Playing with people’s lives: why nobody should listen to Mark Z. Jacobson

Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford University prof and serial producer of methodologically dubious anti-nuclear studies, has come out with yet another anti-nuclear study, this time claiming to quantify the health impacts of the Fukushima meltdowns that happened in March 2011. In spite of shoehorning the numbers and cherrypicking data—Mark Lynas does an excellent job of showing how Jacobson skewed his methodology toward a preferred outcome—Jacobson is forced to admit that the number of statistically modeled casualties from Fukushima is less than the number of actual deaths caused by the panic mass evacuation of people out of the Fukushima prefecture when it became evident that the reactors had indeed melted down.

In other words, in Jacobson’s own study the real world trumped his imaginary one.

Regardless of that, Jacobson apparently thinks the evacuation casualties were worth it. In the press release announcing the imminent publication of the study, Jacobson is quoted as saying

You still have an obligation to evacuate people according to the worst-case scenario.

The problem is, the worst-case scenario is whatever Jacobson and fellow anti-nuclear lobbyists can dream up. And he has a predilection, evidenced in a previous report, for unbridled flights of imagination: in that previous report (available from the web site of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, a gas-industry funded anti-nuclear lobby group) Jacobson includes, in his estimate of the carbon impacts of civilian nuclear energy, the carbon emissions from cities vaporized during a nuclear war (p. 17). On what basis? According to Jacobson, nuclear weapons are the direct result of nuclear electricity. Therefore any nuclear war can be attributed to nuclear electricity. Logic, and knowledge of history, are clearly not his long suit. I’ve seen more competent argumentation from marijuana-addled teenagers.

The Fukushima meltdowns occurred 4585 days ago. Jacobson’s amateur-hour statistics notwithstanding, there have been absolutely no casualties from the radiation releases from the meltdowns. The only meltdown-related casualties were caused by the panic evacuation, in which elderly and sick people were herded out of their safe homes into a maelstrom of chaos brought on by the earthquake and tsunami.

And why the panic evacuation? Because people like Mark Jacobson have spent their paid professional careers deliberately fanning the fears of nuclear energy.

And here he is today, essentially telling the world that the nearly 600 actual deaths from the ill-advised panic evacuation are preferable to the entirely imaginary 245 deaths that his statistical model burped up.

The world needs to ignore this incompetent, irresponsible ideologue.

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11 years ago

Adding this to Mark Lynas’ scathing critque of the Jacobson publication promises to bring a modicum of sanity to an issue insanely exaggerated by yet another street-corner prophet of nuclear energy doom.

11 years ago

Great post Steve. And Mark did an excellent job in reviewing the “study”. The issue is really that a skeptical public is afraid of radiation and it will take us a long time (if ever) to change that thinking. The world looks at nuclear accidents with a different lens than other every day yet more dangerous events. Consider the recently released report about the Air France accident off the coast of Brazil. More than 300 dead in one accident (more than died in total in more than 50 years of civilian nuclear power) yet we are all ready to step on another airplane and fly without much concern. Even when all flights were grounded in 2011 due to the volcanic ash emitted from Iceland, there were many who were so upset that their flights were cancelled that they were arguing that they were prepared to take the risk of flying through it – even though no one in the public could possibly properly assess the risk.

We as an industry have a lot of work to do to help the public better understand the benefits and risks of nuclear power. Until then, we can expect more of these outrageous studies trying to prove that the industry is too dangerous to continue. Back to my airline analogy, do we see any studies after accidents trying to convince the world that commercial flights are too dangerous and should be abandoned? Actually its impossible to imagine such a thing. Yet when it comes to nuclear every event, both large and small bring out those who think the industry is far too dangerous and must be stopped.

Thanks for doing a good job of keeping us all well informed.

11 years ago

Steve – great work. You might be interested in knowing that Jacobson has responded with several comments on Mark Lynas’s post. He claims to be unbiased and merely stating facts. Several posters have responded, including Michael Karnerfors of Nuclear Energy Yes Please.

It makes for interesting reading for pro nuclear geeks like me.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

Rod, thanks — yes I saw Jacobson’s comments on Lynas’s blog. Good on him to engage with a hostile crowd, but his arguments are still weak.

