Benjamin K. Sovacool

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Splitting more than hairs
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Ionizing pages

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 In most cases, this was due to relying either on unpublished data or on secondary sources (e.g. other analyses).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peer review before publication, he just considered whether it was described in enough detail.[4] He also did not remove superseded versions of the same analysis from the same authors.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.

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