Nuclear paper published

The February issue of the St. Antony’s International Review contains my article: “Climate Change, Energy Security, and Nuclear Power.” The article is meant to be an introduction to some of the important issues surrounding nuclear power, energy security, and climate change. It remains an issue that I am agnostic about. It may be that nuclear fission is an important transition technology, useful to smooth the transition to a low-carbon global economy. It may also be that it is a subsidized, dangerous boondoggle and a distraction from superior options.

The full text is available here (PDF). Comments would be appreciated.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

55 thoughts on “Nuclear paper published”

  1. I just finished reading the full article which is to be published in the St. Anthony’s International Review. I learned a lot. I appreciated the manner in which you set out the advantages and disadvantages. It also stood out for me that it was practical. It considered the realities that ideal solutions such as massive reduction of consumption, although desirable, are not the basis on which present policy should be based.

    I found it interesting and topical that at page 104 you refer to Monbiot’s opposition to nuclear power in his widely read 2006 book Heat. Monbiot as you have reported in your blog yesterday has moved to a position of conditional non-opposition.

    Is there someway that the diagram on page 106 can be rotated on your link so that it can be more easily read?

    Congratulations on your article being published in the St. Anthony International Review. Thank you for giving me more information with which to develop an informed view.

  2. Congratulations on the fruition of all your hard work on the paper. I would love to read the entire issue. But, I bet few of the other writers can claim that they fought off a flood disaster during the precious hours before its draft deadline.


  3. Congratulations on the publication. I’ll get to reading it just as soon as I finish writing this paper…

    Personally I feel ambivalent about publishing in journals. It seems to work well in the social sciences, natural sciences, and other humanities like history, but I’m skeptical as to whether the dominance of journal based publication has been beneficial for philosophy.

  4. Personally I feel ambivalent about publishing in journals.

    Journal publications seem to be at the very core of the current academic system; they are the way you claw yourself up to tenure. The number of publications and the exclusivity of the journal seem to be the key considerations. It’s a mark of how little of an IR academic that I am that I cannot even name the top IR journals.

    After that, you may be free to write books in leisurely fashion.

  5. “I’m skeptical as to whether the dominance of journal based publication has been beneficial for philosophy.”

    My comment was not oriented towards the self-interested desire for success. Rather, it was an expression of unease at the current dogma that research can be measured as productivity, according to the equation which multiplies numbers of articles published by the prestige of those journals the articles are published in. I don’t doubt that that the current academic system is based on this, I simply doubt whether the current system it is a friend of thinking.

  6. I simply doubt whether the current system it is a friend of thinking.

    I very much doubt that it is, in many cases. Academia is exhaustingly political.

  7. In any case, adding a few more publications to peer-reviewed journals to my C.V. should be helpful if I ever decide to go back for another degree.

  8. “I simply doubt whether the current system it is a friend of thinking.”

    This was a bit of an oversight on my part – I meant this comment to be restricted specifically to the discourse of philosophy. Whether or not journals are convivial to thinking in other departments is a matter on which I do not wish to make any suggestions.

  9. In fast moving fields – like, say, materials engineering or medicine – I can see why journals are a critical form of knowledge distribution.

  10. Tristan, how would you like to see the product of your work being offered to fellow academics and the general public? I understand the limitations of journal articles but find it hard to imagine other alternative apart from books and conferences.

    Milan, congratulation! I am currently writing an article with one of my previous prof and it’s a very painful process.

  11. “I understand the limitations of journal articles but find it hard to imagine other alternative apart from books and conferences.”

    Are books and conferences inadequate in some way?

  12. Conferences require a lot of travel and are generally only accessible to a very small number of people. Any undergraduate can get a hold of journal articles.

  13. Again,

    I was trying to restrict my comments to the field of philosophy, I simply don’t know enough about other fields to say what effect the hegemony of journal publishing has had their thinking.

    Conferences are held at pretty much every university, so they are only a travel problem if you need to go to specific ones. I find the more useful things at conferences were hearing things you weren’t expecting to find interesting – but this might be specific to philosophy because of the way thinking spreads and connects across sub disciplinary boundaries.