11 years ago

The public needs to understand that there are two powerful factors that prevent the acceptance of nuclear energy. The biggest factor is the fear that has been amplified out of proportion by corporations and utility companies who have a lot to lose if nuclear energy gains wide acceptance and second is that the majority of pronuclear individuals have become pronuclear based on their understanding of the science. When we study the issues it is clear that nuclear energy is by far the best choice currently to reach our goal of preventing catastrophic climate change by replacing coal and other fossil fuel sources. There could very well be a fatal collision course between economic, political and environmental hardship that makes the present attitude toward being prepared for the future appear sadly lacking. There is nothing wrong with making choices for the common good. Supporting nuclear energy is one of them.

11 years ago


Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident (Energy and Environmental Science, 2012)

February 11, 2010 TED Debate on nuclear versus renewables video (link:

— Sixth all-time TED Science and Technology talk

March 20, 2011 Op-ed New York Daily News, Nuclear vs. Renewables (link:

November 2009 Scientific American article “A path to sustainable energy”

2009 Energy & Environmental Science article on ranking energy solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security (link:

Mark Jacobson’s Home Page:

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

Matthew, thanks for the links. My favourite solar TED talk is this one:

When Professor Jacobson can credibly talk around this, I might be impressed. But I think the problems with solar have to do with the earth’s rotation. Until we can stop that, solar will continue to be unavailable for at least half of each day. Cloud cover and rain–well, the above TED talk illustrates the problems inherent with that.

As for wind, I would simply ask why Professor Jacobson does not start his own sail-powered shipping company. Wind is free. On the basis of his arguments, he should make a huge profits going head-to-head against fossil-powered competitors.

I imagine a conversation between Dr. Jacobson and one of his shipping customers going something like this:

Customer: The shipment is three weeks late. Can you give me some idea of when it will arrive?

Jacobson: The important thing is, the fuel is free and zero-carbon. I can’t say when exactly it will get to you, but my fuel costs are essentially zero. Of course, I’ll now have to charge you extra, because my crew demands regular paychecks, and every day your shipment is delayed my labour costs increase. Somebody has to cover that, and dude that somebody is you.

11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Steve, in response:

Despite the Earth’s rotation, concentrating solar power (CSP) plants do provide baseload power 24/7. The Gemasolar CSP Plant in Spain is a real-world example.

Real-time wind map of the United States. Let me know when the wind just stops blowing.

A vision for a zero emission container feeder vessel.

In sum, your argument contains a number of logical fallacies.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

Matthew, the wind profile is even better on the world’s oceans. Out on the ocean, the wind (almost) never stops blowing. That ought to mean you can clean up the fossil-based competition in the marine shipping industry. Let me know how it works out.

As for here on land, you want to know when the wind just stops blowing, well I can point to a very recent incident. My home province (Ontario Canada) has over 1700 megawatts of wind generating capacity. During the most intense period of the heat wave in July, the wind fleet was missing in action during the most important parts of the day (see this article). We had to get our power from coal and gas instead — and those fossil generators cost billions to build and connect to the grid. This proves wind is utterly useless. And it’s not even green–as you know, the fossil generators that “back up” the wind turbines dump tons of GHGs into our atmosphere.

Here’s another real-world dare. Start local. Use Stanford U. as a proving ground for your theories. Run the university on wind and solar. You may want to cancel night classes since there will be so many brownouts and blackouts.

11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Thanks for your comments Steve. You still do not appear to understand, or you ignore, the real potential of clean-renewable energy to meet electric power demand. I’ll consider your dare. Stanford University’s located in the State of California. Here are the findings from one study, looking at California in a closed-system, that didn’t even include many of the ways to address variability.

The study:

The carbon abatement potential of high penetration intermittent renewables

The carbon abatement potentials of wind turbines, photovoltaics, and concentrating solar power plants were investigated using dispatch simulations over California with 2005–06 meteorological and load data. A parameterization of the simulation results is presented that provides approximations of both low-penetration carbon abatement rates and maximum carbon abatement potentials based on the temporal characteristics of the resource and the load. The results suggest that shallow carbon emissions reductions (up to 20% of the base case) can be achieved most efficiently with geothermal power and demand reductions via energy efficiency or conservation. Deep emissions reductions (up to 89% for this closed system), however, may require the build-out of very large fleets of intermittent renewables and improved power system flexibility, communications, and controls. At very high penetrations, combining wind and solar power improved renewable portfolio performance over individual build-out scenarios by reducing curtailment, suggesting that further reductions may be met by importing uncorrelated out-of-state renewable power. The results also suggest that 90–100% carbon emission reductions will rely on the development of demand response and energy storage facilities with power capacities of at least 65% of peak demand and energy capacities large enough to accommodate seasonal energy storage.


