Not Hope but Cynicism in Pandora's Promise

The people behind the pro-nuclear film Pandora’s Promise defend their unusual title choice by reminding us that after Pandora unleashed all the evils of the world, there was hope at the bottom of the box. But the filmmakers’ premise is actually quite cynical and pessimistic.
The film mentions the well-known problem with energy efficiency: the Jevons paradox that was first noticed in the 1865 when improvements were made in coal burning technology. William Jevons observed that efficiency doesn’t lead to overall reduction in energy consumption. GDP continued to grow, standards of living increased, and an increasing number of people were able to benefit from energy consumption.
The phenomenon is obvious today if you consider that as hybrid engines deliver great improvements in energy efficiency, more cars will be sold and they will probably be driven longer distances. So, according to this logic, the situation is hopeless. We can’t expect that renewable energy and efficiency gains will save humanity from the climate crisis. The film resorts to a TINA mentality here: Accept what we say because There Is No Alternative to nuclear energy. Only a massive expansion of nuclear energy can satisfy the future demand for electricity by “the poor” (in these arguments, it is never the rich who have desires). Yet wouldn’t the logic of the Jevons paradox also apply to the nuclear option? If demand will always increase, then, just like fossil fuels, renewables and efficiency gains, nuclear is finite, even the promised next generation nuclear. There is a limited number of sites for nuclear plants, and competing demands for land use and the resources necessary to build them.
This point about competing demands was overlooked by Stewart Brand (who appears in Pandora’s Promise) when he debated nuclear energy on the TED stage in 2010. He began with these words:

We are moving to cities... And we are educating our kids, having fewer kids, basically good news all around. But we move to cities, toward the bright lights, and one of the things that is there that we want, besides jobs, is electricity. And if it isn't easily gotten, we'll go ahead and steal it. This is one of the most desired things by poor people all over the world, in the cities and in the countryside.

The statements are true and obvious on their own, but it would be a mistake to consider them in isolation from more fundamental desires. There are a few things that poor people, and all people, desire more than electricity, such as water and food, seas, lakes, rivers and lands to provide the real essentials of life. This is why rural people in India have been in bitter conflict over nuclear power plant projects for many years. In fact, governments that have promoted nuclear power have always had to bribe, bully and deceive rural communities into accepting projects that benefit others. Yes, we all like to have electricity, even the rural poor, but not to the detriment of the true essentials of life.
Thus, at the bottom of this Pandora’s box there really is no hope. It’s only a misleading argument that the present trend must continue. Economies and energy consumption must grow forever.
The hopeful solution to the Jevons paradox is a self-imposed limit on energy use. Societies have to shift their values and set policies that establish limits on energy consumption. This can be done by deliberate restraint, but there is some evidence that it is also happening already through undirected mechanisms. In a much better TED video than the nuclear debate, Amory Lovins showed data that indicates GDP growth has become detached from energy consumption. In other words, the Jevons paradox has been solved. Hybrid cars are worthwhile because there is a practical limit to how many cars we need and how far we have to drive them. Lovins' data show that in the US, the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of GDP has declined by half since 1976.
It might be hard to understand how this could be so, but it is likely that the Jevons paradox tapered off as industrial societies reached the limit of material goods needed to provide a decent life. After people have all the basic stuff, their houses are full. Thus every developing society enters its post-consumerist phase. After this point, jobs shift to producing what can be called intangible, perceived or badge value. The downside of this is that so many people feel like they don’t produce anything worthwhile. They just push information around, try to sell services for which people feel no natural need, or they join the ranks of the “evil” advertising industry. But it was ad man Rory Sutherland on the TED stage who made the essential point about what is needed to maintain full employment and preserve the ecosystem at the same time. I let him have the last word:

