Did Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson just call anyone supporting nuclear energy a zealot?

Recently, Jesse Jenkins, a PhD student at MIT studying decarbonization pathways, was blocked on twitter by Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson. Dr. Jacobson has made it a habit to block seemingly anyone who disagrees with him, but this time it was pretty absurd. Jenkins was trying to have a dialog with Dr. Jacobson about his claim that a 100% Wind/Water/Solar (WWS) strategy is the fastest, cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions. This is a claim that Dr. Jacobson has made repeatedly, but most other research in the topic disagrees.

Jenkins specifically pointed out that in Dr. Jacobson’s own studies, nuclear is cheaper than geothermal, off-shore wind, concentrating solar power, rooftop solar, wave power, and tidal power – meaning adding nuclear would make the plan cheaper. Jenkins also pointed out that Dr. Jacobson hasn’t compared his preferred pathway against others that include nuclear [1]. Jenkins made point [2] after point [3] about how other studies have shown adding nuclear makes plans cheaper and that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN scientific authority on climate change, says excluding nuclear increases costs [4]. The entire thread (tweetstorm) is great, and can be found here and here [5,6,7,8,9,10]. (Sidenote, in this piece, I’m including the link to each tweet, followed by a link to a screenshot of it, like this: link [link to screenshot]).

Jenkins wasn’t attacking Dr. Jacobson; he laid out a clear and cogent argument for why adding nuclear is cheaper, and how nuclear has historically scaled faster than renewables. And at the end, Jenkins added an open invitation to work together with Dr. Jacobson on further research. And instead, Dr. Jacobson blocked Jenkins. But not only that, Dr. Jacobson repeatedly called Jenkins a zealot for supporting nuclear [11].

I’ve personally had a similar thing happen to me with Dr. Jacobson – I had a conversation with him on twitter in December of 2015 where I made the argument that we should keep existing low carbon nuclear operating for as long as possible, and at least then, Dr. Jacobson said “There’s an argument to be made for that. Most efficient to replace coal, gas, oil first.“[12] However, during June of 2016, it was announced that Diablo Canyon, a nuclear facility in California, would be shut down, and Dr. Jacobson said people, “Should cheer“[13] for its closure. I sent out a slightly snarky tweet with the juxtaposition of the two statements [14], and Dr. Jacobson claimed (without citing any numbers for the cost of relicensing or building the new sources) that it would be cheaper to build new WWS than to relicense Diablo Canyon [15]. I made the point that closing Diablo Canyon and replacing it with WWS would not actually decrease fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions, a restated the point that he made in December, that we should work on replacing fossil fuels. He responded back saying “You don’t know the first thing about solving the climate, air pollution and energy security problem. Stop pretending you do.” [16] And then he blocked me as well.

Jacobson_you dont know first thing about climate

Figure 1: Dr. Jacobson’s tweets

When Dr. Jacobson called Jenkins a zealot, he said (reproduced in Figure 2):
Misinfo from zealots Jesse Jenkins & Breakthrough Institute who deny obvious & never published on 100% WWS hardly useful
Someone who finds any excuse to support nuclear, despite facts on weapons, meltdown, waste risk; timelag; C-emis; cost is zealot

Jacobson_zealot1

Jacobson_zealot2

Figure 2: Dr. Jacobson’s tweets 

The definition of a zealot from Merriam-Webster is, “a person who has very strong feelings about something (such as religion or politics) and who wants other people to have those feelings: a zealous person“. In this context, you could say that someone who chooses to hold a belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and forcefully promotes that belief is a zealot. I’ve followed Jesse Jenkins work for a while, he does good work, is willing to debate with people about it, is willing to defend his work, and is willing to admit when he’s wrong. Because of this, I don’t think he’s a zealot as Dr. Jacobson claims.

But more to the point, Dr. Jacobson essentially just said that any person who supports nuclear energy is a zealot. As someone who supports nuclear energy and actively does research that can help make it safer, I wholeheartedly reject this assertion. Nuclear energy has its benefits, drawbacks, and risks, just like any other technology. And it’s important to recognize that. But to call that anyone that disagrees with you a “zealot” is a ludicrous statement. Moreover, if anyone who supports nuclear energy is a zealot, then President Obama, Secretary Clinton, many prominent scientists, and even the members of the IPCC would be considered zealots. Surely that’s not what Dr. Jacobson meant, but that is what he said.

