Pigeon towers to cope with Peak Phosphate?

[ Thanks Brian Davey for letting me know about this. Beats going to war for guano.  See what they look like here or here  — they are quite beautiful as well.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Vansintjan, A. 2016-10. Pigeon Towers: A Low-tech Alternative to Synthetic Fertilizers. No Tech Magazine.

Many societies, ancient and contemporary, have innovated ways of supplying their fields with fixed nitrogen and phosphorus—two crucial ingredients for crop productivity. One is crop rotation, which alternates nitrogen-fixing and nitrogen-exhausting crops. Farmers around the world make use of chickens, ducks, and geese to add “fresh” guano to their fields. Cattle manure is another useful alternative—although it often lacks in phosphorus. Much more labor intensive than simply adding fossil-fuel derived synthetic fertilizer, these practices tend to build up soil, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and lead to less run-off into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Persian pigeon towers are one of the more elegant solutions to the nitrogen-phosphorus problem. These are essentially castles built for thousands of wild pigeons, strategically placed in the middle of the fields. Their droppings were shoveled up once a year and sold to nearby farmers. While most pigeon towers existing today are in disrepair, the oldest still standing are dated to the 16th century (but they are assumed to have existed over 1,000 years ago) and helped fuel the cultivation of Persia’s legendary orchards, melons, and wheat production.[1]

The basic design of pigeon towers is simple. Its main structure is conically shaped and made of mud bricks. At the center of the structure rests a large cylindrical drum, surrounded by smaller pillars, also made of the same brick—this design maximizes the potential surface area, allowing some towers to house up to 10,000 pigeons. The bricks are indented to create a small cove and ledge for the pigeons to nest in. At the very top of the tower there are holes that allow pigeons to come and go as they please. These holes are also designed to be inaccessible to snakes—the pigeon’s main natural predator in the region.

The structural cracks in many pigeon towers are said to be due to the tremors caused by thousands of birds in panicked flight when they spot a snake. The central drum also houses a stairway, and most towers have one or two doors to allow someone to collect droppings and check in on their guests. Sometimes the pigeons are provided with grain and water, making the tower a free bed and breakfast. In other cases, pigeons ate from the surrounding fields. Never mind AirBnB: this is the true sharing economy.

One unique aspect of the Persian pigeon towers is the ledge of the bricks on the inside of the structure. The repetitive feature creates a mesmerizing honeycomb effect, in which the whole becomes greater than the parts. It is also amazingly inventive, in that it enables the maximum number of coves with a minimum of building material. The bands of smooth plaster around the exterior of the tower may seem decorative, but are also highly functional: unlike the rest of the bricks, snakes have trouble climbing up this low-friction surface. 10,000 years

For centuries pigeons played a significant role in the Persian economy and political system. Farming first evolved in Iran 10,000 years ago, and considering this long tradition, the focus has been on sustaining yields over time rather than short-term maximization of profits.[2] Pigeon towers became a crucial part of the agricultural economy, providing much-needed fertilizer for melons, cucumbers, and other nitrogen-demanding crops—cornerstones of Persian cuisine. With characteristic enterprise, rulers even taxed owners of pigeon towers—the equivalent of taxing salt or fossil fuels.

Pigeons also featured significantly in Persian culture—to such an extent that most European travelers, starting with Marco Polo, felt the need to make remarks about them in their travel diaries. Pigeon dung was also used to make gunpowder, well before Europeans started playing with explosives.

Most pigeon towers still around today are in the area of Isfahan, the second most populous region in Iran. However, many of these lie in disrepair. There are also pigeon towers in Eastern Turkey, but these differ greatly in their design. These look like small shacks that dot the hillside, but are actually entrances to larger caves dug into the limestone bedrock, providing large empty spaces for the pigeons to nest in. Often villagers will hang baskets in the shacks and caves as nests for the pigeons. These dovecotes are often still in use, but, like the ones in Iran, are more and more falling into disrepair.[3] Low Maintenance

While Iran was almost self-sufficient in food production in the 1960s, the increased use of synthetic fertilizers actually lowered food productivity, as they scorched the thin soil. Water scarcity is increasingly a problem in many areas of Iran—Isfahan being one of them [9], and high-input agriculture is using up most of what’s left.

This confluence of problems indicates the need to start practicing alternatives to high-input agriculture. Despite their decreased use, pigeon towers have some benefits over other low-tech alternatives in use today, such as the practice of some organic farmers to roll chicken coops over their fields. Another example is the flightless Indian runner duck, which some farmers let stampede fields in hordes, laying droppings and eating pests.

First, unlike chickens or ducks, wild pigeons are extremely low-maintenance. Provide water and shelter, and they will come. A pigeon tower is also stationary: no need to spend the whole day rolling an enormous shed around your field, or herding ducks. Like chickens, you can also eat pigeons and harvest their eggs—although peasants in Iran seemed to have abstained, in part due to the important place of pigeons in Islamic cultures. Best of all, pigeon towers are extremely low-tech: no wheels, electricity, or tractor needed: just bricks and a shovel to harvest the droppings, and some maintenance work every couple hundred years.

They may lie in disrepair today, but pigeon towers stand as monuments to the enduring importance of low-tech solutions to contemporary crises. It’s no surprise that the region that gave birth to agriculture has also refined innovative sustainable agriculture methods for thousands of years. Pigeon towers were one such innovation—and they helped Persian farmers cultivate all kinds of crops on previously arid, thin-soil land.


[1]. Beazley, Elisabeth. (1966) “The pigeon towers of Isfahan.” Journal of Persian Studies: 105-109. Bekleyen, A. (2009). The dovecotes of Diyarbakir: the surviving examples of a fading tradition. The Journal of Architecture, 14(4), 451-464.

[2]. Koocheki, A., & Ghorbani, R. (2005). Traditional agriculture in Iran and development challenges for organic agriculture. The International Journal of Biodiversity Science and Management, 1(1), 52-57.

[3]. Bekleyen, A. (2009). The dovecotes of Diyarbakir: the surviving examples of a fading tradition. The Journal of Architecture, 14(4), 451-464.

[4]. Before Europeans ‘discovered’ the enormous islands of bird droppings—guano—off the coast of South America, Andean people collected and sold the fecal gold for over 1,500 years.

[5]. http://www.nature.com/news/one-third-of-our-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from-agriculture-1.11708

[6]. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/fertilizer-produces-far-more-greenhouse-gas-expected

[7]. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#nitrous-oxide

[8]. Rockström, Johan, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, Eric F. Lambin, Timothy M. Lenton et al. “A safe operating space for humanity.” Nature 461, no. 7263 (2009): 472-475.

[9]. Erdbrink, Thomas. (2015) “Scarred riverbeds and dead pistachio trees in a parched Iran.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/19/world/middleeast/scarred-riverbeds-and-dead-pistachio-trees-in-a-parched-iran.html

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Book review of “In order to live: A North Korean girl’s journey to freedom” by Yeonmi Park

From left to right: Eunmi (sister), mother, and auther Yeonmi Park. Seoul 2015

From left to right: Eunmi (sister), mother, and author Yeonmi Park. Seoul 2015

[ Related posts:

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Park, Yeonmi. 2015. In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom. With Maryanne Vollers, Penguin Press.

Excerpts from this 290-page book (some of it reworded/shortened):


I wasn’t dreaming of freedom when I escaped from North Korea. I didn’t even know what it meant to be free. All I knew was that if my family stayed behind, we would probably die—from starvation, from disease, from the inhuman conditions of a prison labor camp. The hunger had become unbearable; I was willing to risk my life for the promise of a bowl of rice.

In the North there are no words for things like “shopping malls,” “liberty,” or even “love,” at least as the rest of the world knows it. The only true “love” we can express is worship for the Kims, a dynasty of dictators who have ruled North Korea for three generations. The regime blocks all outside information, all videos and movies, and jams radio signals. There is no World Wide Web and no Wikipedia. The only books are filled with propaganda telling us that we live in the greatest country in the world, even though at least half of North Koreans live in extreme poverty and many are chronically malnourished.

My former country doesn’t even call itself North Korea—it claims to be Chosun, the true Korea, a perfect socialist paradise where 25 million people live only to serve the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un.

Once the sun went down, you couldn’t see anything at all. In our part of North Korea, it was normal to go for weeks and even months without any electricity, and candles were very expensive.

The unpaved lanes between houses were too narrow for cars, although this wasn’t much of a problem because there were so few cars. People in our neighborhood got around on foot, or for the few who could afford one, on bicycle or motorbike.

You could find a few manufactured dolls and other toys in the market, but they were usually too expensive. Instead we made little bowls and animals out of mud, and sometimes even miniature tanks; homemade military toys were very big in North Korea. But we girls were obsessed with paper dolls and spent hours cutting them out of thick paper, making dresses and scarves for them out of scraps.

There weren’t garbage trucks churning, horns honking, or phones ringing everywhere. All I could hear were the sounds people were making: women washing dishes, mothers calling their children, the clink of spoons and chopsticks on rice bowls

There was no music blaring in the background, no eyes glued to smartphones back then. But there was human intimacy and connection, something that is hard to find in the modern world I inhabit today.

At our house in Hyesan, our water pipes were almost always dry, so my mother usually carried our clothes down to the river and washed them there. When she brought them back, she put them on the warm floor to dry.

Because electricity was so rare in our neighborhood, whenever the lights came on people were so happy they would sing and clap and shout. Even in the middle of the night, we would wake up to celebrate. When you have so little, just the smallest thing can make you happy—and that is one of the very few features of life in North Korea that I actually miss. Of course, the lights would never stay on for long. When they flickered off, we just said, “Oh, well,” and went back to sleep.

Even when the electricity came on the power was very low, so many families had a voltage booster to help run the appliances. These machines were always catching on fire, and one March night it happened at our house while my parents were out. I was just a baby, and all I remember is waking up and crying while someone carried me through the smoke and flames.

Our home was destroyed by the fire, but right away my father rebuilt it with his own hands. After that, we planted a garden in our small fenced yard. My mother and sister weren’t interested in gardening, but my father and I loved it. We put in squash and cabbage and cucumbers and sunflowers. My father also planted beautiful fuchsia flowers we called “ear drops” along the fence. I adored draping the long delicate blossoms from my ears and pretending they were earrings.

The best day of every month was Noodle Day, when my mother bought fresh, moist noodles that were made in a machine in town. We wanted them to last a long time, so we spread them out on the warm kitchen floor to dry. It was like a holiday for my sister and me because we would get to sneak a few noodles and eat them while they were still soft and sweet. In the earliest years of my life, before the worst of the famine that struck North Korea in the mid-1990s had gripped our city, our friends would come around and we would share the noodles with them. In North Korea, you are supposed to share everything. But later, when times were much harder for our family and for the country, my mother told us to chase the children away. We couldn’t afford to share anything. During the good times, a family meal would consist of rice, kimchi, some kind of beans, and seaweed soup. But those things were too expensive to eat during the lean times. Sometimes we would skip meals, and often all we had to eat was a thin porridge of wheat or barley, beans, or black frozen potatoes ground and made into cakes filled with cabbage.

I was too young to realize how desperate things were becoming in the grown-up world, as my family tried to adapt to the massive changes in North Korea during the 1990s. After my sister and I were asleep, my parents would sometimes lie awake, sick with worry, wondering what they could do to keep us all from starving to death.

Anything I did overhear, I learned quickly not to repeat. I was taught never to express my opinion, never to question anything. I was taught to simply follow what the government told me to do or say or think. I actually believed that our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, could read my mind, and I would be punished for my bad thoughts. And if he didn’t hear me, spies were everywhere, listening at the windows and watching in the school yard. We all belonged to inminban, or neighborhood “people’s units,” and we were ordered to inform on anyone who said the wrong thing. We lived in fear, and almost everyone—my mother included—had a personal experience that demonstrated the dangers of talking.

I was only nine months old when Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994. North Koreans worshipped the 82-year-old “Great Leader.” At the time of his death, Kim Il Sung had ruled North Korea with an iron grip for almost five decades, and true believers—my mother included—thought that Kim Il Sung was actually immortal. His passing was a time of passionate mourning, and also uncertainty in the country.

During that time, one of my father’s relatives was visiting from northeast China.  The real cause of death, he said, was hwa-byung—a common diagnosis in both North and South Korea that roughly translates into “disease caused by mental or emotional stress.

When I was growing up, we didn’t talk about what our families did during those times. In North Korea, any history can be dangerous. What I know about my father’s side of the family comes from the few stories my father told my mother.

After the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, the Soviet army swept into the northern part of Korea, while the American military took charge of the South—and this set the stage for the agony my country has endured for more than seventy years. An arbitrary line was drawn along the 38th parallel, dividing the peninsula into two administrative zones: North and South Korea. The United States flew an anti-Communist exile named Syngman Rhee into Seoul and ushered him into power as the first president of the Republic of Korea. In the North, Kim Il Sung, who had by then become a Soviet major, was installed as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. The Soviets quickly rounded up all eligible men to establish a North Korean military force. My grandfather was taken from his job at city hall and turned into an officer in the People’s Army.

By 1949, both the United States and the Soviet Union had withdrawn their troops and turned the peninsula over to the new puppet leaders. It did not go well. Kim Il Sung was a Stalinist and an ultranationalist dictator who decided to reunify the country in the summer of 1950 by invading the South with Russian tanks and thousands of troops. In North Korea, we were taught that the Yankee imperialists started the war, and our soldiers gallantly fought off their evil invasion. In fact, the United States military returned to Korea for the express purpose of defending the South—bolstered by an official United Nations force—and quickly drove Kim Il Sung’s army all the way to the Yalu River, nearly taking over the country. They were stopped only when Chinese soldiers surged across the border and fought the Americans back to the 38th parallel. By the end of this senseless war, at least three million Koreans had been killed or wounded, millions were refugees, and most of the country was in ruins.

In 1953, both sides agreed to end the fighting, but they never signed a peace treaty. To this day we are still officially at war, and both the governments of the North and South believe that they are the legitimate representatives of all Koreans.

During the 1950s and 1960s, China and the Soviet Union poured money into North Korea to help it rebuild. The North has coal and minerals in its mountains, and it was always the richer, more industrialized part of the country. It bounced back more quickly than the South, which was still mostly agricultural and slow to recover from the war. But that started to change in the 1970s and 1980s, as South Korea became a manufacturing center and North Korea’s Soviet-style system began to collapse under its own weight. The economy was centrally planned and completely controlled by the state. There was no private property—at least officially—and all the farms were collectivized, although people could grow some vegetables to sell in small, highly controlled markets. The government provided all jobs, paid everyone’s salary, and distributed rations for most food and consumer goods.

While my parents were growing up, the distribution system was still subsidized by the Soviet Union and China, so few people were starving, but nobody outside the elite really prospered. At the same time, supply wasn’t meeting demand for the kinds of items people wanted, like imported clothing, electronics, and special foods. While the favored classes had access to many of these goods through government-run department stores, the prices were usually too high for most people to afford. Any ordinary citizen who fancied foreign cigarettes or alcohol or Japanese-made handbags would have to buy them on the black market. The usual route for those goods was from the north, through China.

My father’s older brother Park Jin was attending medical school in Hyesan, and his eldest brother, Park Dong Il, was a middle school teacher in Hamhung.  Disaster struck in 1980 when Dong Il was accused of raping one of his students and attempting to kill his wife. I never learned all the details of what happened, or even if the charges were true, but he ended up being sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.  In North Korea, if one member of the family commits a serious crime, everybody is considered a criminal. Suddenly my father’s family lost its favorable social and political status.

There are more than 50 subgroups within the main songbun castes, and once you become an adult, your status is constantly being monitored and adjusted by the authorities. A network of casual neighborhood informants and official police surveillance ensures that nothing you do or your family does goes unnoticed. Everything about you is recorded and stored in local administrative offices and in big national organizations, and the information is used to determine where you can live, where you can go to school, and where you can work. With a superior songbun, you can join the Workers’ Party, which gives you access to political power. You can go to a good university and get a good job. With a poor one, you can end up on a collective farm chopping rice paddies for the rest of your life. And, in times of famine, starving to death.

All of Grandfather Park’s connections could not save his career after his eldest son was convicted of attempted murder. He was fired from his job at the commissary shortly after Dong Il was sent to prison.

My father realized he would have no future unless he found a way to join the Workers’ Party. He decided to become a laborer at a local metal foundry where he could work hard and prove his loyalty to the regime. He was able to build good relationships with the people who had power at his workplace, including the party representative there. Before long, he had his membership. By that time, my father had also started a side business to make some extra money. This was a bold move, because any business venture outside of state control was illegal. But my father was unusual in that he had a natural entrepreneurial spirit and what some might call a healthy contempt for rules.

My father joined a small but growing class of black market operators who found ways to exploit cracks in the state-controlled economy. He started small. My father discovered that he could buy a carton of top-quality cigarettes for 70 to 100 won on the black market in Hyesan, then sell each cigarette for 7 to 10 won in the North Korean interior. At that time, a kilogram—2.2 pounds—of rice cost around 25 won, so cigarettes were obviously very valuable.

My father would go to the police and bribe them for a travel permit. My father traveled by train to small cities where there weren’t big black markets. He hid the cigarettes in his bags, all over his body, and in every pocket. He had to keep moving to avoid being searched by the police, who were always looking for contraband. Sometimes the police discovered him and confiscated the cigarettes or threatened to hit him with a metal stick if he didn’t turn over his money. My father had to convince the police that it was in everybody’s interest to let him make a profit so that he could keep coming back and giving them cigarettes as bribes. Often they agreed. He was a born salesman.

Father left the metal foundry to find other jobs that gave him more freedom to be away from the office for days at a time to run his businesses. In addition to the cigarettes, he bought sugar, rice, and other goods in the informal markets in Hyesan, then traveled around the country selling them for a profit. When he did business in Wonsan, a port on the East Sea, he brought back dried sand eels—tiny, skinny fish that Koreans love to eat as a side dish. He could sell them for a good profit in our landlocked province, and they became his best-selling product.

While it’s true that my grandfather and my parents stole from the government, the government stole everything from its people, including their freedom. As it turns out, my family’s business was simply ahead of its time. By the time I was born, in 1993, corruption, bribery, theft, and even market capitalism were becoming a way of life in North Korea as the centralized economy fell apart. The only thing left unchanged when the crisis was over was the regime’s brutal, totalitarian grip on political power.

We think I was even more premature because, in her seventh month, my mother was hauling coal across a railroad bridge in Hyesan. The coal transport was part of a backdoor enterprise run by my grandfather Park. After he lost his job at the commissary, my grandfather found work as a security guard at a military facility in Hyesan. The building had a stockpile of coal in one storage area, and he would let my parents in to steal it. They had to sneak in at night and carry the coal on their backs through the darkened city. It was hard work and they had to move fast, because if they were caught by the wrong policeman—meaning one they couldn’t bribe—they might end up getting arrested.

The regime realized it had no choice but to tolerate these unofficial markets.

The new reality spelled disaster for my father. Now that everyone was buying and selling in the markets, called jangmadangs, there was too much competition for him to make a living. Meanwhile, penalties for black market activities grew harsher. As hard as my parents tried to adapt, they were having trouble selling their goods and were falling deeper into debt. My father tried different kinds of businesses. My mother and her friends had an ancient pedal sewing machine they used to patch together pieces of old clothes to make children’s clothing. My mother dressed my sister and me in these outfits; her friends sold the rest in the market.

Some people had relatives in China, and they could apply for permits to visit them. My uncle Park Jin did this at least once, but my father didn’t because the authorities frowned on it and would have paid closer attention to his business. Those who went almost always came back across the border with things to sell in makeshift stalls on the edges of the jangmadang.

My father met his friend’s younger sister, Keum Sook. My mother. She was four years younger than my father, and her songbun status was just as poor as his, also through no fault of her own. While my father had to struggle because his brother was in prison, she was considered untrustworthy because her paternal grandfather had owned land when Korea was a Japanese colony. The stigma passed down through three generations, and when my mother was born in 1966, she was already considered a member of the “hostile” class and barred from the privileges of the elite.

The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea than it had during the entire Pacific campaign in World War II. The Americans bombed every city and village, and they kept bombing until there were no major buildings left to destroy. Then they bombed the dams to flood the crops. The damage was unimaginable, and nobody knows how many civilians were killed and maimed.

My parents knew that with each passing month it was getting harder and harder to survive in North Korea, but they didn’t know why. Foreign media were completely banned in the country, and the newspapers reported only good news about the regime—or blamed all of our hardships on evil plots by our enemies. The truth was that outside our sealed borders, the Communist superpowers that created North Korea were cutting off its lifeline. The big decline started in 1990 when the Soviet Union was breaking apart and Moscow dropped its “friendly rates” for exports to North Korea. Without subsidized fuel and other commodities, the economy creaked to a halt.

There was no way for the government to keep the domestic fertilizer factories running, and no fuel for trucks to deliver imported fertilizer to farms. Crop yields dropped sharply. At the same time, Russia almost completely cut off food aid. China helped out for a few years, but it was also going through big changes and increasing its economic ties with capitalist countries—like South Korea and the United States—so it, too, cut off some of its subsidies and started demanding hard currency for exports. North Korea had already defaulted on its bank loans, so it couldn’t borrow a penny.

Instead of changing its policies and reforming its programs, North Korea responded by ignoring the crisis. Instead of opening the country to full international assistance and investment, the regime told the people to eat only two meals a day to preserve our food resources. In his New Year’s message of 1995, the new Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, called on the Korean people to work harder. Although 1994 had brought us “tears of blood,” he wrote, we should greet 1995 “energetically, single-mindedly, and with one purpose”—to make the motherland more prosperous.

Our problems could not be fixed with tears and sweat, and the economy went into total collapse after torrential rains caused terrible flooding that wiped out most of the rice harvest. Kim Jong Il described our national struggle against famine as “The Arduous March,” resurrecting the phrase used to describe the hardships his father’s generation had faced fighting against the Japanese imperialists. Meanwhile as many as a million North Koreans died from starvation or disease during the worst years of the famine.


When foreign food aid finally started pouring into the country to help famine victims, the government diverted most of it to the military, whose needs always came first. What food did get through to local authorities for distribution quickly ended up being sold on the black market. Suddenly almost everybody in North Korea had to learn to trade or risk starving to death.

The regime realized it had no choice but to tolerate these unofficial markets.

The new reality spelled disaster for my father. Now that everyone was buying and selling in the markets, called jangmadangs, there was too much competition for him to make a living. Meanwhile, penalties for black market activities grew harsher. As hard as my parents tried to adapt, they were having trouble selling their goods and were falling deeper into debt. My father tried different kinds of businesses. My mother and her friends had an ancient pedal sewing machine they used to patch together pieces of old clothes to make children’s clothing. My mother dressed my sister and me in these outfits; her friends sold the rest in the market.

Some people had relatives in China, and they could apply for permits to visit them. My uncle Park Jin did this at least once, but my father didn’t because the authorities frowned on it and would have paid closer attention to his business. Those who went almost always came back across the border with things to sell in makeshift stalls on the edges of the jangmadang.

Despite North Korea’s anti-capitalist ideals, there were lots of private lenders who got rich by loaning money for monthly interest. My parents borrowed from some of them to keep their business going, but after black market prices collapsed and a lot of their merchandise was confiscated or stolen, they couldn’t pay it back.  Every night, the people who wanted to collect their debts came to the house while we were eating our meal. They yelled and made threats.

Finally, my father decided he couldn’t take it anymore. He knew of another way to make money, but it was very dangerous. He had a connection in Pyongyang who could get him some valuable metals—like gold, silver, copper, nickel, and cobalt—that he could sell to the Chinese for a profit.

My mother was against it. When he was selling sand eels and cigarettes, the worst that could happen was that he might have to spend all his profits on bribes, or do a short time in a reeducation camp.

“But smuggling stolen metals could get you killed.” She was even more frightened when she learned how he intended to bring the contraband to Hyesan. Every passenger train in North Korea had a special cargo car attached at the end of it called Freight Train #9. These #9 trains were exclusively for the use of Kim Jong Il to bring him specialty foods, fruits, and precious materials from different parts of North Korea, and to distribute gifts and necessity items to cadres and party officials around the country. Everything shipped in the special car was sealed in wooden crates that even the police couldn’t open to inspect. Nobody could even enter the car without being searched. My father knew somebody who worked on the train, and that man agreed to help smuggle the metals from Pyongyang to Hyesan in one of these safe compartments.

Between 1998 and 2002, my father spent most of his time in Pyongyang running the smuggling business. Usually he would be gone for nine months of the year,

When he was in town, my father entertained at our house to keep the local officials happy, including the party bosses he paid to ignore his absences from his “official” workplace.

My mother cooked big meals of rice and kimchi, grilled meat called bulgogi, and other special dishes, while my father filled everyone’s glasses to the brim with rice vodka and imported liquor. My father was a captivating storyteller with a great sense of humor.

The smugglers who brought the black market goods back and forth to China lived in low houses behind the market, along the river’s edge. I got to know this neighborhood well. When my father was in town with a shipment from Pyongyang, he would sometimes hide the metal in my little book bag, and then carry me piggyback from our house to one of the smugglers’ shacks. From there some men took the package to Chinese buyers on the other side of the river. Sometimes the smugglers would wade or walk across the Yalu River, sometimes they met their Chinese counterparts halfway. They did it at night, signaling one another with flashlights. There were so many of them doing business that each needed a special code—one, two, three flashes—so they didn’t get one another mixed up.

The soldiers who guarded the border were part of the operation by now, and they were always there to take their cut. Of course, even with the authorities looking the other way, there still were many things that you were forbidden to buy or sell. And breaking the rules could be fatal.

My own family suffered, too, as our fortune rose and fell like a cork in the ocean. In 1999, my father tried to use trucks instead of trains to smuggle metals out of Pyongyang, but there were too many expenses to pay drivers and buy gasoline, too many checkpoints and too many bribes to pay, so he ended up losing all of his money.

By the year 2000, when I turned seven years old, my father’s business was thriving. We had returned to Hyesan after my grandmother’s funeral and, before long, my family was rich—at least by our standards. We ate rice three times a day and meat two or three times a month. We had money for medical emergencies, new shoes, and things like shampoo and toothpaste that were beyond the means of ordinary North Koreans. We still didn’t have a telephone, car, or motorbike, but our lives seemed very luxurious to our friends and neighbors.

While my father was in prison, mother would come and go frequently over the next seven months, often for several weeks, doing business buying and selling watches, clothes, and used TV’s – things the government didn’t care much about if they caught you.

Nobody could afford to live on wages alone. Mother bought a stall in the market, which the government was now regulating and charging fees for, taking bribes for the best spots. My uncle’s wife started a business selling fish and rice cakes, but it wasn’t very profitable.

When my mother’s big sister saw how poorly we were doing, she took me her village deep in the countryside. There was rarely electricity and everyone lived as if electricity didn’t exist. The fanciest transportation was an oxcart. My aunt had lots of chickens and it was my job to watch the hens lay their eggs and make sure other chickens didn’t eat them and no one stole them. I also hauled wood from the forest.  My aunt also grew grapes, corn, potatoes, peppers, and sweet potatoes. Pigs ate what we didn’t finish.

In 2004 my father was convicted in a secret trial and sentenced to hard labor at a felony-level prison camp for ten years. No one lived long in these places and everyone knew it because the regime wanted us to fear these camps where you were no longer considered a human being. Prisoners can’t look at guards because an animal can’t look a human in the face. No visits or letters were allowed. Days are spent in hard labor with just porridge to eat and at night crammed into small cells where they sleep like packed fish, head to toe. Only the strongest survive their sentences.

In North Korea schoolchildren are part of the unpaid labor force that keeps the nation from total collapse. In the afternoons we were marched off for manual labor. In spring we helped the collective farms with planting, carrying stones to clear the fields, putting in the corn and hauling water. In June and July we weeded, and in fall picked up rice, corn, or beans missed by harvesters. We were expected to turn in everything we picked, but we had ways of hiding some anyway. We wer also expected to collect rabbit for the the soldiers’ winter uniforms, 5 pelts per semester.

In Kowon my mother gave facial massages and eyebrow tattoos for women. She bought and sold video cassettes and TV’s on the black market, and bought and sold rabbit furs.

When I as 11 I started my own business.  I bought rice vodka to bribe the guard at a state-owned orchard who let me and my sister sneak in and pick persimmons. But we were wearing out our shoes too quickly walking to the orchard and couldn’t afford new shoes.


While they worked to keep us from catastrophe, my parents often had to leave my sister and me alone. If she couldn’t find someone to look after us, my mother would have to bolt a metal bar across the door to keep us safe in the house. Sometimes she was away for so long that the sun went down and the house would get dark.  After a while, I would lose my nerve and we’d cry together.

When you are always hungry, all you think about is food.  We would eat only a little bit of porridge or potatoes.

