Towards more reasoned debate about nuclear and renewables

29 April 2021

Letter to the editor from Andy Stirling, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, UK

It is reasonable to give particular scrutiny both to the style and content of a commentary by Jeremy Gordon published on an article issued last year in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Energy.

This is sadly especially so, because what we see as Jeremy Gordon’s aggressive tone and superficial arguments display behaviour that is sadly growing among nuclear proponents. These are worrying signs of a wider malaise in current nuclear debates.

As an author of the attacked article, I’m grateful for this chance to reply. Grave warnings emerge for all sides. Important repercussions arise especially for policy rigour and the democratic quality.

Before substantiating these points, I should be clear about the background of my fellow authors – on behalf of whom I write. Coming from a variety of perspectives on the pros and cons of nuclear power, we are emphatically not in-principle ‘anti-nuclear’ in the pejorative sense Gordon lambasts. We are, for reasons we clearly articulate, simply raising uncomfortable findings.

It is a growing problem in nuclear advocacy that those holding contrasting informed and measured views – or who simply question the comparative merits of nuclear power – are so often smeared as ‘anti-nuclear’. It is hysterical to brand someone raising evidence of a problem with something, as being somehow intrinsically ‘anti’ that thing. Yet on nuclear, this is a norm.

Nuclear proponents who label others this way risk seriously polarising otherwise rational debate. It is no consolation for us that in a separate reflection on these issues for Nature Energy we anticipate this syndrome and try to build some bridges.

Our contributions to Nature Energy are very deliberate in emphasising that all energy analysis – including our own – is deeply conditioned by uncertainties and legitimate differences in understandings, values and interests. This is a striking contrast to Gordon who goes beyond pejorative labelling to actively ridicule any position not in-principle supportive of nuclear power. This is exemplified by Gordon’s intemperate ad hominem attack on my fellow author (the globally leading energy scholar Benjamin Sovacool).

I will return at the end to the importance of bridge-building across these unnecessary divides. But what is needed now, is to correct each of the points Gordon raises.

First, there are insinuations about the fundamental framing of our analysis. Even to raise questions about relative pros and cons of nuclear versus renewable based strategies is treated by Gordon as if inherently biased. Why is this? We live in a world of constrained time and resources. Although not all dilemmas are zero sum, some aspects definitely are. To seek to deny there are any senses in which nuclear and renewable strategies are competing, is quite extraordinary.
Next Gordon turns to what he calls “detailed debunkings of the paper online”…It is notable that (unlike our article), none of this online commentary is peer reviewed.

For our part, we responded to social media commentators by politely inviting each to freely post any criticisms on our university website.

Here, it must be asked why many animated tweeters have ignored courteous invitations to engage in open reasoned discussion. No critic has yet responded to the Nature Energy blogpost. This journal will shortly publish a series of more substantive exchanges around our article. All criticisms we have so far seen, have proven readily correctible.
Gordon also argues it is our premise that “no country could support both technologies in an energy mix”. This is manifestly false. We merely seek to examine (not assert) the possibility of there being trade-offs or tensions between nuclear and renewable pathways.

Next Gordon declares “no possibility was allowed for a country to have a slant towards particular renewable sources and there was no examination of whether they might crowd each other out”. This is false. Our paper is unusually direct in focusing on ‘crowding out’. There is nothing that excludes such effects among renewables.

Gordon continues with a similar fallacy that our paper does not take account of limited availabilities of hydroelectricity. Here he seems to muddle our empirical analysis with prospective modelling. We are clear in analysing empirical statistical associations. We focus on correlations, not causes. And we certainly don’t make predictions.

Then, Gordon says that the paper “ignores the most fundamental thing of all about energy policy — that each country is different”. Yet it is precisely this importance of cross-national difference that makes our comprehensive dataset and careful multivariate methods so important. This is how differences are accounted for.

Remarkably, our analysis seems actually the first systematically to analyse global patterns of association between national carbon dioxide emissions and commitments to different energy strategies. We admit, this is only a start. But it is long overdue. Does Gordon prefer simply to continue without any such analysis, with claims remaining just a matter of doctrine?
Next, Gordon criticises us for not analysing coal, oil or gas. Our purpose is to examine associations between carbon emissions and the uptake of two families of technologies that are variously claimed as “zero carbon”: nuclear and renewables. We are ourselves clear in urging further more specific work addressing finer details and wider dimensions. But it is not unreasonable that this pioneering study focuses specifically on technologies for which zero carbon claims are actually made.

Later, Gordon questions the statistical power of a study that can only compare 30 countries using nuclear power to all the rest.

With respect to statistical methods, our paper is very careful to interrogate its own parameters and results – and be open about resulting loose ends. That only 30 countries have so far adopted nuclear power is hardly a flaw in our analysis. If this low uptake of nuclear power becomes a reason to avoid interrogating it, then a disquieting risk emerges that inconvenient questions are being suppressed.

Gordon ends denigrating what he presumes are our motivations, “to divide the community, to entrench people into camps on both sides of the nuclear vs renewable divide…” But our motives are actually scientific. We do not claim final answers. We acknowledge possible improvements. We are simply scrutinising, in empirical analysis, a hugely important – and hitherto remarkably underquestioned – policy claim. Isn’t this what science is about?

Whatever ‘side’ one is on, it is striking that as the relative position of nuclear power deteriorates, the invective grows more intense. But perhaps all may agree (on any side), that spurious caricatures and personal attacks undermine themselves?
No technology is entitled to immunity either from criticism or obsolescence. Whether nuclear power faces this latter fate is unsure. But if (like many earlier technologies) its time has come, then this past quintessential icon of scientific prowess should not bring down with it the reasoned policy discourse that forms the lifeblood of democracy itself.

Andy Stirling, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, UK

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