Steve Aplin
11 years ago

Matthew, I appreciate your time and I am impressed with your staying power. Unfortunately, we are not talking about potential for renewables, we are (or at least I am) talking about the inherent shortcomings of renewables–mainly wind and solar–that make them simply impractical for grid-scale implementation.

Your university does not run on wind and solar because wind and solar simply cannot provide the on-demand electricity at the scale the university needs. Talking about these sources’ “potential” does not address this fact; it simply asks that I place my faith in some magic solution that will enable us to store their energy for when we need it. Talk to any iPhone user–how is the storage situation working out for that micro-application of grid storage.

The passage you quote above also slips in another caveat: the requirement for “importing uncorrelated out-of-state renewable power.” That, and not in-state wind and solar farms, is where California will meet the load without putting homes and businesses into blackout and brownout. Provided that British Columbia sells you enough hydro power. More likely, load will be met by imports of fossil-generated power. And if you are really serious about zero-carbon power, then it will be met by imports of nuclear power.

I should add that you can see a real-world example of the uselessness of wind turbines during a lethal heat wave:

My whole province was sweltering in an extreme heat wave and drought, and where was the provincial wind fleet? Taking the summer off, letting carbon-spewing gas turbines pick up their slack.

11 years ago

Steve, your original post stated nothing about wind and solar. However, if you continue to state falsely that these sources can not become our predominant sources, I will continue to correct the record.

If Ontarians combine wind and solar within the province, 33 GW of installed wind capacity and 33 GW of installed solar capacity, plus the existing hydroelectric capacity to fill in the gaps, Ontarian’s could generate more than enough electricity to meet their province’s current electricity needs. Balancing power can be done on an optimally designed network across the contiguous region of North America. This has the effect of smoothing variable loads and renewable generators from aggregated loads and generators across a much larger geographic domain. As a result, the wind never just stops blowing everywhere at once, for instance. So in this case, by combining wind and solar on a large-scale, during the heat wave in early July of 2012, 33 GW of solar capacity would have certainly picked up a considerable amount of slack during the heat wave, as the summer record peak on Ontario, set in 2006, was only 27 GW.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

… or we could increase nuclear capacity by 2.5 times and meet our load with proven low-cost zero-carbon power, without even changing the size of the three nuclear sites–which are already so tiny that you could fit all three into one of our wind farms.

The Ontario feed-in tariff (FIT) rate for wind is 13.5 cents per kWh; solar FIT rates START at 40 cents. That’s what it costs to persuade private interests to get involved in this con game, and it proves that the “free” energy they provide is actually extremely expensive. Again, it is simply an economic reflection of their unreliability. Build 33,000 MW of wind capacity, and what would we pay? That’s why we won’t do it.

How about YOU put up this kind of wind power. I hear that Californians don’t like taxes. They’ll like overpriced, unreliable power even less.

11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

The feed-in-tariff price for large-scale solar farms was 44 cents/kWh and it’s fallen to below 35 cents/kWh in Ontario.

As of April 1, 2008, 439 nuclear power plants had been installed in 31 countries (including 104 in the US, 59 in France, 55 in Japan, 31 in the Russian Federation, and 20 in the Republic of Korea). The US produces more electric power from nuclear energy than any other country (29.2% of the world total in 2005). France, Japan, and Germany follow. France uses nuclear power to supply 79% of its electricity, while Canada’s 13 GW of installed nuclear capacity produced 15% of electricity generated in 2005. For several reasons many of us do not consider nuclear energy (conventional fission, breeder reactors, or fusion) as an attractive long-term global energy source. A primary concern is that the growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, and a large-scale worldwide increase in nuclear energy facilities would exacerbate this problem, putting the world at greater risk of a nuclear war or terrorism catastrophe. If the world’s energy sources were converted entirely to electricity and electrolytic hydrogen for all purposes by 2030, the 11.5 TW in resulting power demand would require ~15,800 850 MW nuclear power plants, or one installed every day for the next 43 years. Many more countries would possess nuclear facilities, increasing the likelihood that some would use the facilities to hide the development of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear energy also results in 9-25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, in part due to emissions from uranium refining and transport, and reactor construction in part due to the longer time required to site, permit, and construct a nuclear plant compared with a wind farm (resulting in greater emissions from the fossil-fuel electricity sector during this period), and in part due to the loss of soil carbon when vegetation is removed during construction of nuclear facilities. In contrast, wind turbine towers cover little ground. Over their life cycle, nuclear systems also release toxic chemicals into ground and surface waters, associated with uranium mining.

