Disingenious column in the Cap Times


You know those bright yellow signs that show up at the end of the semester on campus asking you if you want to make inordinate amounts of money while you SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT? The guy who runs the org (Wisconsin Environment) that plasters campus with those posters has a column in the Cap Times today telling us that:

…we must recognize that investing in new nuclear reactors would actually delay needed progress and divert critical investment dollars away from better solutions.

First of all, don’t take the bait on those posters. Working for Wisconsin Environment was neither profitable for me nor do I think it was helpful in successfully addressing the problems of climate change (I was desperate for a job). At the very least, it was sketchy…really sketchy.

His column appears to follow suit. He cites a study done by his org. to argue for  the radical conclusion that power plants are not part of the solution to creating sustainable sources of energy. In between are a host of disingenuous arguments and stats. Stuff like this just ruins the credibility of environmental non-profits in my eyes.

Any thoughts on the column Patrick?


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22 Responses to “Disingenious column in the Cap Times”

  1. Brenda Says:

    Not all non-profits are like that. I could show you several in town that do good work. But you’re right, not all.

  2. Stephen Says:

    Dear Author,

    I have no affiliation with Wisconsin Environment, nor do I know what work they do. Still, I feel someone must defend them here. If you are going to claim the organization is not “successfully addressing the problems of climate change,” call it “really sketchy,” and tell people not to support the organization (or whatever you mean by “don’t take the bait”), then you should at least back up what you say with some sort of evidence.

    I’m also confused where, in the column you link to, the author argues that “power plants are not part of the solution to creating sustainable sources of energy” (your words). Perhaps you meant to write “nuclear power plants”? One could argue any source of energy is a “power plant.”

    So since what you wrote doesn’t make sense, I’m going to assume you meant to say nuclear power plants and not all power plants.

    Let’s look again at what you said: Kohler “argue[s] for the radical conclusion that power plants are not part of the solution to creating sustainable sources of energy.”

    Poor word choice here. Nuclear is, by definition, not sustainable. Assuming no reprocessing and the constant rates of nuclear energy consumption, we’ve only got enough uranium to last <100 years (or around there.. I can't remember the last statistic but it's not long). Even with reprocessing it's still not sustainable.

    So clearly his conclusion is not radical. It's true, plain and simple. Even if you had written "low-carbon" instead of "sustainable," his conclusion is still far from radical. On top of being unsustainable, nuclear has four main problems: cost, safety, waste, and proliferation. Nuclear energy has become increasingly costly over the past few decades. There's a reason the US has practically halted construction of nuclear plants and has added no additional nuclear power capacity since 1986 . And it does, as the author states, take 10 years to build a plant. 10 years. Considering nuclear plants are very expensive and won't produce low-carbon energy for 10 years, constructing a plant entails quite the opportunity cost (as Kohler argues). Safety is obviously an issue since nuclear power plants can, put crudely, blow up (and they have, e.g., Chernobyl). We also don't know where we are going to store all the waste. It seems Yucca Mountain is closed for business and we still don't have enough room to safely store waste from increased production over the next decades. Lastly, nuclear (esp. with reprocessing of the fuel) runs the risk of profileration.

    I've basically just rehashed what Kohler wrote in his column. I did so to emphasize that, contrary to what you stated, his conclusion is not radical and his arguments are not disingenuous. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to support his view.

    So, how exactly does his column "ruin the credibility of environmental non-profits"? Why does it make you not trust them? Why all environmental non-profits and not just Environment Wisconsin?

    I would love an explanation.

    • Alec S Says:

      Hey Stephen,
      You seem to spend a lot of time caught up on the exact words I used. I guess I could have been more precise with my word choice. But, then again, this is a blog and you did understand what I was saying anyway.

      In any event, to get to the actual substance of what you seem to be touching on, here are a couple of reasons Wisconsin Environment is sketchy. At the time I worked there the purpose of the org was to push the state to reduce GHG emissions. But, they were renting 4-5 vehicles everyday to transport employees to Milwaukee to canvass houses for 2-3 hrs. when there was already a branch of the org in Milwaukee which could have done so, and which was simultaneously driving to Madison to canvass State Street. Furthermore, the canvassers were informed that if the people they talked to did not seem predisposed to give money to the org, the canvasser was to immediately end the conversation, regardless of whether the person had questions about the issue or was relying on false assumptions to form their conclusions on the issue of climate change. I could go on and on with these types of stories. Does that really sound like an org attempting to accomplish their professed mission?