The worst times were the winters. There was no running water and the river was frozen. There was one pump in town where you could collect fresh water, but you had to line up for hours to fill your bucket. One day when I was about five years old, my mother had to go off to do some business, so she took me there at six in the morning, when it was still dark, to wait in line for her. I stood outside all day in the freezing cold, and by the time she came back for me, it was dark again. I can remember how cold my hands were, and I can still see the bucket and the long line of people in front of me. She has apologized to me for doing that, but I don’t blame her for anything; it was what she had to do.

We arrived in Kowon to find that my mother’s family was also struggling to survive. Her youngest son, Jong Sik, who had been imprisoned years earlier for stealing from the state, was visiting them as well. In the labor camp he had caught tuberculosis, which was very common in North Korea. Now that there was so little food to go around, he was sick all the time and wasting away.

When my father was sober, he treated my mother like gold. But when he was drinking, it was a different story. North Korean society is by its nature tough and violent, and so are relations between men and women. The woman is expected to obey her father and her husband; males always come first in everything. When I was growing up, women could not sit at the same table with men. Many of my neighbors’ and classmates’ houses had special bowls and spoons for their fathers. It was commonplace for a husband to beat his wife. We had one neighbor whose husband was so brutal that she couldn’t click her chopsticks while she ate for fear he would hit her for making noise.

You hardly saw anyone begging in Pyongyang, just the street children we called kotjebi, who haunted the markets and train stations in every part of North Korea. The difference in Pyongyang was that whenever the kotjebi asked for food or money, the police officers came and drove them off.  Whenever the train stopped, the kotjebi street children would climb up and knock on my window to beg. I could see them scrambling to pick up any spoiled food that people threw away, even moldy grains of rice. My father was worried that they would get sick eating bad food and told me we shouldn’t give them our garbage. I saw that some of those children were about my age, and many even younger. But I can’t say I felt compassion or even pity, just simple curiosity about how they managed to survive eating all that rotten food. As we pulled away from the station, some of them were still hanging on, holding tight to the undercarriage, using all their energy not to fall off the running train and looking up at me with eyes that had no curiosity or even anger. What I saw in them was a pure determination to live, an animal instinct for survival even when there seemed to be no hope.

My mother told her she had tried to call my father in Pyongyang but couldn’t reach him. That’s when she found out he had been arrested for smuggling.  We walked her to the station, and as she was about to board the train, she gave us about 200 won, enough for a bit of dried beans or corn if we ran out of rice. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, and I’ll bring more food,” she said. Then she hugged us good-bye. We watched for a long time as the train pulled away. I was only eight years old, but I felt like my childhood was departing with her.  She needed to travel to the capital to find out where my father was being held, and to see if she could pay enough money to get him out of jail.

Winter had arrived and the days got dark too quickly. The air was so cold that the door to our house kept freezing shut. And it was very difficult for us to figure out how to make a fire to heat the house and cook food. My mother had left us some firewood, but we weren’t very good at chopping it into small pieces. The ax was too heavy for me and I had no gloves. For a long time I picked splinters out of my hands. Early one evening, I was in charge of making the fire in the kitchen, but I used wet wood and it started to smoke too much. My sister and I were struggling to breathe, but we couldn’t open the doors or windows because they were frozen solid. We screamed and banged on the wall to our neighbor’s house, but nobody could hear us. I finally picked up the ax and broke the ice to open the door. It was a miracle we survived that terrible month. The food my mother left for us ran out quickly, and by the end of December we were nearly starving. Sometimes our friends’ mothers would feed us, but they were struggling, too. The famine was supposed to have ended in North Korea in the late 1990s, but life was still very hard, even years later.

While father was in prison, my sister and I had to drop out of school. Education is free, but students have to pay for their own supplies and uniforms, plus bring gifts of food and other items to the teachers. Besides, we had to spend all of our time just staying alive.

To wash our clothes and dishes we had to walk down to the river and break the ice. Most days we had to stand in line for tap water for cooking and drinking. The food mother left us never lasted long so we were very hungry and skinny.

In 2002-3 I had a painful rash, was dizzy, and had a bad stomach like many other children, caused by pellagra from a lack of niacin and other minerals. A starvation diet of corn and no meat will bring on the disease which can kill you in a few years.

Spring is the season of death when most people die of starvation, because stores of food are gone but farms produce nothing since new crops are just being planted. At least we didn’t need as much wood to burn and we could walk to the small mountains out of town and fill ourselves with bugs and wild plants. Some even tasted good, like wild clover flowers. We chewed on certain roots but didn’t swallow them just to feel like we were putting something in our mouths. Once we chewed on a root that made our tongues swell up – we were more careful than that.

We ate dragonflies using a plastic cigarette lighter to cook their heads. Later in summer we ate roasted cicadas, a gourmet treat. Grasshoppers were the best of all which we ate fried.  I also picked some leaves for rabbits we could eat. We also ate wild clover flowers which were quite good, and the white flowers of the false acacia tree that grew wild in the mountains.

The hospital had no medicines, people had to buy them on the black market themselves, though in rural areas there was no black market for drugs, and many people had to walk over mountains and distances an oxcart couldn’t journey, leaving most helpless in an emergency. In the country doctors grew medicinal plants and cotton for bandages. Even in the city bandages were washed and reused, the same syringes used over and over.

We moved to Kowon where people were friendlier and there were fewer thieves.  In the larger city of Hyesan there was a lot of crime when the economy collapsed and we had to hide our property behind locked doors, and dry our clothes indoors because anything left outside would be stolen. Especially dogs which are a food item in North Korea.

In Hyesan we would not share our food with neighbors, but in Kowon everyone shared with each other. You had no choice.

The power grid in the north had become so weak the train from Pyongyang had to stop before it got to Hyesan and turn around. After a while it stopped coming at all. So father could no longer bring metal from Pyongyang. My parents had nothing to sell and no one would loan them money.

In the winter our apartment was cold so father walked to the mountains every day to look for wood to keep us warm, eating snow to fill himself up. We were hungry all the time. Skipping a meal could literally mean death, so that became my biggest fear and obsession. My parents couldn’t sleep. They were afraid they might not wake up and their children starve to death.


The only books available in North Korea were published by the government and had political themes. Instead of scary fairy tales, we had stories set in a filthy and disgusting place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets. It never occurred to me until after I arrived in Seoul that those books were really describing life in North Korea.  Most of them were about our Leaders and how they worked so hard and sacrificed so much for the people. One of my favorites was a biography of Kim Il Sung. It described how he suffered as a young man while fighting the Japanese imperialists, surviving by eating frogs and sleeping in the snow.

Our Dear Leader had mystical powers. His biography said he could control the weather with his thoughts, and that he wrote fifteen hundred books during his three years at Kim Il Sung University. Even when he was a child he was an amazing tactician, and when he played military games, his team always won because he came up with brilliant new strategies every time.

In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls. “Please, please, Dear Leader, take a good rest for us!” we sang through our tears. “We are all crying for you.” This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station. Whenever the Leaders’ smiling pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would build in the background. It made me so emotional every time. North Koreans are raised to venerate our fathers and our elders; it’s part of the culture we inherited from Confucianism. And so in our collective minds, Kim Il Sung was our beloved grandfather and Kim Jong Il was our father.

Our classrooms and schoolbooks were plastered with images of grotesque American GIs with blue eyes and huge noses executing civilians or being vanquished with spears and bayonets by brave young Korean children. Sometimes during recess from school we lined up to take turns beating or stabbing dummies dressed up like American soldiers.

In North Korea, even arithmetic is a propaganda tool. A typical problem would go like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?

We could never just say “American”—that would be too respectful. It had to be “American bastard,” “Yankee devil,” or “big-nosed Yankee.” If you didn’t say it, you would be criticized for being too soft on our enemies.

The newsreaders were going on and on about how much the Dear Leader was suffering in the cold to give his benevolent guidance to the loyal soldiers when my father snapped, “That son of a bitch! Turn off the TV.” My mother whispered furiously, “Be careful what you say around the children! This isn’t just about what you think. You’re putting all of us in danger.

The next day mother and her best friend were visiting the monument to place more flowers when they noticed someone had vandalized the offerings. “Oh, there are such bad people in this world!” her friend said. “You are so right!” my mother said. “You wouldn’t believe the evil rumor that our enemies have been spreading.” And then she told her friend about the lies she had heard. The following day she was walking across the Cloud Bridge when she noticed an official-looking car parked in the lane below our house, and a large group of men gathered around it. She immediately knew something awful was about to happen.

The visitors were plainclothes agents of the dreaded bo-wi-bu, or National Security Agency, that ran the political prison camps and investigated threats to the regime. Everybody knew these men could take you away and you would never be heard from again.

The senior agent met my mother at our door and led her to our neighbor’s house, which he had borrowed for the afternoon. They both sat, and he looked at her with eyes like black glass. “Do you know why I’m here?” he asked. “Yes, I do,” she said. “So where did you hear that?” he said. She told him she’d heard the rumor from her husband’s Chinese uncle, who had heard it from a friend. “What do you think of it?” he said. “It’s a terrible, evil rumor!” she said, most sincerely. “It’s a lie told by our enemies who are trying to destroy the greatest nation in the world!” “What do you think you have done wrong?” he said, flatly. “Sir, I should have gone to the party organization to report it. I was wrong to just tell it to an individual.” “No, you are wrong,” he said. “You should never have let those words out of your mouth.” Now she was sure she was going to die.

When my mother sent me off to school she never said, “Have a good day,” or even, “Watch out for strangers.” What she always said was, “Take care of your mouth.” In most countries, a mother encourages her children to ask about everything, but not in North Korea. As soon as I was old enough to understand, my mother warned me that I should be careful about what I was saying. “Remember, Yeonmi-ya,” she said gently, “even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.” She didn’t mean to scare me, but I felt a deep darkness and horror inside me.

There are more than fifty subgroups within the main songbun castes, and once you become an adult, your status is constantly being monitored and adjusted by the authorities. A network of casual neighborhood informants and official police surveillance ensures that nothing you do or your family does goes unnoticed. Everything about you is recorded and stored in local administrative offices and in big national organizations, and the information is used to determine where you can live, where you can go to school, and where you can work. With a superior songbun, you can join the Workers’ Party, which gives you access to political power. You can go to a good university and get a good job. With a poor one, you can end up on a collective farm chopping rice paddies for the rest of your life. And, in times of famine, starving to death.

In North Korea, public executions were used to teach us lessons in loyalty to the regime and the consequences of disobedience. In Hyesan when I was little, a young man was executed right behind the market for killing and eating a cow. It was a crime to eat beef without special permission. Cows were the property of the state, and were too valuable to eat because they were used for plowing fields and dragging carts, so anybody who butchered one would be stealing government property.

Although many families owned televisions, radios, and VCR players, they were allowed to listen to or watch only state-generated news programs and propaganda films, which were incredibly boring. There was a huge demand for foreign movies and South Korean television shows, even though you never knew when the police might raid your house searching for smuggled media. First they would shut off the electricity (if the power was on in the first place) so that the videocassette or DVD would be trapped in the machine when they came through the door. But people learned to get around this by owning two video players and quickly switching them out if they heard a police team coming. If you were caught smuggling or distributing illegal videos, the punishment could be severe.

Radios and televisions came sealed and permanently tuned to state-approved channels. If you tampered with them, you could be arrested and sent to a labor camp for reeducation, but a lot of people did it anyway.

I’m often asked why people would risk going to prison to watch Chinese commercials or South Korean soap operas or year-old wrestling matches. I think it’s because people are so oppressed in North Korea, and daily life is so grim and colorless, that people are desperate for any kind of escape. When you watch a movie, your imagination can carry you away for two whole hours. You come back refreshed, your struggles temporarily forgotten.

North Koreans have two stories running in their heads at all times, like trains on parallel tracks. One is what you are taught to believe; the other is what you see with your own eyes. It wasn’t until I escaped to South Korea and read a translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that I found a word for this peculiar condition: doublethink. This is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time—and somehow not go crazy. This “doublethink” is how you can shout slogans denouncing capitalism in the morning, then browse through the market in the afternoon to buy smuggled South Korean cosmetics. It is how you can believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise, the best country in the world with the happiest people who have nothing to envy, while devouring movies and TV programs that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn’t imagine in your dreams.

It is how you can recite the motto “Children Are King” in school, then walk home past the orphanage where children with bloated bellies stare at you with hungry eyes. Maybe deep, deep inside me I knew something was wrong. But we North Koreans can be experts at lying, even to ourselves. The frozen babies that starving mothers abandoned in the alleys did not fit into my worldview, so I couldn’t process what I saw. It was normal to see bodies in the trash heaps, bodies floating in the river, normal to just walk by and do nothing when a stranger cried for help. There are images I can never forget. Late one afternoon, my sister and I found the body of a young man lying beside a pond. It was a place where people went to fetch water, and he must have dragged himself there to drink. He was naked and his eyes were staring and his mouth wide open in an expression of terrible suffering. I had seen many dead bodies before, but this was the most horrible and frightening of all, because his insides were coming out where something—maybe dogs—had ripped him open.

There were so many desperate people on the streets crying for help that you had to shut off your heart or the pain would be too much. After a while you can’t care anymore. And that is what hell is like. Almost everybody I knew lost family in the famine. The youngest and oldest died first. Then the men, who had fewer reserves than women. Starving people wither away until they can no longer fight off diseases, or the chemicals in their blood become so unbalanced that their hearts forget to beat.

My father and I left on the morning train for Pyongyang. Even though the distance was only about 225 miles, the ride took days, because electricity shortages slowed down the train.

Just about every morning we woke up to the sound of the national anthem blaring on the government-supplied radio. Every household in North Korea had to have one, and you could never turn it off. It was tuned to only one station, and that’s how the government could control you even when you were in your own home. In the morning it played lots of enthusiastic songs with titles like “Strong and Prosperous Nation,” reminding us how lucky we were to celebrate our proud socialist life. I was surprised that the radio was on so much in Pyongyang. Back home, the electricity was usually off, so we had to wake ourselves up.

At seven in the morning, there was always a lady knocking on the door of the apartment in Pyongyang, yelling, “Get up! Time to clean!” She was head of the inminban, or “people’s unit,” that included every apartment in our part of the building. In North Korea, everybody is required to wake up early and spend an hour sweeping and scrubbing the hallways, or tending the area outside their houses. Communal labor is how we keep up our revolutionary spirit and work together as one people.

After the people of Pyongyang finish cleaning in the morning, they line up for the buses and go off to work. In the Northern provinces, not many people were going to work anymore because there was nothing left to do. The factories and mines had stopped operating and there was nothing to manufacture.

My father’s younger sister who lived in Hyesan had nothing to spare, and my uncle Park Jin was furious that my father had brought more trouble and disgrace to the family by getting himself arrested. It was so hurtful because my parents had always been generous with him and his family. Now we didn’t feel we could ask him for help.

Mother had to get back to Pyongyang to earn some money, and to try to help our father. The story she told us was terrifying: Soon after she arrived, she found he was being held at a detention and interrogation center called a ku ryujang. At first they wouldn’t let her see my father, but finally she was able to bribe one of the guards to get in. My father was in a shocking condition. He told her the police had tortured him by beating one place on his leg until it swelled up so badly that he could barely move. He couldn’t even get to the toilet. Then the guards tied him in a kneeling position with a wooden stick behind his knees, causing even more excruciating pain. They wanted to know how much he had sold to smugglers and who else was involved in the operation. But he told them very little. Later he was moved to Camp 11, the Chungsan “reeducation” labor camp northwest of Pyongyang. This type of facility is mostly for petty criminals or women who have been captured escaping North Korea. But these kinds of prisons can be as brutal as the felony-level and even the political prison camps in the North Korean gulag. In “reeducation” camps, the inmates are forced to work at hard labor all day, in the fields or in manufacturing jobs, on so little food that they have to fight over scraps and sometimes eat rats to survive.

Then they have to spend the evenings memorizing the Leaders’ speeches or engaging in endless self-criticism sessions. Although they have committed “crimes against the people,” these prisoners are thought to be redeemable, so they can be sent back to society once they have repented and finished an intensive refresher course in Kim Il Sung’s teachings. Sometimes prisoners are given a trial, sometimes not. But my mother thought it was a good sign that my father had been sent to one of these so-called lighter facilities. It gave her hope that we could all be together again soon.

The next day, though, we woke up to detectives pounding on our door. They had come to arrest my mother for questioning about my father’s crimes. But when the police officers saw that she had young children in the house, they took pity on us. They asked if she had any relatives who could take us while she was being interrogated, and she told them about my father’s brother, Uncle Jin. So the police asked the head of our inminban to find him and bring him to our house. When he arrived, they ordered him to care for us while our mother was being questioned, and then they led her away. For the next few days, she had to sit in a room at the prosecutors’ office in Hyesan day and night, writing statements about herself and my father and everything they had done wrong. Then a detective would read the pages and ask her more questions. At night they would simply lock the office door and go away. In the morning they came back to start the interrogation again. Finally, she was released. Eunmi and I were so grateful she wasn’t sent away to prison.

In 2005 my mother had to go into hiding, the police in Kowon were looking for her because she wasn’t paying them enough bribes.  You can’t go where wyou want, the government has to give you permission to move outside your assigned district requiring a reason like job transfer, marriage, or divorce.  So she turned herself into the police and was sentenced to a month of reeducation at a mobile slave labor camp building bridges and other heavy construction projects. There were only a few women but they had to work as hard as the men, and if anyone was too slow, the whole group had to run around the camp all night without any sleep as a punishment.  To prevent that, the prisoners would beat one another if someone wasn’t working fast enough. The guards didn’t have to do a thing. Many were near death after a few weeks.  It was the end of fall when mother was there, suffering from cold with just a thin jacket and no gloves.

My father got out of prison because he was so ill and yet had to live 8 flights up – the less money you have, the higher up you live.  Since his ID card was destroyed when he went to prison he couldn’t go anywhere, so he couldn’t earn money buying metal to sell to smugglers, and had to constantly check in with police, who were keeping a close eye on him.

One of the big problems in North Korea was a fertilizer shortage. When the economy collapsed in the 1990s, the Soviet Union stopped sending fertilizer to us and our own factories stopped producing it. Whatever was donated from other countries couldn’t get to the farms because the transportation system had also broken down. this led to crop failures that made the famine even worse. So the government came up with a campaign to fill the fertilizer gap with a local and renewable source: human and animal waste. Every worker and schoolchild had a quota to fill.  Every member of the household had a daily assignment, so when we got up in the morning, it was like a war. My aunts were the most competitive.

“Remember not to poop in school! Wait to do it here!” my aunt in Kowon told me every day.

Whenever my aunt in Songnam-ri traveled away from home and had to pop somewhere else, she loudly complained that she didn’t have a plastic bag with her to save it.

The big effort to collect waste peaked in January so it could be ready for growing season. Our bathrooms were usually far from the house, so you had to be careful. neighbors didn’t steal from you at night. Some people would lock up their outhouses to keep the poop thieves away. At school the teachers would send us out into the streets to find poop and carry it back to class.  If we saw a dog pooping in the street, it was like gold. My uncle in Kowon had a big dog who made a big poop—and everyone in the family would fight over it.


Park was reluctant to write this book or talk about this part of her life even when she reached South Korea.  The fate of most women who escape is to become a bride since there are so many bachelors, epically men with physical or mental problems who are the least likely to find wives. Children are not considered Chinese citizens and can’t go to school or find work when they get older.

Along the way she and her mother are raped, and Park is forced to have sex with one of the North Korean traffickers selling women.  Many women are sold into prostitution as well.

Men who cross work on farms for slave wages. They don’t complain because if the farmer notifies police they’ll be arrested and sent back to North Korea.

The Chinese government doesn’t want a flood of immigrants or to upset the leadership in Pyongyang. Especially since North Korea is a nuclear power on their border, and a buffer between China and the American presence in the South. Refugee status is not granted, all illegal immigrants are labeled “economic migrants” and shipped home.

Park had to learn a lot, how to use a toilet, toothbrush, wash her hands in a sink, take her first warm shower. For the first time every the lice in her hair were gone.

Eventually she too helped sell escaped North Korean women.

She eventually finds Christian missionaries who will help her get to Mongolia and onwards to South Korea, that barely works out.



Posted in Collapse of Civilizations, North Korea | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Summary of German Armed Forces Peak Oil Study

[This is a summary I first published in 2011.  It’s important, so I’ve re-posted it today.  According to Der Spiegel this study was leaked and not meant for publication.  The document concludes that the public must be made aware of peak oil implications so that preparation for peak is accelerated immediately. My comments are inside brackets.  This is a small subset of the overall study–you may want to read it in its entirety. 

Looks like they predicted the election of Trump:

“…people will experience a lowering of living standards due to an increase in unemployment and the cost of oil for their vehicles. Studies reveal that only continuous improvement of individual living conditions provide the basis for tolerant and open societies.  Setbacks in economic growth can lead to an increase in the number of votes for extremist and nationalistic parties.”

If you’re wondering about the silence from the U.S. government and media on peak oil, it’s probably because they’re afraid acknowledging it would cause stock markets to crash world-wide.  Congress is certainly aware of the problem (see the senate and house hearings here).  If preparation is being made, it’s being done in top secret departments of homeland security and the military (i.e. rationing, refugee camps to stop mass migrations overwhelming areas that are still ecologically viable, etc).

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

BTC. November 2010. Armed Forces, Capabilities and Technologies in the 21st Century Environmental Dimensions of Security. Sub-study 1. Peak oil security policy implications of scarce resources. Bundeswehr Transformation Centre, Future Analysis Branch.  112 pages.  English version

This study is intended to explain the potential security policy consequences, risks and cascade effects that may arise from peak oil and addresses the subject of finite resources and their potential security policy implications as well as climate change and demography.

In the past, numerous conflicts were linked to raw material deposits. Literature relating to this subject is extensive. Usually resource conflicts have been restricted to specific regions and of limited relevance to international security policy.  With global peak oil, this could change: 1) a global lack of oil could represent a systemic risk because its versatility as a source of energy and as a chemical raw material would mean that virtually every social subsystem would be affected by a shortage. 2) The concentration of oil deposits and transport infrastructure in the “Strategic Ellipse” could result in a shift in geopolitical power.

The Strategic Ellipse has 74% of the world’s oil and 70% of the world’s natural gas reserves:

It is a fact that oil is finite and that there is a peak oil. Since this study is mainly focused on understanding cause-effect relations following such a peak oil situation, it is not necessary to specify a precise point in time. Some institutions claim that peak oil will occur as early as around 2010. [My comment: conventional oil peaked in 2005 (peak oil posts, Science magazine Peak Oil Production May Already Be Here Mar 25, 2011]

Today approximately 90% of all industrially manufactured products depend on the availability of oil. Oil is not only the source material for producing fuels and lubricants but is also used as hydrocarbon for most plastic. It is one of the most important raw materials in the production of many different products such as pharmaceuticals, dyes and textiles. As the source material for various types of fuels, oil is a basic prerequisite for the transportation of large quantities of goods over long distances. Alongside information technology, container ships, trucks and aircraft form the backbone of globalization. Oil-based mobility also significantly influences our lifestyle, both regionally and locally. For example, living in suburbs several miles from their workplace would be impossible for many people without a car.

A considerable increase in oil price would pose a systemic risk because the availability of relatively affordable oil is crucial for the functioning of large parts of the economic and social systems. For some subsystems, such as worldwide goods shipping or individual transportation, the importance of oil is obvious.

Many challenges exist when there aren’t enough oil supplies. For example, consider North Korea. After the Korean War, the USSR helped North Korea develop modern agriculture. When the USSR collapsed, the flow of cheap oil suddenly dried up. Agricultural machines had to be put out of service. A return to traditional cultivation methods was aggravated by over-fertilized land, and the proportion of people employed in agriculture was increased from 25% to 35% to compensate for the loss of 80% of the agricultural machines. Despite this, harvests dropped by 60% between 1989 and 1998.

[Pages 13 and 14 describe how Great Britain, the USA, Russia, India, and China have declared energy as essential to their prosperity, competitiveness, and affecting national security, and the actions they are taking to secure oil.]

It can therefore be stated that against the backdrop of the ever-decreasing availability of fossil fuels, the challenge of ensuring long-term energy supply is reflected in national strategies worldwide, leaving no doubt as to the vital importance attached to this issue. In this context, the fact that energy supply aspects occupy an increasingly important place in the national security strategy documents of various countries is likely to have consequences on the nature of future energy relations. These strategy documents emphasize a peaceful method of securing energy supplies.

But competition and conflict over scarce oil resources are likely to arise at some point.

The German Government defines energy security as a “secure, sustainable and competitive supply of energy”. Energy crises are lasting imbalances between supply and demand, which provoke price jumps and have negative effects on the economies concerned. Energy security policy therefore aims at preventing energy supply shortages or supply disruptions.

90% of all oil imports to Germany come from countries that have already exceeded their national peaks during the study’s period of review. It is very likely peak oil has already occurred for Russia, Norway and Great Britain. These 3 countries supply 60% of Germany’s total oil import volume.  Great Britain, from which Germany receives 10% of its oil imports, is already an oil net importer and can only export oil to Germany after having previously imported from third countries.

About 90% of all oil countries have exceeded their peak or are likely to reach it by 2015. Brazil and Angola may be able to increase production. Saudi Arabia is likely to be in decline. This is extremely relevant because the point at which global peak oil occurs is likely to be determined primarily by Saudi Arabia’s oil production potential. In a worst-case scenario, this would mean that even a dominant oil power such as Saudi Arabia could cease to function as a potential swing producer.


Oil producing nations are likely to use their power to aggressively enforce political, economic, or ideological objectives for their own interests, such as Russia’s gas disputes with Ukraine.

Countries are also likely to stop exporting as much oil to preserve oil resources for future generations. The more obvious the actual scarcity of oil, the more expensive oil would become and thus the greater the profits of producer countries. The calculus of “political peaking” would become all the more understandable. Political peaking would further aggravate peak oil-induced supply shortage and related price increases.

If oil is sold to a producing nation’s citizens at below-market prices to improve their lives, export quantities will dwindle even further.

In the past countries have relied on many sources of oil, but as the oil increasingly only becomes available from the strategic ellipse, diversifying sources won’t be possible, and the nations in the strategic ellipse will become ever more important.

Nations will woo oil producing nations by acting as trade partners, investors, suppliers of technology and weapons, lenders, “development aid workers”, etc.   China does not leave energy supply to the markets, but already today tries to place it under government control.  It also supports the foreign operations of its national oil companies by providing regional, broadly based and intensified energy diplomacy. The Chinese commitment in Africa is an example for the country’s attempts to position itself for sustainably securing its national resource supply. In addition, Chinese oil companies have been making efforts to obtain licences for a share of the reserves in the US for several years, and lately they have been successful. On 12 October 2010, for example, the Chinese oil giant CNOOC bought into the Texan reserves of Chesapeake Energy in Texas for several billion dollars.

Reshaping supply relationships after global peak oil.  In light of peak oil, the share of oil traded on the global, freely accessible oil market might decrease in favor of oil traded via bilateral agreements, replacing a free market with private contracts.  Oil producing nations might demand nuclear material in exchange for oil.

Increased importance of oil infrastructure.  When peak oil is exceeded, transport infrastructure will become even more important.  Global transportation routes via which oil is distributed with supertankers or long pipeline sections are difficult to protect and provide easy targets for interrupting the oil supply. This will increase the incentive to sabotage energy infrastructure.   Since a major part of the oil reserves remaining after peak oil is concentrated in the Strategic Ellipse, the oil infrastructure in this region is becoming increasingly important for many countries. Interruption of these energy infrastructures would be an easy and worthwhile target. A comparatively huge amount of damage with global political and economic implications could be caused with very little resources and low risk. The series of attacks in Nigeria already show these tendencies. The infrastructure of gas and electricity as a partial substitute for oil will require increased protection.

Environmental problems, war.  Conventional deposits cause much less environmental damage than non-conventional oil resources, such as tar sands and deep sea oil.  Accidents in the arctic could have severe consequences in the complex Arctic ecosystem

War.  Ownership of the arctic isn’t settled which could lead to conflicts.  The strategic significance in securing resources and the exploration of new and controversial oil-producing areas may increase the probability of a further build-up of military arsenals to enforce those claims. Efforts aimed at expanding military capacities for the protection of own claims on the Arctic can already be seen today.  Similar considerations apply to international waters. The growing possibility of deep-sea resources exploration would increasingly bring unsettled territorial claims as a potential cause of conflict to the fore, as can currently be seen in the territorial conflicts over the South China Sea. With the exploitation of high sea deposits, the significance of blue water navies would also increase.

Natural gas (NG) as an extension of the oil era

NG is seen as a substitute for oil in many fields and is expected to last longer than oil.  [Note: in the USA, reserves of NG have been greatly exaggerated, also here].

Natural gas will therefore be one of the most important fossil fuels of the future and will have to replace oil to a considerable extent.  NG cannot simply be shipped but must be transported as gas via a pipeline or, after compression or liquefaction (liquefied natural gas (LNG)), with special-purpose tankers. Pipeline systems, however, which currently carry the major part of natural gas produced to the consumers, are regionally restricted. Instead of one world market for natural gas are several regional markets with limited numbers of suppliers.

