Pinker polymathic

The New York Times has a piece pushing the idea that nuclear power is the solution to our environmental problems. It’s familiar stuff, citing the French success in the 1970s, the promise of Gen IV and small modular reactors, and so on. Indeed, two of the authors had an almost identical piece in the Wall Street Journal in January. What’s most interesting is that the set of authors[1] this time includes Steven Pinker, who seems to be spreading his claims to expertise yet more broadly[2].

None of the authors has any training or expertise in economics, AFAICT. So, they make extreme claims such as that South Korea and China can build nuclear plants at one sixth the cost of the US. With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the 2GW Vogtle project in Georgia. That looks like coming in at about $20 billion or $10 billion/GW. Most estimates of Chinese costs are around $3.5 billion or one third of that – the most optimistic I’ve seen is $2 billion.

Moreover, it might have been worth mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power and China hasn’t started a new project in three years. In both cases, renewables have undercut even the lowest estimates of the costs of nuclear.

Also striking is a sudden shift in the argument about halfway through. The article begins reasonably enough, pointing out that the success of the French model in the 1970s depended critically on the large-scale deployment of a small number of standardised designs. (That wasn’t the only crucial feature, as I’ve pointed out before.) That contrasts sharply with the current situation where nearly every new plant is First Of A Kind, or close to. They point to US efforts to promote new nuclear power, including the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, recently passed through Congress by big margins (361 to 10 in the House, and a voice vote in the Senate).

Then suddenly, the article shifts gears, claiming that the crucial problem is irrational public fear of radiation, nuclear accidents and so forth. The obvious question to raise is: how does this supposed climate of fear manifest itself? Obviously not in a Congress, generally notable for bitter partisan division, where pro-nuclear legislation sails through with negligible opposition. Nor is there any evidence of significant resistance at the regulatory level, where numerous plants have had their licenses extended.

With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the two-reactor Vogtle project in Georgia. Googling for Vogtle protests, I found numerous links to protests from shareholders, customers and others concerned about the massive cost overruns of the project. But the only anti-nuclear protest I could find was back in 2011, and appeared to have no effect at all on the project.

The myth that nuclear power would roar ahead if only public fear could be overcome is comforting to nuclear fans. But the truth is that the technology is doomed by economics.


fn1. The only author with any relevant expertise is Staffan Qvist who works on Gen IV reactors and has previously written policy pieces with our own Barry Brook.

fn2. I also write on lots of different things. On the blog, I’m happy to state my views on all kinds of topics, as I would in ordinary conversation. But when I write for the general public, citing my professional affiliation, I try to stick to areas where I have some claim to expertise.

Return of Adani’s big yellow grader

Adani’s chief executive Lucas Dow is yet again claiming that the company is “ready to go” with the Carmichael mine, as soon as the government approves it. As usual, we get a picture of Adani’s fleet of heavy earthmoving equipment, consisting of one big yellow grader.

Adani’s $2 billion at work

At least the journalist visiting the site shows a bit of scepticism this time, noting that Dow’s claims that he could start today, made while standing next to a 5-metre wide strip of cleared scrub, require a bit of imagination.

Just for fun, I thought I’d work out how much of Adani’s supposed $2 billion budget is being spent on this piece of theatre. From what I can see, graders like the one in the picture can be hired for $1-2000 a day, which would give a total of at most $250 000 since the latest go-ahead was announced late last year. I imagine Lucas Dow could just about finance that out of his pocket, without needing to call on Mr Adani’s much greater resources.

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How Britain kicked coal

Despite the chaos of Brexit and the difficulty of expanding renewable generation in a country where sunshine is in notoriously short supply and there is strong resistance to wind turbines, Britain has just about ended its use of coal-fired electricity. The last coal-fired power stations are set to close by 2025, but the process is almost complete already. How was this achieved?

I found a useful graph from OFGEM, the British electricity regulator showing developments since 2006, when coal (graphed in orange) supplied around 40 per cent of UK electricity. By 2018, it’s negligible. The graph at the site is interactive, so you can easily get actual numbers.

It turns out that generation from gas and nuclear plants has been virtually constant over the period since 2006. These sources displaced substantial volumes of coal-fired power during the second half of the 20th century.

The elimination of coal has come from two main sources. First, total electricity use has declined, reflecting increased efficiency. Second, wind (offshore and onshore) has expanded to the point where it is now about as a big a source as nuclear.

I have some other thoughts about the UK case, but for now I’ll leave this open for comments.

Rights of Nature, but not natural rights ?

There’s an interesting article by Anna Grear in Aeon, criticising the idea that Nature should have human-style rights, and linking to the website of the Centre for Humans and Nature, which has lots more interesting discussion.

I’ve recently written a contribution to a forthcoming book by Tim Hollo, in which I take the opposite view. My central point is that corporations are routinely treated as persons for legal purposes, and that the effect is frequently harmful to Nature. There is in my view, no reason in principle, not to give legal standing to representatives of Nature, similar to that given to the representatives of social constructions like corporations. A lengthy extract over the fold.

If property rights are social constructions, what implications can we draw in relation to rights for Nature. On the one hand, we can rule out essentialist objections, along the lines that the concept of property rights cannot encompass rights for Nature.
There are, of course, practical issues that must be resolved. Neither Nature in general, nor particular species and ecosystems have the kind of agency required to exercise and defend property rights. Rather these property rights must be exercised by humans, bound by obligations to act in line with the interests of Nature, and these interests must also be defined by humans. There is nothing particularly unusual here. Our current system assigns property rights to infants, who are in exactly the same position.