      In regards to the column by Dan Kohler, it is my understanding that the issue of climate change is one that has a time line greater than 10 years. It is my further understanding that the sources of energy Kohler advocates for will simply not come anywhere close to meeting the energy needs of the United States. So, he is framing the issue of finding cleaner sources of energy to replace the destructive forms we currently have in what I see as a dishonest way. But, its supposed to be his issue. These types of orgs are supposed to be the ones telling us what we should be doing to address the problem most effectively, not leading us down an unrealistic path. That is why I don’t trust Wisconsin Environment.

      Clearly, it is a bit of a leap from that org to all orgs, and certainly it doesn’t hold universally. But, thinking generally I have seen this type of unbridled advocacy come from too many environmental orgs who are dealing with some of the most important issues our generation is going to face.

      • Stephen Says:


        Great points. You bring up some useful critiques of the environmental non-profit community. I am currently reading Ted Nordhaus’ and Michael Shellenberger’s book “Break Through”; it may interest you.

        As a reader of this blog, I would have appreciated you simply saying everything you said above in your original blog post. It would have left much less room for confusion and reflected better on the blog. It’s not my blog, but I think the Sconz would be better served by providing at least some rationale whenever it makes strong statements.


  3. Patrick Says:

    Read the Cap Times nuclear articles (there was also a pro-nuclear column from the President of the NEI) a few days ago, but have been a bit behind on my blog reading, so I didn’t get around to this until now. I’ll offer some thoughts on the Cap Times article and respond to the above commenter when I get back from the Champs Sports Bowl in a couple of days.

    All I’m going to say for now is that with the exception of one qualifier I think needed to added about nuclear waste, Kohler doesn’t make any real factual errors. He does cite a study done by his own organization, which is probably incredibly biased, but not technically incorrect.

    Stephen Collins on the other hand makes a number of very bad factual errors. I’ll go through and correct them all later, but I just really feel a need to point out that nuclear reactors don’t “blow up.” They can meltdown, like Chernobyl did, but they don’t blow up. And if some part of them did blow up it would be a chemical explosion not a nuclear one. There is 0 chance of a reactor turning into an atomic bomb. The physics are impossible.

    Also, just because it’s one of my favorite arguments to make of all time, if you oppose nuclear power because of Chernobyl, any consistent person would also oppose building dams across rivers for hydroelectric, just look at the hundreds of thousands who have died in China from broken dams.

  4. Stephen Says:

    OK, I said blow up (note I wrote “put crudely”) instead of melt down– it’s the same general problem (i.e., they can malfunction and harm humans). Also, no one has argued that we should oppose nuclear power solely because it can melt down. it’s just one of the four main problematic aspects of nuclear power.

    I look forward to reading whatever “very bad factual errors” I made. Also look forward to Patrick answering the questions I asked at the bottom of my first comment.

    • Patrick Says:

      I’m assuming by “questions I asked at the bottom of my first comment” you mean when you said “So, how exactly does his column “ruin the credibility of environmental non-profits”? Why does it make you not trust them? Why all environmental non-profits and not just Environment Wisconsin?” and that you actually wanted Alec to respond (as he did above) and not me.

  5. Stephen Says:

    One last thing for tonight:
    I don’t think ‘blow up’ is too misleading of a term considering what happened from Chernobyl….

    from Wikipedia (yes, wikipedia…)

    On 26 April 1986 at 1:23 a.m., reactor 4 suffered a massive, catastrophic power excursion (the chain reaction grew out of control, similar to the initial stage in the detonation of a nuclear weapon). This caused a steam explosion, followed by a second (chemical, not nuclear) explosion from the ignition of generated hydrogen mixed with air, which tore the top from the reactor and its building, and exposed the reactor core. This dispersed large amounts of radioactive particulate and gaseous debris containing cesium-137 and strontium-90 which are highly radioactive reactor waste products.[7] The open core also allowed air (oxygen) to contact the super-hot core containing 1,700 tonnes[8] of combustible graphite moderator. The burning graphite moderator increased the emission of radioactive particles, carried by the smoke. The reactor was not contained by any kind of hard containment vessel (unlike most Western plants, Soviet reactors often did not have them).[9] Radioactive particles were carried by wind across international borders.

    Note the power excursion caused an explosion. You know, like blowing up, in the colloquial sense. I’m not a physical sciences, so I conflated the two terms. The argument still stands.

    • Patrick Says:

      Two responses-

      First, while explosions can happen at nuclear power plants, because of the difference between an internal explosion caused by steam at pressures higher than the design specs of the reactor and a nuclear bomb the words used to talk about these explosions are incredibly important. I would argue that the exact phrase that you used “nuclear power plants can, put crudely, blow up” would lead the average reader to think nuclear bomb explosion rather than steam explosion. The incredibly difference between these two possible meanings merits an especially careful choice of words.