    Any undergrad can get a hold of a journal article, but any undergrad can also get a hold of a book. The advantage of a book is that it doesn’t have to spend half of its word count explaining its own situatedness in a discussion. The best journal articles in philosophy are those which don’t pretend to be understandable as stand-alones, like Davidson, or Derrida, McDowell, etc.. and these are therefore pretty accessible to anyone other than either experts or people becoming experts.

  14. The problem with conferences is that they have serious limitations in time and space: you have to be there to get anything out of it.

    The problem with books is that they are generally not peer-reviewed and that they are generally not funded by government and philanthropic organizations making them subject to market imperatives.

  15. “The advantage of a book is that it doesn’t have to spend half of its word count explaining its own situatedness in a discussion.”

    Could you explain why this is problematic?

  16. Another issue is citations.

    The number of times an article is cited in other works (including books) is a good measure of its importance. Google Scholar illustrates the use of this very well.

    Conference presentations aren’t incorporated into a web of knowledge in the same way. That might be fine for very small disciplines – like the early Irish history a friend of mine and a dozen other people worldwide work on – but it doesn’t seem well suited to big fields, or issues that will be of interest for decades.

  17. In philosophy at least, a book isn’t good because it’s cited a lot. It’s good because it’s good. Whether people like it or not, whether it gets good reviews, etc, is contingent. Hume’s “Inquiry” didn’t get good reviews when it came out, it “fell stillborn from the press” – should potential readers have read other things on this basis?

    I’m not saying that in some places this “web of knowledge” created by journals isn’t beneficial – I’m just saying that in philosophy, it guarentees people are constantly distracted by tiny “in vogue” problems which tend to turn thinking into a kind of parlour game where the prize is SSHRC research grants.

  18. For geniuses like Hume, the rules are different. For ordinary scholars, the work of academia is fairly incremental. Certainly, there are injustices where credit isn’t properly allocated, but the journal/tenure track grind is simply the norm for most academics.

  19. Almost by definition, in any field you examine, most members are mediocre in relation to their peers.

  20. I don’t doubt that most people are average, this is indisputable – true by definition, even. What I dispute is dividing off “averageness” from choices people make in what discourses they will participate in.

    I don’t think that those who produce the best work do it only by chance, or by some gift from God, or a miraculous interaction between genes and upbringing. I think some philosophers produce much better work than others simply because they manage to avoid the rat-race, because they become more concerned with thinking than with success, more concerned with what they think is the most powerful work they can do, rather than what they think the most profitable work they can do, in terms of money, prestige, stability, respectability, etc…

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to go into details, but some of the works that I think are amongst the best I’ve come across, are not widely read. The fact they are mostly ignored is no guarantee that they are actually good philosophical works or not, rather, the general dismissal of these works has no bearing on to what extent they are excellent philosophy. In disputing this, one would accidentally also dismiss Hume’s Inquiry, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind – lots of the books that we think now as completely fundamental and essential in philosophy were largely ignored for 10 to 50 years after their publication.

  21. At an early stage of one’s academic career, journals provide a way of getting noticed.

    Few people will read a book by someone with no reputation. At the same time, if such a person gets a paper into a good journal, it will be widely read.

  22. An advantage to an article in a journal is that the writer will generally be called upon to be more efficient. The reader benefits in having a subject covered in time suitable to be read in one sitting. This does not occur with books. Coincidentally authors of books are more likely to drag on unnecessarily.

    For example I learned and retained quite a bit about the arguments for and against nuclear power from Milan’s article in one sitting.

  23. Journal articles also provide a more focused target for responses.

    It is easier to write a comprehensive and convincing rebuttal of a journal article than an entire book.

    Incidentally, some substantive criticism of the article would be much appreciated.

  24. “It is easier to write a comprehensive and convincing rebuttal of a journal article than an entire book.”

    Your right – in fact, it’s easy to, in a single page, formulate a devastating and dismissive criticism of almost any philosophy paper. The problem here is not that the philosophy papers are “bad”, but that it’s almost impossible in a 20-30 page paper, write something that doesn’t have horrible problems of inadequacy.

