Rebuttal Practice

A Price Too High

Is Nuclear Power Worth the Risk?

(If link leads to pay wall, see the FULL TEXT BELOW)

Bob Herbert asks the question in the Opinion pages of the New York Times. It’s pretty clear from the evidence he cites that he thinks the answer is No, it’s not worth the risk (or Yes, the price is too high, if that’s how you phrase the question).

Since he’s willing (sort of) to go on the record with his objections, let’s examine his essay as an opportunity for rebuttal, the better to understand what rebuttal means when it comes time to craft your own essays, days from now.

Insufficient Evidence Rebuttal

WHAT ISN’T: It’s not an effective rebuttal to request more evidence from the author. If the author offers insufficient evidence, or no evidence at all, one good piece of evidence of your own for an opposing point of view can easily refute it.

WHAT IS: Providing that good evidence is an effective rebuttal.

Irrelevant Evidence Rebuttal

WHAT ISN’T: It’s not an effective rebuttal to complain that you really don’t see what the evidence provided has to do with the argument. If the author offers irrelevant evidence, logic should tell you what the evidence does prove, or could prove.

WHAT IS: Pointing out that the evidence supports a different conclusion than the author’s is an effective rebuttal.

Inconclusive Evidence Rebuttal

WHAT ISN’T: It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that the evidence provided doesn’t quite add up to a proof. If the author offers substantial evidence that doesn’t actually support the argument though, as Bob Herbert does in A Price Too High?, you should be able to identify the logical fallacy at fault.

WHAT IS: Demonstrating how a correct interpretation of the evidence proves something other than the author’s argument is an effective rebuttal. In rebuttal of Bob Herbert’s four-paragraph description of cost overruns, for example, you could say: Herbert makes a good case for unanticipated costs of building nuclear power plants, but offers nothing to indicate that the higher costs are unsustainable. Is the electricity generated by nuclear plants more expensive per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired juice? If it is, he should have said so; probably would have said so. If in fact nuclear power is as affordable as traditional electricity, his fretting about cost overruns is a fruitless complaint without real substance.

Stacking the Deck Rebuttal

WHAT ISN’T: It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that the author is unfair to your “side” of the argument and should offer evidence to support your position. But if the author clearly (but usually stealthily) “stacks the deck” by suppressing evidence, as Rob Herbert does in A Price Too High?, you should be able to call him on it easily.

WHAT IS: You could say, for instance: Bob Herbert acts as if the only benefit we obtain from nuclear power is reduced greenhouse gas emissions. If that were the case, the price might truly be too high. But he neglects to mention nuclear power replaces unsustainable fossil fuels; makes us less dependent on foreign oil imports; eliminates the mercury, sulfur, and countless other emissions from burning coal, and improves our national security by making us less beholden to Middle East dictators.

False Analogy Rebuttal

TRUE ANALOGY / FALSE ANALOGY Analogy is prediction based on close comparisons. If I’m planning to release The Matrix Revolutions shortly after the outrageous success of The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, I point out that the new film shares the same writing and directing team, an almost identical cast, and the same subject matter as the first two films, and should therefore be a huge success too. What one difference made that analogy false? The new actress who played the Oracle? Or the fact that the script was anticlimactic and the audience was already saturated with better material?

WHAT ISN’T: When Bob Herbert compares the nuclear disaster at Fukushima with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he emphasizes that they were both almost unimaginable: nobody could have predicted them, he says. He uses that similarity to prove that a similar nuclear catastrophe could happen here. But surely the fact that Fukushima was unpredictable didn’t cause it to occur. It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that Herbert “uses false analogy” when comparing Fukushima to nuclear plants in the US. But it’s a start.

WHAT IS: An effective rebuttal of a false analogy is one that points out the essential difference that keeps the third Matrix from repeating the first two movies, or in this case, the essential difference between Japanese nuclear plants and US plants. If none are positioned as precariously as Fukushima—on massive, active earthquake-prone fault lines just hundreds of feet from the ocean—he’s got no business saying that the failure of one predicts the failure of the other.

False Choice Rebuttal

FALSE CHOICE Once a false analogy has been made, almost certainly a false choice will follow. Should we put money into getting people jobs, or should we slash government budgets, putting more people out of work? Neither alone may be the real answer, but debates are often framed between two such false choices. The third choice, that we should slash the parts of the budget that reduce employment and spend the savings putting people to work, never gets a hearing.

