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Mark Lynas pens error-riddled, cost-less nuke op-ed

UPDATE: In the comments, Lynas says Breakthough Institute made the initial mistake. They must have fixed it before I saw it. But there are so many errors that it’s still not clear who got what wrong.

And the winner of the most egregiously error-riddled paragraph published in a presumably fact-checked newspaper op-ed this year:

According to some recent number crunching by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist environmental think tank, phasing out Japan’s current nuclear generation capacity and replacing it with wind would require a 1.3-billion-acre wind farm, covering more than half the country’s total land mass. Going for solar instead would require a similar land area, and would in economic terms cost the country more than a trillion dollars.

No, it’s not Charlie Sheen weighing into the energy debate. And no, there aren’t any typos. Sadly, this breathtaking collection of whoppers is by none other than Mark Lynas, author of the excellent book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.

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I’m not quite certain what is more depressing — that Lynas wrote this paragraph in the first place and has since reposted it at the Economist’s online nuclear debate (a debate that is, typically, poorly framed). Or that not one person at the LA Times, Economist, or McLatchy thought the numbers looked funny or self-contradictory enough to spend even 10 seconds on Google to fact-check them. Or that even two days later the head-exploding errors are still there.

See how many errors you can count before reading the rest of the post.

While I realize that “acres” is not a metric most people work with often, presumably if you are going to use acres you would at least check on Google to make sure your answer is not wrong by, say, a factor of 1000! Or that you haven’t gotten the area of Japan wrong by a factor of 30! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As bad as the analysis is from The Breakthrough Institute, I was pretty confident they wouldn’t make a numerical mistake this huge. While it may be mostly a red herring to bother calculating what it would take to phase out Japan’s current nuclear generation, their April 5 post, TBI’s post, “The Costs of Replacing Japan’s Nuclear Power,” states:

… replacing the generation lost from a complete phase-out of nuclear power entirely with wind energy … would require 152 GW of installed wind capacity, at a total installation cost of $375 billion (using an estimate of $2,466/KWe). According to NREL’s wind farm area calculator, the installation of these wind turbines would require 38,000 acres taken out of production on a wind farm, and a total of 1.3 million acres for the entire wind farm.

Yes, 1.3 million acres. With an ‘m’. Doh!

As one can quickly find out on Google, “1 square mile is equal to 640 acres.” So this wind farm would — in its full dimension — extend over perhaps 2000 square miles.

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Had 1.3 billion acres been the correct answer, that would have covered roughly 2 million square miles. Again, using Google, something apparently Lynas and the LA Times don’t, we find that Japan’s area is about 150,000 square miles. Double doh! The beauty of using Google is that it might tip you off that your original calculation was quite wrong. It was under 1% of Japan’s area, not half of it!

For the record, the area that would used by solar is “similar” — to the 1.3 million acres, not the 1.3 billion!

But, as TBI notes, the actual footprint used up by the wind turbines is quite tiny. Let’s go into NREL’s wind farm area calculator, plug in 0.25 acres per turbine and 152 GW (152,000,000 kW), and use 2 MW for wind turbines, not the 1 MW that TBI used — since “Most of the commercial-scale turbines installed today are 2 MW in size and cost roughly $3.5 Million installed.”

“The estimated land area required is: 19000 acres.” That would be 30 square miles of Japanese land taken out of production, or one-fiftieth of one percent! Not exactly half. The cost is $266 billion. That isn’t cheap as a replacement cost, but I don’t really know a lot of folks talking about shutting down all of Japan’s reactors. That strikes me as mostly a straw man.

Now if we are talking about building some 50 GW of new nukes, well, even with a conservative price of $7000/kw that would cost more than the wind power. True, wind power isn’t baseload, but then it doesn’t have a fuel cost. Or those pesky decommissioning costs, which, as Japan learned, can sometimes be forced on you quite prematurely.

But you never know any of that from Lynas since he never mentions the cost of new nuclear power even once even though he can’t get enough of the costs of renewables. This seems to be an emerging trend for this new breed of environmental journalists. Keith Kloor, as I noted last week, in his new blog at Climate Central write 800 words on the role of nuclear power in dealing with climate change and never once mentions cost. George Monbiot is now also writing column after column that misses this central point. Lynas writes:

As the British environmental writer George Monbiot has pointed out, if we took the scientific consensus on nuclear energy as seriously as we take the scientific consensus on climate change, we environmentalists would be telling a very different story.

Personally, I have never considered myself an environmentalist, but rather a physicist and energy technologist. I take the scientific understanding of climate change is seriously as anyone, but only in a world where we have an unlimited amount of money to spend on reducing greenhouse gas emissions can we ignore costs.

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The fact is that the staggering cost of new nuclear power — and the risks associated with losing a multibillion-dollar asset in a matter of minutes thanks to a disaster and/or human error — are the primary reasons the nuclear Renaissance in this country died before the Japan disaster (see my recent post “The Nukes of Hazard” and the 10/10 post, Exelon’s Rowe: Low gas prices and no carbon price push back nuclear renaissance a “decade, maybe two”). It must be the basis of any serious discussion of new nuclear power in market economies.

Lynas makes many more errors, small and large in the piece. On the small side, in this context, the Breakthrough Institute is not “a centrist environmental think tank,” whatever that means. Whatever they once were, they are now a pro-nuclear, anti-clean-energy-deployment think tank that has partnered with the American Enterprise Institute to push right-wing energy myths and that routinely attacks energy efficiency programs, except when they reverse themselves.

It is also sad to see Lynas push right-wing myths:

In the 1970s it looked as if nuclear power was going to play a much bigger role than eventually turned out to be the case. What happened was Three Mile Island, and the birth of an anti-nuclear movement that stopped dozens of half-built or proposed reactors….

Actually, just as the U.S. nuclear renaissance was mostly dead before Fukushima, so too was the original cycle of nuclear plant orders dead before TMI — killed by rising prices for plants and cost over-runs. I think I’ll do a separate post on this.

Let me end by reposting the negative learning curve for nukes:

Fig. 13. Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed

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