And instead of engaging in thoughtful debate with an open mind, Dr. Jacobson ignores criticism and shuts down debates through blocking people. In fact, you can search Dr. Jacobson’s entire twitter feed for the words “wrong” or “mistake”, and in his almost 4000 tweets, he’s never admitted that he’s wrong or that he made a mistake. He’s always saying other people are wrong. According to Dr. Jacobson, the EIA is wrong [17], the IPCC is wrong [18], the Washington Post is wrong [19], Dr. James Hansen is wrong [20], the Breakthrough Institute is wrong [21], Bill Gates is wrong [22], Jesse Jenkins is wrong [23], I’m wrong [24], just to name a few. Dr. Jacobson clearly has a certain set of beliefs, and those beliefs seem to be unshakable, even when the other researchers or the IPCC disagree with him.

It’s my personal opinion that we’ll need both renewables and nuclear, along with policy changes (price on carbon, clean energy standards) and other solutions like demand response, storage, and electric vehicles if we are going to significantly reduce emissions. I don’t know exactly what role nuclear will play in the future, but it is currently playing a large role in many countries (including the US) and will continue to be the largest single source of low carbon energy in the US for many years to come. Prematurely closing this generation will result in higher emissions, something that is becoming all to frequent.

The biggest problem in my opinion is the lack of political will and political action for climate solutions. It is important to debate what the best solutions are. But when Dr. Jacobson purposefully blocks people and calls people names for trying to critique his work or engage him in a dialogue, he is actively fracturing people into two competing “teams”, one team supporting nuclear, the other against it; in reality both sides want the same thing, to solve climate change.

So to anyone reading this, please try to tone down the rhetoric, and really try to understand other people’s views. It’s the only way that we can find some common solutions and move forward, together.

15 thoughts on “Did Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson just call anyone supporting nuclear energy a zealot?

  1. Hello Nicholas,
    I can’t fathom how an acclaimed professor such as MZJ can continuously jump on the fallacy train, he keeps using the argument from authority fallacy. “You have written no papers, so you can’t know anything” is the dumbest argument ever conceived. It is telling that I see him doing this over and over again. The man is lost in his own mantras and dogmatism.

    I had my run-in with him before, it resulted in a “block” from him. Here’s the account.
    http://thecloudedhead.blogspot.nl/2015/12/ipse-dixit-professor-jacobson-from.html

    It baffles me that he doesn’t seem fazed in any way, despite being attacked all the time. Not once have I seen him do the academic thing and insert degrees of certainty, it’s always all-or-nothing in his view.

    We don’t even have to talk about his work, because he discredits himself continuously by showing the world what a dogmatic fool he is, he assassinates his own character every time again.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I got blocked too; I pointed out that he works for Jay Precourt, whom has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Petroleum Engineering from Stanford. Precourt spent 50 years in the Petroleum Industry. Maybe he isn’t a Rockefeller, but he’s certainly an oil baron nevertheless. Jacobson works for him at the Precourt Institute funded by Oil money. He’s nothing more than a barrier to competitive entry. They need to forestall all the strong force opportunities that will eventually suck the revenue out of the Oil Industry. They’ve been fighting it since the 1930s and doing a bang up job of it too.

      Like

  2. Nice piece. For me being labelled a zealot is not so bad, as I think that even a zealot can be capable of discussing facts, issues and personal errors. As documented by others, MZJ is past the point of being a zealot, he is in my opinion a religious fanatic, his belief that 100% WWS is the best outcome in spite of the available evidence is breathtaking and sad. The dangerous part is that some others are believing what he is saying and believing that we don’t need nuclear to decarbonize power generation. IMO we need it all, hydro, solar, wind, nuclear, and natural gas. Which technologies are best for which tasks will be application/location specific and should be measured against lowest delivered cost of energy including any reserve power generation requirements.