    The fact it is so easy to criticize papers compared to books a problem with papers. Papers work at conferences because they are still alive – the presenter responds to questions. Papers in a journal are artificially dead. Chapters in a book do not have the advantage of a live presenter, but they rely on each other. Papers have to rely on “charity”, i.e. giving papers the most “charitable” reading possible, meaning that you invent things the presenter might have said in response to criticisms.

  25. What do you think of my nuclear paper?

    Whether to build more nuclear capacity seems to be a very important question, and my degree of confidence about which option is correct is quite low.

  26. I find myself repeating myself. My criticisms of journal articles here were never meant to be general.

    “I … restrict my comments to the field of philosophy, I simply don’t know enough about other fields to say what effect the hegemony of journal publishing has had their thinking.”

    One reason for this is that specialization in philosophy means quite often only those already steeped in a particular specialization can meaningfully judge a paper, whereas since books are more comprehensive, a much greater group of philosophers can learn from and judge them on their own, without needing to become already a specialist in the specific part of philosophy that the paper addresses. It’s quite possible that other disciplines don’t have this problem, and this could be for various reasons. For one, other disciplines might be less specialized. For another, even if they are specialized, different specializations might be different only in terms of content and not in terms of thinking and method. For another, there may be more consensus about what the concerns of the field are.

  27. Fine. My question was separate from the books v. articles v. conferences debate.

    Nuclear power is an important issue for Canadians.

  28. I liked the paper. I do have a few comments.

    -You didn’t cite anyone on the risks of geo-engineering.
    -Canada has a history that includes plans for elaborate nuclear waste storage, which failed for political reasons. Relevant to the nuclear question is both the political feasibility of long term storage, and also, what environmental standards must such storage meet? I believe the reason Yucca mountain has been so difficult has something to do with the bar for safety being set at an unrealistically and unnecessarily high bar. We need to adjudicate risk over time in a more intelligent way – we need to take into account future risk, but we can’t over-value, or at least, we should argue about whether we should overvalue future risk. There needs to be a human future for this risk to even be a relevant question.

    -you didn’t cite anyone on smart grids with reference to electric cars. If you want, I can put you in touch with Kai who is doing his PhD in Copenhagen on this issue. Last I spoke with him, the projected outcome is only the potential to increase unswitchable power sources (i.e. all renewables) from 15 to 30 percent. If this is the case, and there is no subsequent solution to allow something like 80 or 90 percent unswitchable power, then the renewables are not really an alternative to nuclear.

  29. Denmark is already up to 19.7% wind power.

    Joseph Romm and George Monbiot both anticipate a future where the USA and UK are well over 50% powered by renewables. I think the key is long-distance HVDC transmission, coupled with some energy storage.

  30. You didn’t cite anyone on the risks of geo-engineering.

    The editing process was strange. First, they ordered me to remove all footnotes and endnotes. Then, to re-insert them. In any case, it’s not hard to find serious critiques of the safety and effectiveness of geoengineering.

    I believe the reason Yucca mountain has been so difficult has something to do with the bar for safety being set at an unrealistically and unnecessarily high bar.

    This is yet another issue nobody seems capable of agreeing about. Some say that you can dump the wastes in geologically stable areas and forget about them. Others highlight how we cannot build containers that will hold the waste across the span of time when it will be dangerous.

  31. I have now read the paper a second time through. I thought it was very good.

    Some specific comments include:

    I saw the strength of the paper as lying in presenting arguments for and against in a practical way as opposed to an ideal way, This may reflect the conversion that Monbiot has had.

    I found it less important and somewhat diluting the general purpose of your paper to review the science of climate change such as the time devoted to the “wedge” at page 97 or the stabilization ay 450 PPM or 550 PPM at pages 97-98.

    It would be helpful if the chart on page 106 could somehow be turned around. I have not reviewed the chart as I have not printed a copy of the paper.

    It sounds to me that you are hesitant to come on one side or the other of the debate. I would be particularly interested in your view as to increased use of nuclear power in the United States and China. The US is the dominant carbon source; and China may become so. Both are nuclear military powers so nuclear proliferation is less of an issue as it already exists there. Both the US and China have interests in energy security which could be met by coal. To me increased nuclear power is a practical solution in those states.

