Jevons' Paradox

The so called “nuclear revival” that was rolling along nicely before March, 2011 was succeeding without much opposition largely because it was deemed the necessary way to diminish the impact of global warming. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were distant memories, and the nuclear industry seemed to have learned how to manage this dangerous form of power generation.
This view changed drastically when three reactors in Fukushima melted down after the Japanese nuclear industry had failed to prepare for the easily foreseeable hazard of a tsunami. A skeptical public now doubts that any culture can safely manage the complexity of nuclear power that involves the unwieldy framework of finance, regulation and engineering that is so prone to corruption and error. In other industries, accidents can be dealt with and relatively contained, but a single nuclear accident has enormous potential for widespread ecological and social destruction. There is no room for error.
However, we are being asked to accept the “allowable risk” of nuclear energy because of the insistence that nuclear energy has the potential to save us from global warming. Unfortunately, this is a false hope.
At present, nuclear energy provides about 14% of the world’s electricity, and it is not conceivable that this share could grow significantly. The possibility of growth is constrained by the shrinking supply of uranium, and the hesitations of voters, investors and insurers to back new projects. A gas turbine generator can be built in a short period, but it takes over a decade for a new nuclear plant to go through design, approval and construction, and there is too much uncertainty involved now for anyone to make a bet on continuing down the nuclear path. Even if some projects go ahead in spite of the obstacles, it is hard to see world supply going much above the present 14%.
So the question becomes this: Do we want one problem or two? When the sea levels rise and coastlines are hit with hurricanes of unprecedented strength, do you want the problems to be compounded by your local nuclear power plant having a station blackout followed by a meltdown?
One might argue that we could have a power supply made of 20% nuclear, combined with 20% reductions in carbon dioxide, and additions of alternative energy, and this combination would give us time to save the planet, or invent a way to do fusion energy. However, the nature of human development is such that, even when there are energy efficiency gains, there is an overall  increase in energy use. Carbon dioxide output will continue to climb with or without a nuclear supplement. The paradox was first described by William S. Jevons in 1865:

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase in consumption.”

