Alexander DeVolpi versus Amory Lovins: Part II

Alexander DeVolpi has offered a serious critique of Amory Lovins that That i believe accurately raises questions about Mr. Lovins’ authority. DeVolpi, points out that

Because Lovins renders no substantive academic or acquired nuclear credentials, the analyses he presents ought to be held to a strict standard of scientific credibility, such as that described by the Daubert U.S. Supreme Court decision. . . . This is in lieu of granting him interim benefit of doubt, a courtesy often extended to individuals who have an established scientific reputation . . . In other words, I would advise treating Lovins’ renderings on nuclear issues with healthy, but not dismissive skepticism. His presentation and publications should be judged by standard scientific criteria, no more, no less.

Next Dr. DeVolpi points to Lovins’ scanty educational credentials and his lack of the sort of experience that would qualify him as an expert on nuclear matters.

Although Lovins seems to have completed some courses in experimental physics at Oxford University in England, he lacks any laboratory experience in nuclear physics or engineering. His vetted degree credentials are vague enough to induce caution, caveat emptor. Such a shortcoming has not prevented him from writing numerous articles, giving many briefings, and speaking frequently about nuclear technical policy. . . . Lovins has been a widely praised proponent of the so-called “soft-energy path,” as well has having been an habitual and readily available critic of nuclear energy.

. . . expertise alleged should not be considered credible simply because of personal experience, widely publicized image, or self-declared credibility — which can be crafted as concatenating substitutes for substantive technical analysis and publication. The individual being challenged should follow the same established guidelines for scientific analysis and peer-reviewed publication as the rest of us have during our professional careers.

Having offered this preamble to the question of Lovins’ authority, DeVolpi proceeded to examine Lovins’ method of presentation of “what appeared to be an informative but complex analysis . . .”. DeVolpi thus offers a phenological approach to Lovins presentation by placing it into brackets, which examines what it appears to be at first in light of the accepted standards of scientific evidence which DeVolpi has suggested we apply to expert testimony. DeVolpi noted Lovins use of “extremely busy tables and graphs” which he found “difficult to sort through”, and then suggested

his extrapolation from laboratory model to production product is unrealistic, being deficient in practical marketplace engineering. Faulty reasoning and extrapolation often reflect a lack of hands-on construction experience. Lovins did not put into evidence anything he actually built or was responsible for constructing, other than a viewgraph of a fancy banana greenhouse situated on his Aspen, Colorado, property.

The last comment is downright funny, because Lovins allegedly unheated Aspen greenhouse in which he grows bananas, is very much a part of the Lovins mystique. The greenhouse itself plays on role in establishing Lovins expertise, or the truthfulness of the case he presents.

DeVolpe noted that Lovins’ presentation

more of an evangelical tirade against nuclear power, rather than a systematic case for balanced and alternative energy sources. A key indicator of stridency is the absence of explicit statistical characterization; Lovins presents almost everything in terms of absolutes, without conceding a range of uncertainty.

DeVolpi found an absence of a probabilistic perspective not only in Lovins’ oral presentation but in his papers

Take a look at his papers and try to find any treatment or awareness of statistical uncertainty. What’s notably odd is that doubt/uncertainty is part of the natural order of things; to avoid recognizing it, especially in a paper about technical issues, is quite unnatural and unusual, and more indicative of proselytization for a cause.

Thus Amory Lovins’ presentations are

more of an evangelical tirade against nuclear power, rather than a systematic case for balanced and alternative energy sources.

DeVolpi subjects Lovins work to two related tests, those of “smell” and “ripeness”. The smell test is designed to determine “legitimacy” or “authenticity”. while the ripeness looks at “maturity”, or “development”.

DeVolpi notes that during a visit to Argonne National Laboratory 30 years ago Lovins called for a shutdown of all nuclear power plants. At that time almost no electricity in Illinois was produced by reactors, at the beginning of 2009 that figure had increased to between 70% and 80& of Illinois electricity being generated by reactors. DeVolpi observed

here’s a situation that has ripened enough for comparing actual outcomes with his original counsel. . . . If Lovins had his way 30 years ago, I would be paying . . . (for) coal-produced electric power. On the basis of cost, or feasibility, or environmental benefit, electric-power utilities and the state regulators would have been ill-advised if they adopted his anti-nuclear advice (at least in Illinois).

Nuclear power is not only commercially competitive, but extremely safe (no coal miners dying), no air pollution at all, no greenhouse gas emissions (such as carbon-dioxide). Nuclear-plant lifetime is being doubled from 30 to 60 years (which utilities, investors, and ratepayers appreciate). If Lovins had his way 30 years ago, considerably more particulates and gases would have been vented to the local and regional atmosphere from coal-fired plants (aside from the greenhouse gases emitted).

Moreover, if Lovins had his way, we would not have conserved the electricity-equivalent in domestic coal, imported and domestic oil, and domestic and imported natural-gas resources and reserves that we have for 30 years. A typical nuclear power plant each year avoids consumption of 3.4 million short tons of coal, or 65.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas, or 14 billion barrels of oil. (The United States has ample uranium resources.) So Lovins was wrong in implying that nuclear had no overriding societal or environmental benefits.