    … what we create in advertising, which is intangible value -- you might call it perceived value, you might call it badge value, subjective value, intangible value of some kind -- gets rather a bad rap. If you think about it, if you want to live in a world in the future where there are fewer material goods, you basically have two choices. You can either live in a world which is poorer, which people in general don't like. Or you can live in a world where actually intangible value constitutes a greater part of overall value, that actually intangible value, in many ways is a very, very fine substitute for using up labor or limited resources in the creation of things.
Here is one example. This is a train which goes from London to Paris. The question was given to a bunch of engineers, about 15 years ago, "How do we make the journey to Paris better?" And they came up with a very good engineering solution, which was to spend six billion pounds building completely new tracks from London to the coast, and knocking about 40 minutes off a three-and-half-hour journey time. Now, call me Mister Picky. I'm just an ad man... but it strikes me as a slightly unimaginative way of improving a train journey merely to make it shorter. Now what is the hedonic opportunity cost on spending six billion pounds on those railway tracks?
Here is my naive advertising man's suggestion. What you should in fact do is employ all of the world's top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train, handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey. Now, you'll still have about three billion pounds left in change, and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down. 



Doubtful: Nuclear Proponents Claim iPhone Use Consumes as much Electricity as a Refrigerator

People who have viewed the film Pandora’s Promise, or read reviews and quotes from it, might recall that Michael Shellenberger claimed at one point that an iPhone uses as much electricity as a refrigerator. Because it’s a film for a mass audience, and not a scientific report, he didn’t have to provide evidence for this surprising statement. He did explain that it is not the phone that uses so much electricity, but the servers and wireless networks that add to the energy consumption, but still, it seems like an exaggeration.
The commonsense reason to doubt the claim is that if it were true, phone charges would be much more expensive. I have a recent model refrigerator that is fairly efficient, but still it consumes more than any appliance in the house. It seems to account for about 25% of monthly consumption. For other people, the figure may vary, depending on how they cook, heat, and do laundry. In any case, it is hard to imagine that my cell phone carrier is including in my bill a cost that is equal to what I pay TEPCO to run my refrigerator.
My suspicions about this iPhone allegation led me to look around to see what others might have said about it. It turns out that before it was used to say we need nuclear energy, it was used to say we need coal energy. Last August, Curtis Cartier of MSN News took up the issue in an article which is excerpted below:

“A new study claims that the smartphone in your pocket uses more energy than the refrigerator in your kitchen. The report, which was funded by a pair of coal industry lobbying groups, suggests that a tremendous amount of energy will be needed to keep powering the world's digital devices and that coal will provide the solution. But while the paper is making waves in the technology and energy world, its conclusions are being attacked by some researchers who call it “baloney” and “ridiculous.”
Among the claims made are that the worldwide computer IT infrastructure uses power "equal to all the electric generation of Japan and Germany combined," and that watching an hour of video per week on a smartphone or tablet "consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year."
The study is called "The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power" and it's written by Mark P. Mills, the CEO of Digital Power Group, a tech-industry advisement firm. The study was sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy.
It turns out that this isn't the first time Mills has compared small, portable electronic devices with refrigerators. In 2000 he made the case that California's energy crisis was caused by computers, and showed data he said proved a Palm Pilot handheld device "can add as much new electric load as a refrigerator."
Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, told MSN News that he "spent years debunking" Mills' claims and published a paper in 2000 that directly contradicted his findings. Koomey said he was shocked to see Mills "rehashing" his ideas now.
"If he is making this claim again, that would be just crazy, outrageous," Koomey said. "What we found in 2000 is that a refrigerator used 2,000 times more electricity than the networking electricity of a wireless Palm Pilot. He is not a credible source of information."
[Another academic] Gernot Heiser, echoed Koomey's sentiments that Mills' work was flawed.
[Another academic] Zhou said [Mills’] measurements for the power consumption of smartphones was at least "one or two magnitude" higher than they should be, [but] the subject of data center electricity usage is an important issue and it "should raise concern."
Mills emailed a statement to MSN News, defending his research and saying that "at least a dozen" scholarly articles give similar estimates for power usage, [and that the] intention in writing the paper was not to promote coal energy.
[As for] worldwide energy usage of computers, Mills' figures are nearly twice that of the source he cites. Also, his main contention, that a smartphone uses more energy per year "than two new refrigerators" is based on a complex equation he coined himself, which includes numerous variables, and is not found by itself in any of the sources he cites.

