Benjamin K. Sovacool

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Benjamin K. Sovacool is NOT A LAWYER,[1] but rather, a researcher in the field of energy policy formerly at the Vermont Law School (currently at the University of Sussex, UK). He has published several books on the topics of energy, energy policy and climate change mitigation. He is also a Huffington Post blogger, though as of June 2013 he published only one post.[2]

A few of Sovacool's papers are popular with the anti-nuclear movement. While they appear to make a good case against nuclear power, they contain some methodological errors and other mistakes, which are apparent under closer inspection. Note that Sovacool himself does not identify as anti-nuclear.

Specific publications[edit]

Sovacool is the author of over 200 publications, so this section will only address the papers which are often mentioned in debates on nuclear power.

Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey[edit]

Arguably the most popular of Sovacool's papers on the Internet is Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey published in the journal Energy Policy in 2008.[3] It is a survey of analyses done on this topic.

Sovacool found 103 papers estimating the greenhouse gas emissions for the nuclear fuel cycle. He then subjected them to a selection process which consisted of the following:

  • He rejected 40 that were too old (published before 1997).
  • He rejected 9 that were not published in English or were not open access, though this paper was not published as open access.
  • He rejected 35 because of methodology. In most cases, this was due to relying either on unpublished data or on secondary sources (e.g. other analyses). Oddly, he also excluded a study that calculated very low emissions that relied on "published utility data", which did not appear to meet his criterion.

After all this, he was left with 19 studies that satisfied his criteria. He did not evaluate the soundness of methodology at all, or consider whether there was any peer review before publication, he just considered whether it was described in enough detail.[4] He also did not remove superseded versions of the same analysis from the same authors. This led him to include 3 versions of the Leeuwen and Smith nonsense, as well as 3 different studies by Dones et al. Finally, to arrive at a "true" value of CO2 emissions, he calculated a mean of all results. He arrived at a value of 66 g/kWh, which he then compared to emissions from other sources, with each value selected from a single analysis.

This approach has several flaws:

  • The criteria of the selection process are faulty, as it leads to the inclusion of widely debunked fiction, while rejecting studies based on real world measurements.
  • The mean is used as the "true" value, despite the well known fact that a mean is far more sensitive to outliers, and a wiser choice would be the median.
  • The emissions for other sources are not obtained using the same process, and therefore not directly comparable.

A better meta-analysis which investigated a larger corpus of literature and additionally excluded studies using the average economic intensity (AEI) method, which is known to produce bogus results for projects utilizing lots of high-value, low-energy labor (such as the construction and operation of nuclear power plants), came up with a median of 13 g/kWh lifecycle emissions for light water reactors.[5]

A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia[edit]

This publication makes many claims, but for now we will focus only on one specific item.

Sovacool uses the aforementioned emissions analysis to argue that renewable energy is "two to seven times more effective" at combating global warming than nuclear power, because the values he cited for wind are around 10 g/kWh, or around 6 times lower, than what he calculated for nuclear power.[6] This is a mistake very similar to thinking that hydrogen has twice the lifting force of helium when used to fill a baloon, because helium is twice as dense. In fact helium is only around 8% less effective, because what matters for the lifting force is the difference of density between the gas and air, not the absolute value of density. Similarly, what really counts in the case of CO2 emissions is the change with respect to the sources replaced by new generation.

Nuclear power displaces other base load power, mainly coal. Wind displaces mainly natural gas and hydro: gas turbines and dams can vary output much quicker to respond to wind's variability, while coal power plants cannot.[7][8] For the moment, we'll assume that only natural gas is displaced by wind and hydro is unchanged. Sovacool's article quotes the emissions for coal and gas as 960 g/kWh and 443 g/kWh, respectively. Generating 1 kWh from nuclear removes the need to generate 1 kWh from coal, saving 894 g of CO2. Generating 1 kWh from wind removes the need to generate 1 kWh from gas, saving 433 g of CO2. Therefore, nuclear is at least twice as effective at reducing emissions. If the existing grid is almost 100% natural gas, as is the case in some Arab countries, then each kWh from nuclear would save 367 g, while each kWh from wind would save 433 g. In this rather extreme scenario, nuclear would be 15% less effective per kWh than wind.

Even Sovacool's own numbers do not support the claim that nuclear is "two to seven times less effective" at emissions reduction than renewable sources. Compounded with the fact that a later analysis produced a much lower number of 13 g/kWh,[5] this contention is unsupported by evidence.

Bird mortality studies[edit]

Sovacool's oft-cited 2009 paper Contextualizing avian mortality: A preliminary appraisal of bird and bat fatalities from wind, fossil-fuel, and nuclear electricity[9] concluded that fossil fuel energy and nuclear energy causes 10 times more bird deaths per GWh generated than does wind energy. This paper has the unusual distinction of having a direct rebuttal (Willis et al. 2010[10]) published against its conclusions in the same journal (a blemish accrued by less than 2% of peer-reviewed papers). Further studies by Sovacool in 2012[11] and 2013[12] reached conclusions similar to the 2009 paper. At that point, Sovacool was sticking to his guns.

But in early 2013 Sovacool's studies were reported in the press, which led to them actually being read by people. Thus they attracted strong criticism in the blogosphere[13][14][15][16], particularly regarding Sovacool's sloppy methodology (assigning deaths from fossil-fuel plants to nuclear power, assigning deaths from copper mining to uranium, and assuming unusual accidents are common occurrances). To his credit in Sovacool's response[17] to some of these criticisms he has admitted many errors which, if corrected, would have significantly changed his conclusions.