Pipelines that carry NG span countries as well political, economic, and cultural regions, which is likely to lead to conflict over the routes, construction, and a need for increased protection of the pipelines.

Nuclear proliferation.  Nations may electrify their energy infrastructure to make use of more nuclear plants, but that will increase the likelihood of accidents which could have dramatic ecological consequences – globally.  This is even more of a problem in nations with weak institutions and technological competence.   Uranium mining is environmentally destructive, a great deal of water is required to cool nuclear power plants, and dismantling of old plants and waste disposal are further negative factors.  Expansion of nuclear energy increases the odds of nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands.  Oil producers are likely to demand nuclear material in exchange for oil.  Nuclear terrorist groups or organized crime will have access to increased waste and nuclear material


This section basically says that peak oil is going to cause food prices to rise, leading to food crises and instability.  Food prices will go up even more if crops are grown to create biofuels because that displaces food crops.

Excessive biomass production without sustainable agricultural solutions would exacerbate the impact of climate change. A more intensive agriculture, especially with high yield crops grown as monocultures, will have additional negative effects especially on those regions that are already facing acute water shortages.  The degradation of soil due to erosion, compression, salinization and desertification may progress considerably. With the destruction of intact eco-systems and the loss of biodiversity the natural regeneration potential of the biosphere would decrease on a local and global level. Without sustainable solutions the rapidly growing production of renewable energy raw materials could intensify economic and ecological crises in many regions of the world.

[Growing plants for fuel or electricity is never going to work, it doesn’t scale up, has low to negative EROI, and so on:  Peak Soil: Why Cellulosic and other Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America’s National Security ]

Coal.  Will last longer than oil but is also finite.  If technologies for a climate-friendly coal power generation (carbon capture and storage (CCS) etc.) are not used globally, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will increase considerably and accelerate climate change. The same is true for coal liquefaction but with the current state of the art is inefficient energetically and harmful to the climate.  The setup of such plants will involve high economic and political costs. Complex planning and approval procedures and negative impacts on the environment may pose potential obstacles. In view of a global oil shortage, nations may resort to low quality high-polluting coal.  Coal liquefaction is a “last resort” to supply industry, transport systems and armed forces with fuel, (i.e. Germany in WWII).

Other forms of energy.  Nations will try to develop other forms of energy, but no one region hardly ever has the conditions favorable to develop sun, wind, geothermal, and biomass.  Developing these alternatives depends on a complex electrical infrastructure being built.  This infrastructure also needs to be protected and must operate across the borders of nations and different cultural groups, so it’s far more than a technological or economic challenge to build, requiring a long-term stable economic and political environment.

Societal risks of peak oil

  1. Economic collapse
  2. Transportation restricted
  3. Erosion of confidence in state institutions

There are not sufficient alternatives to oil for transportation, so when oil grows short, there are likely to be extreme restrictions for private vehicles, especially in suburbs, resulting in a “mobility crisis” that would make the economic crisis much worse.

Scarce or expensive oil would drive up the cost of all goods.  Our current international movement of goods has largely been made possible by the technological progress in the field of freight traffic (container ships, trucks, cooling systems), which are based on fossil fuels.  So trying to switch all modes of transport to alternative energy sources is much more complex with today’s common means of transportation and technology. Mobility on the basis of fossil fuels is likely to remain a long time.   Oil shortages could lead to bottlenecks in delivering food and other life-sustaining essential goods.

After peak oil, there would be significant differences from past food shortages:

  • The crisis would concern all food traded over long distances, not just single regions or products. Regions that are structurally already at risk today would however be particularly affected (see figure 6).
  • Crop yields also depend on oil. Lack of machines or oil-based fertilizers and other chemicals to increase crop yield would therefore have a negative effect on crop production
  • The increase in food prices would be long-term
  • Competition between the use of farmland for food production and for producing biofuels could worsen food shortages and crises.

Even countries with good food production could experience social unrest if it’s distributed inefficiently or unfairly.

Economic collapse

Oil is used directly or indirectly in the production of 90% of industrial goods, so a shortage of oil would affect the entire economic system.  All prices would go up.  Unemployment would go up.

[The paper mentions that other types of jobs would become available, but going from making cars to buggies and breeding enough horses and mules to pull the buggies will take a lot of time.  Rickshaws would be a better analogy, since we can’t go back to horses given we don’t have enough land to feed them].

There are no post-fossil societies to look at for ideas about how to succeed in making this transition, this is a completely novel situation.  [Not true, look at what’s happened in North Korea and Cuba]

Loss of confidence.  After oil shortages people will experience a lowering of living standards due to an increase in unemployment and the cost of oil for their vehicles. Studies reveal that only continuous improvement of individual living conditions provide the basis for tolerant and open societies.  Setbacks in economic growth can lead to an increase in the number of votes for extremist and nationalistic parties.

3.2 The Systemic Risk of Exceeding the Tipping Point.

The transmission channels of an oil price shock involve diverse and interdependent economic structures and infrastructures, some of which are of vital importance. Its consequences are therefore not entirely predictable. Initially, it will be possible to measure the extent of these consequences, although not exclusively, by a reduced growth of the global economy.

Tipping points are characterized by the fact that when they are reached, a system no longer responds to changes proportionally, but chaotically. The term “tipping processes” is used in the field of climate research. At such a point, a minor change in has a drastic effect on an ecosystem.  At first glance, it seems obvious that a phase of slowly declining oil production quantities would lead to an equally slowly declining economic output. Peak oil would bring about a decline in global prosperity for a certain length of time. Economies, however, move within a narrow band of relative stability. Within this band, economic fluctuations and other shocks are possible, but the functional principles remain unchanged and provide for new equilibrium’s within the system. Outside this band, however, this system responds chaotically as well.

How this might occur:

  1. After peak oil alternative fuels will not compensate leading to a loss of confidence in the markets.
  2. Increasing oil prices will reduce consumption and economic output leading to recession.
  3. Higher transportation costs will make the prices of all traded goods rise.  Trade volumes would decrease, and some nations would no longer be able to afford to import food.
  4. National budgets will be devoted to securing food and dealing with unemployment, leaving little funding to invest in oil substitutes and green technology.  Revenues would keep falling as a result of the recession and declining tax revenue.

In the medium term, the global economic system and all market-oriented economies would collapse.

  1. Corporations would realize the contraction will go on for a long time
  2. Tipping point: In an economy shrinking over an indefinite period, savings would not be invested because companies would not be making any profit.  For an indefinite period, companies would no longer be in a position to pay borrowing costs or to distribute profits to investors. The banking system, stock exchanges and financial markets could collapse altogether. In theory, there are industries that could profit from the situation. The oil industry or companies in the green-tech sector would certainly have an increasing demand for capital. Given the companies’ environment, in particular the dependence of these industries on (international) value chains and infrastructures, as well as the dramatically changing conditions on the demand side, it would be implausible to expect “islands of stability” which continue to exist on a “micro level”.
  3. Financial markets are the backbone of global economy and an integral component of modern societies. All other subsystems have developed hand in hand with the economic system.  A completely new system state would materialize.

Other likely consequences

Banks left with no commercial basis. Banks would not be able to pay interest on deposits as they would not be able to find creditworthy companies, institutions or individuals. As a result, they would lose the basis for their business.

Loss of confidence in currencies. Belief in the value-preserving function of money would dwindle. This would initially result in hyperinflation and black markets, followed by a barter economy at the local level.

Collapse of value chains. The division of labor and its processes are based on the possibility of trade in intermediate products. It would be extremely difficult to conclude the necessary transactions lacking a monetary system.

Collapse of unpegged currency systems. If currencies lose their value in their country of origin, they can no longer be exchanged for foreign currencies. International value-added chains would collapse as well.

Mass unemployment. Modern societies are organized on a division-of-labor basis and have become increasingly differentiated in the course of their histories. Many professions are solely concerned with managing this high level of complexity and no longer have anything to do with the immediate production of consumer goods. The reduction in the complexity of economies that is implied here would result in a dramatic increase in unemployment in all modern societies.

National bankruptcies. In the situation described, state revenues would evaporate. (New) debt options would be very limited, and the next step would be national bankruptcies.

Collapse of critical infrastructures. Neither material nor financial resources would suffice to maintain existing infrastructures. Infrastructure interdependencies, both internal and external with regard to other subsystems, would worsen the situation.

Famines. Ultimately, production and distribution of food in sufficient quantities would become challenging.

The developments shown here make it clear that it is essential to secure the supply of energy to the economic cycle in sufficient quantities to enable positive economic growth. A contraction in economic activity over an indefinite period of time represents a highly unstable state that will cause the system to collapse. It is hardly possible to estimate the security risks that such a development would involve.

Other countries may spread the “infection” of economic collapse to other nations due to the highly interdependent relations between nations in the global economy.

In complex systems, less energy can lead to collapse.

War.  Oil shortages are likely to be seen by importing nations as a national security issue leading to conflict, which could also emerge over renewable energy resources.

Effects on armed forces

In the long run, not only all societies and economies worldwide but armed forces as well will be faced with the various and difficult challenges of transformation towards a “post-fossil” age.

Implications for Germany: A markedly reduced mobility of the German Armed Forces would have various consequences – not only for the available equipment and training, but also for their (global) power projection and intervention capabilities. Given the size and complexity of many transport and weapon systems as well as the high standards set for qualities like robustness in operation, alternative energy and drive propulsion systems would hardly be available to the necessary extent in the short term. One of the consequences to be initially expected would be further cutbacks in the use of large weapon systems for training purposes in all services, thus raising the need for more “virtualized” training. However, effects on current and planned missions would most likely be even more severe. Deployment to the theater of operations, the operation of bases and the mission itself are considerably more energy- and above all fuel-intensive than the mere upkeep of armed forces.  Rapid operations of highly mobile forces, which are regularly deployed by air, would be particularly affected, as well as air force missions, laying severe restrictions upon these types of operations. Despite being common practice, alternative solutions for deployment like increased rail transport or a markedly more efficient transport of equipment, supplies or even personnel by ship are unlikely to provide full substitution. Especially with regard to deployments from railway stations and sea ports into the operations area (“the last mile”) and deployments within theaters of operations lacking access to sea or railway, combustion engine based drive propulsion systems will not as easily be substitutable. The same applies to tactical mobility.

In order to prevent a restriction of capabilities and deployment options of the Bundeswehr, alternative solutions to oil-based fuels would be necessary in the short term. While these solutions, such as coal liquefaction or in some cases natural gas liquefaction, are possible and conceivable in principle, they would entail considerable political and economic efforts. They would require considerable investments and radical industrial policy decisions. Considering the challenges society as a whole would face as a result of peak oil, it seems unlikely that this could be accomplished even in case of an emergency. Moreover, worldwide (re-)initiation particularly of coal and gas liquefaction would further expedite both the shortage of fossil fuels and climate change. Even though cooperation in international alliances may hold benefits when it comes to technologies or coal and gas reserves, it would turn coal and gas into even more important and strategic resources and make their national exploitation a priority. Especially coal could potentially become a “strategic reserve” for Germany. Besides ensuring the availability of alternative fuel solutions such as liquid coal or gas at least in technological terms, building up large strategic reserves of fuel for all kinds of Bundeswehr vehicles, ships and aircraft should be considered in order to bridge supply shortages for an extended period of time if necessary.


When considering the consequences of peak oil, no everyday experiences and only few historical parallels are at hand. It is therefore difficult to imagine how significant the effects of being gradually deprived of one of civilization’s most important energy sources will be.

Psychological barriers cause indisputable facts to be blanked out and lead to almost instinctively refusal to look into this difficult subject in detail. Peak oil, however, is unavoidable. This study shows the existence of a very serious risk that a global transformation of economic and social structures, triggered by a long-term shortage of important raw materials, will not take place without frictions regarding security policy. The disintegration of complex economic systems and their interdependent infrastructures has immediate and in some cases profound effects on many areas of life, particularly in industrialized countries.

While it is possible to identify specific risks, the majority of the challenges we are facing are still unknown.

Even if the developments described in this study do not occur as depicted, it is still necessary and sensible to prepare for peak oil. The time factor may be decisive for a successful transformation towards post-fossil societies. In order to accelerate democratic decision processes in this respect, it is necessary to embed the dangers of an eroding resource basis in the public mind. This is the only way to develop the necessary problem awareness for prospective settings of the course. In general, decentralized solutions can indeed be encouraged by centralized agencies, but not developed and implemented

Posted in Books, Government, GOVERNMENT, Military, Over Oil, Peak Oil, Peak Resources, War, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Nitrogen fertilizer poses significant threats to humans and the environment


NRC. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. National Research Council, National Academies Press. 19 pages.  

Nitrogen (N) is essential for agricultural productivity, but in its more reactive forms, it can pose significant threats to humans and the environment. Quantifying the abundance of nitrogen in different chemical forms and understanding its pathways through soil, air, water, plants, and animals under different management scenarios are essential to minimize threats to human health and environmental quality. Nonetheless, studying multiple forms of nitrogen in the environment presents many challenges and calls for the use of a systems analysis framework.

Nitrogen (N) is the most limiting element for plant growth in many ecosystems, despite being the most plentiful element in the earth’s atmosphere. In its most abundant form, gaseous dinitrogen (N2), N is unavailable to most organisms. However, following transformation to other forms, especially nitrate (NO3–) and ammonium (NH4+), N becomes highly reactive in the biosphere and can be highly mobile in water and air. Nitrogen is a key component of proteins in both plants and animals, including the enzymes responsible for photosynthesis and other critical biological reactions, and the muscles used for movement and other body functions. Consequently, most crops, especially cereals, require sizable supplies of N to yield well, and livestock and poultry need a diet rich in N to produce large quantities of milk, eggs, and meat. Agriculture now uses more reactive N than does any other economic sector in the United States  and is also the sector responsible for the greatest losses of reactive N to the environment, where N has multiple unintended consequences, including threats to human health, degradation of air and water quality, and stress on terrestrial and aquatic organisms. Because reactive N strongly affects crop production and farm profitability, as well as human health and environmental quality, managing N efficiently and in an environmentally harmonious manner is a critically important component of agricultural sustainability.

Mineral N fertilizers produced through the Haber-Bosch process constitute the single greatest source of reactive N introduced into the United States, with about 11 teragrams (Tg) of fertilizer N being used in U.S. agriculture each year. (A teragram is the equivalent of 1 billion kilograms (= 2,204,622,622 pounds = 1,102,311 short tons)

Mineral forms of N fertilizer are energetically expensive to synthesize (57 MJ fossil energy/kg N) and sensitive to increases in the price of natural gas used in their production.

Thus, the fact that typically only 40% to 60% of applied N fertilizer is absorbed by crop plants implies large agronomic, economic, and energetic inefficiencies, as well as a large potential for excess N to move downstream and downwind from crop fields.

The exact fate of N fertilizer is heavily dependent on farm management decisions influencing N cycle processes, including crop selection, irrigation management, and the rate, formulation, placement, and timing of fertilizer applications. The fate of fertilizer N also can be highly dependent on weather conditions, especially precipitation patterns.

In addition to the application of mineral fertilizers, N may enter crop fields by several other pathways. Biological fixation of atmospheric N2 by microbes associated with the roots of leguminous crops like soybean and alfalfa (symbiotic fixation) adds about 8 Tg N per year to U.S. agroecosystems (EPA, 2011). Additional pathways by which reactive N is introduced into agroecosystems include lightning, fixation by nonsymbiotic microbes living in soil, and atmospheric deposition. The former two processes are responsible for adding only small quantities of N; the latter input can be locally important.

About 6.8 Tg of N is present in manure produced each year in the United States, but of that quantity, only 0.5 to 1.3 Tg N is applied to cropland and 3.7 Tg N is deposited on pastures and rangelands , indicating that a substantial proportion of manure N is not recycled effectively.

Moreover, manure application rates vary greatly among fields, with most fields receiving none and some receiving high rates.

Consequently, excessive concentrations of nutrients, especially phosphorus and N, can occur in the vicinity of concentrated animal feeding operations and can lead to water pollution.

Nitrogen can be lost from soil via

  1. Leaching, runoff, and denitrification are critical components of agroecosystem N dynamics, farm profitability, and environmental quality.
  2. As gaseous ammonia emitted from fertilizer and manure applied to the soil
  3. Senescing crops.
  4. Erosion of topsoil and the organic forms of N it contains constitutes another pathway for N loss from agroecosystems.
  5. Harvesting large amounts of crop residue. This can deplete soil organic matter and the lack of protective soil cover may result in increased amounts of N lost through erosion and runoff .
  6. Magnitudes of various N losses from agroecosystems are highly variable in space and time, and they are strongly influenced by weather conditions and management practices.

Human Health and Environmental Concerns

Reactive N released from agroecosystems is responsible for a number of adverse public health and environmental effects. Four of the most salient effects for the United States are noted here.

Drinking water contamination

Nitrate coming from farmland is an important contaminant of drinking water in many agricultural regions (EPA, 2011). It constitutes a potential health threat due to its ability to (1) induce methemoglobinemia, a condition in which the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood is inhibited; (2) promote endogenous formation of N-nitroso compounds, which are carcinogens and teratogens; and (3) inhibit iodine uptake, thereby inducing hypertrophic changes in the thyroid.

These health concerns are not restricted to members of the farm population. Nitrate contamination of surface water is common in the Corn Belt and is a recurrent challenge to cities such as Des Moines, Iowa, which draws drinking water from the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, both of which drain intensively farmed areas. After repeatedly violating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) drinking water standard of 10 mg L–1 for nitrate-nitrogen, and challenged by increasing levels of nitrate in its source water, the Des Moines Water Works constructed the largest ion exchange nitrate removal facility in the world in 1991. The need for this facility, which provides service to 500,000 people, has not abated, as record high levels of nitrate were encountered in Des Moines’ drinking water sources in 2013.

Nitrate also poses a significant threat to groundwater used for drinking water. A recent report focusing on the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley of California, which together contain 40% of the state’s irrigated cropland and more than 50% of its dairy cattle, found that nitrate poses a significant threat to the health of rural communities dependent on well water, with nearly 1 in 10 people in the two regions now at risk. The report identified agricultural fertilizers and animal wastes as the largest sources of nitrate in groundwater in the areas investigated

Eutrophication and hypoxia

Reactive N in water draining from agricultural regions can be responsible for eutrophication of freshwater bodies and hypoxia in coastal waters. High levels of N in water stimulate harmful algal blooms, leading to suppression of desired aquatic vegetation, and when the algae die, their subsequent decomposition by bacteria leads to large reductions in dissolved oxygen concentrations, with concomitant reductions in populations of shellfish, game fish, and commercial fish. Eutrophication and hypoxia effects are often spatially separated from their causes. For example, an estimated 71% of the N entering the northern Gulf of Mexico, the largest hypoxic zone in the United States and the second largest hypoxic zone worldwide, comes from croplands, rangelands, and pastures upstream in the Mississippi River Basin, with 17% of the total N load coming from Illinois, 11% from Iowa, and 10% from Indiana. Thus, because of the mobility of reactive N, agricultural practices and land uses in one region can affect water quality, recreational activities, and economic sectors like fisheries hundreds of miles downstream.

Greenhouse gas loading

Agricultural practices, principally fertilizer use, are responsible for about 74% of U.S. emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 300-fold greater than that of carbon dioxide. Although the agricultural sector is responsible for only 6.3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it is notable that agricultural emissions can offset efforts to use agricultural systems to mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide or providing alternative energy sources. Nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture also are notable as illustrations of how practices taking place locally on farmlands can have global scale effects.

Ecological and human health effects of ammonia and other NHx-N emissions

In 2002, the United States emitted 3.1 Tg of N into the atmosphere as ammonia and other NHx-N compounds, with agricultural practices, principally manure and fertilizer management, estimated to be responsible for 84% of that total. Most of these emissions are deposited within 1,000 km downwind as ammonia or ammonium in rainwater and aerosols. Ammonia emissions can lead to the formation of fine inorganic particulate matter (PM2.5) as ammonium-sulfate-nitrate salts, which are a factor for premature human mortality.

Deposition of reactive N from the atmosphere can acidify soils and waters and alter plant and soil community composition in grasslands and forests, leading to reductions in overall biological diversity and increases in the abundance of certain weedy species. Like the movement of reactive N in water from agricultural regions to coastal ecosystems, the aerial movement and deposition of NHx-N compounds illustrates that agriculture’s impact on the environment can extend into other ecosystems that may be located considerable distances from farmlands.

Using models of ammonia sources and transport and PM2.5 formation and deposition, Paulot and Jacob (2014) calculated the quantities of atmospheric ammonia and PM2.5 that are related to U.S. food exports and the associated impacts of these pollutants on human health. They concluded that over the study period of 2000 to 2009, 5,100 people died annually due to these emissions, incurring a cost of $36 billion. This value greatly exceeded the net value of the exported food ($23.5 billion per year). The investigators noted that these human health and economic costs indicated “extensive negative externalities,” and that taking into account other environmental impacts of agriculture, such as eutrophication, loss of biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions, would further diminish the value of agricultural production and exports.

Policy and Educational Considerations

Environmental quality and human health concerns related to the use of N for crop production have important policy dimensions.

In an analysis of 29 watersheds covering 28% of the United States, Broussard et al. (2012) noted that increases in federal farm program payments were significantly correlated with greater dominance of cropland by corn and soybean, more expansive fertilizer applications, and higher riverine nitrate concentrations.

They suggested that federal farm policies, expressed through farm payments, are a potent policy instrument that affects land-use decisions, cropping patterns, and water quality. Based on focus group interviews with farmers and residents of the Wells Creek and Chippewa River watersheds in Minnesota, Boody et al. (2005) noted that recent federal programs have encouraged the production of a narrow set of commodity crops while discouraging diversified agriculture and conservation efforts that better protect environmental quality. Similarly, Nassauer (2010, p. 190) observed that “for more than 50 years, production subsidies have vastly exceeded conservation spending––by almost ten times today—and this ratio has been clearly understood by farmers making production decisions.

Consequently, fewer opportunities exist for reducing N emissions to air and water from arable croplands through the increased use of conservation buffer strips and grasslands, reconstructed wetlands, and diversified cropping systems that include hay and other non-commodity crops.

Federal energy policies that have promoted ethanol production from corn grain have been linked to reactive N emissions. Donner and Kucharik (2008) used process-based models to simulate hydrological and nutrient fluxes in the Mississippi River Basin under different corn production scenarios. They found that the increase in corn cultivation required to meet the federal goal of producing 15 to 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022 would increase average annual discharge of dissolved inorganic N into the Gulf of Mexico by 10 to 34 percent.


Posted in Climate Change, Fisheries, Groundwater, Planetary Boundaries, Pollution, Soil | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Water resources infrastructure deteriorating

[ Water infrastructure has inter-dependencies with other essential infrastructure, if dams or levees fail, agriculture and electric power suffer, towns and homes flooded. If ports along the ocean and inland water ways aren’t maintained and waterways dredged, the by far the most efficient form of transportation, shipping, energy is wasted on less efficient rail and trucks.

What follows are a few excerpts from this 121 page National Research Council report.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

NRC. 2012. Corps of Engineers Water Resources Infrastructure: Deterioration, Investment, or Divestment? National Research Council, National Academies Press.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has major federal responsibilities for supporting flood risk management activities in communities across the nation, ensuring navigable channels on the nation’s waterways, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. The Corps also has authorities to provide water supply, protect and maintain beaches, generate hydroelectric power, support water-based recreation, and ensure design depths in the nation’s ports, harbors, and associated channels. The Corps is the federal government’s largest producer of hydropower and a leading provider of outdoor recreation areas and facilities. The Corps of Engineers also regulates alteration of wetlands.

To meet its responsibilities in these various sectors, the Corps of Engineers has built incrementally what now comprises an extensive water resources management infrastructure that includes approximately 700 dams, 14,000 miles of levees in the federal levee system, and 12,000 miles of river navigation channel and control structures.

This infrastructure has been developed over the course of more than a century, most of it on an individual project basis, within varying contexts of system planning. From a macroscale perspective, the water resources infrastructure of the nation is largely “built out.”  New water projects of course will be constructed in the future, but given that most of the nation’s major river and coastal systems have been developed, there are reduced opportunities for new water resources infrastructure construction.

Ecosystem restoration was added as a primary missions area for the Corps in 1996 and has been the main focus of new construction. Large portions of the Corps’ water resources infrastructure were built in the first half of the twentieth century and are experiencing various stages of decay and disrepair. Project maintenance and rehabilitation are thus high priority needs for Corps water infrastructure. Funding streams in the U.S. federal budget over the past 20 years consistently have been inadequate to maintain all of this infrastructure at acceptable levels of performance and efficiency. In instances where the Corps shares maintenance responsibilities with a nonfederal partner (e.g., many of the flood risk management projects built by the Corps), local or state funds are less available than in recent past years. The water resources infrastructure of the Corps of Engineers thus is wearing out faster than it is being replaced or rehabilitated. Estimated to have a value of $237 billion in the 1980s, the estimated value of that infrastructure today is approximately $164 billion.

ASSETS. The Corps’ primary civil works mission areas are navigation, flood risk management, and ecosystem restoration. The Corps also has authorities, responsibilities, and programs for hydropower generation, harbors and ports, recreation, and coastal and beach protection.

The Corps’ original involvement in national water resources planning dates back to the nineteenth century and its work in ensuring navigable rivers. In the twentieth century, and after 1927 Mississippi River flooding and resulting damages, the Corps became involved in flood damage reduction

The inland navigation system presents an especially formidable challenge and a set of difficult choices. There are limited options and stark realities, including:

  • Funding from Congress for project construction and rehabilitation has been declining steadily.
  • Lockage fees on users/direct beneficiaries could be implemented. These are resisted by users and others.
  • Parts of the system could be decommissioned or divested and the extent of the system decreased.
  • The status quo is a likely future path, but it will entail continued deterioration of the system and eventual, significant disruptions in service. It also implies that the system will be modified by deterioration, rather than by plan.


The Corps of Engineers has constructed, operates, and maintains a vast national water resources infrastructure, with various facilities in all 50 U.S. states. The traditional mission areas of the Corps were flood control and navigation enhancement, and the agency has constructed tens of thousands of miles of levees, hundreds of locks and dams for navigation, and dams for multiple purposes, including hydroelectric power generation.

The Corps has constructed channel control structures along hundreds of miles of rivers and along the intracoastal waterways of the southern and eastern United States.

The Corps also has important responsibilities in ensuring navigable depths in the nation’s ports and harbors.

Corps water resources infrastructure affects river flows and levels on many of the nation’s large river systems, including the Columbia, Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers.

Much of the Corps of Engineers water resources infrastructure was constructed many decades ago. Approximately 95% of the dams managed by the Corps are more than 30 years old, and 52% have reached or exceeded their 50-year project lives.

Similar statistics can be cited for Corps levees, hydropower, and other facilities. This deterioration of Corps water resources infrastructure is a microcosm of larger national trends in the deteriorating condition of major infrastructure, including highways, bridges, roads, airports, and drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. Degradation of U.S. infrastructure has been discussed in many fora, such as the well-known annual infrastructure ‘report cards’ 12 issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In addition to aging Corps water infrastructure, in particular, federal resources for major rehabilitation have decreased. Since the mid-1980s, the constant dollar value estimate of the net capital stock civil works projects of the Corps has decreased from roughly $237 billion to about $164 billion.

The Monongahela River, which flows from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River, was one of the nation’s first inland waterways to have a lock and dam infrastructure installed to aid river navigation. Construction of the first locks and dams was initiated in 1837 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The federal government also constructed locks and dams in the Monongahela, and in the late nineteenth century the federal government took over the entire system. The present navigation system comprises nine locks and dams and was constructed by the Corps of Engineers beginning in 1902. Locks and Dams 2, 3, and 4 in the Lower Monongahela River, just south of Pittsburgh, are the three oldest currently operating navigation facilities on the river and experience the largest volume of commercial traffic for the river.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed, operates, and maintains a vast water resources infrastructure across the United States that includes dams, levees, and coastal barriers for flood risk management, locks and dams for inland navigation, ports and harbors, and hydropower generation facilities. Much of this infrastructure exhibits considerable maintenance and rehabilitation needs. Federal investments in civil works infrastructure for water management have been declining since the mid-1980s, and today there are considerable deferred rehabilitation and maintenance needs

The Corps has constructed, and operates and maintains, a large portion of the infrastructure that supports the nation’s commercial inland waterways and its ports and harbors. Corps-maintained waterways and ports support commercial navigation in 41 U.S. states. In considering the current state of the Corps’ navigation infrastructure and its options for rehabilitating and upgrading that infrastructure, it is important to recognize several distinctions between infrastructure for inland navigation and that for harbors and ports. Important differences between these systems in terms of taxation, public and private funding and facilities ownership, companies that use the facilities, and other factors will affect the direction of future infrastructure rehabilitation and upgrades.