So this is another example of how Pandora’s Promise played fast and loose with the truth, dressing up disputed interpretations as established facts. These studies of energy use in the communications industry involve contentious methodologies  and have yielded nothing conclusive, but advocates of any stripe can run with them to make whatever point they want. Environmentalists could point to the refrigerator analogy and say this proves the Apple is not green. Coal and nuclear lobbyists can make us tremble in fear of losing our beloved devices. “Yes!” we should scream, cowering in a corner. “You’re right. I care about the environment, but not if it means losing my iPhone! OK? We need coal. We need nuclear! I’ll stop using a fridge. Just please, please, don’t take away my iPhone!”
Even if it were true that our iPhone used as much energy as a refrigerator, it would say nothing about the need to preserve the ecosystem for other life forms and cultures that don’t want to be slaves to the same conveniences as us. It says something about the values of the people making the argument that they would assume we would all agree that our gadgets and our parasitic economic system are non-negotiable givens, that it wouldn’t be more important to keep a country free of nuclear waste and find other ways to exist. No, actually, when it comes down to it, I’ll choose life.
And besides, didn’t they ever think that the comparison might be saying something good about the fantastic improvements in the energy efficiency of refrigerators?

Curtis Cartier, “Rumor: An iPhone uses more power than a refrigerator.” MSN News, August 19, 2013. 