      Secondly, I don’t consider any argument about nuclear power that references Chernobyl a serious one. According to this study (http://scitizen.com/stories/Future-Energies/2008/04/The-Costs-of-Major-Energy-Accidents-1907-to-2007/) hydroelectric energy is responsible for 94% of all energy related deaths from 1907 to 2007. That’s because 171,000 people were killed when the Shimantan Dam failed in China in 1975. If Chernobyl is a reason to oppose US nuclear power than why is the Shimantan Dam accident not a reason to oppose US hydroelectric power?

      An smart response might be that it was decades ago in a foreign country with different regulations and safety standards and being run by a communist government that had little regard for the health and safety of its citizens as evidences by the millions of them that it systematically murdered. If you said this, I would say “Exactly.”

      Also, we could start to discuss the design specifications of the Chernobyl and how they compare to US reactors. US reactors all have containment structures, are not graphite moderated and have negative, rather than positive void coefficients.

      • Stephen Says:

        Bottom line remains: safety is an issue. It’s also the least important issue–the least important of four main issues. Those four issues comibined make nuclear problematic, not safety alone.

        Arguing that safety is an issue for hydroelectric doesn’t make it a nonissue for nuclear… I’m failing to see the logic here.

  6. Stephen Says:

    I want to clarify one statistic I cited. I wrote: “Assuming no reprocessing and the constant rates of nuclear energy consumption, we’ve only got enough uranium to last <100 years (or around there.. I can't remember the last statistic but it's not long."

    When I wrote this I was thinking of two statistics:
    1) The IAEA found that we have 85 years of 2004 world nuclear electricity generation with identified uranium resources. (To be fair, the IAEA also estimates that, assuming certain technological developments and with reprocessing, we may have enough resources to power nuclear energy for well over a thousand years… this also assumes 2004 rates of generation)
    2) The OECD estimates we would use about 14.9 MT of uranium assuming 2% growth in uranium demand … while we have 11.3 MT of identified uranium.

    However, we have about 23.0 MT of total (identified and undiscovered) uranium.. so it seems we'll easily have enough uranium to power us for longer than 100 years.

    Point remains we have a limited amount of nuclear resources, i.e., like coal, natural gas, and oil, nuclear ain't sustainable in the long-term.

    But hey, who knows.. maybe we'll see some technological breakthroughs and we'll figure out how to reprocess the fuel without greatly increasing the risk of proliferation.

    • Patrick Says:

      I think any discussion of the total uranium reserves is rather irrelevant to a debate about building new nuclear power plants. I’m not going to dispute any of your numbers as they are similar to everything I have heard.

      First of all, as long as we can agree that we have more than say 70 years of uranium reserves, we have enough uranium to power a new nuclear reactor for its lifetime, assuming a 10 year build time and a 60 year operational lifetime.

      Secondly, as long as we can agree that this time frame is on the order of 100 years away, attempting to predict what our energy future will be like then is near impossible. Nuclear fission wasn’t even discovered until 1938, just over 60 years ago. It’s not unreasonable to believe that there will be technologies discovered before then that will make this entire discussion irrelevant.

      Thirdly, there is a very good chance that at least some of these new technologies will be nuclear energy of some kind. I think either thorium fueled fission reactors (http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com) or some kind of fusion reactors are real possibilities for commercial energy sources within the next 100 or so years. With this in mind, it makes sense that we keep nuclear scientists and engineers around to take advantage of these future possibilities and what better way to fund their education and training than by having them do something productive, like generate electricity.

      • Stephen Says:

        “I think any discussion of the total uranium reserves is rather irrelevant to a debate about building new nuclear power plants.”

        I agree. I was just clarifying a statistic that I used to show that nuclear is, by definition, unsustainable.

  7. Patrick Says:

    I’m going to attempt to divide my responses to Stephen C. into two sections. First factual errors or misrepresentations of fact, that need to be corrected rather than argued over and then secondly responding to his arguments that while not technically incorrect, still need to be responded to.

    Nuclear energy has become increasingly costly over the past few decades.”

    I’m not really sure where you are pulling this from, especially considering no new nuclear power plants have started construction since the 1970’s. Secondly, there were so many cost overruns on the plants build in the 70’s (something so often cited by anti-nuclear advocates) I can assure you this isn’t true even without looking up some exact numbers (which I believe will be suspect no matter what the source). Thirdly, many of the price increases have come from increasing prices of construction materials like steel and concrete. Since almost every power producing technology from nuclear to wind to coal use many of the same materials, this is at best a misrepresentation of the truth.