Inland Navigation

The commercial inland navigation system includes roughly 12,000 miles of maintained river channels and 191 locks sites with 238 navigation lock chambers. Figure 3-1 shows the scope of the Corps-maintained inland waterways system. The U.S. inland navigation system is used to ship bulk commodities such as corn and soybeans, coal, fertilizer, fuel oil, scrap metal, and aggregate (sand and gravel). Some of this cargo may transit nearly the entire length of the system. For example, corn and soybeans are shipped from across the Midwestern United States down the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers to the Port of New Orleans, then exported. By contrast, some portions of the system are used primarily for local transport. For example, of total commodity tonnage shipped on the Missouri River between 1994 and 2006, 83 percent was estimated to originate and/or terminate in the state of Missouri, with 84 percent of the shipments consisting of sand and gravel (GAO, 2009). The Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal water-ways also provide commercial transportation corridors. All portions of the inland navigation system also serve recreational uses, but it is commercial that primarily justifies and helps fund the system. The system is used primarily by U.S. based, domestic shipping companies. Lock and dam facilities on the inland navigation system are federally owned, operated, maintained, and rehabilitated

Some portions of the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, however, are operated and maintained by the states they border. There have been major changes to the U.S. economy, patterns of trade, and other cargo transportation alternatives since much of the inland navigation system was constructed several decades ago. Before the nation had its currently extensive rail and highway systems, “inland waterways were a primary means of transporting bulk goods” (Stern, 2012). Today, alternative modes for shipping inland navigation goods—namely, roads and rail—are in a more advanced state of development than during the period when the lock and dam projects were constructed. Although they remain important transportation modes for some sectors in some areas, “inland waterways are a relatively small part of the nation’s overall freight transportation network”. The topics of relative costs, energy uses and efficiencies, and environmental impacts of rail, road, and barge transport make for lively debate among users of these respective modes.

Another important aspect of the inland navigation system is that its locks and dams create extensive upstream navigation pools. These navigation pools often affect river ecosystems up- and downstream for tens of miles. The inland navigation system thus affects many public resources and many private system users beyond commercial cargo carriers. There are impacts on floodplain lands overseen by federal government agencies (such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), private landowners, and recreational users, including boaters and anglers. The navigation pools are sources of both beneficial and negative effects. Ports and Harbors The Corps of Engineers maintains 926 coastal, Great Lakes, and inland harbors (Figure 3-2). U.S. harbors and ports operate in a setting very different from the inland navigation system. For example, U.S. harbors and ports handle a wider variety and higher volume and value of cargo than does the inland navigation system. Many more shippers use U.S. harbor and port facilities compared to the inland navigation system, and these shippers include both U.S. domestic and international companies.

The harbors and ports generally are operated as public-private partnerships, and do not depend on direct federal resources. Corps responsibilities in ports and harbors are focused on dredging to maintain desired navigation and docking depths. The Corps also maintains wave/surge protection structures at some ports and harbors. This division of responsibilities and limited role for the federal government allows harbors and ports to pursue a broader range of partnerships and financing options.

There are generally fewer cost-effective alternatives to maritime transport for intercontinental or trans-ocean shipment for larger, heavier bulk goods such as coal and petroleum. This provides strong incentives for all port and harbor users and beneficiaries to be interested in port and harbor maintenance.

The Olmstead locks and dam project will replace 1920s-era Locks and Dams 52 and 53, the first two on the Ohio River above the confluence with the Mississippi River. These two aged facilities handle about 90 million tons of cargo annually, the highest cargo tonnage in the entire inland waterways system. Completion of the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, first authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1988, is the highest priority inland waterways project for the Corps of Engineers. The project is located about 20 miles upstream of the Mississippi River, near Olmsted, Illinois. The project includes two 110-foot-wide by 1,200-foot-long lock chambers, and a 2,500-foot dam with navigable pass located near the Illinois shoreline. When the Olmsted project was authorized by Congress in 1988, the estimated cost was $775 million and the estimated completion date was 2000, but subsequent design changes, dam construction difficulties, and inadequate, start-stop funding have increased the cost estimate to $3.1 billion and extended the projected completion date to 2024. The twin 1200-foot locks were completed in 2002 at a total cost of approximately $430 million, including the costs of the cofferdam and approach walls. The contract for the dam was awarded in 2004 and construction of the dam commenced in 2005. In 2004, the total project cost estimate was revised to $1.4 billion and the completion date to 2014, by 2011, the project cost estimate was revised to $2.1 billion and the completion date to 2018; and in March 2012 budget hearings the Corps revised the cost estimate to $3.1 billion and the completion date to 2024.

In summary, the inland navigation system relies more heavily on federal support for major maintenance than do ports and harbors, which depend more on fees from private shippers and investments from state and local governments. In an era of steady reduction of federal investments in civil works infrastructure, these distinctions may have sobering implications for prospects of future inland navigation infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

Infrastructure Status – Inland Navigation. Large portions of the inland navigation infrastructure were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. Many dams on the Ohio River, for example, were built in the early 1900s, with some of them being constructed over one hundred years ago. The Upper Mississippi River 9-foot channel navigation project was authorized in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1930 and completed by 1940. The Missouri River main-stem dams were authorized with passage of the 1944 Flood Control Act, and the Missouri River Bank Stabilization Project (BSNP) was authorized in the 1945 Rivers and Harbors Act. Officially completed in 1981, many revetments and other BSNP channel works were built during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of this navigation infrastructure is nearing the end of (or has exceeded) its design life and is in various states of disrepair. Investments in routine maintenance, upgrades, and rehabilitation for the infrastructure have lagged since the mid-1980s.

Prospects for Decommissioning

Decommissioning of a dam entails full or partial removal of an existing dam and its associated facilities, or significant changes to its operations thereof. In the United States, the process of dam decommissioning includes many of the same considerations as project construction

Dam decommissioning is not a simple process, nor is it without costs. Especially for larger dams, substantial advance planning is required,

Free-flowing rivers transport and remobilize sediments, especially during high flows associated with spring snowmelt and storm events. Deposition of these sediments on flood plains and coastal wetlands renews sediment lost through erosion and maintains the high productivity of these ecosystems, as described in the “flood pulse” concept. In turn, floodplain ecosystems attenuate floods, decreasing the magnitude of peak flows downstream, and coastal wetlands protect coastal communities from storm surges. In addition, riparian zones and floodplains provide critical habitats for aquatic biota and migratory birds.

The naturally varied hydrologic regime of free-flowing rivers provides a benefit in terms of maintaining aquatic biodiversity, especially in sustaining populations of endangered fish. Flow regulation can impair the survival of native fish by causing large daily variations in downstream flow to meet power demands and by creating barriers to upstream migration of salmon and steelhead.

Transportation Mode Alternatives

There often are alternative transport modes for the cargo that is shipped on the inland navigation system, the primary alternatives being rail and truck. For example, roughly one-third of U.S. grain exports today are shipped via rail to Portland, Oregon, where grain is transferred to ocean cargo ships. U.S. freight rail carriers have in many cases upgraded and modernized their fleets in recent decades and have become more energy efficient

Economic Efficiency and Future Infrastructure Investments

The level of funding available to repair and upgrade the entire U.S. inland navigation to safe and reliable conditions will not be available in the near future. Clearly, the future U.S. inland navigation system will be different from the system of 50-plus years ago.

There are some claims that reduced barge traffic would in turn lead to reduced exports and increased reliance on alternative modes that would be more fuel inefficient and cause more air pollution. However, there has been little research on modal substitution for different product shipments on the inland waterways system


The Corps of Engineers has constructed an extensive infrastructure designed to manage flood risks along rivers and also infrastructure to protect against surges from coastal storms. The Corps has built approximately 11,750 miles of riverine levees across the nation and provides shoreline protection for hundreds of miles of U.S. coastlines. Many of the Corps’ approximately 700 dams also serve flood control purposes. Like its infrastructure for navigation activities, a large portion of Corps of Engineers levees and other protective structures were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century or earlier and face many similar maintenance, rehabilitation, upgrade—and funding— issues.

Infrastructure Status Dams The Corps of Engineers today owns and operates approximately 700 dams. These dams range in size and purpose from large multipurpose projects to waterways navigation dams. Not all these dams serve flood control purposes. Navigation dams on the upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, for example, were not designed for flood protection and do not provide such benefits. Corps dams that provide flood risk reduction almost always support multiple purposes, such as hydroelectric power generation, water supply, and recreation. Approximately 95 percent of the dams managed by the Corps are more than 30 years old, and 52 percent have reached or exceeded nominal 50-year project lives.  Half of the Corps’ dam portfolio is actionable for rehabilitation, and that the potential requirements would exceed $20 billion. These dams are widely spread across the nation and exhibit varying degrees of deficiency and life-safety risk.


California’s Central Valley, one of the nation’s highly productive agricultural regions, is drained by the Sacramento River flowing from the north and the San Joaquin River flowing from the south. These rivers converge in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before flowing to Suisun Bay and eventually to the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The Delta region comprises about 738,000 acres of land in six counties. Once dominated by islands, wetlands, and riparian forests, the Delta has been completely reconfigured for agriculture. Beginning in the 1850s, levees were constructed along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, and many of their tributaries, to make the land usable for both human settlement and agriculture.

The Central Valley today has one of the nation’s most extensive levee systems, with approximately 1600 miles of federal levees and an equal length of nonfederal levees. The Delta region includes approximately 1100 miles of levees, of which 385 levee miles are incorporated into federal flood control projects, mostly along the main-stem Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The 700-plus miles of nonfederal levees, many of which line not rivers but rather channels and prevent tidal inflows, generally do not meet the same design standards as the federal levees. Unlike river levees, which experience only periodic water loading during floods, many Delta levees have constant water loading. The aging Delta levee system is fragile and undergoing failure.

There have been many Delta levee breaches, and there is great concern about multiple levee failures in the event of an earthquake or large storm. The City of Sacramento, now a major urban area with a population of approximately 500,000, is at substantial risk for a catastrophic flood event

Hydropower Infrastructure Status

The Corps has the most projects. It operates 75 power plants with a total rated capacity of 20,500 megawatts (MW). In addition, there are another 90 nonfederal hydropower plants located at Corps dams with a total capacity of 2,300 MW.

As in its other mission areas, the Corps hydropower facilities are facing the challenges of an aging infrastructure and limited access to sources of revenue for adequate maintenance and repair.

Through its 75 hydropower plants and installed generation capacity of 20,500 megawatts (MW), the Corps owns and operates approximately one-fourth of the nation’s hydropower capacity. Most of its generating capacity is in the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS), with much of the remaining capacity in its Missouri River dams.

Average annual energy generation from Corps projects is approximately 70 billion kWh (worth approximately $5 billion at current wholesale prices for power), and annual revenue to the U.S. Treasury from Corps hydropower sales is in the range $2 billion to $3 billion per year. This represents over half the size of the entire Corps’ annual appropriation. As of 2010, the median age of all Corps hydropower projects was 47 years, and 90% of the projects were 34 years old or older. Given the ages of the facilities, OMR needs and failure rates are increasing, along with associated decreases in performance. As an example, total hours of forced outages across all Corps hydropower projects have been increasing steadily since at least 1999 (Figure 3-7).

In an era of heightened interest in energy policies and sources, electricity generation from Corps hydropower projects has been decreasing steadily as a result of insufficient equipment maintenance and rehabilitation. Total electric power generation from Corps hydropower projects decreased from 73.6 TWh in 2000 to 61.7 TWh in 2008, a decrease of 16%. At some Corps hydro power projects, none of the original equipment has been replaced since the facilities were constructed 30 or more years ago. Annual budgets for repairs and upgrades of most of the Corps hydropower equipment have been inadequate for a long time. This has resulted in degraded infra-structure and less efficient operation.

Although there is much interest in increasing domestic hydropower production, there are challenges confronting hydropower production beyond just finding the resources to replace, rehabilitate, and upgrade equipment. The fate of hydropower is entwined with the opposition to large dams based on economic, social, and environmental factors. Dams change river flows and the fish runs that depend on them, alter water chemistry, change riverine landscapes, and inundate large areas that can include scenic canyons and valleys. There is growing interest in dam removal in the United States, which could affect some Corps hydropower projects in the future, although likely not the largest projects. In addition, climate change adds concerns about reliability and predictability of hydropower development. Hydropower production also faces increasing competition for use of the water and for reservoir storage space. Many Corps dams and reservoirs are part of multiple-purpose projects, so that hydropower must compete with other uses such as flood protection, irrigation, water supply, efforts to protect fish, and efforts to restore aquatic ecosystems.

In order to realize the full potential for installed hydropower generation capacity at Corps projects, new approaches to funding OMR for hydropower must be developed and made possible through legislation. As noted in Sale (2010), PMAs are required by law to sell federal hydropower at rates that usually are significantly below market rates. These sales occur under long-term contracts that cannot easily be changed. The primary customers and beneficiaries of this power pressure the federal power producers to keep operation and maintenance costs as low as possible so as to keep power rates low.

Much of the existing water resources infrastructure of the Corps of Engineers, which is primarily in the mission areas of navigation, flood risk management and hydropower production, is quite aged and has not been adequately maintained. Funding needs for the repair and rehabilitation of this infrastructure are substantial, and it is clear from the long-term trend of declining funding from Congress for new construction and rehabilitation that new infusions of funding will not be available in the short term. Parts of the infrastructure are failing, and parts are being taken out of service because of lack of funding. Corps of Engineers infrastructure has different OMR needs, ranging from lock repair, dam safety, levee monitoring and maintenance, port deepening, and hydropower facility maintenance and upgrades.

Inland Navigation

The inland navigation system presents an especially formidable challenge and a set of difficult choices. There are stark realities and limited options, including:

  • Funding from Congress for project construction and rehabilitation has been declining steadily.
  • Lockage fees on users/direct beneficiaries could be implemented. These are resisted by users and others.
  • Parts of the system could be decommissioned or divested and the extent of the system decreased.
  • The status quo is a likely future path, but it will entail continued deterioration of the system and eventual, significant disruptions in service. It also implies that the system will be modified by deterioration, rather than by plan.

The national water infrastructure is largely “built out.” Compared to an earlier era, there are fewer opportunities and only a limited number of undeveloped or appropriate sites for new water resources infrastructure. New water projects will be constructed in the future, but the nation’s water resources infrastructure needs increasingly are in the areas of existing project operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation. In some instances, full project replacement may be needed. As new construction has declined since 1980, so too has the Corps civil works budget and hence funds available for OMR.

Without insufficient funding to address its many OMR needs, Corps of Engineers water resources infrastructure is not being adequately maintained and rehabilitated. Its future state thus will depend on actions taken, or not taken, in the near future. There is no single, obvious path forward for alternative funding mechanisms that might be used to fully maintain and upgrade existing Corps infrastructure. The different parts of the Corps water resources infrastructure—inland navigation, flood risk management, hydropower, and ports and harbors—are governed by different laws and have different sources of revenue.


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Nuclear power too expensive. In 2013, 37 reactors predicted to shut down, 16 already have

[ Since this article was published in 2013, 10 of the 37 at risk plants Cooper listed have been or are scheduled to close down (in red) : Diablo CanyonClinton, FitzpatrickFt. Calhoun, Indian Point, Oyster CreekPilgrim, Quad CitiesThree Mile Island, Vermont Yankee.  Plus four plants he didn’t list are scheduled to shut down as well: San Onofre 2 & San Onofre 3, Diablo Canyon 1 & Diablo Canyon 2. In addition, not long before this article was written, Kewaunee (2012) and Crystal River (2009) closed for financial reasons.

Here are the remaining plants Cooper listed that have yet to close: Browns Ferry, Callaway, Calvert Cliff, Commanche Peak, Cook, Cooper, Davis-Besse, Dresden, Duane Arnold, Fermi,  Ginna, Hope Creek, LaSalle, Limerick, Millstone, Monticello, Nine Mile Point, Palisades, Perry, Point Beach, Prairie Island, Robinson, Seabrook, Sequoyah, South Texas, Susquehanna, Turkey Point, Wolf Creek

After spending $9 billion dollars on the two reactors of the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station, with only 40% completion, and expected final price tag of $25 billion, it was shut down in 2017 (Plumer).  The only new nuclear plant being built in the U.S. now is in Georgia.

Cooper leaves out the cost of nuclear waste storage, which makes the economics of nuclear plants even worse than in the article below (see his testimony before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

One of the costs Cooper mentions are Post-Fukushima updates. Five years after the accident at Fukushima in Japan resulted in three reactor meltdowns, the global nuclear industry is spending $47 billion on safety enhancements mandated after the accident revealed weaknesses in plant protection from earthquakes and flooding. The median cost per nuclear power reactor is $46.7 million (Platts).

“New reactors at Georgia Power’s Vogtle plant were initially estimated to cost $14 billion to build; the latest estimate is $21 billion. The first reactors at the plant, in the 1970s, took a decade longer to build than planned, and cost 10 times more than expected. In France, a new plant is running around six years behind scheduled and likely to cost around $8 billion more than planned. Even keeping old reactors running may not make financial sense. In California, for example, extending the life of the Diablo Canyon plant will require new cooling towers that cost around $8 billion. It may also need billions in earthquake retrofits, because engineers realized after the project was built that it’s on a fault line” (Peters).  2016 update: this is one of the reasons they’re going to be shut down.

There are only 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants left (of 90) in the United States

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Cooper , Mark. July 18, 2013. Renaissance in reverse: competition pushes aging U.S. nuclear reactors to the brink of economic abandonment. Institute for Energy and the environment, Vermont Law School. 47 pages.

Although Wall Street analysts expressed concerns about the economic viability of the aging nuclear fleet in the U.S., the recent early retirements of 4 nuclear reactors has sent a shock wave through the industry. One purely economic retirement (Kewaunee, 1 reactor) and three based on the excessive cost of repairs (Crystal River, 1 reactor, and San Onofre, 2 reactors).

In addition to the cancellation of 5 large uprates (Prairie Island, 1 reactor, LaSalle, 2 reactors, and Limerick, 2 rectors), four by the nation’s large nuclear utility, suggest a broad range of operational and economic problems.

These early retirements and decisions to forego uprates magnify the importance of the fact that the “nuclear renaissance” has failed to produce a new fleet of reactors in the U.S.

With little chance that the cost of new reactors will become competitive with low carbon alternatives in the time frame relevant for old reactor retirement decisions, a great deal of attention will shift to the economics of keeping old reactors online, increasing their capacity and/or extending their lives.

The purpose of the paper is not to predict which reactors will be the next to retire, but explain why we should expect more early retirements. It does so by offering a systematic framework for evaluating the factors that place reactors at risk of early retirement.

  • It extracts 11 risk factors from the Wall Street analysis and identifies three dozen reactors that exhibit four or more of the risk factors (see Exhibit ES-1).
  • It shows that the poor performance of nuclear reactors that is resulting in early retirements today has existed throughout the history of the commercial nuclear sector in the U.S. The problems are endemic to the technology and the sector.
  • It demonstrates that the key underlying economic factors — rising costs of an aging fleet and the availability of lower cost alternatives – are likely to persist over the next couple of decades, the relevant time frame for making decisions about the fate of aging reactors.

While the purpose of the Wall Street analyses is to advise and caution investors about utilities that own the aging fleet of at-risk reactors, my purpose is to inform policymakers about and prepare them for the likelihood of early retirements.           

RISK FACTORS (all of the above have at least 4 to 9 of these):

  1. ECONOMIC: Cost , Small, Old, Standalone, Merchant, 20 yr<w/out extension , 25yr< w/ext.
  2. OPERATIONAL: Broken, Reliability, Long-term-outage
  3. SAFETY: Many issues, Fukushima Retrofit

cooper 2013 reactors at risk of retiring

cooper 2013 reactors at risk of retiring 2


Sources and Notes: Credit Suisse, Nuclear… The Middle Age Dilemma?, Facing Declining Performance, Higher Costs, Inevitable Mortality, February 19, 2013; UBS Investment Research, In Search of Washington’s Latest Realities (DC Field Trip Takeaways), February 20, 2013; Platts, January 9, 2013, “Some Merchant Nuclear Reactors Could Face Early Retirement: UBS,” reporting on a UBS report for shareholders; Moody’s, Low Gas Prices and Weak Demand are Masking US Nuclear Plant Reliability Issues, Special Comment, November 8, 2012.; David Lochbaum, Walking a Nuclear Tightrope: Unlearned Lessons of Year-Plus Reactor Outages, September 2006, “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2011, 2012, and UCS Tracker); NRC Reactor pages.

Operational Factors: Broken/reliability (Moody’s for broken and reliability); Long Term Outages (Lochbaum, supplemented by Moody’s, o-current, x=past); Near Miss (Lochbaum 2012); Fukushima Retrofit (UBS, Field Trip, 2013) .

Economic Factors: Cost, Wholesale markets (Credit Suisse) Age (Moody’s and NRC reactor pages with oldest unit X=as old or older than Kewaunee, i.e. 1974 or earlier commissioning, O= Commissioned 1975-1979, i.e. other pre-TMI); Small (Moody’s and NRC Reactor pages, less than 700 MW at commissioning); Stand Alone (Moody’s and NRC Reactor pages); Short License (Credit Suisse and NRC Reactor pages). Some of the characteristics are site specific, some are reactor specific.

The reactors at a specific plant can differ by age, size, technology and the current safety issues they face. Historically, in some cases there were long outages at one, but not all of the reactors at a plant. Similarly, there are numerous examples of a single reactor being retired early at a multi-reactor site. Given the complexity of an analysis of individual reactors across the eleven risk factors and the fact that unique precipitating events are the primary cause of early retirements, I count only one potential reactor retirement per plant.

If anything goes wrong, any of these reactors could be retired early. The precipitating event could be a further deterioration of the economics, or it could be mechanical or safety related problems, as indicated on the right side of the table. The market will operate faster in the case of merchant reactors, but economic pressures have become so severe that regulators have been forced to take action as well. The same factors call into question the economic value of license extensions and reactor uprates where they require significant capital outlays.

Reviewing the Wall Street analyses, it is possible to parse through the long list of reactors at risk and single out some that face particularly intense challenges:

Palisades (Repair impending, local opposition), Ft. Calhoun (Outage, poor performance), Nine Mile Point (Site size saves it, existing contract), Fitzpatrick (High cost), Ginna (Single unit with negative margin, existing contract), Oyster Creek (Already set to retire early), Vt. Yankee (Tax and local opposition), Millstone (Tax reasons), Clinton (Selling into tough market), Indian Point (License extension, local opposition), A couple of other reactors that are afflicted by a large number of these (Davis-Besse, Pilgrim) could also be particularly vulnerable.

The lesson for policy makers in the economics of old reactors is clear and it reinforces the lesson of the past decade in the economics of building new reactors. Nuclear reactors are simply not competitive. They are not competitive at the beginning of their life cycle, when the build/cancel decision is made, and they are not competitive at the end of their life cycles, when the repair/retire decision is made. They are not competitive because the U.S. has the technical ability and a rich, diverse resource base to meet the need for electricity with lower cost, less risky alternatives. Policy efforts to resist fundamental economics of nuclear reactors will be costly, ineffective and counterproductive.


Over the last decade, as nuclear advocates touted a “nuclear renaissance” they made extremely optimistic claims about nuclear reactor costs to convince policymakers and regulators that new nuclear reactors would be cost competitive with other options for meeting the need for electricity. These economic analyses rested on two broad categories of claims about nuclear reactors.

(1) New nuclear reactors could be built quickly and at relatively low cost.

(2) New Nuclear reactors would run at very high levels of capacity for long periods of time with very low operating costs.

Dramatically escalating construction cost estimates and severe construction difficulties and delays in virtually all market economies where construction of a handful of new nuclear reactors was undertaken have proven the first set of assumptions wrong. Recent decisions to retire aging reactors early remind us that the second set of assumptions was never true of the first cohort of commercial nuclear reactors and call into question the extremely optimistic assumptions about the operation of future nuclear reactors.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently noted that in the current market, if aging reactors are in need of significant repair, it may not be worthwhile to do so. As the EIA put it, “Lower Power Prices and Higher Repair Costs Drive Nuclear Retirements.”

However, the problem is more profound than that. It is not only old, broken reactors that are at risk of retirement. As old reactors become more expensive to operate, they may become uneconomic to keep online in the current market conditions. Indeed, the first reactor retired in 2013 (Kewaunee) was online and had just had it licenses extended for 20 years, but its owners concluded it could not compete and would yield losses in the electricity market of the next two decades so they chose to decommission it. Things have gotten so bad in the aging nuclear fleet in the U.S. that Wall Street analyst have begun to issue reports with titles like “Nuclear… the Middle Age Dilemma? Facing Declining Performance, Higher Costs and Inevitable Mortality,” “Some Merchant Nuclear Reactors Could Face Early Retirement: UBS” and “Low Gas Prices and Weak Demand are Masking US Nuclear Plant Reliability Issues.

These early retirements magnify the importance of the fact that the “nuclear renaissance” has failed to produce a new fleet of reactors in the U.S. With little chance that the cost of new reactors will become competitive with low carbon alternatives in the time frame relevant for old reactor retirement decisions, a great deal of attention will shift to the economics of keeping old reactors online, increasing their capacity and /or extending their lives.

As has been the case throughout the history of the commercial nuclear sector in the U.S., the primary obstacle to nuclear power is economic and it is critically important to cut through the hype and hyperbole on both sides of the nuclear debate to reach sound economic conclusions.

In half of the U.S. the price of electricity is set in a wholesale market. In these areas, the wholesale prices, which is what all generators earn, are driven primarily by the fuel cost of running the last plant that needs to be operated to make sure supply is adequate to meet demand. This is the price that “clears” the market. In most regions of the nation, the price is set by natural gas, with coal playing that role in some places. In those areas of the U.S. were the wholesale price of electricity is set by the market, prices have been declining dramatically.

Over the past half-decade, the market clearing price has been declining. Fuel costs have been declining, driven by a dramatic decline in natural gas prices. At the same time, demand for electricity has been declining due to increasing efficiency of electricity consuming equipment and consumer durables. Moreover, the increase in renewable generation, which has the lowest (zero) cost of fuel and therefore always runs when it is available, has lowered the demand for fossil fired generation. This means that the market clears with more efficient (lower cost) plants, which lowers the market clearing price even farther.

For consumers this is a very beneficial process; for producers not so much, since the prices they receive are declining.

Old nuclear reactors are particularly hard hit by this market development. With prices set by fuel costs, all of the other costs of nuclear generation must be paid for out of the difference between the fuel costs of the reactor and the market clearing price. This is called the “quark” spread. A nuclear reactor is paid the market clearing price, which it must use to pay its own fuel costs, while the remainder must cover its other costs.

While nuclear fuel costs are low (although they have been rising), their non-fuel operation and maintenance costs and their ongoing capital costs are high. The high nonfuel operation and maintenance costs (including capital additions) are high because of the complex technology needed to control a very volatile fuel. As reactors age, these non -fuel operating and ongoing capital additions rise.

With “quark” spreads falling, and operating costs rising, the funds available may no longer cover the other costs, or yield a rate of profit that satisfies the reactor owner.

Old reactors are pushed to the edge. If a reactor is particularly inefficient (has high operating costs), needs major repairs, or a safety retrofit is required, the old reactors can be easily pushed over the edge. The problem for old nuclear reactors has become acute. At precisely the moment that quark spreads are declining, the non-fuel operating costs of old reactors are rising.

In the analysis that first sounded the alarm about early retirements of specific reactors, UBS explained the situation as follows

Following Dominion’s recent announcement to retire its Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin in October, we believe the plant may be the figurative canary in the coal mine. Despite substantially lower fuel costs than coal plants, fixed costs are approximately 4-5x times higher than coal plants of comparable size and may be higher for single-unit plants. Additionally, maintenance capex of ~$50/kW-yr, coupled with rising nuclear fuel capex, further impede their economic viability … We believe 2013 will be another challenging year for merchant nuclear operators, as NRC requirements for Fukushima-related investments become clearer in the face of substantially reduced gas prices. While the true variable cost of dispatching a nuclear plant remains exceptionally low (and as such will continue to dispatch at most hours of the day no matter what the gas price), the underlying issue is that margins garnered during dispatch are no longer able to sustain the exceptionally high fixed cost structures of operating these units. Nuclear units… have continued to see rising fuel and cost structures of late, with no anticipation for this to abate. Moreover, public policy initiatives, such as Fukushima-related retrofits and mandates to reduce once- through cooling (potentially requiring cooling towers/screens for some units) and new taxes on others (Vermont Yankee, Dominion’s Millstone) have further impeded the economics of nuclear.