Nuclear advocates claim to find empirical data in an imagined past

Much has been written lately about the nuclear propaganda “documentary” film Pandora’s Promise. When CNN announced that it planned to air the film, activists sprung to action and made sure CNN would give time to experts from the other side who wanted to rebut many of the film's assertions. CNN agreed to the request and aired a debate on the show Crossfire.
 The two hosts, Brian Schweitzer and Newt Gingrich, seemed to be on-side with Pandora’s Promise, but the former at least posed some challenging questions to the side he was favoring. I won’t rehash all the arguments against the film that have been done thoroughly elsewhere (see Beyond Nuclear’s work, or listen to the excellent interview with a spokesperson from this organization on the Nuclear Hotseat podcast). In this post, I’ll just discuss a few unusual remarks that appeared in CNN’s debate between Ralph Nader (anti-nuclear) and Michael Shellenberger (pro-nuclear).
This wasn’t the forum for a thorough discussion of all the important considerations to cover when asking whether nuclear is a solution for global warming. There was a short time constraint, so both men were hurrying to make their points rather than addressing everything that came up in the conversation.
The interview made it clear that the pro-nuclear movement is playing with a weak hand because Shellenberger had to resort to some dubious tactics. First, he flattered Nader for his famous work in the 1960s in consumer advocacy, but it was a backhanded compliment because the intent was obviously to set Nader up as yesterday’s man. Next, he sank to a lower level which can be understood if you think of a familiar scene in the movies, or maybe in real life, when you see a bitter old couple saying things like, “You would have been nothing without me. You’d still be doing _______ if I hadn’t come along.” Yes, Shellenberger stooped, not for the first time, to basing his argument on supposed “facts” based on past hypothetical speculations. He was citing the work of one of his familiars in nuclear promotion, the former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, as he claimed the science shows that existing nuclear energy plants in the USA saved 1.8 million lives the lives that would have been taken by carbon emissions, if the electricity had been generated by other means. For some reason, in the case of nuclear accidents, no single death can be attributed to radiation, but when it is convenient to demonize another source of energy, individual deaths can be attributed to the coal industry. In this case, pro-nuclear people don’t say that coal miners smoke and drink too much, or that their maladies are caused by anxiety arising from an irrational “carbonphobia.” Shellenberger went further with his speculative “facts” and claimed that the anti-nuclear movement caused even more deaths by shutting down development of nuclear energy from the 1980s onward.
Nader let the comments pass because he had better points to make, and better things to do than argue about past hypotheticals, but I’ll say the obvious rebuttal here. Past hypotheticals don’t belong in the discussion because the imagined alternate past didn’t happen. There is no empirical evidence there to base an argument on. The perfect reply is that one or more nuclear meltdowns were avoided because those extra nuclear plants were not built. There’s no reason to hold back. We could say anything we want because it’s all about making things up and calling them facts. Perhaps every acre of farmland in the country was saved from nuclear contamination. Or we could say millions of lives could have been saved by stopping the coal industry decades ago and investing massively in alternative energy. We could have saved all those lives by improving energy efficiency and not building sprawling suburbs full of oversized foreclosed houses. We could have stopped American car manufacturers from making the SUVs that took over the roads in the 1990s. If only Ronald Reagan hadn’t ripped Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof!
Nonetheless, Shellenberger may be onto something. It is a good exercise to speculate, as long as we can distinguish between fact and imagination. As I read the news from the Philippines today about the strongest typhoon in history, I’m glad that Marcos’ dictatorship was overthrown in 1986 and his nuclear project, the Bataan Nuclear Power station, was shut down by the incoming government. If climate change is bringing these monster storms, it’s a good thing if nuclear plants are not in their path.
Another lame tactic was employed by Shellenberger when the topic of terrorism came up. We know what happened in the past can’t be changed, so we shouldn’t waste too much time worrying about what might have been, but Nader made the excellent point that we should worry about what could happen in the future. All nuclear power plants are targets for terrorists, not to mention targets in a future air war, should there ever be one in which a state with nuclear power plants is vulnerable to attack. Nader made the striking point that I’ve not heard too often in such discussion: Why do you think Israel never built a nuclear power plant? The absence of them is more striking in light of the fact that Israel has a couple hundred undeclared nuclear weapons. Israel has had a few wars since it was founded in 1948, and they are vulnerable to attack by states with the power to strike from the air, not to mention attacks by rogue elements. If America had been considering building its first nuclear plant on September 11, 2001, would the plan have been rejected outright? D’oh! Forget it. That’s a past hypothetical.
When Shellenberger heard the word terrorism, he jumped at it but inadvertently seemed to score an own-goal. “There was an attack, actually, on a nuclear power plant with a bazooka. It was by Greens in Germany!” he interjected. The conversation moved on, so the audience never learned what he was referring to, but the point supported what Nader was saying about the danger of a terrorist attack. However, what Shellenberger was referring to was actually a bit of nuclear history that underscores just how strong the public opposition to nuclear has been. Furthermore, just to get the facts straight, it was a matter of a Swiss citizen who attacked a power plant in France. But maybe Shellenberger was just sure it had to be those crazy Germans because they were foolish enough to abandon nuclear energy.
By bringing up this incident, Shellenberger was trying to insinuate that it was Greens who attempted to terrorize a population by spreading nuclear contamination across “Germany,” but in fact the motive of the 1982 attack was to destroy the reactor before it was loaded with fuel. The attack was planned for a time when no one was in the building, and its aim was to shut down the Superphenix fast reactor (more details here). I don’t condone the tactics, but it’s kind of a shame for France that the plant wasn’t destroyed. The bazooka missed the mark. The Superphenix was soon completed, but it ran intermittently only for a decade and it is said to have consumed as much energy as it produced. After years of political opposition and technical problems, it was shut down in 1997, and now (and for many more years into the future) work continues on removing the fuel and the irradiated, highly volatile sodium coolant.
And what is the promise of Pandora’s Promise? None other than a retread of the fast reactor technology that France, and many other countries, tried but failed to master in the past. Don’t worry, though. This time it will be different, right?

If you didn't like the nuclear debate on CNN, go to this classic duel from 1979. Not much has changed, except the record of disasters.


Alpha and beta particles shoot horses, don’t they?

Alpha and beta particles shoot horses, don’t they?
How the plight of a horse breeder in Fukushima reveals the official denial of the humanitarian emergency

The title of this chapter is a reference to the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the 1969 film adaptation by Sidney Pollack. In the story, a Depression-era dance marathon, based on a real phenomenon of the time, is a sadistic spectacle that preys on the desperation of the participants who compete for the big prize of $1,500. The competitors are forced to destroy their bodies and turn on each other to elbow their way to the final, but in the end the prize is deceptively small after the contest owner makes his deductions for expenses. When the male half of the winning couple is asked by his female dance partner—her soul and body destroyed by the Depression and the contest—to help her commit suicide, he existentially considers the act no different from the shooting of lame horses once they are a burden to their owners and no longer of any profitable use.