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  3. The other thing that I would say is that supporter of nuclear power such as me do have a bona fide problem that current nuclear is hideously expensive in western jurisdictions, there is a serious body of work to be done to reduce those costs. Antinuclear campaigners know this and that’s one of the reasons why they take all avenues to increase cost, increase regulatory compliance costs and attack nuclear through other means like access to cooling water. I am pronuclear but only to the point where it stops being cost effective power generation.

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    • “…current nuclear is hideously expensive…”

      …or is the nuclear cost argument a false meme when system wide costs are accounted for? Look to the results of a real world experiment that has tested the theoretical results form renewable energy studies, Germany.

      The following is a quote from the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, second in command to Merkel, who was also the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 2005 to 2009:

      “I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden [$30billion a year]…We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it. Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices.”

      $30 billion a year would pay for forty custom built $7.5 billion Generation III AP1000 reactors over ten years ($30 x 10 =300, 300/7.5= 40). Add those to existing reactors and they could supply about 97% of Germany’s electricity by 2025. And their emissions reductions have been flat for the last six years …six years of carbon in the atmosphere we can’t get back.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent article, Nicolas. Watching the energy crisis play out from the sidelines of West Australia, where I have yet to meet a single pro-nuclear advocate in person, I envy the good fortune of the USA in so far as their great accomplishments in nuclear power and the quality of life they all benefit from; minimal environmental impact, lowest GHG, economic prosperity, public health, security, and the list goes on…

    What begs belief is the different mentality of “authoritative, educated persons”. Specifically, how is it possible, in the case of Jacobson, to be blinded (indiscriminate) to the benefits of nuclear power (the envy of the world) and second, with what I would call naivety, propose that renewables are better suited for global needs. (Extremely indiscriminate).

    On “fracturing people into competing teams” I agree in principle but team climate change is too abstract a term.

    “…[w]hen Dr. Jacobson purposefully blocks people and calls people names for trying to critique his work or engage him in a dialogue, he is actively fracturing people into two competing “teams”, one team supporting nuclear, the other against it; in reality both sides want the same thing, to solve climate change..”

    In my opinion, the highly esteemed Jesse Jenkins had the misfortune of wasting his time and effort to impart ratinal, logical discrimination, shared by engineers and mathematians alike (such as the late, Professor Sir David MacKay) otherwise known as technical feasibility vs. practicality.

    No matter what persuasion, competing groups (tribes) have are devided on the bottom line of planetary health.

    Indiscriminate: Technically almost ANYTHING can be done.* so the entire planet should be mined and poisoned beyond repair => Guaranteed.

    Discriminate: To discriminate what is technically feasible with what makes economic sense AND environmental sense?* Use significantly less resources.

    At the end of the day, if Jacobson has academic integrity, he should be at the ready with at the very least, a hashtag to address pereceived confrontation from the general public, or otherwise, close his Twitter account for “anti social” reasons.

    Reference @luisbaram, Global Sustainabilty Advisor, Technical Feasibility,
    http://gnwr1.blogspot.com.au/2014/12/technical-feasibility.html

    The

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If I wasn’t clear, and I guess I wasn’t, this is was meant to be an example of what not to do in communication and science. You shouldn’t outright block people for critiquing your work and you shouldn’t call people names. This works both ways, so the people here and elsewhere calling Dr. Jacobson a ‘zealot’, ‘religious fanatic’, or ‘dogmatic fool’ should also tone down their rhetoric and try to understand his point of view.

    I know there are many people who attack him for his opinion, and while that does not justify his behavior, it does help to explain it – but I’d like to think, however implausible it might be, that if we were all a little nicer and tried to understand others with who we disagree a little more, it might be easier to find areas of agreement and potentially change people’s minds. After reading some of Dr. Jacboson’s work over the years, along with the work of other people, I am convinced that it might be technically possible to run a country like the US on renewables alone – however, based on a much larger body of research, I do not think that would be the best, cheapest, fastest, or most efficient solution to solving climate change. But it was listening to people like Dr. Jacobson that changed my mind on the technical feasibility of a renewables only grid (before I thought it was completely impossible).