The problem is not a figment of the imagination of Wall Street analysts or confined to a small number of individual reactors. It is widespread, as demonstrated by the behavior of Exelon, the largest nuclear utility in the U.S. with ownership of one-quarter of all U.S. reactors. Exelon was also a big supporter of wind power, until the economics of old nuclear reactors began to deteriorate. Exelon then launched a campaign against subsidies for wind power, because the rich wind resource in the Midwest had begun to back out expensive gas. Market clearing prices declined reducing the margins that its nuclear fleet enjoyed. Exelon’s campaign against wind was sufficiently vigorous to get it kicked off the board of the American Wind Energy Association.

After decades of arguing that nuclear is the ideal low (fuel) cost, always-on source of power and touting the benefits of free markets in electricity, Exelon is proposing to reduce its output of nuclear power to drive up the market clearing price. Since withholding supply for the purpose of increasing prices is frowned upon (indeed would be a violation of the antitrust laws if they applied), it has to negotiate with the Independent System Operator to reduce output. These acts of desperation clearly suggest that the economics of old reactors are very dicey.

The pressure is magnified because the cost of operating old reactors is rising. Credit Suisse estimates that in the period when “quark” spreads were falling from $40/MWH to $20-$30/MWH, the operating costs of nuclear reactors were rising to the range of $25-$30/MWH. The resulting margins are razor thin, if not negative. The primary drivers of cost increases are non-fuel O&M and fuel costs, which have increased about $10/MWH. Thus declining wholesale prices account for about two-thirds of the shrinking margin and rising costs account for one-third.

Risk Factors

The economics of individual reactors will be affected by the size and condition of the reactor and the market into which it sells power. Credit Suisse points out that the merchant generators face the greatest challenges and concludes that “the challenge of upward cost inflation/weak plant profitability will likely put pressure on smaller, more marginal plants that could weigh on nuclear’s market share.”


The Credit Suisse analysis did not stop with operating costs, but went on to identify another important characteristic that affects aging nuclear reactors, outages. A nuclear reactor only receives the wholesale prices and earns the “quark” spread if it is operating. Credit Suisse noted that 2011 and 2012 were years of heavy outage.

The largest part of the increase in outages was driven by large reactors down with operational problems (Crystal River, San Onofre, and Fort Calhoun), although extended outages for uprates also played a part (Turkey Point, St. Lucie). The reactors with the longest outages, facing substantial repair costs, Crystal River and San Onofre, have since been retired.

Moody’s has also expressed concern about reliability from a different point of view. When reactors are offline, the owners not only lose whatever margin they could have earned, they must replace the power. In addition to costing the utility cash income, this will increase the demand for power in the market and push up the market clearing price. However, in the opinion of Moody’s, in the current supply and demand context, the availability of low cost natural gas is “masking” the seriousness of that problem. Moody’s worries that if the outages continue, the cost of replacement power will rise substantially. Moody’s highlights the fact that after Crystal River and San Onofre, whose outages led to early retirements, the longest ongoing outage is Fort Calhoun, now in unplanned outage for over two years. It has been beset with multiple issues and is under close scrutiny by the NRC

The load factor – the percentage of the year a reactor is online producing power – is an important determinant of its economic performance. The average load factor is not only 4% lower for the oldest reactors, but the standard deviation is almost twice as high. In a market where margins are so thin, a 4 percentage point difference in load factor is an important loss of revenue, and the much higher standard deviation represents significant uncertainty. Age and reliability matter and they go hand in hand.

Asset Life

Age affects more than the level and uncertainty of the load factor. It is a primary determinant of remaining life. While many reactors have sought and received license extensions, a number of the older reactors have not. This means that capital expenditures may have to be recovered over a shorter period of time. To the extent that there are capital costs associated with keeping these reactors online, the short life may make it difficult to recover those costs where margins are thin. “Even assuming licenses are extended, 11 merchant nuclear units have a maximum useful life of less than 20 years… We worry whether plants will see the full 60 years as thin margins and big capex are too hard to cover.”

The analysis of the economics of aging reactors identifies a number of other characteristics that appear to reduce the economic viability of aging reactors. Small units that stand alone – geographically or organizationally – are believed to have higher costs and therefore are more vulnerable in the current market environment. Both of these factors generally reflect economies of scale since operating costs are spread across a smaller amount of capacity and output. Large, multi-unit sites integrated into corporate fleets of reactors can share indivisible costs. The retirement of Kewaunee underscores the fact that the economic benefits of being part of a fleet of reactors are dependent on the geographic location of the reactors as well.

Companies that operate multiple units are often better able to generate economies of scale and benefit from the breadth of experience housed in their nuclear operations. They are in a better position to share the best practices among their own fleets and to compete for talent in this highly specialized field. Because of these advantages, a number of single unit nuclear plant operator have decided to contract out all or part of the management of their nuclear operations to one of the more experienced companies in the field.34

Regulated Reactors

Credit Suisse presents a similar analysis for regulated reactors, noting that “deregulated market prices are somewhat less relevant but we think… illustrate the challenges to economics of regulated nuclear as well.” Market economics may not rule in these cases, but these reactors exhibit similar difficulties. Using Kewaunee economics as the dividing line (cash flow of about $9/MWH); there are almost two dozen regulated reactors with challenging economics. In this groups are retirements (San Onofre), canceled uprates (Prairie Island), and a long term outage (Fort Calhoun). We find seven standalone assets, eight reactors with less than 20 years remaining on their licenses, and half a dozen small reactors (700 MW or less). There are 14 reactors that have two or more of these characteristics. Thus, in terms of basic economics, there are three dozen reactors that are on the razor’s edge.


The above analysis describes the “normal” process of operating an aging fleet in the context of an energy economy in which low cost resources are available to meet needs. With the economic viability of an increasing number of reactors coming into question, the possibility of the need for significant capital expenditures becomes quite ominous. The prudence of making major expenditures to meet safety concerns, repair breakage and install technologies to increase output (uprates) is called into question. While there is a tendency to treat these as extraordinary events, they are frequent enough to merit consideration as part and parcel of the nuclear economic equation.

The commercial nuclear industry has historically had difficulty executing major construction projects and that problem afflicts aging reactors. The retirement of Crystal River and San Onofre was precipitated by repairs/upgrades that failed badly, resulting in the need for major repairs. The Florida uprates had substantial cost overruns. The Monticello life extension and uprate activity have experienced cost overruns of over 80 percent.

The response of Executives responsible for the Monticello uprate is revealing.

“It is a large complex project with many intricate components that required changes from the original plans,” Xcel’s chief nuclear officer, Timothy O’Connor, said in recent written testimony submitted to state regulators…O’Connor… testifies that other reactor projects – Grand Gulf in Mississippi, Turkey Point and St. Lucie in Florida and Watts Barr in Tennessee – also experienced cost overruns, in one case double the original estimate.

Defending uprate cost overruns by pointing out that everyone else is suffering the same problem is more an indictment of the industry than a defense of the utility. In fact, the severe contemporary execution risk of keeping old reactors online or increasing the output has started to look a lot like the contemporary (and historical) execution risk of building new reactors. With almost three dozen uprates approved since 2009, over half have been abandoned cancelled or put on hold. Half of those that have moved forward have suffered major cost overruns.

The major uprates that have been proposed, and in a number of cases cancelled or abandoned, generally have cost estimates in the range of $1800 to $3500 per kW. Actual costs have been much higher, in the range of $3400 to $5800/kW. These high actual costs of the uprates are three to four times as much as new advanced combined cycle gas plant costs. Even the initial cost estimates were almost twice as high. Since the reactors being proposed for uprates are still old reactors, they are likely to have significant operating costs, although the uprates may improve their performance. With new gas plants being more efficient, as well, and having much lower capital costs and short lead times, it may well be that choosing between an uprate and a new gas plant has become a very close call. This explains the mixed record of major uprates in the past half-decade.

Since uprates represent the largest capital projects most reactors will witness and most nuclear utilities will undertake in the mid-term, the poor performance is telling. These uprates are afflicted by the same flaws as new builds, past and present, cost overruns, delays, declining demand and low cost alternatives.

Safety, Spent Fuel and the Fukushima Effect

One factor to which UBS devotes a great deal of attention, but Credit Suisse does not mention, is safety related costs.

Among our greatest concerns for the US nuclear portfolio into 2013 is the risk of greater Fukushima-related costs. While expectations around the need of hardened vents differ, we see cost risks of up to $30-40 Mn/per unit under a worst case scenario; while other estimates suggest costs range in the $15 Mn ballpark. Notably, PPL estimates Fukushima-related costs of $50-60 Mn, excluding vents for its 1.6 GW Susquehanna unit.”

Safety concerns surrounding spent fuel are presently holding up the license extension for a dozen reactors as the NRC deals with a court challenge to its “waste confidence” finding. Fukushima and the “waste confidence” ruling remind investors that nuclear power has a unique set of risks that may weigh on economic decisions.

In a major post-Fukushima analysis of the nuclear sector UBS called it a “tail risk.” This is an event that may have a very low probability, but which can have a huge impact on the value of an investment. It has come to be identified more popularly as a “black swan.

In my earlier analysis of the impact of Fukushima, I cited an estimate of the potential costs that ran to a quarter of a trillion dollars. Tokyo Electric Power Company is seeking public funds to help it pay for its current estimate of costs, which is $137 billion. The number has been rising steadily and there is some question about whether the victims are being fully compensated.

The estimate of $137 billion, if that is the final cost, underscores several important points about nuclear safety and nuclear costs. First, the disaster bankrupted the company. Its stock collapsed and it has been taken over by the government. If only $137 billion can bankrupt the 4th largest utility in the world, the “tail risk” associated with nuclear reactor ownership should get the attention of investors. Second, the economic impact of nuclear accidents does not flow from the public health effects, but from the disruption of the affected community. The most immediate impact of nuclear accidents may not be the deaths that they cause, but the disruption of the economy and social life of a large surrounding area and psychological despair that they cause. I have shown that Fukushima deserves the attention it gets in both the historical and contemporary contexts, but there is a larger lesson here. Safety is an evolving concept in nuclear power because the power source is so volatile and dangerous and the technology to control it becomes extremely complex. Over time, external challenges and internal weakness are revealed. The threats to public health and safety cannot be ignored. Responding to them becomes particularly costly for existing reactors, since retrofits are difficult. As older reactors become farther and farther out of sync with the evolving understanding of safety, the challenge grows.


Turning to the future, there are a significant number of reactors, a third of the fleet that exhibits the characteristics that put reactors at risk for negative developments. Exhibit III-6 summarizes the risk factors faced by over three dozen aging reactors. The first six factors – cost, small size, old, standalone, selling into a wholesale market and short cost recovery periods – reflect the economic dimension. The next 5 risk actors involve Operational factors (broken, reliability and long term outage) and safety factors (Multiple safety issues and Fukushima retrofits). These reflect the operational/repair dimension of the analysis. The first 3 reactors evaluated have been retired early and they highlight the two different types of factors that create risk. Kewaunee epitomizes the purely economic factors. Crystal River and San Onofre epitomize the repair/outage factors. I have only included reactors that exhibit at least three of the risk factors as identified in the sources cited.

The list is long and not intended as a prediction of which reactors are “the next to go.” The historical analysis shows that it is generally a combination of factors that leads to the retirement decision. However, the vulnerability of large numbers of reactors suggests that there will be future early retirements and uprates will be slow to come.

The analysis is primarily economic, as indicated on the left side of the table. All of the reactors have significant economic issues. If anything goes wrong, any of these could be retired early. The precipitating event could be a further deterioration of the economics, or it could be mechanical or safety related problems, as indicated on the right side of the table. The market will operate faster in the case of merchant reactors, but economic pressures have become so severe that regulators have been forced to take action as well. The same factors call into question the economic value of license extensions and reactor uprates where they require significant capital outlays.


The dire straits in which a significant part of the U.S. commercial nuclear fleet finds itself are not an aberration or a sudden shift in prospects. It is part and parcel of the history of the industry in the U.S. In fact, the quiet period of high performance in the late 1990s and early 2000s is the exception rather than the rule. With the memory of the huge cost overruns in the 1970s and 1980s fading, the quiet period of the 1990s played an important part in creating the misimpression that new reactors would just hum along. This contributed to the misleading economic analysis on which the “nuclear renaissance” relied during its early hype cycle.

The assumption that nuclear reactors hum along, once they are proposed or even online, is not consistent with the U.S. experience. About half of all reactors ordered or docketed at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were cancelled or abandoned. Of those that were completed and brought online, 15% were retired early, 23% had extended outages of 1 to 3 years, and 6% had outages of more than 3 years. In other words, more than one-third of the reactors that were brought online did not just hum along. Another 11% were turnkey projects, which had large cost overruns and whose economics were unknown.

Outages and Early Retirements

The magnitude of long outages and early retirements is sufficient to require that they be incorporated into the economic analysis of nuclear power. The pattern across time reinforces the observation that the high level of performance in the late 1990s/early 2000s were an exception rather than the rule. After a large number of reactors came on line there were a significant number of outages in the early 1980s. Again in the 1990s there were a significant number of outages and retirements. The lull of problems in the late 1990s and early 2000s has been followed by a sharp increase in problems.

Ultimately, since the start of the commercial industry, over one-quarter of all U.S. reactors have had outages of more than one year. There are three causes of these outages:

  1. Replacement—to refresh parts that have worn out
  2. Retrofit—to meet new standards that are developed as the result of new knowledge and operating experience (e.g. beyond-design events)
  3. Recovery—necessitated by breakage of major components

The average cost of an outage (in 2005 dollars), even before the most recent outages, was more than $1.5 billion, with the highest cost topping $11 billion. The costs of the recent outages that led to early retirement in Crystal River and San Onofre run into the billions.

The occurrence of outages has a strong correlation with retirement, as does the occurrence of a second outage. Early retirement reactors are typically older and smaller. The early retired reactors were brought online before the agency (originally the Atomic Energy Commission) began to adopt and enforce vigorous safety regulation. They are not worth repairing or keeping online when new safety requirements are imposed, or when the reactors are in need of significant repair. Outages exhibit similar relationships.

The larger the number of rules in place when construction was initiated, the less likely there was to be an outage or an early retirements. The larger the increase in rules during construction, the greater the likelihood of an outage. While the industry interprets the existence and change of rules as an expensive nuisance, I have shown that they reflect strong concerns about safety that were triggered by the extremely poor safety record of the industry in its early years. The older reactors experienced more outages and needed more retrofits to get back or stay online. They were built before performance was regulated, generally performed poorly and suffered the outage and retirement consequences.

Qualitatively, the decision to retire a reactor early usually involves a combination of factors such as major equipment failure, system deterioration, repeated accidents, and increased safety requirements. Economics is the most frequent proximate cause, and safety is the most frequent factor that triggers the economic reevaluation. Although popular opposition “caused” a couple of early retirements (a referendum in the case of Rancho Seco; state and local government in the case of Shoreham), this was far from the primary factor, and in some cases local opposition clearly failed (referenda failed to close Trojan or Maine Yankee). External economic factors, such as declining demand or more-cost-competitive resources, can render existing reactors uneconomic on a “stand-alone basis or (more often) in conjunction with one of the other factors.

Performance: Load Factors and Operating Costs

The increasing problems faced by aging nuclear reactors are reflected in the load factor. The average load factor for the nuclear industry throughout its history of commercial operation in the United States has been less than 75%. While it is true that over the decade from the late 1990s through the end of the 2000s the load factor was 90%, it is also true that it took 20 years to get to that level and the industry has recently fallen below it.

This is the source of concern expressed by the Wall Street analysts about the aging fleet, but it also raises an important point about new reactors. New technologies require shake out periods and the more complex they are, the longer the period. The assumption of a 90% load factor for new builds is highly suspect.

Moreover, the calculation of load factors overestimates the actual load factor because the denominator includes only reactors that are operable. Reactors that have been retired early or are on long term outage (not in service for the entire year) are not included in the analysis. I show an adjusted load factor that includes in the denominator the long term outages and early retirements. I assume that all the early retirements were reactors that were expected to still be on line, but for the difficulties that shut them down.This number is substantial. When early retirements and long term outages of more than a year are taken into account, the load factor has been about 70%.

Operating costs appear to exhibit a similar long term pattern as load factors. There was a long period of rising operating costs, then a period of modest decline and relative stability. However, in the past decade costs have begun to rise again.

What we can say about the recent past is that in a short period of time the industry has experienced a full complement of the bad things that can happen to old reactors – purely economic retirement, broken reactors, an uprate that developed into a broken plant and an early retirement, large cost overruns for new builds and uprates and abandonment of uprates. We can also identify the circumstances that brought these negative events about and show that they are not only short term aberrations, but are consistent with the long-term history of the industry.

The key question is: will the price of alternatives keep the economic pressure on the margins of aging reactors with rising costs?

Natural Gas Cost History and Trends

Predicting long-term natural gas prices has been described as a perilous undertaking, but a consensus has emerged among most reasonable analysts that a significant period of low gas prices is upon us. Projecting price out 50 years may be very risky, but 20 years is less so and that is the relevant time frame for aging reactors. Exelon’s battle with wind, its efforts to move the market clearing prices and its decision to cancel the uprates at Limerick and LaSalle and its earlier decision to abandon its plans to build a new reactor, reflect the very challenging economics that nuclear faces in today’s market. Those economics are driven by a belief that gas prices are likely to remain low for the relevant economic time frame. John Rowe, CEO of Exelon has been adamant in this regard.

Traders on the NYMEX agree with Rowe, who notes that analysts do not see a high gas price over the several decades.

As we have seen, wind power plays a role by shifting the supply-curve in such a way that it lowers the market clearing price. As wind is added to meet long-term needs, it has this short-term effect.

Rowe also notes that there are renewables that will compete with nuclear in the next decade – “But, as I look, I think wind and solar do become more economic, wind much the first. Nuclear plants may become economic again but not in the next decade.” Longer-term cost trends support Rowe’s observation that alternatives to nuclear power beyond gas are becoming more attractive options. In contrast to nuclear reactor construction costs and cost estimates that have been rising dramatically, several of the alternatives are exhibiting reductions in cost, driven by technological innovation, learning by doing, and economies of scale.

There is certain to be a great debate about how much the reduction in electricity consumption reflects the recession, there is no doubt that increasing efficiency will change the trajectory of demand. With new building codes and appliance efficiency standards, per capita energy consumption will decline significantly over the next two decades. New building codes call for a 30% reduction in energy consumption in new building designs. Since the oldest, least efficient buildings are likely to be replaced, the effect will be larger than that. The stock changes slowly however. Appliance efficiency standards have been raised in recent years and the Obama administration has announced a program to raise standards on many appliances in the range of 20 to 30%. Since the life cycle of appliances is much shorter than buildings, over the course of two decade most appliances will be replaced by more efficient models. The decline will offset increases in population and GDP, resulting in, at best, flat aggregate demand. The debate over climate change has also placed great emphasis on improving efficiency and using renewables.

With aggregate demand likely to be flat, at best, and renewable costs falling and output rising, the downward pressure on market clearing prices is likely to continue. It appears likely that the pressures on the market clearing price will continue for the period in which decisions about retiring aging nuclear reactors will be made.


Nuclear economics have always been marginal at best. The first cohort of commercial reactors was much more costly than the available alternatives, but those reactors were forced online by a regulatory system that did not have a market to look to, or care to do so even if one existed. It can be argued that the locomotive that pulled half the nation toward restructuring and much greater reliance on market signals was the reaction against the excessive costs of nuclear power. Some advocates of restructuring loudly declared restructuring would prevent another nuclear fiasco.

Ironically, it appears that an unintended consequence of the shift toward markets will be to force the early retirement of the very reactors that a market never would have allowed to be built in the first place. While half the country does not rely on markets to set the price of electricity, the presence of markets across the country sends strong signals to regulators that keeping aging reactors online, especially if they need repairs or retrofits, does not make economic sense. Thus, although the outcome is ironic in the long sweep of nuclear history in the U.S. it is perfectly consistent with the fundamental economics of nuclear power throughout that history. While the purpose of the Wall Street analysis is to advise and caution investors about utilities that own the aging fleet of at-risk reactors, my purpose is to inform policymakers about and prepare them for the likelihood of early retirements. By explaining the economic causes of early retirements, the policymakers will be better equipped to make economically rational responses to those retirements (or the threat of retirement).

Economic reality has slammed the door on nuclear power.

  • In the near-term old reactors are uneconomic because lower cost alternatives have squeezed their cash margins to the point where they no longer cover the cost of nuclear operation.
  • In the mid-term, things get worse because the older reactors get, the less viable they become.
  • In the long term new reactors are uneconomic because there are numerous low-carbon alternatives that are less costly and less risk.

The lesson for policy makers in the economics of old reactors is clear and it reinforces the lesson of the past decade in the economics of building new reactors. Nuclear reactors are simply not competitive. They have never been competitive at the beginning of their life cycle, when the build/cancel decision is made, and they are not competitive at the end of their life cycles, when the repair/retire decision is made. They are not competitive because the U.S. has the technical ability and a rich, diverse resource base to meet the need for electricity with lower cost, less risky alternatives. Policy efforts to resist fundamental economic reality of nuclear power will be costly, ineffective and counterproductive.

About Mark Cooper: I am a Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. A copy of my curriculum vitae is attached. I am an expert in the field of economic and policy analysis with a focus on energy, technology, and communications issues. For over thirty years I have analyzed the economics of energy production and consumption on behalf of consumer organizations and public interests groups, focusing in the past four years on cost of the alternative resources available to meet electricity needs for the next several decades. My analyses are presented in a series of articles (1), reports (2), and testimonies before state regulatory agencies and state and federal legislatures. I have served as an expert witness in several regulatory proceedings involving electricity and nuclear reactors, starting with proceedings before the Mississippi Public Service Commission almost 30 years ago regarding the proposed Grand Gulf II nuclear reactor and including proceedings before the Florida and South Carolina Commissions regarding the proposed reactors in those states.

(1) Cooper, Mark. “The Only Thing that is Unavoidable About Nuclear Power is its High Cost,” Corporate Knights, forthcoming; “Nuclear Safety and Afford able Reactors: Can We Have Both?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2012; “Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Economics, Fukushima Reignites the Never-Ending Debate: Is Nuclear Power Not Worth the Risk at Any Price?,” Symposium on the Future of Nuclear Power, University of Pittsburgh, March 27-2 8, 2012; “Post-Fukushima Case for Ending Price Anderson,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 2011; “The Implications of Fukushima: The US Perspective, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2011 67: 8-13.

(2) Public Risk, Private Profit, Rate payer Cost, Utility Imprudence: Advanced Cost Recovery for Reactor Construction Creates Another Nuclear Fiasco, Not a Renaissance, March 2013; Fundamental Flaws In SCE&G’s Comparative Economic Analysis, October 1, 2012; Policy Challenges of Nuclear Reactor Construction: Cost Escalation and Crowding Out Alternatives, September, 2010; All Risk, No Reward, December 2009; The Economics of Nuclear Reactors: Renaissance of Relapse, June 2009; Climate Change and the Electricity Consumer: Background Analysis to Support a Policy Dialogue, June 2008.


Peters, Adele. March 23, 2016. This Map Of All The Nuclear Reactors In The World Is A Reality Check. There are fewer nuclear reactors than you may realize. And by the time more are financed and built, the Arctic ice will be all gone anyway.  fastcoexist.com

Platts. March 29, 2016. Nuclear safety upgrades post-Fukushima cost $47 billion.

Plumer, B. July 21, 2017. U.S. Nuclear Comeback Stalls as Two Reactors Are Abandoned. New York Times.

Posted in Nuclear Power | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nuclear Regulatory Commission accused of putting millions of lives and trillions of dollars at risk

Spent nuclear fuel pool. Source: Recent Sandia International Used Nuclear Fuel Management Collaborations. 2015. energy.sandia.gov

[ Edwin Lyman and his co-authors in Science magazine have accused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of putting millions of American lives at risk, due to “pressure from the nuclear utilities and a Congress sympathetic to the utilities’ complaints of overregulation. This is the well-known phenomenon of “regulatory capture.” Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici described how he curbed the NRC’s regulatory reach by threatening to cut its budget by one-third.”

Here’s why you should care: Studies of Fukushima have shown that spent nuclear fuel in pools are outside of the containment area and could catch on fire if the water boils off.  In the case of the Peach bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, from 4 million (1) to 18 million people would have to evacuate (3), for many years.  It’s recently been learned that this almost happened at Fukushima and if it had, would have required an additional 1.6 to 35 million people to evacuate.

It would only cost $5 billion to prevent this from happening ($50 million per plant). That’s cheap compared to the trillions of dollars in damages a spent nuclear pool file could cause (9).

I know most people don’t want to hear yet another dire problem exists, but consider giving this your attention.  It’s up to you to do something about NRC regulatory capture, which the authors of this article write “will be dealt with only when pressure from the concerned public outweighs that from the nuclear industry”.

Here’s another reason to care. you are going to pay for it:  “If a spent fuel–pool fire were to occur,  under the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, the nuclear industry would be liable only for damages up to $13.6 billion, leaving the public to deal with damages exceeding that amount (15). A fire in a dense-packed fuel pool could cause trillions of dollars in damages.

While you’re at it, try to reopen Yucca Mountain and other storage facilities for nuclear waste so that it doesn’t poison future generations for hundreds of thousands of years after fossil fuels no longer power civilization.  Our descendants won’t be able to store nuclear waste safely once they go back to becoming a wood and muscle-powered society again.

The nuclear spent fuel pool water will boil off someday.  Fossil fuels are about to decline faster than governments can cope with, and two-thirds of electricity is still generated with fossil fuels.  Not to mention natural disasters, an electromagnetic pulse from a solar or nuclear event, a financial crisis, terrorism, and so on.

If you’d like to know more about spent nuclear pool fires, I have several posts here from Science Magazine, the National Academy of Sciences, and other sources here and sciencedaily has an excellent article here.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Edwin Lyman, Michael Schoeppner, Frank von Hippel. 26 May 2017. Nuclear safety regulation in the post-Fukushima era.  Science  356: 808-809   DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4890

The March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident prompted regulators around the world to take a hard look at their requirements for protecting nuclear plants against severe accidents. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of its regulations, and ultimately approved a number of safety upgrades. It rejected other risk-reduction measures, however, using a screening process that did not adequately account for impacts of large-scale land contamination events.

Among rejected options was a measure to end dense packing of 90 spent fuel pools, which we consider critical for avoiding a potential catastrophe much greater than Fukushima.

Unless the NRC improves its approach to assessing risks and benefits of safety improvements—by using more realistic parameters in its quantitative assessments and also taking into account societal impacts—the United States will remain needlessly vulnerable to such disasters.

Spent nuclear fuel must be cooled in water-filled pools immediately after discharge from reactors. After cooling for a few years, transfer of spent fuel to air-cooled dry storage casks becomes practical. In the United States, the NRC allows spent fuel to remain in pool storage until a geologic repository for spent fuel becomes available.

To minimize storage costs, utilities pack the pools as densely as possible, and only when they are full do they make space for newly discharged hot fuel by buying dry casks to store the fuel that has cooled the longest. Dense-packed spent fuel would be susceptible to catching fire if an accident or terrorist attack caused a loss of the pool’s cooling water. [My comment:

Oxidation by steam of a small fraction of the zirconium in the fuel cladding would liberate sufficient hydrogen gas to potentially cause an explosion and destruction of the building covering the pool. Explosions of hydrogen gas generated by steam reactions with uncovered reactor cores destroyed buildings covering three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, exposing their fuel pools to the environment (see the photo).

Fortunately, in Fukushima, the spent fuel remained covered with water. For almost a month, however, Tokyo Electric Power Company overestimated the water level in the densely packed spent fuel pool of unit 4 and did not add enough water to keep up with the rate of evaporation. A month after the earthquake, when the utility finally measured the water level directly, it had fallen from 7 to 2 meters above the top of the stored fuel. Fortuitously, water had leaked into pool 4 from the adjacent reactor cavity—which does not ordinarily contain water—keeping the spent fuel covered and preventing a fire (1).

Thirty-year half-life cesium was the main radioactive contaminant that forced relocation of large populations following the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.

NRC contractors at Sandia National Laboratory estimated that, had there been a fire in pool 4, 100 times as much cesium-137 would have been released to the atmosphere than actually leaked from the damaged Fukushima reactors (2). If that had happened, depending on weather conditions, cesium-137 contamination would have forced long-term relocation of between 1.6 million and 35 million people, instead of 150,000, from Japan’s East Coast (3).

After Fukushima, the NRC evaluated whether to require nuclear power plants to reduce the risk of a catastrophic spent fuel fire by transferring fuel that had cooled for >5 years from pools to safer dry storage casks. The NRC had two primary options for imposing a “backfit” such as this on already-licensed nuclear power plants. The first was to declare that the change was needed to provide “adequate protection” of public health and safety.