  32. I found it less important and somewhat diluting the general purpose of your paper to review the science of climate change

    It is the seriousness of climate change that might redeem nuclear fission as an energy option.

    If we didn’t have climate change to deal with, it would be extremely hard to justify the use of nuclear power, given all the arguments against it.

  33. It would be helpful if the chart on page 106 could somehow be turned around. I have not reviewed the chart as I have not printed a copy of the paper.

    That chart is a somewhat more formal version of the chart in this previous blog post.

  34. There seem to be errors in the published flowchart: namely, two of the ‘yes’ decision lines are labelled ‘no.’

  35. There seem to be errors in the published flowchart: namely, two of the ‘yes’ decision lines are labelled ‘no.’

    Quite right. It’s ironic that the graphic in the blog post was more accurate than the one in the peer-reviewed scholarly article.

  36. I just need to throw in my old two cents about how hydro power isn’t green. Even if you don’t care about the rivers and ecosystems you destroy, the arable land and towns flooded, the fish runs, etc.. there is still the problem of CO2 production from rotting vegetation. You could log the entire basin before flooding it, but this never actually happens in big projects (at the Bennett dam, they logged right up to the farthest point you could see from where the press would be standing on opening day – which was only a tiny fraction of the total basin). The result of this is rotting wood, which produces CO2 at a considerable rate for hundreds of years. And even if you log the entire basin, what do you think the dirt you’re standing on when you’re finished is made of? Organic material – and quite a lot too.

    Also, dams are made with concrete. Quite a bit of concrete. I realize this is a one-time investment of energy to gain energy over a long term, but dams also don’t last forever. I don’t know the math on this, but it would be appropriate to compare the energy cost in C02 in dam production to the energy supply of the dam over the projected lifespan.

    Here’s an article in New Scientist about this problem:

  37. Obviously, dams aren’t perfect. That being said, you can’t argue with the difference in per capita emissions in hydro-heavy provinces, compared to those with little hydroelectricity:

    Quebec: 11.65 tonnes per person per year
    British Columbia: 15.44 tonnes
    New Brunswick: 26.46 tonnes
    Saskatchewan: 71.13 tonnes
    Alberta: 71.59 tonnes

  38. World Water Forum
    Sin aqua non
    Mar 21st 2009 | ISTANBUL

    Dams are making a comeback

    IT WAS political theatre as usual. Two demonstrators from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called International Rivers disrupted the opening ceremony of the fifth World Water Forum, a week-long gathering in Istanbul of the great and good who work on matters watery which concludes on Sunday March 22nd. The demonstrators unfurled a banner saying “No Risky Dams” in metre-high letters. They were detained and thrown out of the country.

  39. FOOLING WITH DISASTER? Startling revelations about Three Mile Island disaster raise doubts over nuclear plant safety

    Today, his story about what he witnessed at Three Mile Island is being brought to the public in detail for the first time — and his version of what happened during that time, supported by a growing body of other scientific evidence, contradicts the official U.S. government story that the Three Mile Island accident posed no threat to the public.

    “What happened at TMI was a whole lot worse than what has been reported,” Randall Thompson told Facing South. “Hundreds of times worse.”

  40. Nuclear power
    The critical issue of safety

    Mar 19th 2009 | PARIS
    From The Economist print edition
    The much-heralded renaissance of nuclear power will fail unless the public can be convinced that all plants, worldwide, are safe

    Proliferation and nuclear power
    Fuel for thought

    Mar 19th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    Schemes to take the military danger out of civilian nuclear power

  41. “Some say that you can dump the wastes in geologically stable areas and forget about them.” I think the idea was that radioactive materials naturally occur and there are environments that are resistant to harm from radiation, so we should study them and possibly use them to help lower the cost of storage. I’ve never come across someone* advocating merely draining the waste back into the mine. Someone might have advocated it, but focusing on that claim isn’t charitable. I think the spirit was that converting an existing mine is more cost effective and safer because the natural shielding acts as an additional precaution over and above man-made containment, and those environments tend to be geographically stable.
    *Speaking of making yourself look good, if you can find a person who advocates that, do the smart thing academically, cite and draft a reply article. Any paper, regardless of how basic and self-obvious the point, is fair as long as it is a reaction to a position in print. Then go back to using the more substantive idea in terms of the general debate.

