Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Posts Tagged ‘anti-nuclear movement

Lovins and Caldicott: Hypercars and Hyperbole

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Rod Adams over at Atomic Insights recently considered an interesting question – Who is more dangerous, Amory Lovins or Helen Caldicott? An interesting question.

Adams says that “Caldicott energizes and adds emotional fervor for people who have little understanding of the way the world work; Lovins gets entry into board rooms and government conference rooms where real money gets moved around.”

I think this statement is absolutely true. Whilst Helen Caldicott’s claims about nuclear power absolutely infuriate and annoys me, as well as many other people who look favourably upon nuclear energy because they’ve looked at it in a rational, sensible way, informed about the science and the technology, I think that Dr. Caldicott isn’t as dangerous, fortunately, as you may think.

I have spoken with people who are vehemently anti nuclear energy, and they’ve told me that they they cannot take Caldicott seriously, and that the anti-nuclear movement, at least that part of it which is somewhat rational, would be a lot better off without Caldicott as one of the high-profile public faces of this movement.

First and foremost, many regard Lovins as something of a shill for American corporations – Although there’s a lot of negative things we can say about Caldicott, nobody ever accused her of being a “shill”.

“Our thesis rests on a different perception. Our attempt to rethink focuses not on marginal reforms but on basic assumptions. In fact, the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing……For fundamental reasons which we shall describe, nuclear power is not commercially viable, and questions of how to regulate an inexorably expanding world nuclear regime are moot.”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

“De facto moratoria on reactor ordering exist today in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, and probably the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Canada.

Nuclear power has been indefinitely deferred or abandoned in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Iran, China, Australia and New Zealand…”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

The fact is, in 1980, Lovins got it wrong.

Scientists, sometimes, get it wrong. Carl Sagan, when he claimed that oil fires during the Gulf War would induce a worldwide ecological catastrophe, akin to a “nuclear winter”, got it wrong. When Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki claimed that CCS and geosequestration of Australia’s CO2 emissions from energy generation would require the sequestration of one cubic kilometer of carbon dioxide a day, and is absolutely unfeasable, he got it wrong. If somebody asked Lovins about his 1980 publication, he will most likely admit that he got it wrong.

However, I’m fairly confident that Amory Lovins knows that tritiated water is not H3O, and he knows the difference between the neutron-absorbing control rods and the moderator of a nuclear reactor.

In 1976 Amory Lovins coined the term “soft path” to describe an alternative future where efficiency and appropriate renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.

The “hard energy path”, as described by Lovins, with which the “soft path” contrasts is based on the assumption that the more energy we use the better off we are. It involves inefficient liquid-fuel automotive transport, as well as giant, centralized electricity-generating facilities, burning fossil fuels or harnessing nuclear fission. The hard path is not simply a matter of energy sources, though, because it is greatly augmented and complicated by wastage and loss of electricity and other common, directly usable forms of energy.

The “soft energy path” assumes that energy is but a means to social ends, and is not an end in itself. Soft energy paths involve efficient use of energy, diversity of energy production methods (matched in scale and quality to end uses), and special reliance on co-generation and “soft technologies” such as solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, etc.

Now, quoth the good Dr. Caldicott:

“Nuclear power is often referred to behind closed doors in the U.S. Department of Energy as “hard” energy whereas wind power, solar power, hydropower, and geothermal energy are referred to as “soft” energy pathways.

Clearly the same psychosexual language used by the Pentagon generals to describe various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear war has been translocated into the nuclear power vocabulary of some very powerful and influential men in the electricity generating field.”

I’ve heard that Lovins used to talk about the risks of nuclear proliferation as a key argument against the use of nuclear energy, however, I haven’t read these particular arguments – unfortunately, I haven’t yet read any of Lovins’s books.

“If you go to the December 2005 issue of Nuclear Engineering International, you’ll find a paper called `Mighty Mice’ that summarizes an economic analysis. What that analysis shows from the best empirical data available last year, is if you spent 10 cents (U.S.) to make and deliver a new nuclear kilowatt-hour — notice I said deliver, so that’s at your meter — you can displace 1 kilowatt-hour of coal power. That’s what Patrick is talking about. And it might seem like a good idea until you look at the competitors.”

“Given the relative cost and financial risk of Canadian or U.S. nuclear, you have to have a very restrictive set of options or strange idea of economics to conclude a nuclear plant makes any sense. So I don’t know how they could have reached that conclusion, unless it’s ideological or designed just to support the nuclear industry.”

Today, from my reading, for the most part, Lovins never seems to say that nuclear energy is bad. Lovins does not rant on about waste, meltdowns, proliferation, terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, or anything of the sort that Caldicott does.

Lovins just says that conservation, distributed generation, solar, wind and so forth can do a better, cheaper, job of meeting our energy needs in a clean way.

I support the clean, “soft” technologies promoted by Lovins, and I think that there’s certainly a place for them in the energy mix of the future. But I do not believe that it would be easier or cheaper for these energy systems to meet all our energy needs than it would be for nuclear energy to be a key contributor in an energy mix that will meet all our energy needs.

Even Lovins’s HyperHouse uses a little bit of electricity off the grid, and a little bit of fossil fuel. We can have a world completely free of the need to burn fossil fuels, and this should be the number one aim.

Whilst Lovins does have real influence in the boardrooms of industry and commerce and the halls of government, and this is a potential dangerous mixture, if Lovins is pushing flawed science, or no science at all. However, from my knowledge of Lovins, he, at the very least, knows how to use the Scientific Method. I’ll give him the benefit of my finite reading and experience and reading of Lovins’s works, and say this: Dr. Lovins is a scientist. A shill, perhaps, but a scientist none the less. Caldicott is no shill, but no scientist, no way, and never was.

Now, I’d buy a hydrogen Hypercar. I’d love a hydrogen Hypercar. I first got excited about hydrogen hypercars when I read an article about the design, engineering and electronics that went into General Motors’s HyWire, actually. (OK, it’s not the genuine Lovins HyperCar, but let’s expand the definition to include all modern designs for advanced Hydrogen-powered wheels.) Whilst I’d be quite happy to see the hydrogen produced from solar energy, or wind energy, or from clever hydrogen-producing algae, I’d be equally as happy, more happy in fact, to see the hydrogen produced from the cleanest large-scale energy system we have proven at the moment – and that is nuclear energy.

The following is taken from the visitor’s guide to Lovins’s Snowmass HyperHouse:

“Above the decking is a three-eighths-of-an-inch (1-cm) base layer of Freon-filled polyurethane foam; a polyethylene vapor barrier sealed at its edges to the wall insulation; and, depending on location, another four to eight inches (10–20 cm) of polyurethane.”

Freon!? My goodness! Won’t somebody please think of the atmosphere!

I wonder how much Potassium-40 is being consumed each year from Lovins’s HyperBanana crops, anyway?

Anyway, in conclusion: Amory Lovins is the “more dangerous”, probably, of the two. Shilling for industry is nothing to be proud of, if Lovins is somewhat guilty of that, but it’s still Lovins who I have more respect for, of the two.

I’ll leave you with a quote from NNadir, who certainly has a few interesting things to say about Lovins – and a few interesting things to say about just about everything else.

“I measure time in billions of tons of carbon dioxide. People started investing in Amory Lovins’ ideas 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide ago.”