Perhaps the most notable failing of these papers is that Sovacool considers lifecycle bird deaths for nuclear, while omitting them for wind. Thus, the fact that wind uses 10 times more steel than nuclear and 700 times more copper than nuclear per MWh generated[18], would have reversed Sovacool's conclusions even if that were the only error in these papers.

Nuclear Power and Climate Emissions in EU[edit]

Sovacool co-authored a paper in 2016 in the journal 'Climate Policy'[19] which, according to its press release, claimed:

most progress towards reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy sources – as set out in the EU's 2020 Strategy – has been made by [EU] nations without nuclear energy or with plans to reduce it

This claim was false; and based on incompetent maths[20]. After complains about the validity of data, the paper was retracted by the authors within a few months.[21] Although the press release has subsequently been removed from the University of Sussex website, it was published by 'The Ecologist' as an "article"[22]. Despite the retraction, as of today (2 Sept 2019), 6 out of 13 green media and science news sites who reported the press release still carry their stories without acknowledging the retraction.

Nuclear Power v.s Renewables[edit]

In regard to reducing CO2 emissions, Sovacool et al published a paper in Oct 2020 in the journal 'Nature Energy'[23] wherein they argue that nuclear energy is not an effective strategy. The reasons being that, unlike renewables, nuclear energy does not significantly reduce CO2 emissions, and that nuclear energy deployment is counterproductive as it "crowds out" the more effective renewables.

"We find that larger-scale national nuclear attachments do not tend to associate with significantly lower CO2 emissions while renewables do. We also find a negative association between the scales of national nuclear and renewables attachments. This suggests nuclear and renewables attachments tend to crowd each other out."

They came to this conclusion by examining the CO2 emissions at a national level (per capita) of 123 countries over a period of 25 years (1990-2014). By performing regression analyses, they found that countries with nuclear power did not have significantly lower emissions per capita, while those with renewables did. They also found that the bivariate relationship between renewables and nuclear power is negative, meaning countries with more renewables tend to have less nuclear power and vice versa. Their conclusions are based on these correlations.

The major flaw of drawing those conclusions from these results is that the study focused on the overall CO2 emissions per capita instead of the amount of CO2 emission that was avoided per technology. The importance of this being that renewables and nuclear energy only provide a source of low carbon electricity. Increasing the use of either does not necessarily lead to a reduction in overall CO2 emissions, because emissions could still be rising simply due to other factors, such as energy consumption. For example, China is heavily pursuing both nuclear and renewables (counter to the notion that they "crowd each other out"), yet their CO2 emissions per capita is rising extensively because they are simply using more energy. Indeed, most of the nuclear power plants were build in western countries when they were increasing their energy consumption. There was also no big movement to reduce overall CO2 emissions at that time. Conversely, most renewables (particularly solar and wind) were deployed in countries at the time when their total energy use has stalled or even declined. These deployments also coincided with major policies aimed to reduce the total CO2 emissions by other means as well. Furthermore, a few countries that get most of their electricity from hydropower also tend to be very poor or developing with low energy consumption, which would also have a confounding effect. The big take-away from this is that many variables are involved that determine CO2 emission per capita. Many of these coincidentally acted alongside renewables to reduce the overall CO2 emissions, but - in general - they did not for nuclear power. Even the study itself showed that, when looking at rich (high GDP) nations only, where energy consumption has stabilised or declined, nuclear energy is negatively correlated with CO2 emissions per capita, i.e. it helped to reduce CO2 emissions.

Lastly, the negative correlation between nuclear energy and renewables can be explained by the fact that the advent of wide-support and deployment for renewables coincided with a time when nuclear energy was stagnate or on the decline. Very often pro-renewable and anti-nuclear movements are one and the same, such that large scale deployments of renewables are often intended to replace nuclear power as well as coal, gas and oil. For example, as part of their energiewende, Germany also decided to phase out on nuclear power in 2010, which was accelerated after the Fukushima incident in 2011. This does not mean that nuclear energy and renewables are physically incompatible within a low-carbon energy mix. The conclusion of this study could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people hold negative opinions on nuclear power, such as thinking that it "crowds out" renewables and that it would not help to reduce CO2 emissions, nuclear energy is likely to be excluded from the set of policies, which likely include the promotion of renewables, with the combined goal to reduce CO2 emissions. After such policies are enacted, nuclear power would not be associated with the subsequent reduction in CO2 emissions and nuclear would also be negatively associated with renewables. Such correlations would appear to confirm the beliefs that led to these results in the first place.

In short, the authors of this study are merely trying to imply a cause from a correlation. The results do not say anything on how effective nuclear energy would be as part of a large-scale movement to mitigate climate change. Other researchers have critisized Sovacool et al in the following papers [24][25][26][27]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. This is very important to note, because someone says calling someone a lawyer when they are not a lawyer is libel!
  4. Quote: "These studies were "weighed" equally; that is, they were not adjusted in particular for their methodology, time of release within the past 10 years, or how rigorously they were peer reviewed or cited in the literature."
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ethan S. Warner, Garvin A. Heath, Open access journal article Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Electricity Generation, Journal of Industrial Ecology 2012, 16(s1), pp. S73-S92
  6. Benjamin K. Sovacool, A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2010, 40(3), pp. 369-400
  7. Pacific Winds: The health and climate benefits of Altamont Pass wind power: "The clean, renewable power generation from the Altamont wind farms displaces natural gas generation..."
  8. American Wind Energy Association: Wind energy driving down consumer electric rates: "Since wind energy primarily displaces natural gas generated energy, reducing the quantity of natural gas purchases..."
  18. Weißbach, D., et al. "Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested), and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants." Energy 52 (2013): 210-221.
  21. Authorial statement of article withdrawal, Andrew Lawrence, Benjamin Sovacool & Andrew Stirling, Taylor & Francis online, 25 Nov 2016