    On your paper:

    I found the non-proliferation argument against nuclear power somewhat strange. I’m hesitant of arguments that equate knowledge with danger. I think you commit too much. There is a wide range of professions and activities that involve knowledge that might be misapplied, and yet we don’t accept that as an argument against enjoying the positive application of that knowledge. This sort of hits at the root of the matter; I find the non-proliferation argument inherently queer because the third pillar NNPT is peaceful use of nuclear technology. I’m not trying to beg the question, since I know you are investigating whether nuclear power generation is desirable and/or necessary. My point is that I interpret that pillar not merely as a declaration of permissible policy, but as a contractual obligation generated through negotiation. As I understand it, the political deal was a transfer of civilian nuclear technology in exchange for not pursuing nuclear weapons. So when Ahmadinejad claims that ‘Iran has a God given right to nuclear power’… well, he is a religious fundamentalist, an extreme nationalist, and a muckraker, but it isn’t expressly incorrect. Iran might not be entitled to anything because we have concerns with their fidelity to the treaties principles, but in theory, the NNPT guaranties participant states that they may pursue civilian nuclear technology, and as I interpret it, that there is a redistribute social justice, and/or politically pragmatic point that suggests that we are obligated to help them. So it seems strange that you suggest refusing to share civilian technology as the outcome of non-proliferation argument against nuclear power when the NNPT permits the development and might obligate us to share civilian technology.

    Congratulations on publishing the article.

  42. I actually wasn’t being critical of the idea of burying radioactive waste. All told, it seems rather sensible to put it deep in geologically stable rock. At least, it seems the most sensible among the alternatives available. Indeed, I would feel better about new nuclear construction if the firms had to build geological storage facilities for the wastes beforehand.

    On proliferation, I do think knowledge and access to fissile materials are the two key requirements for building nuclear weapons, and a civilian nuclear program can easily provide both. You can breed plutonium in reactors, and enriching fuel for light water reactors teaches you about how to do it for bombs. Building reactors may also let you import exotic equipment or materials useful for bomb-making.

    I think the NNPT enshrines the right to peaceful use of nuclear power out of political necessity, not because it is complementary to the goal of stopping proliferation. It simply would not have been possible to create a regime that denied all nuclear technology to states other than the established nuclear powers.

    On the specific point of Iran, it seems more likely than not that their reactor and enrichment programs are aimed at weapons development, rather than civilian purposes. This has been effectively recognized through the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the matter. While Iran may have a legal or moral right to civilian nuclear technology, that is not what they are pursuing now – partly because it makes no sense as a power source for a state with their natural resource endowments.

  43. Wow. I must be losing my ability to communicate, because my post has been interpreted so radically different than intended that I’m somewhat at a loss.

    I agree with your full-articulated position on using mines as storage facilities. I took issue with a phrase in one of your previous posts that suggested that the idea was as simple as dumping waste into naturally shield areas. I included that quote.

    My last post was not a pro-Iranian post. I am trying to be very clear. I believe I said as much, “Iran might not be entitled to anything because we have concerns with their fidelity to the treaties principles”. So I want to make it unequivocally clear that this is not a pro-Iranian, pro-proliferation, or pro-militant post. I have grave concerns about including this link, for fear that this post will be interpreted as a pro-Iranian gesture, but I hope that others will understand the motivation comes from a desire to be meticulous in my reply.

    Whether Iran is using their civilian program to develop weapons is a matter of debate. The latest IAEA report says Iran is not. Here is a BBC link highlighting the debate, the report link may be found off that page.
    (Once again, fastidious, not pro-Iranian, or pro-armament.)

