Nuclear update: Gen III dies an early death

One of the more tenacious beliefs on the political right is that their support for nuclear power demonstrates superior rationality and openness to evidence. But the evidence is that, no matter what the structure of energy markets no one is willing to choose (new) nuclear power over any of the alternatives: gas, renewables and coal. That’s bad in the sense that the true costs of new and existing coal far exceed those of even new nuclear. But where those costs are factored in to decisions, it’s renewables (plus storage) that benefit.

Let’s look at the evidence. The World Nuclear Association currently lists “about 50” plants under construction, a number that’s been declining over time. A closer look reveals 47 plants, of which 23 are due to be completed this year or next (most are way behind schedule). The rest are due by 2026 reflecting the fact that hardly any have been started in recent years (a typical project takes 7-10 from initial construction to connection, if all goes well).

Adding in those modern (Gen III or III+) plants already in operation, the total contribution of modern nuclear to the world’s electricity generation capacity is likely to fall short of 100 GW, maybe equal to a couple of years of renewables (adjusted for differences in utilisation rates).

The only real hope is that of Small Modular Reactors, but even here the gap between claims and evidence is striking. Pro-nuclear advocates routinely write as if SMRs are an established solution, rather than a design that has so far not even reached the pilot plant stage.

If those on the political right would accept a market solution to decarbonizing electricity, including a carbon price and an option for SMRs, that would be a good deal for the environment. Sadly, there’s no sign of that happening. Rather, support for nuclear power is little more than an excuse for hippie-punching and intellectual self-congratulation.

Climate change and the strange death of libertarianism

It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was talking about the “libertarian moment” in the US. Now, libertarianism/propertarianism is pretty much dead. The support base, advocacy groups and so on have gone full Trumpists, while the intellectual energy has shifted to “liberaltarianism” or, a more recent variant, Tyler Cowen’s conversion to “state capacity libertarianism“.

Most of those departing to the left have mentioned the failure of libertarianism to handle climate change. It was critical for two reasons. First, any serious propertarian response would have required support ofr the creation of new property rights (emissions permits) and the restriction of existing ones (burning carbon). That would imply an acknowledgement that property rights are not natural relations between people (owners) and things (property). They are socially constructed relationships between people, allowing some people to use things and to stop other people from doing so. Second, the effort to deny the necessary implications of climate change inevitably resulted in denial of the scientific evidence that climate change was occurring. That contributed to a situation where most former libertarians are now Trumpists, happy to deny the evidence of their own eyes if that’s what the leader requires of them.

I’m working on a longer article spelling all this out. In the meantime, comments welcome.

Consumed by fire (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

(Most of this will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. But it seems simplest to crosspost the whole thing, rather than do a separate version).

It’s been hard to think straight with the fires that have burned through most of Australia for months. Brisbane was among the first places affected, with the loss of the historic Binna Burra lodge, on the edge of a rainforest, a place where no one expected a catastrophic fire. But, as it turned out, we got off easy compared to the rest of the country. Heavy rain in early December helped to put out the fires in Queensland, and we can expect the delayed arrival of the monsoon in the near future. By contrast, southern Australia normally has hot, dry summers and this has been the hottest driest year ever. The increased likelihood of catastrophic fire seasons was evident when I started work on this topic back in 2012 [1], and the risks for this year were pointed out to the government months in advance. The warnings went unheeded for two reasons.

First, the government had been re-elected partly on the basis of a promise (economically nonsensical, but politically powerful) to return the budget to surplus. Any serious action to prepare for and respond to a bushfire catastrophe would wipe that out, as indeed has almost certainly happened now.

Second, any serious assessment would have to focus on the fact that climate change is causing large-scale losses in Australia right now. The government is a combination of denialists and do-nothingists, neither of whom are willing to address the issue.

Of course, Australia is only a small part of the problem. Our government’s policies are helping to promote climate catastrophes in the US, Brazil and other places, and theirs are returning the favor. A policy shift in any one of these countries, with no change elsewhere, would make little difference to the country concerned. That’s the nature of a collective action problem. But on any ordinary understanding of justice, we are reaping what we, and the governments we’ve elected, have sown.

Over the fold, some links to pieces I’ve written on this topic.

Australia is promising $2 billion for the fires. I estimate recovery will cost $100 billion Article I wrote piece for CNN Business in the US.