The National Research Council estimated that if a spent nuclear fuel fire happened at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, nearly 3.5 million people would need to be evacuated and 12 thousand square miles of land would be contaminated.  In its technical evaluation, the NRC estimated that, for a typical U.S. Mark I boiling-water reactor at Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania, a spent fuel fire in a dense-packed pool would require relocation of 4.1 million people from an area of 9,500 square miles (24,500 km2)–50 times as many as the corresponding values for a fire in a low-density pool (4). [My comment: A Princeton University study that looked at the same scenario concluded it was more likely that 18.1 million people would need to evacuated and 39,000 square miles of land contaminated (3)].

However, neither this finding nor a broader regulatory analysis of all U.S. plants persuaded the NRC to change its view that high-density pool storage provides “adequate protection” according to its interpretation of the Atomic Energy Act, which does not provide criteria for determining adequate protection (5).

Given this decision, under the NRC’s self-imposed rules, the backfit could be adopted only if the monetary value of the resulting reduction in risk to the public were to exceed the cost of implementation and the increase in safety were “substantial” (6). In the decades since NRC adopted this “backfit rule,” it has based determinations increasingly on quantitative assessments of risk, defined as the product of probability and consequences. The quality of these complex calculations depends strongly on the validity of the input assumptions, and they typically have large uncertainties that the NRC fails to fully account for in its regulatory decisions. These characteristics also introduce opportunities for the NRC to produce risk assessments that justify, rather than inform, its decisions. In any case, no matter how large the consequences of an accident, if the NRC estimates a low enough probability, the risk will be too low to justify major expenditures on mitigation.

Thus, although the NRC backfit analysis found that the huge quantity of fission products released by a dense-packed pool fire could be dramatically reduced by lowering the fuel density, it estimated that the probability of a fire resulting in a large release would be small—on the order of 4 × 10−6 per pool per year, although with a large uncertainty (7 × 10−7 to 3 × 10−5).

The NRC’s cost-benefit analysis did not account for the possibility of a terrorist attack, which cannot be quantified but should not be ignored (7). In addition, the NRC made a series of assumptions that tended to minimize the estimated health and economic consequences of a high-density release. After making these assumptions and ignoring uncertainties, the NRC found that the probability-weighted benefits to the public from transferring spent fuel to passively air-cooled dry cask storage did not justify the estimated cost of $5 billion to the nuclear utilities (about $50 million per reactor).

A recent National Academy of Sciences study (on which author F.v.H. served) found that the NRC cost-benefit analysis—unreasonably, in our view—excluded accident consequences beyond 50 miles and underestimated consequences in a number of other ways (4). In response to a petition by the state of New York, the NRC acknowledged that its assumption in such calculations, that virtually all the relocated population could return home within less than a year, was inconsistent with the experience in Japan, where some of the relocated population is just beginning to return after 6 years (8). NRC computer output made public as a result of the New York hearing also showed that the NRC analysis assumed radiation dose standards for population relocation that were much less restrictive than those recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or those that were applied by Soviet and Japanese authorities after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. If the EPA guidance were followed, we estimate that the average area evacuated as a result of a spent fuel fire in a densely packed pool at the Peach Bottom plant would increase about 3-fold (3). Correcting for the above errors would have made the NRC’s central estimates of the benefits of expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry cask storage greater than the costs (9).

The NRC argues that, even if the benefits of a backfit exceed its costs, it should be subjected to a “safety goal screening” to determine whether the safety enhancement is “substantial.” The screening criteria set limits on the health risks from accidents to individuals living close to nuclear plants. The NRC’s analysis met these limits by assuming a rapid and long-duration evacuation of these close-in areas. For the small doses that the NRC staff estimated that members of the public would incur after returning to their decontaminated towns, the health risk would be less than the NRC’s safety goals as long as the frequency of a spent fuel fire in the United States was less than once every 4 years (3).

Yet health risks to individuals are not synonymous with societal risks. When its safety goal policy was first developed in the 1980s, the NRC considered but rejected including a “societal risk” in addition to an individual health–risk threshold for regulatory action (10). The NRC’s failure to adopt such a criterion has long been criticized. Imposing a reasonable constraint on the cumulative societal impact of accidents would compel the NRC to lower the risk of a large-scale land contamination event that could drive millions from their homes and businesses for years (11, 12). The psychological trauma and economic cost of even one such event would be unacceptable. In our view, if the NRC were to use more realistic quantitative assessments and give weight to societal impacts, a requirement to expedite transfer of spent fuel to dry casks would be justified.

The NRC’s skewed approach to nuclear reactor safety regulation appears to be in part a result of pressure from the nuclear utilities and a Congress sympathetic to the utilities’ complaints of overregulation. This is the well-known phenomenon of “regulatory capture.” Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici described how he curbed the NRC’s regulatory reach by threatening to cut its budget by one-third. He believed that, partly in response to this pressure, the NRC committed to adopting “risk-informed regulation” (13). Risk-informed regulation would be legitimate if the underlying methodology and data were sound and uncertainties were properly accounted for. But the NRC relied on flawed calculations and ignored their uncertainties when it rejected expedited transfer of spent fuel from pool storage.

Many in Congress are opposed to additional costly regulations, fearing that more nuclear power plants will become unprofitable and shut down. Recently, chairs of the NRC’s Senate oversight committee and subcommittee insisted on “strict application and adherence to the Backfit Rule” (14). If a spent fuel–pool fire were to occur, however, under the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, the nuclear industry would be liable only for damages up to $13.6 billion, leaving the public to deal with damages exceeding that amount (15). A fire in a dense-packed fuel pool could cause trillions of dollars in damages (9).

To reduce the risk and invest in infrastructure, Congress could consider allocating $5 billion for casks to store spent fuel. The federal government is already reimbursing nuclear utilities almost $1 billion per year for casks needed to store older spent fuel because the Department of Energy has not fulfilled its commitment to remove the fuel to an underground repository or interim storage site (16, 17). States also could act to reduce the risk. As part of its policy to reduce fossil fuel use, New York recently decided to mandate subsidies totaling about $500 million per year for continued operation of four nuclear power reactors (18). Illinois has adopted a similar policy, and other states are considering the same. States could condition such subsidies on agreements by utilities to end dense-packing of spent fuel pools.

The larger problem of NRC regulatory capture will be dealt with, however, only when pressure from the concerned public outweighs that from the nuclear industry.

References and Notes

  1. 2016. Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety of U.S. Nuclear Plants: Phase 2. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, chap. 2.
  2. Gauntt et al. 2012. Fukushima Daiichi Accident Study. SAND2012-6173, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM: 176–199.
  3. N. von Hippel, M. Schoeppner. 2016. Economic Losses from a fire in a dense-packed U.S. Spent fuel pool. Science and global security 24: 141.
  4. 2016. Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety of U.S. Nuclear Plants: Phase 2. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, chap. 7.
  5. 2014. Commission Response Sheet, COMSECY-13-0030, Staff evaluation and recommendation for Japan lessons learned—Tier 3 issue on expedited transfer of spent fuel. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  6. NRC, Staff evaluation and recommendation for Japan lessons learned—Tier 3 issue on expedited transfer of spent fuel (COMSECY-13-0030, NRC, 2013).
  7. 2004. National Research Council, Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage. National Academies Press, Washington, DC: 34–35.
  8. In the matter of Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc. (Indian Point Nuclear Generating Units 2 and 3), Docket nos. 50-247-LR and 50-286-LR (NRC, 2016).
  9. N. von Hippel, M. Schoeppner, Sci. Glob. Secur. 25, 10.1080/08929882.2017.1318561 (2017).
  10. Okrent. 17 April 1987. The safety goals of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Science 236:296. Abstract/FREE Full Text
  11. Bier, M. Corradini, R. Youngblood, C. Roh, S. Liua. June 2014. Proceedings of the 12th Conference on Probabilistic Safety Assessment and Management, Honolulu, Hawaii, paper 199_1 (International Association for Probabilistic Safety Assessment and Management).
  12. Denning, V. Mubayi, Risk Anal. 37, 160 (2016).
  13. Domenici. 2004. A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, chap. 5.
  14. Inhofe, S. M. Capito. 21 December 2016. Letter to Chairman of the NRC, 21 December 2016.
  15. 2014. Nuclear Energy Institute, Price-Anderson Act provides effective liability insurance at no cost to the public, [NEI fact sheet] (NEI, Washington, DC); http://bit.ly/2oUniNh.
  16. 2015. FY 2015 DOE agency financial report, U.S. Department of Energy.
  17. 2015. FY 2016 DOE agency financial report, U.S. Department of Energy.
  18. McGeehan. 1 August 2016.  New York Times, 1 August 2016.
Posted in EMP Electromagnetic Pulse, Nuclear spent fuel fire | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Theo Henckens: do we need mining quotas to prevent mineral depletion?

[ Ugo Bardi writes: “Currently, the problem of resource depletion is completely missing from the political debate. There has to be some reason why some problems tend to disappear from the public’s radar as they become worse. Unfortunately, the depletion problem won’t go away because the public is not interested in it. I discussed depletion in depth in my 2014 book “Extracted” and now Theo Henckens’ updates the situation with this post based on his PhD dissertation “Managing Raw Materials Scarcity, Safeguarding the availability of geologically scarce mineral resources for future generations” (16 October 2016, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands). The full dissertation can be downloaded via the link http://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/339827.  (UB)

Theo Henckens. Jan 3, 2017. An update on mineral depletion: do we need mining quotas?  Cassandra’s legacy.

To ensure that sufficient zinc, molybdenum and antimony are available for our greatgrandchildren’s generation, we need an international mineral resources agreement.

Molybdenum is essential for the manufacture of high-grade stainless steels, but at present molybdenum is hardly recycled. Yet unless reuse of molybdenum is dramatically increased, the extractable reserves of molybdenum on Earth will run out in about eighty years from now. The extractable reserves of antimony, a mineral used to make plastics more heat-resistant, will run out within thirty years.

During more than a century the use of mineral resources increased exponentially with an average between 3 and 4% annually. Can this go on, given the limited amounts of mineral resources in the earth’s crust?


Which raw materials or minerals are scarce?  A mineral’s scarcity is expressed as the number of years that its extractable amount in the Earth’s crust is sufficient to meet anticipated demand. This exhaustion period is estimated from the annual use of such mineral. I calculated the ratio between the extractable amount and the annual consumption for 65 mineral resources. My calculation is based on what is considered to be maximally extractable from the Earth’s crust. These “Extractable Global Resources” are derived from a study by the International Resource Panel of UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) in 2011. Regarding the annual use of mineral resources I have supposed an annual growth of 3% until 2050, where after I have supposed that extraction stabilizes. The table below shows the top ten scarcest mineral resources.


Exhaustion period-(in years)of-remaining extractable mineral resources
Important applications
Flame retardants
Electronic components
Corrosion protection
High-grade steels
High-quality alloys
Electricity grid
Stainless steels
Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics
Tins, brass

What is a sustainable extraction rate?

In my dissertation I have defined a sustainable extraction rate as follows: “The extraction of a mineral resource is sustainable, if a world population of nine billion people can be provided with that mineral resource during a period of thousand years, supposing that the average use per world citizen is equally divided over the countries of the world”. Actually, the concept of sustainability is only applicable to an activity, which can continue forever. Concerning the extraction of mineral resources, I consider a thousand years as a reasonable approach. This is arbitrary of course. But 100 years is too short. In that case we would accept that our grandchildren would be confronted with exhausted mineral resources.

A sensitivity analysis reveals that even if we assume that the extractable reserves in the Earth’s crust are ten times higher than the already optimistic assumption of the UNEP International Resource Panel, then the use of antimony, gold, zinc, molybdenum, and rhenium in industrialized countries would still have to be hugely reduced in order to preserve sufficient of these raw materials for future generations. This is particularly so if we want these resources to be more fairly shared among countries and people than is currently the case. There are also environmental and energy limits to the ever deeper and remoter search for ever lower concentrations of minerals. If we want to stretch out all the exhaustion periods in the table to 1000 years, then it can be calculated that the extraction of antimony should be reduced of 96 %, that of zinc of 82 %, that of molybdenum of 81 %, that of copper of 63 %, that of chromium of 57 % and that of boron of 44 %. This is compared to the extracted quantities in 2010. These reduction percentages are high. The question is whether that is feasible. Moreover, would the price mechanism not lead to a timely and sufficient extraction reduction of scarce mineral resources?

The price mechanism fails.  One would suppose that the general price mechanism would work: the price of relatively scarce mineral resource rises quicker than the price of relative abundant mineral resources.


* The minerals have been classified according to their scarcity. The scarce raw materials in the figure are antimony, zinc, gold, molybdenum and rhenium. The moderately scarce raw materials are tin, chromium, copper, lead, boron, arsenic, iron, nickel, silver, cadmium, tungsten and bismuth. The non-scarce raw minerals are aluminum, magnesium, manganese, cobalt, barium, selenium, beryllium, vanadium, strontium, lithium, gallium, germanium, niobium, the platinum-group metals, tantalum and mercury.

My research makes clear that the price of scarce mineral resources has not risen significantly faster than that of abundant minerals. I demonstrate in my dissertation that, so far, the geological scarcity of minerals has not affected their price trends. The explanation might be that the London Metal Exchange looks ahead for a maximum period of only ten years and that mining companies anticipate for up to thirty years. But we must look much further ahead if we are to preserve scarce resources for future generations.

Eventually, the price of the scarcest minerals will rise, but probably not until their reserves are almost exhausted and little remains for future generations.

Technological opportunities are not being exploited. Are the conclusions I reach over-pessimistic? After all, when the situation becomes dire, we can expect recycling and material efficiency to increase. The recycling of molybdenum can be greatly improved by selectively dismantling appliances, improved sorting of scrap metal and by designing products from which molybdenum can be easier recycled. Alternative materials with the same properties as scarce minerals can be developed. Antimony as a flame retardant can be replaced fairly easily by other flame retardants. Scarcity will drive innovation.

30 to 50%of zinc is already being recycled from end of life products, but although it is technologically possible to increase this percentage, this is barely happening. Almost no molybdenum is recycled. Recycling is not increasing because the price mechanism is not working for scarce minerals. In the absence of sufficient financial market pressure, how can technological solutions for recycling and substitution be stimulated?

What should happen?  I argue that what is needed is an international agreement: by limiting the extraction of scarce minerals stepwise, scarcity will be artificially increased – in effect, simulating exhaustion and unleashing market forces. This could be done by determining an annual extraction quota, beginning with the scarcest minerals. Such an international mineral resources agreement should secure the sustainable extraction of scarce resources and the legitimate right of future generations to a fair share of these raw materials. This means that agreement should be reached on reducing the extraction of scarce mineral resources, from 96 percent for antimony to 82 percent for zinc and 44 percent for boron, compared to the use of these minerals in 2010. In effect, such an agreement would entail putting into practice the normative principles that were agreed on long ago relating to the sustainable use of non-renewable raw materials, such as the Stockholm Declaration (United Nations, 1972), the World Charter for Nature (UN, 1982), and the Earth Charter (UNESCO, 2000). These sustainability principles were recently reconfirmed in the implementation report of Agenda 21 for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2016).

Financial compensation for countries with mineral resources.  Countries that export the scarce minerals will be reluctant to voluntarily cut back extraction because they would lose revenue. They should therefore receive financial compensation. The compensation scheme should ensure that the income of the resource countries does not suffer. In exchange, user countries will become owners of the raw materials that are not extracted, but remain in the ground. An international supervisory body should be set up for inspection, monitoring, evaluation and research.

Not a utopian idea.  In my dissertation, I set out the case for operationalizing the fundamental principles for sustainable extraction of raw materials, which have been agreed in various international conferences and confirmed by successive conferences of the United Nations. The climate agreement, initially thought to be a utopian idea, has become reality, so there is no reason why a mineral resources agreement should not follow.

Antimony: More than 50% of the antimony annually sold is used in flame retardants, especially in plastics for electrical and electronic equipment. A third of this equipment currently contains antimony. In addition, more than a quarter of antimony sold annually is used in lead batteries. In principle, antimony in its application as a flame retardant can largely be replaced by other types of flame retardants and antimony containing lead batteries can be replaced by non-antimony containing batteries.
Gold: In addition to its use in jewelry and as security for paper money, gold is especially used in high-quality switches, connectors and electronic components.
Zinc: The main application of zinc is as a coating on another metal to protect it against corrosion. Other applications include brass, zinc gutters, rubber tires and as a micro-nutrient in swine feed.
Molybdenum: Almost 80% of the volume of molybdenum extracted per annum is used to manufacture high-grade steels that are mainly used in constructions exposed to extreme conditions such as high temperatures, salt water and aggressive chemicals. There are very few substitutes for the current applications of molybdenum, and molybdenum is difficult, though not impossible, to recycle.
Rhenium: Rhenium is mainly used in high-quality alloys, to enable them to withstand extreme temperatures. It is also used in catalysts, to give gasoline a higher octane number.
Rare Earth Metals: Scarce mineral resources should not be confused with the Rare Earth Metals that are mainly mined in China. The Rare Earth Metals are seventeen chemical elements with exotic names, such as praseodymium, dysprosium and lanthanum. The name “Rare Earths” dates from the early nineteenth century. Rare Earths are geologically not scarce, at least not if you compare their extractable global resources with their current annual usage. But of course, that could change in the future.
Posted in Important Minerals | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why did everyone stop talking about Population & Immigration?

[ I’ve summarized the 20 top reasons why population growth was abandoned by environmental groups and received little coverage in the news media the past 40 years.  I highly recommend reading Beck and Kolankiewicz (2000) “The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization” and Alan Weisman’s “Countdown: Our last, Best hope for a future on Earth?” for even more reasons why this happened.

Further reading with additional arguments: Lochhead, C. 2 September 2013. Why is linking population growth to environmental stress politically taboo? San Francisco Chronicle.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

There is no need to decide whether to stop the population increase or not. There is no need to decide whether the population will be lowered or not. It will, it will! The only thing mankind has to decide is whether to let population decline be done in the old inhumane method that nature has always used, or to invent a new humane method of our own.” Isaac Asimov, 1974.

Unlooked for but swift, we have come on like a swarm of locusts: a wide, thick, darkling cloud settling down like living snowflakes, smothering every stalk, every leaf, eating away every scrap of green down to raw, bare, wasting earth…There are too many men for Earth to harbor. At nearly seven billion we have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity”. Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First.

Population world in billions

 1) The Consumption of Wealthy Nations is the problem. Not the Poor.

It’s both, obviously.  Not one or the other.  The famous equation to describe this is I = P x A x T, which translates to Human Impact (I) on the environment =  (P)opulation times (A)ffluence times (T)echnology.

It is certainly true that wealth nations consume too much. The United States uses 7 billion tons of minerals a year. Per capita that’s 47,769 pounds per American: 1400 pounds of copper, 9 tons of phosphate rock, 300 tons of coal, 16 tons of iron ore, 700 tons of stone, sand, and gravel, and so on.

But the poor also have a huge effect on the environment:

  • Slash and burn farmers migrate deep into rainforests on illegal logging roads and destroy them
  • Extinction looms for many animal specues due to too much bush meat taken, especially in Africa
  • Deforestation due to illegal timber harvests and to cook food
  • Overfishing
  • Desertification
  • Competition over scarce water
  • Sewage and chemical pollution due to lack of treatment
  • The poor relieve their excess population by migrating to developed nations or nearby nations, so population growth remains unchecked, the need or desire for birth control lessened, and the impact of even more consumption in developed nations receiving immigrants worsened
  • Adopting the consumerism of rich nations and consuming more meat and other goods
World Population Growth 1950-2050 Source: United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects, The 2008 Revision.

World Population Growth 1950-2050 Source: United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects, The 2008 Revision.


2) It’s taboo to mention the link between poverty and population

Much of the misery and starvation in Niger is caused by having the highest birthrate in the world, which clearly reduces the slice of resources per person. But reporters never mention this connection since it is not politically correct.

3) Don’t worry, America’s birth rate went down

By 1973 the birth rate dropped below replacement level, so the media ran headlines declaring that the population problem was solved and that America had reached Zero Population Growth.

Not true! The population in the U.S. was, and is, still growing.

4) Feminists and Human-rights groups took over the Sierra Club

After feminists and human-rights advocates were put on the population committee at the Sierra Club, they fought to have empowerment of women as the main goal. Dave Foreman was on the committee and opposed this since the goal was population stabilization and then reduction. Empowering women might be a key path to that goal, but was not the goal itself.

The newcomers replied that any implied restrictions, such as a goal of population stabilization, was an assault on women rights to choose how many children they had. The mere mention of limits to growth was coercive.

The takeover of the Sierra Club population platform by people unaware or unable to understand “The Limits to Growth” and “The Tragedy of the Commons” was a tragedy.  The Sierra Club was instrumental in making the topic of population taboo and politically incorrect.

Another big factor in why the Sierra club abandoned it’s population position was because David Gelbaum, who had given them over $100 million dollars, demanded they take this position or he wouldn’t continue to give them large donations (Weiss).

Since the 1980s there’s been little media attention to population growth, and close to none since 1994.

Not only did the Sierra Club and other environmental groups stop writing about population issues, they stopped reminding people that overpopulation is responsible for every single problem they were trying to “solve”.  Clearly all of these problems would be reduced if there were fewer people:

  • Climate change
  • Oceans: acidification, overfishing, pollution
  • (Rain)forest destruction for agriculture, cattle, construction
  • Biodiversity loss (6th mass extinction)
  • Providing a good education to children everywhere
  • Feeding everyone
  • Making jobs available for record numbers of unemployed youth

Martha Campbell puts this even more strongly – she sees hostility towards mentioning the population question due to universities teaching students that even discussing the connection between population and environment is not a tolerable topic of discussion and politically incorrect to even suggest that slowing population growth might protect the environment for future generations.

5) Cornucopian and Leftists Environmentalists also destroyed immigration and population stabilization goals

You’d think the Left would support conservation, but there are splinters who saw talking about overpopulation as blaming the world’s poor for their plight. Better to stop wealthy countries from consuming so much.

In 1998 the Bay Area Marxist group “Political Ecology Group” succeeded in killing a Sierra Club immigration-lowering initiative. Leftist ideologues also suppressed talk about overpopulation at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment because Chinese and India’s attempts to gain population stabilization were seen by them as coercive.

6) The American public is not scientifically educated and ignores warnings from scientists

Anyone who denies overpopulation is a problem ought to be called a population denier, just as those who insist there’s no climate change are called Climate Change Deniers. For some reason just about everyone, scientifically literate or not, ignores warnings about population:

  1. 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus
  2. 1968 The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
  3. 1968 The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich
  4. 1973 Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows et al
  5. 1980 Overshoot by William Catton (especially Chapter 2)
  6. 1992 World scientists’ warning to humanity. 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued this appeal
  7. 1993 The Arithmetic of Growth: Methods of Calculation by Albert Bartlett.
  8. 1995 The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons by Hardin
  9. 1999 The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia by Garrett Hardin
  10. 2001 Global Biodiversity Outlook
  11. 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
  12. 2006 The Essential Exponential: For the Future of our planet by Albert Bartlett (video)
  13. 2014 Nobel laureates call for a revolutionary shift in how humans use resources. Eleven holders of prestigious prize say excessive consumption threatening planet, and humans need to live more sustainably.

7) Educating Women to lower population a nice idea but…

As far as lowering population, Virginia Abernethy has some valid criticisms about whether this will work in “Population Politics: The Choices That Shape Our Future”.

The main reason it won’t work is that it’s too late.  We’re too far into overshoot beyond carrying capacity once fossil fuels start declining.

Though it’s still a good idea, so that as energy, natural resources, and population decline, educated women perhaps will fight the loss of their rights because they’ll know it doesn’t have to be that way.

8) Only humans matter, screw the other species on the planet

Nearly all the optimistic books written with the general theme of “YES WE CAN SUPPORT 10 BILLION PEOPLE” ignore other species on the planet. All that matters are human needs.  The human-caused mass 6th extinction is well underway. The idea that we can kill off most other species and maintain a population of 10 billion is absurd.

9) Anyone who wants to limit immigration or population is portrayed as a racist

Have you ever seen anyone on TV or in newspapers who stated their reason for wanting reduced immigration and population was their concern over loss of biodiversity, increasing pollution, declining aquifers, fisheries, forests, energy, and other resources? And if they were allowed to speak about environmental issues, they would still be accused of hiding their REAL motivation, which was racism.

Hell no. Only hateful racists are interviewed and their views linked to eugenics, genocide, and colonialism. They are portrayed as not trying to curb all growth, but only that of undesirable people such as the poor or undesirable races.

Many systems ecologists have estimated that without fossil fuels, the United States could support at most 100 million people.  The media should be asking people how we can go from 320 million to 100 million without birth control, abortion, and limiting immigration.

I personally think it’s less than 100 million due to what we’ve done to our topsoil, aquifers, massive dieoffs of marine life from eutrophication (due to fertilizer runoff), the lack of land to grow food on once the 4x to 5x intensification of food produced due to natural-gas fertilizers is no longer attained, phosphorous depletion, invasive species, and a whole lot of other ecological showstoppers covered elsewhere on this site.

10) The Sierra club and other environmental groups abandoned immigration level goals

in 1989 the Sierra Club’s stand was that “immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.”.

But in the 1990s conservationists feared alienating leftist and racial rights groups and dropped immigration to stabilize population from their platforms.

Since then immigration has grown immensely. Until 1965 levels were about 200,000 a year. In 1965 it leapt to 1,000,000, and in 1990 to 1.5 million.

Immigration is now the main cause of increasing population growth in the United States. Between 1900 and 2000 the population almost quadrupled (76 to 281 million), with the largest 10 year ncrease between 1990 and 2000 (32.7 million).

11) We must have more population growth to fund retirees and grow the economy

That’s clearly a crazy Ponzi scheme that can’t go on forever on a finite planet.

It is also a way to have cheap labor once you’ve got many people competing for jobs, and perhaps the real reason why the elites wanted population growth.

12) Immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want

Who benefits from immigration?  Businesses that want to pay people less. Everyone else loses. Wages would be much higher if there weren’t so many people competing for every job, which drives wages, safety, and working conditions down.

13) We’re wealthy, so we’re obliged to offer shelter to immigrants, and we are a nation of immigrants

Just because we can’t control other nation’s population policies doesn’t mean we should reward them for reproducing beyond their carrying capacity.  Since developed nations consume many times more resources, immigrants from India to the U.S. magnify resource depletion 40-fold, since Americans consume 40 times more per capita than Indians.

14) Nature keeps us alive

People are  brainwashed by viewing the world through economic filters, forgetting that  forests, fisheries, wetlands, aquifers, healthy deep class 1 and 2 topsoil, and other resources are essential for survival, and can be diminished and even depleted.

15) 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development

The Catholic church and well meaning but ecologically ignorant activists at this conference shifted the goal of population stabilization and growth to empowering women. They labeled attempts by China and India as coercive, and thereby killed family planning, replacing it with empowerment and reproductive rights and health, because now family planning was spun as being coercive.

Perhaps they forgot that women are coerced into unwanted pregnancies and often die or are severely injured in childbirth.  One of the results of this conference is that many poor women have little or no access to family planning and as a consequence are unable to control their bodies, how many children they have and when they have them.

This conference discouraged discussing the connection between population growth and environmental destruction, because to do so was seen as anti-woman. Anyone who persisted in talking about population growth was dismissively labeled a Malthusian.

16) Standard demographic theory

It was assumed that women would want fewer children as their nation modernized and more women were educated.

A better theory and one that matches reality, is that if men and women can gain easy access to birth control, they will have fewer children.

For example, in Thailand, where family planning is easy to obtain, women with no education used birth control as much as educated women. In the Philippines, where birth control is hard to get due to the Catholic Church, uneducated women don’t use contraception because they can’t get it.

If women could gain access to birth control, the population growth rate would go down.

Women aren’t stupid, they know that childbirth is dangerous – the risk of death or injury is very high. Women would rather stay alive to take care of their existing children. One million children are left motherless every year – childbirth kills 287,000 women and injures another 10 million every year according to the World Health Organization.

17) It’s Human Nature not to worry about overpopulation

In the end it may be that we’re not wired to worry about this issue. Everyone loves babies. We’re tribal. We’re optimistic.

18) Don’t worry: the fertility rate and disease are driving population down

Worldwide, family planning brought fertility rates down from 5.5 to 2.5 children per woman. Therefore the media reports: the population explosion is over.  But the rate is still above replacement, the population is still growing exponentially. Just a bit more slowly.

19) Propaganda from anti-abortion activists, religious leaders, and right-wing think tanks

The most extreme are not only against abortion, but even family planning. Catholics and Right-to-Lifers strategized to convince people that there was no population problem, since that’s one of the reasons many people supported legal abortions.

Islamic countries are thought of as living in the Dark Ages, but some Muslim countries are the most advanced in family planning. In Iran, subsidies stop after a third child and classes in modern contraception methods are required before a marriage license can be obtained.

Capitalists have succeeded in painting environmentalists with negative terms such as being overly concerned about the environment, which threatens jobs and that their concerns about pollution and endangered species are overblown.