    Which brings me to the main point, the substance of my critique was that you’re suggesting a course of action that violates international law and our obligations and that the choice to adopt or not is not entirely within our control, so the withholding strategy is a false option. My choice of Iran might have been poor, but the example was used because they are currently the most active state in trying to press their nuclear rights and because only A. says crazy things like the paraphrase. The “God given” part was actually intended to be a joke. I don’t think you’ve engaged with the main criticism at all. I agree that knowledge and civilian capacity allows for easier proliferation. I also agree that the NNPT is a political necessity that I stated as, “politically pragmatic point” that is “generated through negotiation”. We exchanged the obligations to allow and help develop civilian programs in return for the promise not to develop weapons. However, the point still remains that this method, regardless of how ineffective, has been settled upon and the corresponding obligation generated. You seem to admit that, “It simply would not have been possible to create a regime that denied all nuclear technology to states other than the established nuclear powers.”, yet the anti-nuclear argument suggests that very course of action. (1) It doesn’t seem possible. The dynamics that forced the compromise to begin with are still at work. You seem to recognize them. (2) Since the cat is out of the bag, I just wanted to make sure that you were aware that the full consequence of the argument – it is denying contractual obligations. (These comments are limited to the content of p102)

  44. I don’t think we are in as much disagreement as you seem to think. All I am saying is that the danger of nuclear proliferation is one argument against expanded use of nuclear power. In one sense, the Iranian case does demonstrate how states with existing nuclear industries can play a role in which states go on to develop them. If not for Russian support (and previous support from the US and others), the Iranian program would probably be significantly further back.

    As exporters of nuclear technology, states including Canada, the US, the UK, Japan, France, and Russia need to consider the likely consequences of their choices. That being said, the risk of proliferation isn’t so significant as to decide the whole issue on its own.

  45. Next-Gen Nuclear Power Plant Breaks Ground In China

    “The construction of first next-generation Westinghouse nuclear power reactor breaks ground in Sanmen, China. The reactor, expected to generate 1100 Megawatts by 2013, costs 40 billion Yuan (~US$6 billion; that’s a lot of iPods.) According to Westinghouse, ‘The AP1000 is the safest and most economical nuclear power plant available in the worldwide commercial marketplace, and is the only Generation III+ reactor to receive Design Certification from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).’ However, Chinese netizens suspect China is being used as a white rat to test unproven nuclear technologies (comments in Chinese).”

  46. FERC chair on new nuclear and coal plants: “We may not need any, ever.”

    The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, said today of new coal and nuclear plants, “We may not need any, ever.”

    Greenwire (subs. req’d) reported his remarks at a U.S. Energy Association forum:

    “I think [new nuclear expansion] is kind of a theoretical question, because I don’t see anybody building these things, I don’t see anybody having one under construction,” Wellington said.

    Building nuclear plants is cost-prohibitive, he said, adding that the last price he saw was more than $7,000 a kilowatt — more expensive than solar energy. “Until costs get to some reasonable cost, I don’t think anybody’s going to [talk] that seriously,” he said. “Coal plants are sort of in the same boat, they’re not quite as expensive.”

  47. Moody’s – Nuclear operators face increasing climate risks, but resiliency investments mitigate impact

    While nuclear plants are among the most hardened infrastructure assets, plant operators may have to take added measures to offset exposure to these growing climate risks, Moody’s says. The proximity of power plants to large bodies of water leaves them vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes, and storm surges, which increases the risk of damage to the plant or essential equipment.

    Rising heat and water stress also poses a risk to plant operations. “Parts of the Midwest and southern Florida face the highest levels of heat stress, while the Rocky Mountain region and California face the greatest uncertainty regarding long-term water supplies, Kamran said. “We count about 48 GW of nuclear capacity with elevated exposure to combined rising heat and water stress across the US.”

  48. Europe is rich and can replace what food it cannot grow. The same may not be true of energy. Sizzling heat forced France to throttle some of its nuclear plants: the water drawn from rivers to cool reactors could not safely be returned to those already steamy waterways without parboiling fish. (Amid a shortage of power the rules were relaxed on August 8th.) Norway is worried about low reservoir levels. It has warned that it could cut exports of hydroelectricity to places such as Germany. The power crunch in Europe’s largest economy could be remedied by burning coal—if only barges carrying the stuff could navigate down the Rhine. Partly as a result, energy prices remain stubbornly high.

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