    So we all need to listen a bit more, keep an open mind, and definitely need to stop all the name calling if we want to move forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tend to focus on different metrics : required tonnage of raw materials per unit of energy produced (mostly metric ton/TWh produced over the lifetime of an energy generation / harvesting device). Once you get that perspective, and add limitations in mining, purification and manufacturing capabilities you cannot possibly expect us to be able to decarbonize any reasonable amount of energy consumption.

      Focussing on the US alone is cute, but doesn’t solve anything. We need to solve these issues collectively and on a world scale.

      I do agree that we need to work together, however, I would find it prudent to first move on the all-or-nothing fallacy which is called the solutions-project, which is specifically designed to hoodwink (yes I use that word deliberately) people into believing that we can A. mitigate 2/3rds of our total civilizational energy consumption and B. that we can decarbonize the rest almost exclusively on wind and solar. We’re talking about roughly 110.000 TWh of annual energy generation from wind and solar.

      Once you’ve done the calculations and have examined much of the additional, yet omitted, prerequisites and conclude that the feasibility study is baloney, how would you forge ahead?

      People who, in terms of academic credentials, overshadow us by great margins have tried to speak sense to these people. I’m not saying that academic pedigree should matter in this debate, however their arguments are well substantiated and shared without projection. The response by “camp Jacobson” (Oreskes, Romm, Green, Mckibben and the suchlike)? Ad Hominem galore. I haven’t seen Wigley, Hansen, Caldeira and Emmanuel do any of the sort.

      Me? I am a polemicist… I expose people by using strong terms, I deliberately chose to be the outlier. Why do I think that Jacobson is a dogmatic fool? He doesn’t listen to reason, he doesn’t accept any challenges; he constantly plays the argument from authority card; he discredits fellow academics based on non-sequiturs i.e. does attempts at character assassination, without addressing the actual arguments. For someone as acclaimed as he is, he sure makes a lot of grievous mistakes. By blocking others, he creates his own echo-chamber.

      If you (Nicholas) want to walk the middle road? I’m perfectly fine with that, we need a spectrum of people, discussion these matters in different ways, looking at different viewpoints. Do I think that it will change “their” minds? I’m doubt it. What’s the mission here? To convince the onlookers that the arguments stand, merited by their substantiation, not by blockage or wilful ignorance. See what happened to you, in your own exchange with Jacobson. Who were you trying to convince? Did you think you could change his mind?

      Liked by 1 person

    • “What’s the mission here? To convince the onlookers that the arguments stand, merited by their substantiation, not by blockage or willful ignorance. See what happened to you, in your own exchange with Jacobson. Who were you trying to convince? Did you think you could change his mind?”

      There are two great questions here:
      What’s the mission?
      Who were you trying to convince?

      I should put together a more in depth mission statement as to my goals, but in lieu of that, my mission is to learn, teach, and find solutions (technical, political, and otherwise) related to energy and climate change, particularly when it intersects nuclear engineering.

      As for who I’m trying to convince – I’m trying to talk to anyone with an open mind, and also trying to talk to people with who I already agree about making sure their minds stay open.

      I did not and do not think that my random tweets to Dr. Jacobson, or this post for that matter, would change his mind. But if the conversation around him shifts, maybe he will re-examine his own beliefs. And I think the only way the conversation about energy will change is through constant dialogue and exchange of ideas with as many people as possible.

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      • It seems that our objectives are the same, just some of the choices we make are different. My first two books were polemics, my third book will be more in line with the statement you just made. Make an optimistic case for the future, present an all-inclusive carbon neutral, emissions neutral energy mix and a new way of living. It will probably be too utopian for most. But I’m a man of stark contrast.

        I suspect that if there will be pro-nuke developments that are counter to his 100%WWS hypothesis, Jacobson will not change his mind, but again chooses to attack the messenger and the substantiation of the pro-nuke narrative. However, I hope that you’re right, and that he will change his mind eventually, but don’t have high hopes.

        BTW. my questions weren’t made to insinuate, but to illicit this conversation in order to learn more.

        Liked by 2 people

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