WHAT ISN’T: When Bob Herbert frames his second question: “whether it makes sense to follow through on plans to increase our reliance on nuclear power, thus heightening the risk of a terrible problem occurring here in the United States,” he’s offering a false choice based on the assumption that more nuclear power necessarily increases risk. It’s not an effective rebuttal to say that Herbert “offers a false choice” when asking us to choose energy futures, but it’s a start.

WHAT IS: An effective rebuttal of a false choice is one that points out the unnamed third choice, in this case, that every new nuclear plant either be built to address all known risks or not be built at all. Another would be to point to countries like France that, unlike Japan, have relied on nuclear power for almost all their energy needs for decades without serious incidents. Do we have to choose between Japan and no nukes? Or could we choose safe nukes?

Is Nuclear Power Worth the Risk?


A Price Too High?

By Bob Herbert

Catastrophes happen.

No one thought the Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis would collapse. No one thought the Gulf of Mexico would be fouled to the horrible extent that it was by the BP oil spill. The awful convergence of disasters in Japan — a 9.0 earthquake followed by a tsunami and a devastating nuclear power emergency — seemed almost unimaginable.

Worst-case scenarios unfold more frequently than we’d like to believe, which leads to two major questions regarding nuclear power that Americans have an obligation to answer.

First, can a disaster comparable to the one in Japan happen here? The answer, of course, is yes — whether caused by an earthquake or some other event or series of events. Nature is unpredictable and human beings are fallible. It could happen.

So the second question is whether it makes sense to follow through on plans to increase our reliance on nuclear power, thus heightening the risk of a terrible problem occurring here in the United States. Is that a risk worth taking?

Concern over global warming has increased the appeal of nuclear power, which does not produce the high levels of greenhouse gases that come from fossil fuels. But there has been a persistent tendency to ignore the toughest questions posed by nuclear power: What should be done with the waste? What are the consequences of a catastrophic accident in a populated area? How safe are the plants, really? Why would taxpayers have to shoulder so much of the financial risk of expanding the nation’s nuclear power capacity, an effort that would be wildly expensive?

A big part of the problem at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station are the highly radioactive spent fuel rods kept in storage pools at the plant. What to do, ultimately, with such dangerous waste material is the nuclear power question without an answer. Nuclear advocates and public officials don’t talk about it much. Denial is the default position when it comes to nuclear waste.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said again this week that the 40-year-old Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County, 35 miles north of New York City, should be closed. Try to imagine the difficulty, in the event of an emergency, of evacuating such an area with its millions of residents. “This plant in this proximity to New York City was never a good risk,” said the governor.

There are, blessedly, very few catastrophic accidents at nuclear power plants. And there have not been many deaths associated with them. The rarity of such accidents provides a comfort zone. We can look at the low probabilities and declare, “It can’t happen here.”

But what if it did happen here? What would the consequences be? If Indian Point blew, how wide an area and how many people would be affected, and what would the cleanup costs be? Rigorously answering such questions is the only way to determine whether the potential risk to life and property is worthwhile.

The 104 commercial nuclear plants in the U.S. are getting old, and many have had serious problems over the years. There have been dozens of instances since 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island accident, in which nuclear reactors have had to be shut down for more than a year for safety reasons.

Building new plants, which the Obama administration favors, can be breathtakingly expensive and requires government loan guarantees. Banks are not lining up to lend money on their own for construction of the newest generation of Indian Points.

In addition to the inherent risks with regard to safety and security, the nuclear industry has long been notorious for sky-high construction costs, feverish cost-overruns and projects that eventually are abandoned. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a 2009 analysis of the costs associated with nuclear plant construction, said that once a plant came online it usually led to significant rate increases for customers:

“Ratepayers bore well over $200 billion (in today’s dollars) in cost overruns for completed nuclear plants. In the 1990s, legislators and regulators also allowed utilities to recover most ‘stranded costs’ — the difference between utilities’ remaining investments in nuclear plants and the market value of those plants — as states issued billions of dollars in bonds backed by ratepayer charges to pay for utilities’ above-market investments.”

The refrain here is familiar: “The total cost to ratepayers, taxpayers and shareholders stemming from cost overruns, canceled plants and stranded costs exceeded $300 billion in today’s dollars.”

Nuclear power is hardly the pristine, economical, unambiguous answer to the nation’s energy needs and global warming concerns. It offers benefits and big-time shortcomings. Ultimately, the price may be much too high. 

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