20) Many people don’t understand how powerful exponential growth is

Population doubling times

Years Billions Years to add 1 billion more people
1800 1 200,000
1930 2 130
1960 3 30
1975 4 15
1987 5 12
1999 6 12
2011 7 12


Source: Scheidel (2003)


Aldo Leopold: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us”.

Leon Kolankiewicz “Our species is unique, because here and now only we have the ability to destroy, or to save, biodiversity. Only we have the ability to care one way or the other. The destiny of all wild living things is in our hands. Will we crush them or let them be wild and free? Limiting human population will not guarantee success, but not doing so means certain failure”.

Isaac Asimov: “Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears”.


APPG 2007. Return of the Population Growth Factor: Its Impact on the Millennium Development Goals. All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health.

Asimov, I. 1974. The future of humanity. Newark college of engineering. asimovonline.com.

Beck and Kolankiewicz. 2000. “The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization”

Cafaro, P, (ed) et al. 2013. “Life on the Brink. Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation”.

Erb, Karl-Heinz, et al. 2009. Eating the Planet: Feeding and fuelling the world sustainably, fairly and humanely–a scoping study. Social Ecology Working Paper no. 116. Institute of Social Ecology and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Erlich, P. 1970. Population Resources Environment: Issues to Human Ecology.

Hays, S. 1987. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985.

IUGS (International Union of Geological Sciences) 2013. Geoindicators. Soil and Sediment Erosion.

Levinson “The Box”

Meijer, R. I. Apr 16 2014: Overpopulation Is Not A Problem For Us. Theautomaticearth.com

Scheidel, W. 2003. “Ancient World, Demography of”. Encyclopedia of Population.

Homer-Dixon, T. 2001.  Environment, Scarcity, and Violence.

UNFAO 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization.

Weiss, K.R. October 27, 2004. The Man Behind the Land. Los Angeles Times.


[Here are excerpts of a more nuanced look at overpopulation denial ]

Diana Coole (2013) Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question, Environmental Politics, 22:2, 195-215.

During the 1960s and early 1970s population growth was regarded as an urgent environmental issue. Since then the topic has fallen into abeyance. Despite continuing demographic expansion and anxieties about a range of socio-ecological problems – from the stresses of high-density urban living to climate change, water, energy and food insecurity and loss of biodiversity – there is currently scant consideration of the benefits of population stabilization or decline.

Indeed, the problematization of population numbers is widely disavowed or regarded with profound suspicion. Why have we become so reluctant to ask whether we are too many or to countenance policies that might discourage further growth? I identify five discourses – population-shaming, population-skepticism, population-declinism, population-decomposing and population-fatalism – that foreclose public debate and subject them to critical analysis.

In 1950 world population had recently exceeded 2.5 billion. By 1990 it had doubled and by 2020 it will have tripled. October 2011 marked one among numerous demographic milestones on this expansive journey as the 7 billion threshold was crossed. This is in line with conclusions to the United Nations’ 2010 revision that ‘world population is expected to keep rising during the 21st century’, albeit more slowly during the latter part. It projects some 9.3 billion of us by 2050 and over 10 billion by the century’s end (United Nations 2010). Such an ongoing increase surely conveys an alarming story to anyone concerned about environmental sustainability and social wellbeing. Or does it? I ask why concerns about population growth and over-population have virtually disappeared from the political agenda of developed countries, especially, since the mid-1970s. Have they simply forgotten about, even resolved, the issue? Or is it rather, as my analysis suggests, that problematising it has been foreclosed? For despite periodic eruptions of concern among democratic publics, members of the policy community have been noticeably reluctant to address these anxieties. Even among critical theorists and Greens, scant attention has been paid to the topic over recent decades.

These are analytic distinctions. In practice the discourses overlap or work in conjunction, the most obvious factor they share being antipathy to the Malthusian equation between population growth and resource shortages. But these are not merely analytic categories; they are also profoundly political. Each has a distinctive genealogy in terms of its ideological and professional investments, the political interests it serves and the narratives in which it is embedded. The more that key demographic variables become amenable to policymaking, the greater the impact of the discourses that frame them. It is not my contention that arguments for disavowing the population question are simply specious; but I do think they warrant critical investigation. Do they offer good enough reasons for excluding population talk from public debate or for dismissing certain types of policy intervention?

My analysis shows how a taboo on considering the merits of population stabilization is complemented in developed countries by a policy framework that favors higher birth rates and net inward migration as a condition of sustained economic growth.

Population talk in more developed countries operates at three levels: concerning their own demographics; concerning trends in developing countries; and regarding global numbers more generally. Regarding their own population size, first, it is helpful to summarize a few salient elements of Malthus’ argument in An Essay on the Principle of Population (2004 [1798]). Malthus claimed that while the means of subsistence develop in a linear manner, population grows exponentially. These different tempos reach a critical threshold as productive land is exhausted; a situation of disequilibrium he associated with more developed countries like Britain. Either population growth must thenceforth be reduced through rational means, notably by sexual abstinence, or, if these ‘preventive checks’ fail, more painful ‘positive checks’ will ensue as the unsustainable excess falls victim to famine, disease or war, thereby restoring balance (Malthus 2004).

It is hardly surprising that such views should have provoked antagonism. Anti-natalist ideas about curtailing the proliferation of the human species challenged deep-seated traditional beliefs. In raising the specter of excessive numbers, the population question crossed vitalist and religious taboos regarding the sanctity of life and privileging of human life. It challenged Enlightenment ideas about humans’ mastery economists’ views on the engine of prosperity, humanity’s most fundamental ideas about the sacred, life and death, as well as on some of its most enduring identities and rituals regarding the family, marriage and sexuality.

Demographic change entails three principal variables: fertility, mortality and migration. All provoke profound ethical questions, especially once the state involves itself biopolitically in their modification. During the 1960s, Malthusianism nevertheless acquired fresh resonance in advanced industrial countries where there was renewed anxiety about a population explosion (Ehrlich 1972, Meadows et al. 1972, Goldsmith and Allen 1972). Despite the post-war baby boom the rate of increase here was relatively modest, but the multiplication of increasing affluence by larger numbers suggested imminent catastrophe.

The Malthusian alternative between choosing limits or facing disaster was widely spoken about. New reproductive technologies and feminist challenges to conventional gender roles seemed to make population stabilization more viable, yet the task of restoring equilibrium between population and environment seemed no less difficult given predilections for sustained economic growth. Reducing population nevertheless became integral to an environmental sensibility that mobilized new social movements and found common cause with new left critiques of consumer capitalism (Marcuse 1964, 1972). Limits-to-growth arguments accordingly provided the framework for a radical discourse in which economic and population growth were recognized as mutually reinforcing and equally exponential, thus exceeding the capacities of a finite planet. Restoring balance suggested a fundamental social transformation in which fewer people might use technology creatively to improve the quality of lives sustained by less toil, wasteful consumption or excessive reproduction but enriched by a more harmonious relationship with nature. By 1969 even President Richard Nixon was warning Congress that the domestic pressure of 200 million Americans was threatening democracy and education, privacy and living space, natural resources and the quality of the environment (Nixon 2006, pp. 775, 777). Official reports to both the American (1972) and British (1973) governments advised stabilizing population numbers in the national interest. Yet this antigrowth orientation would shortly fall into abeyance, with the very language of limits or constraint being rejected.

On a second level, developed countries express concern about population growth in developing countries, where most increase now occurs. I want to emphasize here the way this concern rebounded to reframe their own views on the population question. On the one hand, radical arguments for controlling fertility in economically advanced nations were complemented by support for population control policies in the global South, where they provoked accusations of racism. My account of population-shaming shows how third-world suspicion about first-world motives rebounded to render the topic uncongenial to democratic publics.

On the other hand, while many governments in developing countries still struggle to contain their burgeoning populations (United Nations 2011), new anti-Malthusian discourses in developed countries are helping to reframe their views, thanks to the circulation of transnational discourses through bodies like the United Nations or World Bank and via non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academic currencies. So even here, the epic story of runaway population growth that formerly galvanized efforts at fertility reduction has become muted: despite regional demographic differences, discursive frameworks are increasingly global and hegemonic.

Population-fatalist. These generally recognize that the multiplication of relatively small but expanding ecological footprints in poor countries plus the larger ones imprinted by richer individuals are collectively responsible for exacerbating phenomena like climate change (Wire 2009, O’Neill et al. 2010). As the Living Planet Report 2008 concludes, ‘with the world already in ecological overshoot, continued growth in population and per person footprint is clearly not a sustainable path’ (WWF 2008, p. 29).

While such claims suggest that world population numbers are hesitantly being re-problematized, demographic solutions are routinely rejected as too controversial or inefficacious to contemplate.

Discourses of dismissal and disavowal. Population-shaming. Among my five silencing discourses, population-shaming is most indicative of the poisonous legacy of North/South relations. Like population-skeptics, its protagonists reject claims that there is an objective demographic growth problem. Rather than charging neo-Malthusians with misplaced anxiety, however, they suggest that ostensible concerns about over-population are a subterfuge for pursuing heinous ulterior motives (Furedi 1997). The humus of population-shaming is a pervasive suspicion that limiting population actually means limiting certain categories of people who are deemed redundant or undesirable. Those who persist in advancing such arguments risk public humiliation for playing a numbers game that is interpreted as a blame game: one in which the world’s problems are refracted through population growth and blamed on the incontinent fecundity of the less privileged, whether they be the poor, women or inhabitants of the global South.

Sometimes advocates of population stabilization are presented as misanthropic people-haters, as when Murray Bookchin (1991, p. 123) asserts that deep ecology ‘blames ‘‘Humanity’’ as such for the ecological crisis – especially ordinary “consumers” and “breeders of children”. Sometimes they are charged with misogyny, inasmuch as women’s fertility is blamed for under-development or family planning programs are credited with promulgating unsafe contraceptive procedures (Hartmann 1987, Rao 2004). But the most serious charge concerns racism, linked here to colonialism, eugenics and genocide. As an article in the New Statesman (2004) states: ‘We dare not discuss population growth lest we be called racist’. But why is this association so pervasive?

First, despicable motives are attributed to population agencies, which are condemned for disguising their real aims through humanitarian rhetoric. This allegedly hides their true agenda (racism) and practices (coercive), which are claimed ‘in fact’ to represent the dictates of international institutions and national governments. International agencies are charged not only with sponsoring compulsory sterilisation but also with ‘withholding from some populations aid for food or sanitation infrastructure’ with the specific aim of culling the world’s poor. Multinationals’ ‘thirst for profit’ is presented as complementary to a broader racist project in which ‘poverty and disease become indirect tools of population control’. In short, both sorts of Malthusian check are identified here: the preventive type being imposed coercively and the positive kind cynically being left to run its course. In the context of developing countries they acquire distinctly racist significance. Such charges are not unfounded, with India especially commending itself as the referent for Hardt and Negri’s invective. Mass famines there had sometimes been presented by colonial administrators as salutary checks on overpopulation. Neo-Malthusian views would subsequently persuade the new republic to initiate the world’s first family planning program (1952) but it soon found itself dependent on foreign aid and mired in geopolitical interests. While at home Americans were fretting about the domestic effects of a population explosion on the environment, abroad their Cold War anxiety linked population growth to social instability and hence vulnerability to communism. Following disastrous harvests in the mid-1960s, food aid to India was used by the Johnson administration as leverage to insist on a robust family planning program whose respect for human rights was noticeably deficient (Caldwell 1998, Rao 2004, Connelly 2006). These equations formed the basis for considerable hostility to the population establishment and its Western supporters, with opposition being eloquently rehearsed by third world delegates to Bucharest in 1974 (Finkle and Crane 1975, Hodgson 1998). They interpreted population policies advocated by the US government as neocolonial and racially-motivated while accusing the West of blaming population growth for poverty rather than recognising the international capitalist system as the principal cause of under-development.

Because they are unspecific about these circumstances they imply that all family planning programmes with wider demographic goals are coercive and racially-motivated. Despite Multitude’s focus on the poor, its authors ignore the bleak effects of rapid population growth on the everyday lives of those who inhabit slums or the misery of unwanted pregnancies for those whose need for contraception remains unmet (Davis 2006, Stephenson et al. 2010). Nor can they consider the global consequences of increasingly affluent populations, since ecological concerns have been ruled out as mere hypocrisy.

A second association between population policy and racism is made via allusions to eugenics. Hardt and Negri condemn those who are ‘concerned primarily with which social groups reproduce and which do not’. For much of the twentieth century the project of improving the species’ genetic stock had influential adherents but by the 1920s, negative eugenics entailed sterilising the degenerate: the insane, the criminal, certain races. This policy gained its most notorious expression under Nazism as population policy became genocidal. The link in Multitude is undoubtedly reinforced by its authors’ indebtedness to Foucault, who explains that treating population as a matrix of different races permits the state to kill others as a condition of making life healthier (Foucault 2003, p. 245). In an age of colonial ambitions race accordingly justified genocide, while for eugenics programmes killing the enemy was a way to purify one’s own race. Historically, such references remain very powerful. Yet again, the link to population policy is specific and contingent. It is surely not a good enough reason to avoid population talk in the current century although it does provide a good explanation for our proclivity to do so. In a third linkage, Hardt and Negri refer to ‘racial panic’: a phenomenon elsewhere referred to as ‘race suicide’. In light of the decline of white European populations, they argue, perceptions of a demographic crisis primarily concern racial composition: the increasingly ‘darker color’ of European and world populations. ‘It is difficult’, they argue, ‘to separate most contemporary projects of population control from a kind of racial panic’. The term race suicide emerged early in the twentieth century when President Theodore Roosevelt condemned families who chose to produce merely two progeny: a nation that wilfully reduced its population in this way would deservedly commit race suicide, he maintained, adding that the differential fertility rates among Anglo-Saxons and immigrants might deliver an especially regrettable form of race suicide (Roosevelt 1903). It is indeed the case that population policies have sometimes been motivated by nationalist or ethnic desires to increase a people’s powers by multiplying more strenuously than its competitors. But this is not limited to white European populations; it is more typically associated with selective pro-natalism and population concerns are not reducible to eugenic ambitions, especially when it is the affluent who are most unsustainable. Hardt and Negri are helpful for illustrating how vulnerable demographic policies, especially those designed to achieve differential birth rates, are to racism and xenophobia and how susceptible to entanglement in broader geopolitical struggles. The warning remains salient inasmuch as such connections have acquired renewed resonance in light of unprecedented migration flows since the mid-1990s. In developed countries, immigration has replaced fertility as the principal demographic variable provoking public anxiety about population growth (United Nations 2000, Coleman 2010), with concerns about overcrowding and the environment again being interpreted as cloaks for racism. The connection certainly reinforces the sense in which population numbers are an inherently controversial issue. But does it not also show why anxieties provoked by demographic change must be subjected to public deliberation rather than being summarily rejected as too shameful to acknowledge?

Population-skepticism Although demography is for the most part an arid quantitative discipline, it also has its own narratives and these provide conduits investment. This section begins with a brief discussion transition theory (DTT), which is currently the dominant narrative and is responsible for population-skepticism among experts. By skepticism, here, I mean doubt that there is any longer a population problem since fertility is declining almost everywhere. In the latter part of the section I consider a more political variant of population-skepticism that suggests population growth is not detrimental anyway. In this case I show how the population-skepticism promulgated by demographic revisionists neoliberal and social conservative values. skepticism are hostile to an alternative Malthusian narrative. In the first case this is judged anachronistic; in the second it is rejected as predicated on fundamental misunderstandings of modernity’s capacities for sustained growth.

DTT comprises one of the great narratives of modernisation (Kirk 1996, p. 384). As Lee and Reher (2011, p. 1) write of transition, this ‘historical process ranks as one of the most important changes affecting human society in the past half millennium, on a par with the spread of democratic government, the industrial revolution, the increase in urbanization, and the progressive increases in educational levels of human populations’. DTT identifies four demographic stages that are integral to modernisation. Relatively stable populations with high fertility and mortality (DT 1) are disrupted by biopolitical regimes that reduce mortality rates. This causes rapid population growth because there is typically a lag before fertility drops correspondingly (DT 2). Thereafter, low mortality is matched by low fertility: the transition proper. Growth nevertheless continues thanks to the momentum of large, youthful populations (DT 3). Only in a final stage is transition completed as the population ages and growth stops, thereby restoring equilibrium albeit at a higher level (DT 4). This account stifles the population question by contextualising it. If population growth is caused by the second stage it is observed most anxiously in the third, yet by then fertility is already falling. While developed countries are currently in the final stage of transition, exponents of DTT maintain that most of their developing counterparts are advancing through the third stage and all are expected to follow suit. There is indeed considerable empirical evidence supporting fertility transition and the theory is useful for classifying the demographic situation in particular locations. It is nonetheless worth making some critical observations about the theory’s predictive powers and its relevance for the future, given that transition is routinely cited to justify demographic complacency.

It claims universal applicability but European experience provides its template and ideal. A problem arises insofar as diverse transitional patterns are classified as manifestations of a deterministic mechanism guaranteeing that transition will everywhere be completed. This greatly enhances the sceptical potency of the theory but like other modern end-of-history arguments, it relies on dubious teleological assumptions to inflate its predictive claims. For example, DTT presupposes that secular, Western attitudes to contraception and family size will prevail, yet it is by no means certain that this can be relied upon in a multicultural world in which religious, patriarchal cultures are gaining relative demographic advantage (Norris and Inglehart 2004, Kaufmann 2010). It assumes there is no Malthusian trap whereby high fertility forecloses opportunities for development, for example by suppressing capital accumulation. While current projections are broadly congruent with DTT expectations, this is unsurprising inasmuch as projections must extrapolate from current trends, a practice that relies on assumptions themselves furnished by DTT optimism. Projections ‘must not be confused with current reality’ precisely because their ‘assumptions reflect the spirit of the era in which they are framed. To them are transmitted its hopes and fears’ (Le Bras 2008, p.153, van de Kaa 1996, ONS 2008, pp. 23, 24). Their uncertainty is indicated by the production of several variants. So while the UN’s oft-cited medium variant for 2100 is 10.1 billion, this increases to 27 billion were 2005–10 fertility rates to remain constant (United Nations 2010, p. 1). In short, there are no guarantees that fertility will decline universally or irreversibly. Ironically, since worldwide completion of transition relies on contingent factors such as the willingness of international donors to fund family planning programs, population skepticism helps to disincentivise the very policies fertility decline depends on and to challenge projections’ accuracy.

Let us assume, however, that population does stabilise around 10 billion or perhaps declines thereafter. Would this be a good enough reason for dismissing population growth anxieties, as sceptics do? Might environmentalists not still wonder whether such levels are sustainable or desirable, especially when coupled with aspirations for global economic development and equity and in light of current ecological challenges? Should those who currently urge pronatalist policies in order to increase the post-transitional birth rate as a driver of economic growth not be challenged to justify their arguments in relation to the longer-term wellbeing of future generations and the planet? There is an important distinction here between skepticism levelled at the prospect of continuing demographic growth and normative doubts regarding the social benefits of living at thickening densities. Yet it is partly to suppress such reflections on the merits of returning to smaller populations, I now suggest, that population-skepticism has been embraced by neoliberals as an antidote to limits-to-growth arguments. An excellent place to start disentangling this political dimension of population-skepticism is the ‘Policy Statement of the United States of America at the United Nations International Conference on Population’ (The Whitehouse 1984). My analysis is designed to show the high ideological stakes the population game had assumed by the 1980s as neoliberal interests invested in population-skepticism. Despite developing countries’ antagonism to Americanled initiatives on population control in Bucharest, many had introduced donordependent, national family planning programmes by the 1980s because they regarded population growth as detrimental to development. It was in this context that the intervention of the Reagan administration, in an official document preparatory for the Mexico City conference (1984), represented a dramatic shift in perspective. The Statement insists that centralised targets for reducing population have no place in ‘the right of couples to determine the size of their own families’ (The Whitehouse 1984, p. 578). Such arguments have affinity with populationshaming but with two important differences. From the neoliberal perspective it was East/West rather than North/South political relations that were at issue, while the link between population policy and coercion was made from the point of view of the political right rather than left. A dichotomy was now constructed between coercion and voluntarism, the implication being that reproductive rights are antithetical to state intervention because this is ipso facto coercive. Population-skepticism is advanced here by displacing the problem of population growth onto a problematisation of the (socialist) authoritarian state.

While exponents of DTT are sceptical that population increase remains a problem since growth rates are slowing, the Whitehouse (1984, p. 576) advanced the bolder claim that growth is itself a ‘neutral phenomenon’. ‘The relationship between population growth and economic development is not necessarily a negative one’.

Julian Simon (1977), one of demographic revisionism’s principal proponents, maintains that population growth is in the longer run beneficial for economic growth and the environment because more people are a spur to and resource for hard work, ingenuity and technological innovation. This approach continues to furnish the standard riposte to limitsto-growth arguments: bigger populations are held to be sustainable because the inventiveness of more people will endow ecosystems with the resilience needed to accommodate them

Where population growth remains a problem, free markets were presented by the Reagan administration as a panacea. Thus ‘economic statism’ not only hinders development by stifling individual initiative; it also disrupts ‘the natural mechanism’ for slowing population growth. This natural ‘controlling factor’ is glossed as ‘the adjustment, by individual families, of reproductive behaviour to economic opportunity and aspiration. Historically, as opportunities and the standard of living rise’, it is argued, ‘the birth rate falls’. This is allegedly because ‘economic freedom’ engenders ‘economically rational behavior’ that includes responsible fertility choices

The ideological intentions of the Statement were made clear by a lightly-coded attack on the American new left. The Whitehouse policy response to population is advertised as ‘measured, modulated’, as opposed to ‘an overreaction by some’. Overreaction (in response to imminent environmental crisis) was identified in 1984 as an unfortunate consequence of rapid population growth having coincided with two regrettable factors that ‘hindered families and nations’. The first was foreign socialism; the second involved the counter-culture’s alleged ‘anti-intellectualism’, attributed here to anxieties caused by the West’s rapid modernisation. Cultural pessimism, rather than material concerns about sustainability, was thus identified as the source of domestic population anxiety. This interpretation left the way clear for a ‘rapid and responsible development of natural resources’, that is, the sustained economic growth through technologically-enhanced development that revisionists and neoliberals associated with population growth. For the radical right, in sum, the problem of population growth simply evaporated since in the West it had been merely a delusion of left-wing infantilism, while in poorer countries the solution lay in liberalised markets whose congenial effects on fertility choices would be complemented by the efficiency of privatised health services.

Before leaving this category of population-skepticism it is important to notice how social conservatism was also incorporated. Once population growth had been discounted as a relevant issue it became easier for social conservatives to instigate changes that would not only undermine support for population policies but also direct funding away from family planning programs. The defining issue here was abortion. While abortion had been viewed as an integral part of family planning by much of the population establishment, the Reagan administration’s emphasis on human lives included the unborn whose rights coincided with its pro-life policy. Population policies must, the Whitehouse insisted, be ‘consistent with respect for human dignity and family values’, including religious values. Abortion was now scuttled into the category of disrespectful (‘repugnant’) coercion. ‘Attempts to use abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive measures in family planning’, it stated, ‘must be shunned’ (The Whitehouse 1984, p. 578). This judgement was not merely rhetorical: it had immediate practical implications for family planning organizations, NGOs, the UNFPA itself, which now lost US funding even if they only in principle supported abortion.

By placing social and religious conservatism at the heart of American population policy, the Republicans gave succor to traditional antipathies to modern contraception and women’s reproductive autonomy while introducing an additional level of value-conflict into a field where secular attitudes had formerly dominated. This opened a new dimension in the population-silencing frame. Asking why population growth now attracts so little attention in the United States, Martha Campbell cites ‘anti-abortion activists, religious leaders and conservative think tanks’ as a major cause (Campbell 2007, p. 240). As religious voices have become more strident in a context of multiculturalist respect for diversity and neo-conservative support, espousing population concerns that imply anti-natalism has correspondingly become more risky.

Skepticism also has a more political dimension inasmuch as it is reinforced by revisionist claims that population growth is advantageous: a view that is congruent with neoliberal desires for sustained economic growth and anathema to limits-to-growth arguments.

Population-declinism is a corollary of population-skepticism in that it is an expression of the final stage of demographic transition. It warrants its own discursive category, however, because it differs from skepticism in two significant ways: regarding mood and policy implications. Its affective tenor is quite different from the dynamic, pro-growth bullishness of political skepticism. A symptom of completing transition is that the population ages. This phenomenon engenders a sense of melancholia and loss connected to fears of relative decline; it is despondent about completing transition. Population declinism is currently powerful in precluding enthusiasm for population stabilization because rather than welcoming ageing as a sign that modernity’s enormous demographic expansion is ending, it promulgates images of enervation and decay in which the faltering powers and risk-averse outlooks ascribed to older people are attributed to whole regions (like ‘old Europe’). For declinists, low-fertility societies are destined to fail relative to more youthful, energetic competitors, with feebleness in the global economy accompanying weakness in the military theatre (Jackson and Howe 2008). The remedy is to encourage renewed growth. Such anxieties induce skepticism. While the latter rejects state interference in influencing population numbers, regarding it as unnecessary, inefficacious and coercive, population declinists do advocate interventionist policies. Unlike earlier limits-to-growth exponents, however, they promote pro-, rather than anti-, natalism, alongside immigration, in order to rejuvenate developed world populations (Commission of the European Communities 2005, Dixon and Margolis 2006). In 2009 almost half the governments in these countries regarded their population growth as too low

The power of declinism is such that this is rarely complemented by consideration of whether upward trends enhance quality of life or the environmental systems on which it depends

The principal danger of declinism is that it operates within a short timeframe that focuses on temporary fiscal and productivity challenges, yet its demographic remedies are likely to aggravate unsustainability later on.

Population-decomposing. A fourth category of silencing discourse

Talking about population as a totality that can be planned and managed has come to be regarded as not only political dangerous but also methodologically crude. This is a more elusive discursive effect than the first three categories but it has been effective in disenfranchising the population question in three ways: normative, methodological and ontological. Normatively, population-decomposing has been effective in rejecting ‘the numbers game’. This is congruent with population-shaming and political skepticism but this argument is rather different in its aversion to referencing population size as such. The numbers game is played by those who worry that the mass of human flesh is unsustainable or that thickening population densities degrade wellbeing.

Iconic texts like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were explicit about population being a numbers game. In light of an imminent environmental crisis, Ehrlich (1972, preface) defined population control as ‘the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs not just of individual families, but of society as a whole’. In other words, reproduction was understood as an other-regarding act. Ehrlich (1972, p. 3f.) had concluded that ‘no matter how you slice it, population is a numbers game’. He was probably referring here to the need for statistical familiarity with the properties of exponential growth, but to critics his work suggested an equation between the numbers game and state-imposed coercion. As a consequence the focus on population size and growth rates, especially when linked to targets and sanctions, fell into disrepute. This antipathy is encapsulated in UNFPA’s observation that since the mid-1990s, there has been ‘a shift in population policy and programs away from a focus on human numbers’ to a focus on ‘human lives’. Policies based on perceptions of a ‘race between numbers and resources’ are eschewed as synonymous with a ‘numbers game’ presented as antithetical to human rights (UNFPA, n.d., p. 4, UNFPA 2008, p. 1). In sum, even to focus on overall demographic quantities becomes anathema to personal choice and liberty. Reproduction is recast as a self-regarding act. One outcome has been to devolve population issues into matters of reproductive health and individual welfare entitlements.

The change of emphasis they entail has helped to exclude discussions about overall numbers while supporting the view that population is best approached at an individual or familial level.

Its disavowal of the numbers game, provoking critics like Ehrlich (2008, p. 107) to lament the way environmental repercussions of population growth now succumbed to ‘a narrow focus on issues of reproductive rights and maternal and child health’. The focus is in no way reprehensible but it has had the effect of displacing population growth as a global environmental issue. Campbell (2007, pp. 237, 243) cites Cairo as ‘the turning point in removing the population subject from policy discourse’, noting that talking about population became politically incorrect thereafter because it was perceived as disadvantageous to women.

This decomposing trend has been reinforced by the way aggregated population numbers have come to be regarded as methodologically and statistically crude, thus further undermining the possibility of advancing (neo-) Malthusian arguments. Figures at a more fine-grained level make less obvious headline news or dramatic narratives. Complementing new emphasis on demographic complexity is a widespread view that population dynamics such as age composition or urbanization are more relevant for policymaking than broader trajectories of population size. This, too, dissolves narrative impact by translating demographic trends into numerous policy challenges. These disaggregating effects thus serve to de-politicize and de-problematize the issue because as data has been refined, the demographic phenomena that mobilized players of the numbers game are occluded.