As noted above, conventional nuclear fission relies on finite stores of uranium. At current production rates, there are enough uranium reserves (4.7–14.8 MT) to power existing “once-through” fuel cycle reactors for between 90 and 300 yr. In breeder reactors, spent uranium can be reprocessed for additional fuel to extend reserves. Reprocessing also increases the ability of uranium and plutonium to be weaponized. Conventional nuclear power also produces radioactive waste, which must be stored for thousands of years, raising technical challenges and involving long-term expenditures. “Breeder” nuclear reactors produce less low-level radioactive waste, and can re-use spent fuel, thereby extending uranium reserves, perhaps indefinitely. On the negative side, they produce nuclear material that can be reprocessed more readily into nuclear weapons. Some technologies have features that make diversion and reprocessing especially difficult—but not impossible. In short, there is no proliferation-proof nuclear power option.

Using thorium as a nuclear fuel is less likely to lead to nuclear weapons proliferation than the use of uranium, produces radioactive waste having a shorter half-life (“only” 32,760 years), and greatly extends uranium resources. A thorium reactor involves life-cycle carbon emissions that are on the same order as those from a uranium reactor but it also produces 233U, which can be used in fission weapons (although weaponization is difficult owing to the presence of 232U). Thorium reactors require the same or longer time lag between planning and operation when compared with conventional uranium reactors, and few developers and scientists have experience with constructing or running thorium reactors.

Fusion of isotopes of helium (e.g., protium, deuterium, or tritium) theoretically could supply power indefinitely without long-lived radioactive wastes, but this technology is unlikely to be commercially available for at least another 50–100 years, long after we will have needed to transition to alternative energy sources.

About 1.5 per cent of the nuclear plants constructed worldwide to date have melted down. Accidents at nuclear power plants range from catastrophic (Fukushima, Chernobyl) to damaging (Three-Mile Island). Although the nuclear industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed safer (but generally untested) reactor designs , there is no guarantee that new reactors will be designed, built, and operated correctly. For example, Pacific Gas and Electric Company had to redo some modifications it made to its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant after the original work was done backwards, and French nuclear regulators recently told the firm Areva to correct a safety design flaw in its latest-generation reactor. Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable, meaning that even where the risks of catastrophe are very small, they are not zero. Limited liabilities for owners of nuclear stations in Canada mean that in the event of a catastrophe, payouts for damages will be well below actual costs, meaning that taxpayers will be left bridging the financial gap.

Because of the risk of catastrophe, planning-to-operation times required to plan, permit and build nuclear infrastructure ranges from 11 to19 years. This means that the cumulative reduction of greenhouse emissions gained from installation of nuclear power is lower than that from wind and solar installations that take only 2-5 years of preparation. The long time required between planning and operation of a nuclear power plant poses a significant risk to our global climate. For example, Arctic sea ice registered a 32% loss in August 2010 relative to the 1979–2008 mean. Such rapid change indicates that solutions to global warming must be implemented quickly. Technologies with long lead times will allow the high-albedo Arctic ice to disappear, triggering more rapid positive feedbacks to warmer temperatures by uncovering the low-albedo ocean below.

So the main reasons for not recommending nuclear may not be economics. Yet the cost of nuclear power is relatively steep. The UK just received a quote of 7 billion pounds for a new nuclear power plant from the French manufacturer EDF. This plant would deliver power at 166 pounds/MWh or about 27 c/kWh. Long-term storage costs for nuclear wastes from nuclear plants in Canada are likely to exceed $24 billion; which won’t be covered by the trust fund, and will need to be absorbed by the tax base, and these cost estimates have already doubled between the 1990s and 2008.

This brings us to consideration of the CANDU 6 Nuclear Power Reactor in New Brunswick.

This plant was closed for refurbishment in March, 2008. Because this is the first CANDU 6 nuclear reactor to be refurbished, Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) wanted to show that it could be completed on time and on budget. The New Brunswick government indicated that if the project was late or over budget, plans to build a second nuclear reactor with Team CANDU, a consortium of companies that includes AECL, would be shelved. Because of te3chnical errors and accidents the September 2009 end-of-project deadline passed. In April 2010, NB Power said Point Lepreau was unlikely to return to service before February, 2011. The projected completion date is now October 2012.