Jevons was talking about coal consumption, but in modern parlance it means that the invention of the hybrid car leads to more people buying cars, and their owners, delighted by the thought that they are using clean energy, driving them farther.
     The pro-nuclear argument assumes that this growing demand is inevitable and even good for reducing unemployment and other social problems. Christine Todd and Patrick Moore (the latter formerly of Greenpeace), celebrating the licensing of two AP1000 reactors in the U.S., claim, "We need a cost-efficient, low-carbon solution to the nation's increasing electricity demand - projected to rise 24 percent by 2035. Expanding nuclear energy as part of the mix of electricity generation options is necessary to meeting our nation's growing power needs cleanly and cost-effectively." It is significant that increasing demand is defined as inevitable needs rather than controllable desires.
Matt Ridley discusses the Jevons paradox in The Rational Optimist, and notes with his own example that he wanted to think Jevons was wrong, but one day found himself shouting into his cell phone, while making a non-essential call, in order to talk over the noise of a neighbor using a leaf blower.
Ridley writes, "Civilization, like life itself, has always been about capturing energy… human history is a tale of progressively discovering and diverting sources of energy to support human lifestyle."
Steam engines began with 1% efficiency, then efficiency progressed up to 60% in modern gas turbines. Economists study the energy intensity of nations as a calculation of watts used per dollar of GDP. Energy intensity tends to rise as countries go through industrialization, but it then levels off. The US now has an energy intensity that is one half of its 1950 level. This is partly due to gains in efficiency, and also due to the loss of manufacturing that is now done elsewhere. The point is that US GDP is more than double the 1950 level, so total energy consumption in the US, and in the whole world, has increased since 1950, in spite of gains in efficiency. This tendency is forgotten as each new energy technology brings hope that all our energy "needs" will now be fulfilled. When the generators of Niagara were switched on, journalists gushed about the marvelous future ahead. When the first nuclear generators were being developed, American nuclear pioneer Lewis Strauss said electricity would soon be “too cheap to meter.” However, he was referring to the still unrealized potential of fusion energy. Fission reactors at the time still did not have proven cost efficiency, and critics insist they never have.
Bill Gates has invested in a radical new concept in nuclear reactors which he believes is the only hope for getting the world to zero carbon dioxide emissions. This new travelling wave reactor would use spent fuel already in existence, and have passive-safe features that make accidents impossible. He has consulted with the experts and he says that in order to save the world, carbon dioxide emissions can’t be just reduced by some amount. They have to be brought to zero, but he is an optimist who believes that the standard of living of the poorest billions in the world can be brought up to First World levels, and he says energy is essential for delivering the "services" they want. Green alternatives can play a role, according to Gates, but they will never meet the base load demand. According to Gates' plan, if the timing of this energy input comes before ecosystems collapse, the standard of living of the poor will increase, birth rates will level off as a result of development, and world population will stabilize, or even decline.
Somehow, this all starts to sound like a pipe dream, and the details Gates provides about the traveling wave reactor raise more questions than they answer. In the same way that he developed Windows software in isolation, in a private enterprise, he seems to not want skeptics to raise questions, or hack or crowd-source the system he proposes. Furthermore, like he did with numerous versions of Windows, he is willing to put this technology into use first, without any regard for the problems that may come after sales. (Reactor makers are infamous for transferring after-sale liability to the buyer. Any future accidents become the responsibility of the plant owners and operators, which they pass on to citizens.) It is one thing to do this with software, but quite another to do it with a nuclear power plant. Bitter experience has shown that operators are loathe to fix mistakes when they are found after the plants have been built. Bill Gates is not even trying to get the reactors approved in the US because he knows he would face regulatory hurdles and the hindrances of the democratic process.
The questions about this technology seem obvious. How many reactors would you need to build to bring global carbon dioxide output to zero? Could you get that much fuel? The reactor uses spent fuel, but what hazards are involved in handling the spent spent fuel? If the vision is to have hundreds or thousands of these reactors spread around the world, some of them small and rather portable, how does this solve the present threat of accidents, storage leaks, theft of nuclear fuel, or deliberate sabotage? We were fooled once before into thinking we could steal the fire of the atom without having to pay a price, so what’s different this time? In light of what has happened in 70 years of nuclear history, it seems extremely ill-advised to hope for anything more from nuclear energy. It was an experiment the human race tried but should now walk away from. Perhaps it bridged a gap and offset carbon emissions, but it is time to recognize the grave hazards and make nuclear energy taboo.
It would be better to recognize the limits to growth and get serious about finding a level of sustainable energy use. Alternative energies will not be able to supply us with everything we want. In fact, the unrestrained growth of renewable energy would have a negative human and environmental impact. The focus will have to shift to using less energy and controlling population growth before the hypothetical time when everyone will be up to the present First World standard of comfort. It is standard development philosophy that people in the Third World need electricity in order to have any hope, but this view may be wrong. Perhaps there are forms of justice and prosperity that don’t require everyone getting hooked up to the grid. The human race lived a long time without it, and may do so again. Finland is building a nuclear storage facility that presupposes that for 100,000 years its design needs to warn away a future race of people who are technologically undeveloped, perhaps illiterate, and speaking a language that does not yet exist. This presumption, arrived at by the engineers designing the Onkalo Waste Repository, is a sharp contrast to Bill Gates’ rosy vision of the future.


“Abundant Power from Atom Seen; It will be too cheap for our children to meter, Strauss tells science writers,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 1954, p. 5.

Jevons, S. (1865) The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines. Macmillan, p. 103.

Madsen, M. (dir.)(2009) Into Eternity.

Moore, P., Todd-Whitman, C. New Reactors Signal U.S. Nuclear Energy Resurgence, February 10, 2012.

Ridley, Matt (2010) The Rational Optimist. Harper Perennial.

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