Demography as a discipline has itself, moreover, become more closely modelled on economics and concerned with economic data, thus sharing with economics its own movement away from macro-level approaches towards micro-level, statistical studies where individuals feature as rational agents making choices on the basis of cost–benefit analysis. Le Bras maintains that every branch of demographic analysis has been renewed in this direction over the past two decades. ‘In fertility studies, the dominant position is now occupied by microeconomic models of the family’ based on work by Gary Becker and George Schulz (Le Bras 2008, p. xi). Ehrlich also argues that as a discipline, demography ‘has largely diverged from environmental concerns and the broad analyses of social structures’ it formerly undertook. It now ‘focuses on measuring and modelling the dynamics of various populations’: a process judged valuable but peripheral to ‘the really big demographic issue’ of the environmental cost of population growth and its rectification (Ehrlich 2008, p. 103). It might also be noted that macro-level analysis was formerly associated with structural, Marxist approaches that have themselves fallen from grace as planning regimes have succumbed to more laissez-faire frameworks emphasizing individual decision-making. In sum, the normative and methodological dimensions of population-decomposing together help to demolish the framework in which population numbers matter and in which society has an interest in and responsibility for sustainable levels. This makes it difficult to identify, problematize or debate population growth as a social issue amenable to democratic debate or collective action.

As advanced countries have developed service or digital economies, and as the more obviously material costs of industrialization have become less emphasized, so attention to the material needs and costs of more bodies, qua needy biological entities engaged in physical labor, has also waned. Diane Coyle (1997) writes evocatively of a ‘weightless world’ and urges governments to embrace an age of de-materialization. This complements a tendency to understand social systems in virtual terms, with production and consumption re-figured as virtual flows of data, symbols and images that can be regarded as having little actual impact on the environment. Yet a corresponding emphasis on the human capital that drives the knowledge economy detracts from the space that embodied humans require and ignores the consumer durables – like cars, refrigerators, plastics, swimming pools – they desire. It permits an illicit substitution of the idea of sustained, indefinite growth for earlier recognition of the material limits of a finite planet.

From a virtual viewpoint there is in this lightness of being no obvious limit to the numbers the earth can sustain or to their capacity to invent new technologies that will render resources infinitely elastic and felicitously ethereal. This surely rests on a dangerous illusion. Population-fatalism In a final discursive category, the term population-fatalism captures some contemporary British inquiries into challenges posed by population growth. Because these are testimony to renewed concern about expanding numbers, they are suggestive of a return of the population question. They are nonetheless distinctive precisely because their overall tone is not fatalistic: they are mainly confident that the challenges of 9 billion (70 million in the United Kingdom) can be met. But they are fatalist in treating population growth as a given; as an aggravating or critical factor they are powerless to change and reluctant to address. Instead, they identify challenges and calculate abatement costs. This distinguishes their arguments from: population-skepticism, which does not see population growth as a problem; population-declinism, which encourages population growth to foreclose shrinkage; population-decomposing, which disavows the very framework of numbers. But it shares their antipathy to antinatalist policy and is probably apprehensive about population-shaming.

The Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change is a good example of population-fatalism. Although population growth is included as a significant contributor to global warming there is no suggestion that a demographic element might be incorporated into climate change policy (Stern 2006, p. 12). This formula of neglectful concern has been the hallmark of other recent studies, which prefer technological solutions to controversial political interventions.

Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability cites population growth as an urgent challenge in light of the need ‘to ensure that a global population rising to nine billion or more can be fed sustainably and equitably’ (Foresight 2011, introduction, p. 9). But in neither case is there any suggestion that further population growth might be tackled. The Economist’s (2011) ‘The 9 billion people question’ and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ ‘Population: One Planet, Too Many People?’ (2011) follow a similar logic, with (bio)technological solutions being proffered for a demographic fait accompli.

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s The Environmental Impacts of Demographic Change in the UK (2011) goes further by explicitly excluding population growth as an appropriate policy domain (Coole 2012b). Despite acknowledging that ‘total population is likely to continue to grow, at a historically relatively high rate’ in the United Kingdom and that some regions suffer ‘obvious pressure on infrastructure, services and environment’ (RCEP 2011, 2.22, 6.2), the report constructs an either/or choice between seeking to influence demographic change or trying to mitigate its environmental impact. It unequivocally opts for the latter, declaring the former not ‘a good basis for policy’ because unspecified ‘objections on social and ethical grounds would outweigh the environmental gains’


I have asked why, as the twenty-first century proceeds inexorably towards a world population of 9 billion plus, there is so little discussion of the socio-ecologically deleterious effects of continuing population growth. I identified five discourses that together explain why there is currently no politically acceptable framework within which population numbers can be problematized or remedial action commended. While they are mutually-supporting in their silencing effects, two of these discourses seem especially powerful: population shaming, because it renders the population question so morally treacherous, and population-skepticism, because of its complacency and its congeniality for hegemonic pro-growth ideologies. I have not attempted to refute such arguments but I have suggested that they are not good enough reasons for suppressing discussion about population numbers and the merits of fewer people, especially as renewed public concerns emerge over resource insecurity, biodiversity, climate change and high-density urban living.



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How reasonable are oil production scenarios from public agencies?

eia-iea-conventional-oil-prd-to-2030So far both the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and International Energy Agency (IEA) are on target in their predictions. In 2014 (the last year for which there is data), world production of crude oil and lease condensate was 77.833 million barrels/day (mb/d) and NGL 10.133 mb/d

But the production line may not keep going up until 2030. This paper criticizes the models and methods used by the EIA/IEA to assume growth to 2030.  Much of the paper requires a high mathematical literacy, so I’ve left much of that out – do read the paper in its entirety if you are good at math. ]

Excerpts from:

Jakobsson, K., Söderbergh, B., Höök, M. & Aleklett, K. How reasonable are oil production scenarios from public agencies? Energy Policy, 2009, Vol. 37, Issue 11: 4809-4818, 23 pages 

Abstract. According to the long term scenarios of the  IEA) and the EIA, conventional oil production is expected to grow until at least 2030. EIA has published results from a resource constrained production model which ostensibly supports such a scenario. The model is here described and analyzed in detail. However, it is shown that the model, although sound in principle, has been misapplied due to a confusion of resource categories. A correction of this methodological error reveals that EIA’s scenario requires rather extreme and implausible assumptions regarding future global decline rates. This result puts into question the basis for the conclusion that global “peak oil” would not occur before 2030.


For good policymaking, it is important to have good scenarios of the future. A good scenario, we take as evident, is one that builds on reasonable assumptions in the light of past experience. As for global oil production, the most widely cited and authoritative long term scenarios are those published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of the OECD, and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy. According to the latest available scenarios of conventional crude oil and natural gas liquids supply (as of September 2008), IEA expects production to grow by 1.1% annually, reaching 105 million barrels per day (Mb/d) in 2030; while EIA projects a 1.0% annual increase to 103 Mb/d in 2030. In other words, these two agencies present virtually identical pictures of the future. There will be no peak oil before 2030.

It is relevant, then, to ask how solid the assumptions behind these scenarios really are. EIA’s first long term oil supply scenarios, which must be interpreted as the methodological basis for the optimistic 2030 outlook, were published in 2000 (Wood and Long) and were criticized for being flawed and overly optimistic by Bentley (2002) among others. Four years later, EIA published a new version, virtually identical to the original, stating that “nothing has happened, nor has any new information become available, that would significantly alter the results.” (Wood et al., 2004) The debate on the issue is, in other words, not yet closed. The two main conclusions of this paper are that:

  • EIA has taken a generally sound forecasting model and implemented it in a seriously flawed way.
  • A correct implementation of the model, using the same assumptions as EIA, indicates that the official scenarios are not reasonable, since oil production can be expected to decline before 2030, possibly in the immediate future.

It should be stressed that the purpose has not been to pin down the exact date of peak oil, but to examine the validity of current forecasts and their underlying assumptions. Transparency has been a high priority, since much of the debate around peak oil appears to stem from either reference to contradictory (and sometimes proprietary) reserve data or from ambiguous use of common terms such as reserves, resources, and depletion.

All data that is referred to in this paper is available in the public domain, and terms are unambiguously defined to the largest extent possible. All references to “oil” implies conventional crude oil, not including natural gas liquids (NGLs), tar sands, extra heavy oil, biofuels or synthetic crude. The volumetric unit of measure is a barrel, which equals 159 liters or 42 U.S. gallons. The abbreviations Gb (billion barrels) and Mb (million barrels) are occasionally used.

Merely presenting a critique of EIA’s forecasting methodology requires only a short paper. The reader who only looks for this specific critique can jump directly to section 6. However, neither EIA, nor any other forecaster, has explained why the applied forecasting method is relevant to begin with. Since we have found the model applied by EIA to be very useful when implemented correctly, especially for field-by-field modeling, we believe that such an explanation is called for. We will therefore first argue for the use of resource constrained modeling in general, describe how this particular model is implemented and point to empirical evidence which justifies its use.

A defense of resource constrained modeling

The forecasting method applied by EIA in Wood et al. (2004), which we in the following will refer to as the Maximum Depletion Rate Model, can be characterized as resource constrained in the sense that the amount of oil in the ground ultimately puts a limit to the rate of production.

The application of resource constrained models is still surrounded by controversy. As the geologist Hubbert put it, the production of a fixed resource must start at zero and also decline to zero, after passing through one or several maxima. (Hubbert, 1956) The peaking phenomenon is thus a trivial consequence of oil’s finite nature.

A meticulous observer could add that no resource is literally exhaustible. (Houthakker, 2002) However, this merely implies that production drops to insignificance without ever becoming identically zero, hardly a distinction of much practical interest.  Adelman has questioned Hubbert’s fundamental assumption by stating that the amount of mineral in the earth is an irrelevant non-binding constraint to production. (1990) This is true in the very limited sense that we will never recover every last drop of oil from the earth. Non-geological circumstances, yet undefined, will limit the actual global recovery factor. However, the recovery factor being undefined is not to say it is unlimited. It is limited to end up between zero and 100 percent of the earth’s abundance (which in itself is perfectly well defined, although not exactly known). Thus, the fact that the amount of recoverable oil is “undefined” and unknown cannot be an argument against the existence of a production peak.

Watkins has, by following a similar way of argument, suggested an agnostic view on whether technology and new knowledge will forever beat the depletion of oil. (Watkins, 2006) But such agnosticism is only defensible in case we refute the original assumption that oil is finite.

Accepting the peaking concept in principle is one thing; agreeing on a good predictive method is another. Hubbert’s approach to the forecasting problem was to estimate an ultimate recovery from the discovery trend, and assume that production would follow a symmetrical bell-shaped curve. The peak would then occur when 50% of the oil was produced. Watkins has argued that asking a Hubbert curve to handle an economic commodity such as oil is like asking a eunuch to sire a family. (2006) Admittedly the Hubbert curve does not explicitly involve economic variables and provides no explanation for the resulting production pattern. There is no particular reason to believe that the peak would occur at a 50% depletion level, or that the production profile would be symmetrical.(Bardi, 2005) The Hubbert curve should therefore be seen as a strictly empirical rule-of-thumb rather than as a rigorous scientific hypothesis. The question is: what is the alternative to an empirical rule-of-thumb?

Constructing a formal model that includes economic variables is notoriously difficult, as Lynch (2002) describes. He even suggests that it is necessary to resort to simple extrapolation as a forecasting method. Simon (1996) takes a similar position when hesitates that the “economist’s approach” consists of extrapolating trends of past costs into the indefinite future. Simon’s conclusion is that since the cost of oil has generally declined during a long period, it must continue to do so indefinitely.

The first counterargument to this way of reasoning concerns the interpretation of empirical data: is there really a contradiction between, on the one hand, long periods of declining cost and, on the other hand, an ultimate production peak followed by increasing cost? As Reynolds (1999) has shown, there is not necessarily any such contradiction, given that technology is improving and that the producers are uncertain about the actual size of the resource.

The second counterargument concerns the general use of extrapolation as a forecasting method. In a certain sense, all science must be extrapolative. The issue, then, is what to extrapolate. Drawing a declining discovery curve into the future would be consistent both with past experience in oil provinces and with the assumption that there is a finite amount of oil to discover (which does not mean that it is valid to forecast future discoveries by extrapolation, due to continuous reserve growth in existing fields). Extrapolating an increasing production curve indefinitely would fail on the second point. Of course, extrapolating an increasing production trend may work most of the time, and in a short term perspective. But predicting an unavoidable trend shift such as peak oil, by first assuming that no trend shifts exist, is clearly an approach bound to failure.

Any useful production model must incorporate the fact that oil is a resource only existing in a finite amount. While it would be desirable to explicitly model the additional influence of economic and other variables, no one has been able to show that it improves the performance of a resource constrained model to an extent that would justify the increased complexity. There is no denying that factors such as oil price matter. The question is: how much do they matter, and can their impact be quantified with any accuracy? If not, then simple resource constrained models are the only tools available for forecasting. Although they may be too simple to accurately predict the exact date of peak oil, they have the potential to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable scenarios. From a long term policy planning perspective, this should still be valuable information.

Model description

The Maximum Depletion Rate Model (MDRM), as we have chosen to label it, is a resource constrained production model. It does not assume, like the Hubbert curve, that production growth and decline is symmetrical, or that the production peak occurs at the depletion midpoint, but it assumes that there is a limit to the rate at which the remaining resource can be extracted. The MDRM has been used to forecast global oil production for at least 30 years.  However, no forecaster has actually described the foundations of the model, its strengths and caveats, what choices can be made and how they affect the result.

The resource-production ratio (R/P) denotes the relation between the annual production and the resource base at the beginning of the year in question. A central assumption of the MDRM is the existence of a minimum ratio (R/P)min which constrains production in relation to the available resource base. In other words, only a certain fraction of the remaining resource can be produced during one year.

Resource base

Most of the debate around oil production scenarios stems from ambiguous or disputed assumptions concerning the resource base. Applying the MDRM or publishing an R/P figure without clearly stating the underlying resource base is meaningless, since the result is impossible to interpret. Comparisons of studies are irrelevant unless the same type of resource base is used. We will come back to this point when we discuss the way in which EIA uses the model.

An important distinction regarding the resource base is that between fixed and non-fixed resource numbers. A fixed resource base is a “best estimate” of R0 used throughout both computations of historical R/P values and forecasts. Ultimate recoverable resource (URR) is a widely used notation for such a figure, but we will here use the synonym estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) to emphasize that a static resource base is always an estimate. When EUR refers to a region, it should include an estimate of oil yet undiscovered. The weakness of the EUR is that it only can be validated at hindsight; at the point where no forecast is longer needed. The simplest way to handle this inherent uncertainty is to use a range of possible EUR numbers, a range which should narrow as production proceeds. The great advantage of using a fixed resource base is its simplicity.

When a non-fixed resource base is used, the initial resource estimate R0 is continuously updated through resource revisions. A non-fixed resource base is appealing from a theoretical perspective, since it realistically implies that the amount of undiscovered oil is irrelevant for current production. Since resource estimates are dynamic and subject to economic factors, it has been argued that using a fixed resource base is a methodological error (Lynch, 2002). Unfortunately there are significant drawbacks of using a non-fixed resource base at a global level. The main disadvantage is the limited availability of reliable and comparable reserve data.

In practice, the most widely used data is the “proved reserves” compiled annually by the Oil & Gas Journal. However, these numbers have not been evaluated according to consistent criteria. While U.S. reserves are reported conservatively (so-called 1P reserves), most reserves, particularly within OPEC countries, probably are not. Taken together, the public reserve data is a mixed bag of inconsistent reserve figures of little value for forecasting purposes.

It has been suggested that the “proved + probable” (2P) reserves are more suitable for forecasting (Bentley et al., 2007). 2P reflects the amount of oil that can be produced from discovered fields with at least 50% probability. The 2P reserves for discovered fields should, ideally, not grow with time on average. For a more detailed account of reserve definitions, we refer to SPE (2007). Unfortunately 2P reserves are generally not publicly accessible; most of the data can only be obtained from industry databases at considerable cost.

Another disadvantage with a non-fixed resource base is that future resource revisions must be forecasted, perhaps several decades into the future, in order to construct scenarios. The Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies (WAES, 1977), which used proved reserves as a non-fixed resource base, assumed that the reserves would grow by 10 to 20 Gb/y until the year 2000 and subsequently approach a global EUR of either 1600, 2000, or 3000 Gb. Using a non-fixed resource base is thus not automatically a way to avoid an EUR figure. While it is possible to model a scenario where reserves grow at an undiminished rate, such an approach does not make much sense in a world with a finite amount of oil. If the resource base is not allowed to grow indefinitely, then an ultimate EUR must be assumed at least implicitly.

We recommend the use of a fixed resource base for the sake of simplicity. The theoretical advantage of a non-fixed resource base is in reality diminished due to the lack of good global data and the need to forecast annual reserve additions as well as an implicit EUR.

A fixed resource base postpones the peak, but it also results in a steeper decline.


Minimum R/P ratio.  Due to the large number of influencing factors: geological, technological and economic; there is no universal (R/P)min that is applicable to all fields or all regions. After the onset of decline, it is possible to estimate the (R/P)min directly through the observed decline rate. But in the pre-decline phase it is necessary to draw analogies from fields/regions with similar geological and technological conditions.  Estimation of (R/P)min unavoidably involves an element of personal judgment. It is advisable to use a range of possible values rather than one point estimate. All else equal, a lower (R/P)min postpones the peak production and makes the subsequent decline steeper.

Default production curve.  Production is not geologically constrained as long as R/P is higher than the assumed (R/P)min. Therefore, it can actually be quite arbitrarily defined. The two simplest options are either to keep it at a constant plateau level (typical of many individual fields, where the plateau is determined by the technical capacity), or to let it grow at a constant rate (suitable for regions). All else equal, a higher default production rate propones the peak since the resource base is more rapidly depleted.

Calculating R/P for a region.  It is impossible to give an analytical formula for the temporal distribution of fields, since the timing of production from a particular field is determined by the year of discovery, available extraction technology, administrative barriers, macroeconomic circumstances, and other factors. The estimation of (R/P)reg, min must therefore rely on empirical experience of how regions generally develop.

Empirical support for the MDRM

The MDRM (using a fixed resource base) fits well with observed production behavior of individual wells and fields. Arps (1944) described how production unconstrained by capacity limits can be empirically fitted to a hyperbolic decline function

In other words, assuming that there exists an (R/P)min is equivalent to assuming exponential decline. The simplicity of the exponential function has made it a popular forecasting tool within the field of reservoir engineering called decline curve analysis. Under certain ideal reservoir conditions, the exponential behavior can be derived from physical reservoir variables (Fetkovich, 1980). When reservoir conditions are not ideal, the tail end production tends to resemble a hyperbolic or harmonic decline.

Statfjord, Ekofisk, Oseberg and Gullfaks are hitherto the four largest Norwegian fields in terms of original recoverable resources. Since Statfjord, Oseberg and Gullfaks are long past their respective peaks and are estimated to have a depletion level higher than 90%, their EURs are reasonably certain. Ekofisk is estimated to be more than 70% depleted, but the EUR has been revised upwards considerably in the past. All four fields are produced with water and/or gas injection, though at Ekofisk only on a large scale since 1987. Figure 5 shows the production curves together with the fitted (R/P)min. An (R/P)min of 6-7 has been attainable in three of the four cases, and the model fits well with the observed decline. In the case of Ekofisk, subsidence of the seafloor and compaction of the reservoir has led to production difficulties, but also to a substantially increased recovery factor (Nagel, 2001). Such exceptional conditions cannot be captured by the MDRM.

Macro level.  We cannot assume a priori that a model which fits well to individual fields will be useful also at the regional level. Applying a model to aggregated data always leads to loss of information. Whenever possible, we would recommend a field-by-field approach to avoid aggregation. However, that is not a feasible strategy for a global scenario. Fortunately, evidence suggests that the MDRM is reasonably consistent with observed production profiles even for larger regions, which justifies its use also as a global model.

Brandt (2007) used production data from 139 oil producing regions of various sizes, from U.S. state level to continents, in order to test the goodness-of-fit of three simple growth/decline models: Hubbert, linear, and exponential. Brandt also allowed for asymmetrical growth/decline patterns. Several of the results are relevant in this context: In 74 of the 139 regions (53%), both a growth and decline rate could be estimated. Asymmetrical models generally had a better fit than symmetrical ones, even when adjusting for the increased complexity. The Hubbert model (symmetrical or asymmetrical) had the best fit in 19 of the 74 cases (26%), the linear model in 16 cases (22%), and the exponential model in 32 cases (43%). In 7 cases there was no clear best fitting model. There is no evidence that the Hubbert model would fit better to larger regions than smaller ones. Regions generally have a slower decline rate than growth rate. The mean decline rate in the 74 regions was 4.1%, a number inflated by a few extreme cases, since three quarters of the regions showed a rate less than 3.8%. The median rate was 2.6%, while the rate weighted for cumulative production was merely 1.9% which indicates that larger regions tend to decline more slowly than smaller ones.

The exponential growth/decline model, which was the single best-fitting of the models tested, is consistent with the MDRM. Brandt’s results can therefore be taken as an indication that the MDRM is at least as good as other simple resource constrained models at a regional level. The observed decline rates suggest that larger region size is related to slower decline. This is consistent with the discussion about regional (R/P)min in section 3.3. The observed decline rates should be interpreted with some caution, since it is not certain that they will remain unchanged in the future.

Sensitivity and uncertainty

Since R/P is a function of both the production rate and the remaining resource base, uncertainty in any of these two parameters necessarily reduces the reliability of the estimated R/P. In practice, the resource base is the major source of uncertainty. A complicating circumstance is that R/P is disproportionately sensitive to uncertainty in the resource base. Figure 6 illustrates how revisions in a fixed resource base affect the estimated R/P at different depletion levels. The problem does not occur when a non-fixed resource base is used, since current resource revisions do not affect past years’ R/P.

Assume, for example, that the depletion level (based on the original estimate of R0) at the end of year t-1 is 50%, while the estimated R/P at year t is 20. If the estimated R0 is then adjusted 10% upwards, the R/P is altered by a factor of 1.2. The new R/P for year t thus becomes 1.2*20=24.

At high depletion levels the R/P is very sensitive to even small uncertainties in the resource base. For this reason, one should not put too much weight on the R/P at high levels of depletion. The absolute level of production is usually low at this stage in any case, so a precise estimate of R/P is not necessary. What matters most is the R/P at peak/end-of-plateau, which typically occurs when the depletion level is 30-60% (see figure 7).

EIA’s long term world oil supply scenarios

The conclusion of the 2004 EIA report is that peak oil is not imminent, however very likely to occur within a century. Twelve scenarios are generated, using combinations of three different resource estimates and four alternative growth rates until peak (0-3%). The resource estimates are the low (2248 Gb), medium (3003 Gb) and high (3896 Gb) scenarios from the World Petroleum Assessment of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, 2000), which estimated the amount of conventional oil and NGL that would be made available through new discoveries and reserve appreciation until 2025 in the world exclusive of the U.S. To these figures, EIA has added their own resource estimates for the U.S. Subtracting USGS’s estimates from the total indicates that the range of the U.S. resource base, according to EIA, is 324-360 Gb, with 344 Gb as a mean estimate. Regarding the decline behavior post-peak, only one scenario is considered and motivated in the following way:

EIA selected an R/P ratio of 10 as being representative of the post-peak production experience. The United States, a large, prolific, and very mature producing region, has an R/P ratio of about 10 and was used as the model for the world in a mature state” (Wood et al., 2004).

The result is summarized in figure 8. The peak dates are spread out over the time span 2021-2112, but 2037 is pointed out as a reference case.


There are indeed significant uncertainties regarding the resource base and future demand growth. The result is thus a combined scenario and sensitivity analysis. It is however striking that no alternative decline behaviors have been considered. There can only be two justifiable arguments for their absence: (1) there is virtually no uncertainty in the assumed decline behavior; (2) although there are uncertainties, they have no significant impact on the timing of the peak. Both these potential arguments are unfounded.

The resource base for the forecast is estimates of global EUR. EIA does not explicitly state that they use a fixed resource base, but it appears reasonable since they do not assume any resource growth rate. But when the EIA points to the U.S. as an analogous case, they refer to the R/P based on proved reserves, a resource base which is non-fixed and has grown considerably in the past. It is true that the U.S. R/P based on proved reserves have fluctuated around 10 for several decades, but that is irrelevant in this context. A relevant analogy would be the U.S. (R/P)min computed from the same resource base that EIA assumes in their forecast (324-360 Gb EUR), which would yield an (R/P)min of around 70 rather than 10 (see figure 9). USA:

The resource base

Another factor not related to EIA’s methodology, but still crucial for the result, is the resource estimates generated by the U.S. Geological Survey. The mean estimate implies that the world’s total reserves (outside the U.S.) will grow by 1261 Gb during the period 1996-2025. 649 Gb will be new discoveries of conventional oil, 612 Gb reserve growth in known fields. The majority of other recent estimates of global EUR fall within the span set by the high and low estimates of USGS (NPC, 2007). However, an evaluation of the petroleum assessment (Klett et al., 2007) indicates that between 1996 and 2003 (27% of the assessment period) only 69 Gb (11% of 649 Gb) was discovered. It appears motivated to conclude that USGS’s mean and high resource estimates are unconfirmed and may be over-optimistic. The current discovery rate indicates that the low estimate (334 Gb until 2025) should be considered more likely. The reserve growth, on the other hand, was of the expected magnitude (171 Gb, or 28%). Almost half of this reserve growth has occurred in Middle East and North Africa. Since USGS did not publish reserve growth estimates for individual regions, it is impossible to determine whether the result actually validates the estimation method or is merely a coincidence.

Alternative world oil scenarios

Our world oil supply scenarios are applications of the MDRM, like those of EIA, but with some important modifications. While EIA used an invalid (R/P)min and did not examine how different values affected the result, it is here shown that the assumed (R/P)min has a dramatic impact on the timing of the peak. The scenarios display values of (R/P)min ranging from 70 to 30. The upper limit is what has been observed historically in the U.S.; the lower limit implies that the world should have a 3.3% decline rate, which appears rather extreme compared to the regional decline rates presented by Brandt (2007) and the fact that larger regions tend to decline more slowly than smaller ones. A reasonable guess is that the actual value will be within the range 70-50.

For each (R/P)min scenario there are three alternative EUR estimates. We use the same low (2248 Gb), mean (3003 Gb) and high (3896 Gb) estimates as EIA for the sake of comparability, although the mean and high estimates seem rather optimistic in the light of current discovery rates.

Since the main purpose of the study is to examine the realism of official production forecasts, the demand growth is always assumed to be 1% annually, which is the demand growth rate that EIA and IEA project until 2030. The official forecasts include both crude oil and NGLs, while our scenarios only concern crude oil in order to be comparable with Wood et al. (2004). We have made the simplifying assumption that crude oil and NGLs will grow proportionately.

The world production in 2007 was 26.7 Gb according to EIA statistics. We estimate the cumulative production at the end of 2007 to be 1012 Gb based on the USGS Petroleum Assessment and more recent production figures from EIA.

The result is shown in figure 10 and summarized in table 2. The projected peak dates range from 2007 to 2054.

Assuming EUR = 2248 Gb and (R/P)min = 70, production collapses immediately which indicates that at least one of the parameters is incorrect.

The significant result, however, is that sustained production growth to 2030 requires either that the (R/P)min is 30 together with an EUR of at least 3003 Gb, or else that the EUR must be 3896 Gb. It thus appears likely that crude oil production will start to decline before 2030. An imminent peak in production cannot be ruled out. jakobsson-2009-fig-10-world-crude-oil-prd-scenarios jakobsson-2009-table-2-projected-peak-dates-and-production

The present study has indicated that:

  1. Resource constrained models are presently the only feasible tools for long term oil production scenarios.
  2. The best way to account for uncertainty is to use a range of values for all relevant parameters.
  3. The Maximum Depletion Rate Model (MDRM) is consistent with empirical experience at the field level, and is at least as good as other resource constrained models at a regional level. It is therefore reasonable to use it for global scenarios.
  4. Using a fixed resource base (EUR estimates) yields an exponential decline behavior and is preferable over a non-fixed resource base from a practical point of view.
  5. EIA has constructed unreasonable world scenarios by making an invalid analogy between R/P based on “proved reserves” and R/P based on EUR.
  6. A correct implementation of the model shows that crude oil production may start to decline well before 2030. An imminent peak cannot be ruled out.
  7. The result puts into question the reasonability of EIA’s and IEA’s official production forecasts, which assume that oil production will grow by 1% annually at least until 2030.

In the peak oil debate, analysts who downplay the possibility of an early peak are usually labeled “optimists”. This title we would like to claim for ourselves. In our view, optimism means to always have a constructive attitude after a sober look at the facts at hand, not merely hope for the best scenario to come about. An early production peak followed by a gentle decline should provide good opportunities for an orderly transition from today’s oil dependent economy to a more sustainable one. It should definitely not be interpreted as a doomsday scenario, but rather as a cause for cautious optimism. EIA’s high-peak-steep-decline scenarios, on the other hand, would make an orderly transition extremely difficult and likely have catastrophic consequences for the economy.


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