenomenon called hormesis. Being subjected to a moderate level of radiation helps the body’s cells develop an immune response.
But in today’s geopolitical environment, with hints of the threat of using nuclear arms in Ukraine, one might be able to see why it was desirous to embrace the LNT theory. Without it, we might conclude that the global impact of a nuclear holocaust will be limited, and not civilization-destroying, because the resulting “radiation cloud” won’t kill you. In the 1960s such a conclusion was unsayable; it would detract from the effort to ban the bomb and to create a “mutual assured destruction” scenario that would ensure that no one would ever use it. Do we still need its deception? Do we really want to give up this useful lie? Do we want to admit that just possibly a nuclear war won’t totally wipe out civilization, and thereby make it a little more likely to happen?
If radiation is so dangerous, how do you sell nuclear energy?
Although most of the nuclear physicists and their funders who helped to develop the bomb vehemently wanted to ban it, they also wanted with almost equal vehemence to turn nuclear’s power toward creating virtually unlimited quantities of cheap energy. How do you do that if a release of radiation from a nuclear power plant is a possibility, and we’ve convinced the general populace that any emission of radiation is fatal?
This led to the next step after LNT in Devanney’s series of steps, each one logically following the other, that ultimately made nuclear power in the United States politically and economically impractical. Since everyone had become convinced that any release of nuclear radiation was deadly, nuclear power had to emit no radiation.
Devanney says this was never a realistic promise. Basically, it was a lie. It was a lie propped up with technical underpinnings. It would have been like the commercial airline industry swearing – and “proving” using complex mathematics – that no commercial airplane crash was ever possible.
Probabilistic risk analysis (PRA)
The methodology that was applied to estimate the probability of a major accident in a nuclear power plant that released radiation was fault-tree analysis. The idea was to construct the “fault tree” leading to every possible nuclear power plant accident. To construct each of these fault trees, an engineer had to posit an event or combination of events at the bottom of a fault tree – a screw loose for example – and then construct a plausible flow of that fault through the machinery, one fault leading to another and then another, that could lead to the release of radiation.
The probability of each fault occurring would then have to be estimated. Thus, the process of estimating the probability of a nuclear power plant failure using this method was called probabilistic risk analysis, or PRA.
Devanney comes up with a wonderful, ingenious term for this fault tree. He calls it a “fractal bush.” A fractal is an object or structure, such as a seacoast or the path of a random walk, that can be magnified indefinitely, and its structure still looks the same at high levels of magnification as at low. What he means by calling the fault tree a fractal bush is that you could magnify the machinery to almost any level and increase the complexity of the fault tree, making it virtually impossible to analyse using PRA.
Furthermore, there is no reasonable way to estimate every minute probability of failure of a mechanism in the fractal bush. Therefore, the process had to resort to experts who were asked to estimate every probability.
Any reasonable person can see immediately that the result can be made to be any arbitrary number. The conclusion of the head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Division of Reactor Safety in 1974 was, as Devanney recounts, “The odds on a major catastrophe were one in one billion to one in ten billion years for a given reactor.”
But skepticism of this conclusion, and the methodology that produced it, abounded.
The truth comes out
The 1960s and 1970s were not a good time to perpetuate a lie. The mood was very suspicious, especially of big corporations allied with the military-industrial complex.
Malvina Reynolds wrote another song in 1964, a gem of a song, better even than “What Have They Done to the Rain.” Titled “God Bless the Grass,” the first verse goes this way:
God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.
and the second verse:
God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.
The PRA lie met its comeuppance in a one-two punch in March 1979. First, the movie The China Syndrome was released to movie theaters on March 16. Starring the famous actors Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas it was a classic battle of the little guy against The Man – the dark powers fighting to silence the little guys who discover serious problems at a nuclear power plant. Less than two weeks later there was an actual accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, which released cooling water from the nuclear reactor core – an incident exactly like those that the AEC had said, based on its PRA study, had less than a one in a billion chance of occurring.
The penalty for the lying, well-meant though it may have been, was that it was the beginning of the end for nuclear energy in the United States.
But the real death blow began before 1979, in the early 1970s, by regulations. It was yet another result of the belief that it was absolutely necessary never to release any radiation at all from a nuclear power plant.
Originally proposed to hold nuclear power plants to radioactive emissions levels “as low as practicable,” after some debate with the industry the regulation became “as low as reasonably achievable,” or ALARA. Says Devanney, ALARA is “an explicit mandate to raise cost to whatever the applicant can afford regardless of how small the benefit, if any.”
In other words, if a nuclear power plant can make a radiation release less likely – or appear to be less likely in a PRA – by expensive means, it must do it, no matter the cost, and no matter whether that release would be well below radiation levels proven to be harmless.
One might think the nuclear power industry would raise holy hell over such a prescription, because of the costs it imposes. But it was the 1970s, and nuclear’s competition, coal, was experiencing fast rising costs due to the enormous increases in the price of oil, with coal prices rising in tandem, and the environmental regulations that were also being imposed on it. And nuclear had what it thought was plenty of room to spare, because it was very cheap – and as we’ll see, getting cheaper. Furthermore, electricity prices for regulated utilities are fixed by the regulatory authority, often at a cost-plus level, so the utility doesn’t care all that much what the costs are; it is still awarded its profit.
The end result has been steeply increasing nuclear energy cost since the 1970s, not only from the “defense in depth” redundant safety measures nuclear power is required to install, but from the costs and delays due to mountains of paperwork that have to be submitted to regulators.
An exhibit of Devanney’s, shown below – reprinted in a blog by Roots of Progress blogger Jason Crawford, and from there in a blog entry by economist John Cochrane – tells the story. Until about 1970 nuclear energy costs followed the expected learning curve downward. But after that the costs skyrocketed, especially in the United States, though not in all countries.
“Incurable attack of market forces”?
My long-time good friend Amory Lovins, the brilliant co-founder of the prestigious and wildly productive RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute), an energy “think-and-do” tank, and a former opponent of nuclear energy on safety grounds – as was I – has more recently been an opponent on cost grounds. He is widely quoted as saying nuclear is “dying of an incurable attack of market forces.” But these are not Adam Smith’s or Arrow-Debreu’s1 market forces. They are market forces that have been severely distorted, contaminated by an accumulation of both regulations and subsidies over an anomalous history.
Devanney proposes ways that a sound nuclear power industry and regulatory structure could be rebuilt. But it will be very difficult in the United States, and it would probably involve the government bailout that Lovins decries. I hope nuclear energy can provide a large part of the solution to climate change, because I prefer its much smaller ecological footprint to that of wind and solar energy – and as wind and solar energy penetration increases, NIMBYism2 will too, and the problem of evening out its fluctuations may become severe and very costly.
We don’t know what future technological developments and cost reductions may bring, but I regard the near-disappearance – at least in the West – of nuclear power from the array of tools believed to be available for the mitigation of climate change unfortunate. It must at least be on the table for serious discussion. And it is being diligently pursued in China and Russia, which, to the extent they are successful, will commercialize it globally before the U.S. does.
The U.S. may yet have this regret to add to its regrets over its inability to develop nuclear power.
Economist and mathematician Michael Edesess is adjunct associate professor and visiting faculty at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, managing partner and special advisor at M1K LLC, and a research associate of the Edhec-Risk Institute. In 2007, he authored a book about the investment services industry titled The Big Investment Lie, published by Berrett-Koehler. His new book, The Three Simple Rules of Investing, co-authored with Kwok L. Tsui, Carol Fabbri and George Peacock, was published by Berrett-Koehler in June 2014.