The same is true of property rights assigned to more-or-less abstract collectivities such as BHP or ‘the people of Australia’. While the people represented by these collectivities may have a role in choosing their representatives, they must rely, most of the time on the fiduciary and constitutional responsibilities that bind these representatives.
On the other hand, having rejected the idea of ‘natural’ property rights for people, we must reject this idea for Nature also. Whether or not people (individually or collectively) have moral obligations to Nature, these obligations do not translate directly into property rights/

Rather, any assessment of property rights for Nature must ultimately be pragmatic. Would the creation of property rights for Nature serve to promote the achievement of fairer and more sustainable outcomes (bearing in mind that these terms will themselves be contested). Alternatively, would these goals be better served by an expansion of the current system in which the protection of the natural environment is part of the responsibility of governments, operated primarily through legislative and regulatory constraints on environmentally damaging activities?

The case of bankruptcy law provides an instance where there would appear to be at least a prima facie case for assigning property rights to Nature. There have been numerous instances where mining companies have done substantial environmental damage before declaring bankruptcy and passing the responsibility for any cleanup on to the public in general. In a few cases, such as that of Linc Energy, the damage has been such as to lead to criminal charges.

However, the protections of corporate and bankruptcy law mean that, even in cases like this, the costs fall on the public rather than on the directors and shareholders of the company. Linc was fined $4.5 million and the cleanup costs estimated at $72 million (Smee 2018). The CEO and main shareholder, Peter Bond, dismissed the fine as meaningless and stated that the company would not have to pay anything (McKenna 2018). As always under limited liability, Bond’s own liabilities were confined to the value of his shareholding, which was lost when the company went bankrupt.

An explicit assignment of property rights to Nature might have changed this. If environmental damage were regarded as constituting an unpaid debt to Nature, it might be possible to force a company like Linc into insolvency well before it ran out of cash. Moreover, the offence of trading while insolvent is more clearly established as a basis for prosecution than are the laws under which Linc and its directors are currently being pursued.

Similar problems have arisen in the United States, where mining companies have been permitted to engage in ‘self-bonding’ to cover the costs of reclaiming abandoned mine sites. That is, rather than posting a bond, the companies were allowed to promise to pay the costs of reclamation out of their own assets. As more and more companies (particularly coal miners) have gone bankrupt, governments have been left to pick up the bill. In West Virginia, more than 60 per cent of the future cleanup bill is associated with bankrupt companies.

The problem is made worse by the inadequate level at which bonds are set. In Kentucky, for example, forfeited bonds covered only half the estimated cost of reclamation.
The practice of self-bonding has come under increasing attack. In Wyoming, which has the largest open-cut mines in the United States, proposals are being put forward to limit self-bonding to firms with a strong credit rating and significant remaining production. In practice, very few coal companies are likely to meet the criteria.

This shift is welcome. However, the outcome is a long way from that which would arise if Nature had explicit property rights. In that case, the normal outcome would be that mine owners were required to pay compensation for damage to natural assets as that damage occurred, or even in advance, as is typically the case when mining activities impinge on the value of privately owned land and other assets.

The student strike and the social compact

Large numbers of school students have gone on strike today to protest about global inaction on climate change. This action has been met with a lot of huffing and puffing to the effect that students should stay in school and leave politics to adults.

Ideally, this would be the correct view. Part of the social compact of democracy is that the adult voting population should take account not only of their own interests but those of children who currently can’t vote and of future generations.

For those who have dependent children of their own, this isn’t a very demanding requirement. There’s no sharp distinction between your children’s interests and your own.

For older voters, the social compact is a bit more demanding. They cannot benefit directly from policies that make the world better for today’s and tomorrow’s children (a group that may or may not include their grandchildren). But they are morally obliged not to vote selfishly, taking advantage of the fact that they are enfranchised, while the young are not.

Sadly, the last few years have seen numerous instances where a majority of the old have violated this social compact. They have voted against the interests of the young out of a mixture of self-interest and cantankerous dislike of change, on climate change, Brexit and support for reactionary demagogues like Trump.

Having been let down by their elders, young people are fully justified in protesting against them, and ignoring their hypocritical expressions of concern about missing out on education.


Is Queensland different?

It seems to be taken for granted in political commentary, particularly on the political right, that the Liberal and National Parties face a geographical problem in which pro-coal policies are an electoral loser in wealthy city seats in Sydney and Melbourne, but a winner in Queensland, and particularly in regional Queensland. The key issues are the proposed Adani coal mine and the idea of a publicly-funded coal-fired power station.

No one seems to have mentioned an obvious problem with this analysis. Queensland held a state election in 2017, in which the Adani proposal was a key issue. Labor won easily, holding the regional seats where Adani was supposed to create thousands of jobs, and picking up seats in the south-east corner.

Following the election, the state government announced that it would set up a publicly-owned renewable generator (rather unimaginatively called CleanCo). It remains well ahead in the opinion polls (53-47 as of last November)

Obviously, not everyone is happy. The mining division of the CFMMEU has joined the Queensland Resources Council to campaign for Adani. But there’s no sign that this move has had any real impact on public opinion.

The great majority of Australians accept mainstream science and want action on climate change. Denialism is a loser everywhere, including in Queensland. It’s only a winner with the right wing “base” amounting to perhaps 20 per cent of the population, but dominant within the Liberal and National parties.