Point Lepreau’s refurbishment budget, which was initially $1.4 billion ($1.022 billion plus $400 million to purchase replacement energy) will be $822 million over budget by October 2012, without factoring in the unexpected costs of additional labour and equipment. The cost to safely handle and store the radioactive waste that will come from the refurbished plant is not factored into this estimate. Significant project delays and cost overruns are not uncommon among nuclear projects worldwide. For this and other reasons Germany has decided to decommission its atomic power plants — which produce 23 per cent of the country’s electricity — within the next decade.

The complex Lepreau refurbishment project was shared between two companies, NB Power and AECL (provincial and federal crown corporations). Both had insurance policies to cover delays caused by damage but the insurance companies maintain that the damage and delays were caused by negligence, not accidents, and have refused to pay, so they are now being sued by NB Power. Both NB Power and the New Brunswick government have long maintained that AECL is solely to blame for all problems on the project. But in court documents the insurance companies claim that both NB Power and AECL officials made poor decisions. In 2007, the federal Conservative government gave AECL $300 million to try and commercialize the ACR1000 power reactor. Yet AECL was recently sold by the Crown to a private corporation, SNC-Lavalin for only $10 million. On 9 July 2012, Lavalin’s nuclear scientists went on strike, accusing the company of effectively dismantling Canada’s nuclear expertise and casting further doubt on the end date of the refurbishment.

Recommendation: In general, policymakers should be wary of nuclear power projects because of their complexity, and because of the possibility of nuclear accidents that can expose taxpayers to extreme cost burdens. The potential for weaponization and uncertainties around long term waste storage, as well as the extended times required for installing new facilities make nuclear energy a poor choice in comparison with emerging renewable technologies such as wind and solar that are relative simple, low cost, quick to install and minimal risk.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

A primary concern is that the growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or enrich uranium for nuclear weapons… .

That is totally wrong. North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq, today’s Iran, Gadhafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria–none of these proliferants had a nuclear power program. Neither did South Africa when it figured out how to enrich uranium. India and Pakistan had power reactors, but neither of their bomb programs used explosive made in a power reactor; both pursued secret programs that had nothing to do with electricity.

If you’re really worried about terrorism, maybe start lobbying for licenses and ID cards at gas pumps–petroleum products have been the explosives of choice for every terrorist on the planet.

As for the argument that it takes too long to build nuclear plants, so let’s build CO2-dumping gas plants instead–how lame-o can you get. Do gas companies cut you a check to say that?

Anti-nukes’ worst nightmare is a nuclear project that comes in on time and budget, like the CANDU projects in China, Rumania, and South Korea. You mention Lepreau; what about Wolsong, the refurb of which came in under schedule and budget.

The silly argument about late projects is about to get blown out of the water by successful nuclear new-build projects. Get your gas money while you can. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry will solve the climate change problem.

11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

You may be in it for the money. I am not.

I am simultaneously dealing not only the nuclear but also the natural gas industry advocates. See:

The unholy alliance is not between wind, solar and natural gas, but rather between coal, oil, gas, and nuclear industries.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

The unholy alliance is not between wind, solar and natural gas… .

In Ontario, wind and solar = gas. Every single one of the self-styled “green” groups is allied with the main gas lobby, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, an astro-turf paid group pretending to be grassroots environmentalists. The U.S. Sierra Club, with its Canadian chapter obediently in full tow, is allied with the natural gas industry.

For the phony greens, wind and solar are the Trojan Horse that gets more gas plants built. So yes, the unholy alliance IS between wind, solar, and natural gas.

The only true green is nuclear.

11 years ago

In sum, my posts, and the subsequent replies by Steve Aplin have shown why nobody should listen to him. Steve ignores the science and reason.

Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson is not playing with people’s lives.

“Causes and Solutions to Global Warming” by Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson

Description: Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson, climate modeler at Stanford University, on 10/19/2010, explains the process of global warming, and explores numerous technologies available for decreasing anthropogenic global warming. This video will be available until 2/10/2013.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

oh please.

Matthew, are your parting words really going to be “And so, having lost the argument, I now proclaim victory and slink, Amory Lovins-like, off to somewhere else on the internet, but not before leaving behind a list of links to web content that simply reiterates my original argument”?

What a shame. I thought you were capable of more than that.

Oh well. I am fully confident that you will some time (soon I hope) emerge from the thrall of Dr. Jacobson’ fact-challenged ideas.