The story is a fairly obvious and blunt allegory for the workings of capitalism, and the allusion to the story here is made to connect it to the disposability of Fukushima victims, the dashed dreams of Japan’s national energy policy of the late 20th century, and to a horse breeder in Fukushima,.
A report in the Guardian [1] told the story of a horse breeder in Iitate, Fukushima, a town which suffered some of the highest levels of fallout from the nuclear disaster:

As Iitate’s population plummeted in the spring of 2011, Hosokawa managed to find new homes for more than 80 of his horses. Then, in January this year [2013], he noticed that several among the 30 that remained [in Iitate], mainly foals, had become unsteady on their feet. Within weeks, 16 had died in mysterious circumstances. Autopsies on four of the horses found no evidence of disease and tests revealed caesium levels at 200 becquerels per kilo—twice as high as the government-set safety limit for agricultural produce, but not high enough to immediately threaten their health.

The last sentence of this paragraph reveals an important distortion or misunderstanding by the reporter. There is a significant difference between the risk posed to the consumer of cesium-contaminated flesh and the owner of cesium-contaminated flesh. A foal, or any other young animal, would suffer serious developmental problems with this body-load of cesium in every kilogram of flesh. But a person who consumed this flesh, probably much less than a kilogram of it, would suffer no long-term load of cesium in his own body.
As it turns out, scientists who have studied whole-body burdens of cesium have found that levels much below 200 becquerels per kilogram can cause problems, especially to fetuses, infants, and children. A report by Chris Busby, a professor and scientist who specializes in low-dose ionising radiation, created this chart to illustrate the impact [2]:

Belarussian scientist Yuri Bandazhevsky demonstrated the damaging effects of cesium on the fetal development of pigs, and also studied the high rate of heart abnormalities among children affected by Chernobyl. [3] Furthermore, medical practitioners are becoming more aware of the link between heart disease and medical radiation exposures [4]. The Harvard Medical School stated in one report, “Radiation therapy can induce heart disease if any part of the heart is exposed to radiation. Problems can occur several years after exposure and include accelerated coronary artery disease, stiffening of the heart muscle, inflammation and thickening of the pericardial sac, problems with electrical conduction, or damage to heart valves.” [5]
So it should be no surprise that young animals in Fukushima were experiencing a higher rate of death. The story about Mr. Hosokawa’s horses touched a nerve because we see other species as more blameless than humans, but it’s also an indirect, and thus permissible, way of pointing the finger at official abuse of the young humans of Fukushima.
To remind us all just how impossible it is for the public to look squarely at this crime, we had around the same time the “scandal” of an independent anti-nuclear politician expressing an appeal to the Emperor to speak up for the children of Fukushima. Taro Yamamoto, who sits in the upper house of the Diet (the national legislature), expressed his appeal in a note he passed to the Emperor at a garden party. [6] Almost all other national politicians, media, and citizens being spoon-fed their views by mainstream news organizations agreed that this was a serious breach of protocol. Under the post-WWII constitution, the Emperor is supposed to be completely removed from politics. Of course, it wouldn’t be right if all politicians made a habit of appealing to the Emperor this way, but was this an exceptional circumstance? There is an argument to be made that there was nothing wrong with Mr. Yamamoto’s action, if the matter is exceptionally urgent, and if this action differs little from the other ways that politicians exploit the Emperor for their own purposes. In any case, if the Emperor is just a powerless figurehead, what’s the harm in a little exchange of opinion?
If we go along with the view that the Emperor must be removed from politics, this implies that the Emperor was involved in politics before and during the war, and thus shared responsibility for it. Indeed, under the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor did possess significant power over the elected Diet. However, after the war, the ruling party, with American support, worked relentlessly to construct a narrative of an Emperor who was powerless to order or prevent any of the war crimes that others paid the penalties for. This view could never stand up to logic, for if the Emperor had been powerless, he would not have had the authority to surrender. But if he was blameless then, when he was deeply involved in all decisions and discussions with various organs of government and the military, what is the harm in him now hearing various viewpoints on the present condition of the country?
More importantly, we should consider what is being discussed. Was Mr. Yamamoto’s letter concerned with “politics,” or was it concerned with a unique, unprecedented emergency that the bureaucracy and government had been unable to respond to? Do desperate times call for desperate measures, some way of finding a respected person whose voice could prick the nation’s conscience? And what do we make of a conscience that is so concerned with protocol rather than the mistreatment of the people affected by the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe?
This attempt to communicate with the Emperor came to nothing, but we can at least say that the Emperor is just a man, and Japan is a society that allows people to freely exchange their views. The Emperor can choose to respond, or not respond, but surely he might welcome the prospect of a dialogue that goes beyond the pleasantries of every other exchange he has with his subjects. After all, it was only a few days before, during his first visit ever to Minamata to speak to the victims of mercury poisoning, that the Emperor declared, “I became convinced anew that we should work together to build a society in which people can live truthfully.” [7] Those sound like the words of a lonely man who wants some meaningful connection with his fellow citizens. Mr. Yamamoto took him at his word, for living truthfully would require an honest exchange of opinions, whether one is talking to the Emperor or anyone else.
When it comes to involving the Emperor in “politics,” he has been frequently trotted out by the Japanese government for political purposes, often to suit the agenda of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. For instance, in the spring of 2013, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided, for the first time ever, to commemorate the anniversary of the end of the U.S. Occupation in 1952 with the “Restoration of Sovereignty Day,” the Emperor was invited to this staged event. The obvious purpose of it was to ready national discourse for a revision of the constitution. Later in the same year, Princess Hisako was brought to Buenos Aires to lobby for the 2020 Olympics bid, something which was the “politics” of the LDP platform. These actions were met with mild criticism at the time, but there was nothing to match the livid protests and demands for resignation that came after Mr. Yamamoto dared to communicate something more than a pleasantry to the Emperor.
Finally, the notion that the ruling party knows how to keep its politics out of various institutions is proven false in another issue. On the same day that Mr. Yamamoto’s letter to the Emperor was a source of consternation in the media, the Mainichi printed an editorial that remarked, “PM Abe’s fingerprints all over NHK board nominations,” noting that four people nominated to take empty seats on the national “independent” broadcaster’s board have personal ties to the prime minister. [8]