DeVolpi focuses on Lovins claims about nuclear costs:

Lovins displayed complex viewgraphs that, he purports, show that nuclear is the costliest of “low-or-no-carbon resources.” Yet, in the last 30 years, nuclear has displaced half the fossil-fuel combustion in Illinois while still being competitive. Inasmuch as nuclear-power plants emit no byproduct carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere, surely his claim that it is the costliest of low-carbon-emission sources fails the smell test.

Most of Lovins’ pricing and cost/benefit comparisons are based on “new delivered electricity” which frames the cost of U.S. domestic nuclear construction in the least favorable light.

He declares nuclear power an economic failure. Can someone explain that to my bank account which has benefited from compounding competitive electric power savings for the past 30 years? His rimy claim certainly fails the ripeness test.

DeVolpi then challenges Lovins’ claims about nuclear reliability.

On the issue of electrical-grid reliability, Lovins asserts that there is no such thing as a “outage-free” source of electrical power. He must think that nuclear power runs by government fiat. Nuclear is a fixture on the grid because it is more economical to operate as base-load supply, while sources less reliable, intermittent, and more costly (such as wind, solar, and gas) provide supplementary power. During the past 30 years in Illinois, I don’t recall having the electricity supply and cost problems that California has had after it prohibited nuclear-power plants from being
built within its borders. By the way, average U.S. nuclear capacity factor was about 92% in 2007. That’s excellent. Lovins pitiful effort to undermine the reliability of nuclear power egregiously fails the smell test.

DeVolpi examined Lovins account of nuclear power and finds that Lovins

chronically demonizes it on the grounds of the proliferation risk

opposes subsidies for nuclear power but favors them for renewables

Calls nuclear power a failure despite the reliable production of power at competitive rates

Opposes the construction of new nukes in the United States because of proliferation risks, even though new nukes are being built in other countries.

Argues that nuclear power is anti-democratic

called attention to Lovins 1980 statement in Foreign Policy that

the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing

for nuclear power is … the main driving force behind proliferation…

(nuclear power) retards oil displacement by the faster, cheaper and more attractive means which new developments in energy policy now make available to all countries…

DeVolpi next points to a 1980 article which the science journal Nature published. In this article Lovins, who was after all an undergraduate physics drop-out from Harvard (twice) and Oxford posed as an expert on plutonium weapons. Lovins concluded in the Nature article that

…It is therefore incorrect to state categorically that bombs made from reactor-grade or deliberately ‘denatured’ Pu are less effective, less powerful, or less reliable than those made from weapons-grade Pu.

DeVolpi was expert enough in nuclear weapons design to qualify as an expert witness on weapons design in the famous Progressive case and who had stood up to an Energy Department’s attempt to intimidate him into silence about his “politically incorrect” views on “reactor grade plutonium” and nuclear proliferation gives short shift to Lovins “expert” information. De Volpi responded to Lovins

While Lovins convinced the editors and reviewers of Nature that a neophyte had figured out nuclear weaponry enough to become an publishable expert, his inverted conclusion is not supported by theoretical or anecdotal evidence . . .

Lovins further concluded

The foregoing argument also implies that power reactors are not an implausible but are rather potentially a peculiarly convenient type of large-scale military Pu production reactor….

DeVolpi remarked

Coming from a neophyte who might never have seen the inside of any of those reactors, it reflects a hoary belief system that was as untenable then as now. Just show me a civilian power reactor that has been used to make military plutonium. This published proposition of his fails the ripeness test in 2009, just as it failed the smell test back in 1980.

Lovins added

In short, the somewhat greater technical difficulty of using power-reactor Pu for effective military bombs — assuming the reactor is actually operated at high fuel burn-up — may be more than counterbalanced by the greater political and economic ease of obtaining that Pu. It should not be lightly disdained in favour of purer material from dedicated facilities.

DeVolpi scoffed

This pitiful conclusion is the foundation of Lovins’ nuclear-proliferation belief system. It too, long ago, failed both the smell and ripeness tests. Incidentally, note the absence of measures of incertitude in this so-called technical paper.

DeVolpi asks

The Nuclear Illusion or the Nuclear Illusionist?

as he “fisks” Lovins 2008 paper “The Nuclear Illusion”. Lovins once again is allowed to go beyond a credible interpretation of evidence, ignoring the constraints of uncertainty.

Dr. DeVolpi in his Knols, exhibits outstanding and sophisticated critical skills. The DeVolpi Knols deserve far wider recognition than they have received to date. They are significant contributions to public discussion on many issues related to future use of nuclear energy in our society. In addition, the DeVolpi Knols are important examples of the sort of critical thinking that ought to be encouraged in the class room. DeVolpi’s Knol on Amory Lovins ought to be read by any journalist, scholar, or politician who is considering using Lovins as a source.

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