    There’s a reason the US has practically halted construction of nuclear plants and has added no additional nuclear power capacity since 1986.

    The US has added an incredible amount of nuclear capacity since 1986. There were multiple reactors that completed construction since 1986, most recently Watts Bar 1 went online for the first time in 1996 (Watts Bar 2 is being finished up as we speak). Secondly, many of the reactors have undergone huge capacity upratings, resulting in the same increase in nuclear generation capacity as adding several dozen new reactors. Thirdly, the capacity factor (percentage of potential electricity generation that is actually generated) has increases dramatically since then increasing 56% in 1980 to a US fleet average of over 90% today. While we haven’t start construction on any new plants since 1986, the electricity generated in the US by nuclear power plants has increased dramatically.

    See http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/page/analysis/nuclearpower.html for some more numbers.

    Safety is obviously an issue since nuclear power plants can, put crudely, blow up (and they have, e.g., Chernobyl).

    I addressed this earlier and will also respond under your Chernobyl comments above.

    We also don’t know where we are going to store all the waste. It seems Yucca Mountain is closed for business and we still don’t have enough room to safely store waste from increased production over the next decades.

    First of all this is a political issue, not an inherent problem with nuclear energy. Secondly, without diverging too much into arguing over spent fuel storage, the idea that we are not currently storing spent fuel safely is factually incorrect or at minimum a gross misrepresentation of the truth. While the nuclear industry does certainly not have an accident free history, I can’t think of nor can I turn up through a couple minutes of research any examples of accidents from the storage of commercial spent nuclear fuel in the US. Current dry cask storage and wet pool storage on site at nuclear power plants safely stores spent nuclear fuel, can be expanded to accommodate new spent fuel and are certified to be safe by the NRC to be safe for at least 30-years beyond the lifetime of the power plant.

    The question is not safety, it is longevity. The problem is not what will happen in the next several decades, but what happens in hundreds of years. Or in thousands of years if the human race is wiped out and the Earth becomes populated with primitive intelligent beings who can’t read any of our current languages (I’m not joking about that last point, there are really people who are concerned about such things.)

    Lastly, nuclear (esp. with reprocessing of the fuel) runs the risk of profileration.

    So maybe you are referencing the Eric Schmidt / Iran argument here that US nuclear power plants provide legitimacy for any country around the world to develop nuclear power and nuclear weapons. If so, unless you have a plan to replace current US nuclear electricity generating capacity with something and can find a way to convince France and China to do the same, this argument is irrelevant.

    However, based on your concern for fuel reprocessing, I’m guessing you mean some kind of concern over nuclear technology or materials being stolen or given away. This is an often repeated line by anti-nuclear groups, but it doesn’t have much basis in any sort of reality.

    First, with regards to reprocessing, there are basically 3 stages the spent fuel takes during reprocessing.

    1. The ceramic material that is the form the uranium is in as it is removed from the reactor core. Since you would need to essential reprocess and enrich the fuel before using it in anything, it would be much easier to just wait till the fuel has been reprocessed or just mine uranium out of the ground. It also is highly radioactive at this point.

    2. Dissolved in boiling super-concentrated nitric acid. The main problem with stealing nuclear materials here is that they are dissolved in boiling super-concentrated nitric acid. Uranium mined from the ground is much easier to find and safer to handle.

    3. As fabricated fuel read to be put back in a reactor. You’re still going to have to reprocess it and enrich it. While it does contain some plutonium, it’s still easier to just enrich natural uranium.

    There is a reason that every country that possesses nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT (Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, India, and formerly South Africa) acquired nuclear weapons either with help from a country that already had them (France and China) or through enriching their own uranium. There is no evidence of any of these countries even attempting to acquire weapons through stealing plutonium from fuel reprocessing. Building a nuclear weapon is very, very, very difficult, if you don’t have the technology and technical expertise to enrich your own uranium or build a working reactor to make your own plutonium, you have 0 chance of being able to build or maintain a working weapon (even if China give you their designs).

    If the history of nuclear proliferation interests you, I’d be happy to loan you my copy of “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation” by Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman. It’s an incredibly interesting read and doesn’t require any kind of technical background.

  8. Stephen Says:

    Maybe I should have wrote “net nuclear capacity” to be more clear.

    Almost all the facts I cited are from a class I took this semester at the Nelson Institute. I just uploaded the slides on nuclear power. You can find them here: https://mywebspace.wisc.edu/sccollins/809_F09_L14.pdf?uniq=yrbyp0

    Patrick, I’m not going to bother correcting your many “corrections” .. just look at the slides. If you think the slides contain factual errors please contact the professor.