[1] Justin McCurry, “Fukushima horse breeder braves high radiation levels to care for animals,” the Guardian, October 27, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/27/fukushima-horse-breeder-radiation-animals

[2] Chris Busby, “Radiation exposure and heart attacks in children of Fukushima,” 2011. European Commission on Radiological Risk.

[3] G.S. Bandazhevskaya, V.B. Nesterenko, V.I. Babenko, I.V. Babenko, T.V. Yerkovich, Y.I. Bandazhevsky, “Relationship between Caesium (137Cs) load, cardiovascular symptoms, and source of food in ‘Chernobyl’ children – preliminary observations after intake of oral apple pectin.” Swiss Medical Weekly 134 (2004): 725–729.

[4] Mark P. Little, Anna Gola, Ioanna Tzoulaki, “A Model of Cardiovascular Disease Giving a Plausible Mechanism for the Effect of Fractionated Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation Exposure,” PLoS Computational Biology 5(10) (2009), e1000539 DOI:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000539

[5] Harvard Medical School, “Cancer treatments may harm the heart,” Harvard Heart Letter, August 2012. http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/cancer-treatments-may-harm-the-heart

[6] “Letter to Emperor Incident Sparking Huge Debate,” Asahi Shimbun, November 2, 2013. The article is no longer hosted on the publisher’s website and has not been saved at archive.org. However, it has been reproduced informally on other websites.

[7] “Emperor seeks to end discrimination against Minamata disease victims,” The Asahi Shimbun, October 28, 2013.
http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201310280096, as saved at web.archive.org (original article no longer hosted on the publisher’s website).

[8] “Editorial: PM Abe’s Fingerprints all over NHK Board Nominations,” The Mainichi, November 2, 2013.
http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20131102p2a00m0na006000c.html, as saved at web.archive.org (original article no longer hosted on the publisher’s website).