Thursday, April 21, 2016

Eduardo Porter Overstates His Case

Eduardo Porter in “Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Climate Change” blasts those on “the left” who question the use of nuclear power to mitigate the discharge of carbon that contributes to global warming. His allegation and its premises require careful consideration.

Porter aims his case against those on the left who oppose or doubt the need to adopt nuclear power as the “the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gasses.” Porter quotes Netscape founder Marc Andreessen that “the left is turning anti-science” and has become “reactionary”, with Andreessen citing resistance to the use of genetically modified foods and the expression of doubts about the displacement of workers by technology as two examples a “reactionary” trend. Porter, by citing the quote (and in the remainder of the article) apparently shares this view. Porter cites survey results that 65% of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science support nuclear power. He fails to reveal or discuss the grounds upon which the 65% supporting the use of nuclear energy or the 35% who oppose it base their decisions. Porter even notes—suggesting, I think, that we (liberals) should be shocked—that more Republicans support the use of nuclear power than Democrats.

While Porter remarks that climate change denial as espoused by Senator Cruz is “absurd,” he counter-balances Cruz’s absurdity by stating: “But Bernie Sanders’s argument that “toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit” might also be damaging.” Porter fails to follow-up on this quote by explaining how this concern isn’t legitimate. Instead, Porter moves into a discussion of “our scientific and technological taboos”, suggesting that Sanders statement is an example of yielding to such a taboo.
Porter’s argument turns toward issues like evolution and general relatively (Einstein’s theory) as examples of how beliefs and interests affect a person’s willingness to adopt a scientific proposition. No doubt that this is true, but it’s not equally true or consequential for every possible scientific theory or decision based on a theory. For instance, Christian fundamentalists question or deny the theory of evolution because it conflicts with a literal reading of the Bible. Porter compares this with those on the left “who said scientists either disagreed or were divided on the safety of storing nuclear waste”, suggesting that this, too, is a belief motivated by bias against science based on some other beliefs. Porter ignores the 35% of members surveyed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science referenced earlier who didn’t support building more nuclear plants—or are those scientists “the left” in that group who are subject to reactionary taboos?
In another balancing point, Porter notes that the right favors smaller government and free enterprise and are therefore motivated to deny climate change because doing so would require a modification of those ideological beliefs. Fair enough, but then look at the other side:
On the left, by contrast, people tend to mistrust corporations — especially big ones — as corrupt and destructive. These are the institutions bringing us both nuclear power and genetically modified agriculture.
Porter seems to suggest that we should be asking ourselves “why on earth would someone adopt such a foolish attitude about big corporations? What they told us about the safety of cigarette smoking and their concealment of global warming evidence was so honest, forthright, and helpful to all of us!”. (I leave other examples to your sound recollection.)

Porter concludes with this peroation:

Fixing it [what exactly?] won’t require just better science. Eliminating the roadblocks against taking substantive action against climate change may require somehow dissociating the scientific facts from deeply rooted preferences about the world we want to live in, on both sides of the ideological divide.

For Porter it’s simple: just follow the scientific facts.

Now I should put my cards on the table.

I’m skeptical but not actively opposed the expanded use of nuclear power. As someone who’s been around for almost all of the nuclear age, including fallout from atomic testing, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, I have a profound concern about the harm that nuclear energy can unleash, as well as an appreciation of its potential benefits.

I understand that if we drastically reduce the use of carbons for fuel, we could suffer a reduction in the amount of energy available to us in our daily lives. Generally speaking, the greater the energy supply, the more complex the society, and a more complex society allows a better quality of life. Thus, I take a reduction in the energy available to society as a threat to our collective well-being if taken to an extreme. Of course, conservation, walking, and taking public transportation, for instance, are examples of reducing demands on the energy grid that won’t hurt—and make actually improve—the quality of life. But if taken too far, we all will suffer. As for alternative energy sources, they remain a hope, not a reality. Thus, we spurn any source of energy at our peril.

But the critique of Porter’s argument must go to a deeper level, addressing the conceptions of science, engineering, and risk assessment upon which Porter bases his argument.

Porter notes that science changes its opinions continually and sometimes drastically. Science and its practical application in engineering are human projects subject to human strengths and weaknesses. While science has continued to push back the barriers of ignorance and engineering has allowed the creation of increasingly sophisticated structures and systems, both still carry the curse of human fallibility. Science knows a lot and really smart scientists know that we are ignorant of a great deal more, both because of the inherent limitations of the human thinking and as a result of the biases that we all struggle with. As to creations that we build, we create amazing things, and we create catastrophic failures. Having seen what failings nuclear plants can suffer as a result of Nature’s unpredictability (Fukushima) or as a result of human flaws of design and operation (Three Mile Island and Chernobyl), caution should be our guide. While we can push back against the tide of ignorance and failure, we can never fully defeat it. Science and engineering are not monolithic gods to whom we should bow before in a new idolatry. Instead, they are human enterprises that must remain subject to an awareness of  our limitations. Hubris is the greatest enemy of science and engineering; it always has been, and I suspect this will remain so.

But to warn of hubris on the part of science and technology in believing that these enterprises can move beyond failure and ignorance is a meta-perspective. We need to address the particular problem of nuclear energy. As the advisability of using nuclear power, we should ask about the specific risks and benefits. Having spent more than three decades as a practicing lawyer—and because I believe that certain legal principles provide a wide-ranging and sensible set of guidelines—we should ask about issues of liability if problems with a nuclear plant develop (and not limit ourselves to fuel waste). What liability insurance coverage does a nuclear plant in the U.S. receive? What is required? How does an insurance carrier measure the risk? How is the likelihood of risk measured? How is the magnitude of damage measured? What standard of liability applies? Strict liability (liability regardless of fault, say because of an earthquake or tsunami) or ordinary negligence (a foreseeable risk that a reasonable person in like or similar circumstances could have avoided). Are there any caps on damages? In other words, what is the largest loss that any carrier or guarantor (i.e., taxpayers) would be expected to pay out? What are the other available options and how do they compare on these and other relevant criteria, such as technical feasibility? And last but not least, what Black Swans lurk in the field? Or in Rumsfield language, what are the unknown unknowns? If the Deepwater catastrophe did x amount of harm, what can we expect from the next nuclear disaster?

There are some answers to these questions. The U.S. nuclear industry does have insurance coverage, although it's backed up by the government. But I question (and don’t presume to have a final answer) whether the appreciation of the risks has been appropriately addressed. Before I’d say yea or nay to further plants—and without any concern for Porter’s imagined taboos—I’d have to review and consider these risks and the available alternatives.  

The point of this exercise is not that Porter is wrong to argue in favor of using nuclear power to ameliorate the carbon loading that increases the likelihood of catastrophic climate change. This argument can and should be made. However, to argue that those who question the wisdom of using nuclear power are Luddites who refuse to worship the god of Science and Technology is a calumny. It presents a na├»ve view of science, and it fails to consider the demanding issues of weighing risks and benefits. We can and must do better. Mr. Porter should do better by his readers.