On Anti-Nuclear Bullshit

In his widely read essay, “On Bullshit,” the philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously distinguished between liars and bullshitters. Liars, counterintuitively, Frankfurt argued, actually care about the truth, and hence attempt to conceal or distort it. Bullshit, by contrast, serves a social function, not an epistemic one.

I was reminded of Frankfurt’s distinction recently, with the publication of a new paper by Harrison Fell, Alex Gilbert, Jesse Jenkins, and Matteo Mildenberger reanalyzing data from a study published last fall in Nature Energy by Benjamin Sovacool and colleagues at the University of Sussex Energy Group.

Sovacool and his coauthors claimed to demonstrate that deployment of nuclear energy around the world did not reduce carbon emissions. The reanalysis by Fell, et. al. is devastating, showing Sovacool’s data actually shows the opposite. From the abstract: “employing the same data sources and time periods, we find that nuclear power and renewable energy are both associated with lower per capita CO2 emissions with effects of similar magnitude and statistical significance.”

Of course, you don’t really need a complicated regression analysis to figure this out. France and Sweden boast the lowest per capita emissions among major advanced developed economies globally and get 80% and 50% of their electricity, respectively, from nuclear energy. When nations build nuclear plants, emissions reliably fall and when they shut them down, as we’ve witnessed over the last decade in Japan and California, they reliably rise.

But for decades, Sovacool and other prominent anti-nuclear academics have published a slew of dubious studies in peer-reviewed publications purporting to find that closing nuclear plants reduces emissions, that nuclear energy is fossil fuel intensive, uniquely dangerous, and inherently expensive, and that renewable energy alone can meet 100% of the world’s energy needs.

This is the sort of thing that many people would call bullshit. But in Frankfurt’s parlance, ideological academics like Sovacool are actually liars. By that, I am not suggesting that Sovacool and others are literally lying. Nor does any of it rise to the level of academic fraud.

But the history of anti-nuclear scholarship pretty strongly suggests that peer-review is no defense in the face of tenured academics with strong ideological commitments. Motivated cognition is a powerful thing and faced with an inconvenient truth, that nuclear energy, which environmentalists have long viewed as worse than fossil fuels, is actually one of the better options we have for cutting carbon emissions and addressing climate change, researchers like Sovacool are entirely capable of conjuring scholarly falsehoods via the magic of models, regression analyses, and highly selective data.

Bullshit, by contrast, is a different animal. It involves going along to get along, repeating claims that are prima facie ridiculous because everyone else appears to believe them too. If Sovacool and other anti-nuclear academics are liars in Frankfurt’s parlance, the peer reviewers and editors who went along with publishing the whole absurd exercise are bullshitters.

Sure, peer-review is time-consuming and uncompensated. But that can’t remotely explain how Sovacool was able to take a study that he was forced to retract just three years ago, slap a fresh coat of paint on it, and republish it in a more prestigious journal. Or why Mark Jacobson’s now-debunked 100% renewable study was not only published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science but received an award as one of the best studies of the year, before its obvious flaws were exposed. Or, for that matter, why decades of coverage of nuclear energy in the mainstream media has so reliably diverged from the overwhelming evidence about nuclear’s remarkable record of safe operations and low emissions.

The actual technological pathways to deeply decarbonizing the entire global economy are few and far between. Nuclear is without question one of them.

Climate and energy bullshit proliferates not based on the strength of empirical claims upon which it is based but because it fits a social narrative that has been around for a very long time and that was mapped over, almost whole cloth, from earlier environmental claims about population, toxic chemicals, and limits to growth.

At bottom, almost all contemporary framings of the climate issue insist that addressing the problem will require a fundamental break from the past. Our actions, our choices, our determination to fundamentally remake the world, right now, shall determine whether we thrive or burn up in a runaway fossil-fueled cataclysm.

And so, in the popular climate discourse, we imagine more marching and protesting and clever climate communications might radically remake the political economy of carbon and energy on a planet with seven billion people, soon to be nine, that is still overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels. We argue that political will is all that stands in the way of an international treaty, a global carbon price, or a Green New Deal and that once the political breakthrough materializes, those measures will magically produce some unnamed and unobjectionable technology to do everything that wind and solar energy can’t.

Nuclear energy’s original sin was that it was plug and play with industrial modernity, promising limitless energy to support economic prosperity and a growing population. Even as most today acknowledge that any serious effort to address climate change will need to accommodate both, the popular climate discourse speaks of carbon budgets and temperature targets as if they were real things while barely mentioning nuclear, a real technology with documented success decarbonizing modern economies, because it doesn’t fit the narrative.

When nations build nuclear plants, emissions reliably fall and when they shut them down, as we’ve witnessed over the last decade in Japan and California, they reliably rise.

Instead, we talk of technologies that have never actually existed: gigantic machines that remove carbon directly from the atmosphere or hydrogen-powered aircraft or pumping sulfur particles into the stratosphere. The environmental movement and philanthropy have even been far more open to bolting costly carbon capture technology onto coal and gas plants than reconsidering nuclear energy, probably because the former is a pollution-control technology that would increase the cost of fossil energy and, not incidentally, is probably only feasible in the event that the world either regulates or taxes carbon dioxide.

Nuclear energy is no panacea either. And perhaps we will figure out how to entirely eliminate emissions with carbon capture or clean hydrogen or something else. But the actual technological pathways to deeply decarbonizing the entire global economy are few and far between. Nuclear is without question one of them. It can do things, like providing heat for industrial processes that renewables simply cannot easily, and is still the only low-carbon technology with a demonstrated track record of significantly decarbonizing a modern, industrialized economy.

As impressive as the falling costs of wind and solar energy have been, we aren’t going to power the entire global economy with variable sources of renewable energy alone. We have no experience or proven capability to operate an electrical grid entirely with wind and solar energy, much less the other 80% of the global energy economy that doesn’t run on electricity.

Most serious observers, in the news media, academia, government, and even environmental NGOs actually know this and most credible global decarbonization scenarios and energy systems models find a significant need for nuclear to deeply decarbonize modern economies. But you wouldn’t know that from our zombie climate discourse.

Successful climate action in the actual world won’t look anything like the heroic fantasias that so easily captivate the chattering classes. More likely, insofar as we succeed, we will do so via a series of partial, stumbling, and half-baked measures. Doing so will require things like nuclear energy, natural gas, carbon capture, and big agriculture that don’t, in the popular imagination, sit weightless on the land. It will require big government, big corporations and big infrastructure. It will accommodate itself to industrial modernity, consumption, and consumerism and will require a revolution in neither sentiment nor technology but rather the slow accumulation of knowledge, technological prowess, institutions, and practices.

In the end, everyone knows what Sovacool, Jacobson, and other anti-nuclear academics are up to. They are simply highly credentialed ideologues. It’s the bullshit that I worry more about, because, in its incoherence, overheated conspiracies, breezy utopias, and empty radicalism, it is far harder to interrogate