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires, article for Inside Story

The opportunity cost of destruction, extract from Economics in Two Lessons

Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better, from my blog

Burning the surplus, from my blog

Mainstream media remains quiet on Scott Morrison’s untimely holiday from Independent Australia. As the worst of the disaster started to unfold, our appalling Prime Minister skived off to Hawaii for a luxury holiday, without telling anyone. Most of the media were happy to cover for him.

fn1. Instant social media reactions have their problems, but the academic alternative, endless rounds of refereeing, is far worse. I started work on this topic with a colleague Tyron Venn, in 2012, but it didn’t get past the referees until 2017, by which time the central point (the case for mandatory evacuation, rather than encouraging people to defend their homes against fire) was generally accepted. And the demand for a tight focus meant that the discussion of climate change, my original motivation for doing the project, was cut down to a single sentence. For anyone interested, here’s a link.

Old men behaving badly (3rd repost)

I first posted this in 2011, reposted it in 2014 and again in 2019. Sadly, nothing changes, except that the old men keep getting stupider and behaving worse.

John Howard’s endorsement of Ian Plimer’s children’s version of his absurd anti-science tract Heaven and Earth has at least one good feature. I can now cut the number of prominent Australian conservatives for whom I have any intellectual respect down from two to one.[1] Howard’s acceptance of anti-science nonsense shows that, for all his ability as a politician, he is, in the end, just another tribalist incapable of thinking for himself. [2]

Although not all the tribal leaders are old men, an old, high-status man like Howard is certainly emblematic of Australian delusionism . Like a lot of old, high status men, he stopped thinking decades ago, but is even more confident of being right now than when he had to confront his prejudices with reality from time time. Like other delusionists, Howard has no scientific training, shows no sign of understanding statistics and almost certainly hasn’t read any real scientific literature, but nonetheless believes he can rank clowns like Plimer and Monckton ahead of the real scientists.

The situation in the US is similar but even more grimly amusing, with the sole truthteller in the entire Republican party, Jon Huntsman, recently reduced to waffling (in both US and UK/Oz senses of this term) because he briefly looked like having a chance to be the next non-Romney. This tribal mindlessness is reflected in the inability of the Republican Party, at a time when they ought to be unbackable favorites in 2012, to come up with a candidate who can convince the base s/he is one of them, but who doesn’t rapidly reveal themselves as a fool, a knave or both.

And, as evidence of the utter intellectual shamelessness of delusionism, you can’t beat the campaign against wind power, driven by the kinds of absurd claims of risk that would be mocked, mercilessly and deservedly, if they came from the mainstream environmental movement.

The global left is in pretty bad shape in lots of ways. Still, I would really hate to be a conservative right now.

fn1. Now (2014) down to zero. Turnbull has proved he lacks any real substance.

fn2. I’m not saying that all Australian conservatives are mindless tribalists. There’s a large group, epitomized by Greg Hunt and now Malcolm Turnbull, who understand the issues quite well, but are unwilling to speak up. Then there is a group of postmodern conservatives of whom Andrew Bolt is probably the best example, who have passed the point where concepts of truth or falsehood have any meaning – truth is whatever suits the cause on any given day.

The opportunity cost of destruction

With much of Australia suffering catastrophic fires and the beginning of a new war with Iran, lots of people are thinking about the idea that such disasters are good for the economy, because of the work generated in rebuilding homes, producing war materials and so on.  In my book Economics in Two Lessons, I explain why this is wrong (this is one point where I agree with Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Here’s a link to  Chapter 6: The opportunity cost of destruction

US President Eisenhower got it right when he said

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

And the same is true for the destruction visited on us by Morrison, Trump, Murdoch and the rest of the global denial industry. The workers who will be needed to rebuild homes, farms and infrastructure could instead be employed producing useful new things. Those forgone alternatives are the opportunity cost of destruction

Slow burn

That’s the headline for my latest article in Inside Story. Summary graf

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires

At the time of writing, at least fourteen people have been killed by this season’s bushfires. And with most of January and all of February still to come, the number is sure to rise. But these dramatic deaths are far outweighed by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths that will ultimately result from the toxic smoke blanketing Australian cities.

The most dangerous component of bushfire smoke are tiny particulates, no more than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. Over the past twenty years, studies have shown that high levels of PM2.5 have contributed to millions of premature deaths in highly polluted cities like Beijing and Delhi. Sydney, Canberra and other Australian cities have recently joined this list. In 2016 alone, exposure to PM2.5 contributed to an estimated 4.1 million deaths worldwide from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease and respiratory infections.

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