    I also borrowed much of what I originally wrote from that lecture.

    As for fuel reprocessing and nuclear proliferation… I was thinking to the basic conclusions from the MIT study (cited at the end of the slides linked to above). The study is here: http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/

    Also, no one here has suggested that, as you wrote, “we are not currently storing spent fuel safely.” I, however, did write that “we still don’t have enough room to safely store waste from increased production over the next decades.” I stand by that. The problem is having enough space to safely store fuel from future–not current–production.

    • Stephen Says:

      if those who are interested can’t access the slides, send me your email address and I’ll email them to you.

    • Patrick Says:

      I don’t get how net nuclear capacity makes a difference. We’ve been adding nuclear capacity in just about every way since 1986 except starting construction on new plants.

      If you want to play the “my professor said this” card, that’s fine. I’m not going to bother responding to what you’re professor said. And for what it’s worth, there are plenty of professors who disagree, including the Nelson Institute’s Energy Analysis and Policy Program Chair.

      It’s also interesting that you cite that MIT study, because you might want to reread it. While it does group the problems with nuclear power into the same 4 categories that you do, it reaches very different conclusions about whether or not those problems are solvable and whether or not we should ultimately pursue nuclear power.

      I don’t get the future/current distinction for nuclear fuel storage. The volume of nuclear fuel used is incredibly small. If current storage technology is adequate, why can’t it continue to be used? Sure we might have to build some more of it, but I don’t see how that is a problem.

      • Stephen Says:

        Patrick: Listen, it’s not that “my professor said this,” it’s that there are various sources cited in the slides that I didn’t feel bothered to find on the internet. The facts I cited aren’t a matter of opinion.. so I’m not sure what there is to disagree with. If you can’t be bothered to click on the link I sent you, then I can go find the soures. But please, save us both some time and click on the link. It’s just a pdf with a bunch of graphs. I can also email it to you. My email address is sccollins@wisc.edu

        About capacity, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fig_9-2_Nuclear_Power_Plant_Operations.jpg and look at the graph in the bottom left-hand corner. (This statistic was rather easy to find on the web.) Maybe you have some other type of capacity in mind? I’m a bit perplexed.

        As for storage, it’s a problem in the long-term and exacerbated with increased nuclear energy production. I realize the MIT report was generally pro nuclear, but it did say that reprocessing fuel increases the chances of proliferation… which is what I said.

        I’m personally not anti-nuclear; I do however think it has some genuine problems and that Kohler from WI Environment offered some legitimate problems in his op-ed.

        If you want to continue this conversation, let’s do it via email. It’s probably getting a little too lengthy and in depth for the comment sections of a blog.

  9. Patrick Says:

    Lastly, I promised some commentary on the original Cap Times editorial. As much as I hate to be that guy who says go read my thoughts on my blog, my winter break project has been working on a a blog focused on commenting on exactly this sort of thing, so I’m going to do exactly that.


  10. Carol Says:

    Hi Alec. I am grateful for the canvasing story.

    Without going into the gory details, I’ve experienced some things in sales and in public service work that remind me of that work… Certainly when you proclaim to be a non-profit in service to X, you gotta be consistent to X in all practices.

    So since you are or have been very into energy, I wonder if you would not mind visiting my little shallow piece on the climate legislation of WI? This will go to the WI legislative floor sometime this month. Here’s my post: http://carolsenergynotes.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/a-new-year-wisconsin-climate-change-legislation-in-2010/

    And there’s a different schwing on it here at the Express:


  11. Carol Says:

    Oh and I wanted to say – like the blog and enjoyed the dialog on nukes here – though admit I lost enthusiasm about half way through :^)

    Regarding nuclear: I do believe we are in a race to save the planet. I go with Dr. James Hansen who I heard in Milwaukee. He advocated #1-energy efficiency, #2 Renewables as courses of action. If we go with nuclear, are we going to have enough fuel secured? I see articles like this one that make me wonder: http://peakoil.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=53031
    There is also that issue of geo-politics. If uranium wars replace oil wars, we’re just as screwed.

    And in a post-911 world, isn’t this another &*^%$ security issue? Whatever the solution, it must operate on a smart grid principle. If I blow up 1 piece of it, the rest must stay strong. Large power plants are weak on that mark and they keep utilities strong. A smart grid and a galaxy of small power stations are not only safer but they are democratizing agents. All the hyper-independent gun-nuts in America can keep their revolvers, IMO, if they are free to operate a renewable energy device with the other and plow those electrons on the grid. I am sure I can condense that into a bumper sticker if I put my mind to it!

    Found you through Brenda Konkel’s links FYI


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