Opinion

The Great Debate

Is nuclear power the answer on climate change?

By Richard Schiffman
January 10, 2014

James Hansen’s latest press conference was positively scary.

NASA’s former chief climate scientist (he recently left government to pursue a more activist role) met with environmental journalists last month at Columbia University to release a new study with the ominous title, “Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.”

Hansen and his co-authors contend that the agreed-to goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Farenheit) above pre-Industrial levels prescribed in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is still too high to prevent “long-lasting, irreversible damage” to our planet — including raising sea levels, submerging coastal cities and turning vast tracts of the earth into virtual furnaces.

Hansen departs from environmental orthodoxy, however, in arguing that there is no way to cut greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently by relying solely on green alternatives like solar and wind power.

“Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole” Hansen writes in an essay, “is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

Hansen’s controversial conclusion is that we need to build a new generation of nuclear power plants. Nuclear alone, in Hansen’s view, has the potential to produce “clean” (carbon-free) electricity in the prodigious amounts that we will need it in the decades ahead.

His assertion is controversial for a number of reasons. First is the still unresolved problem of what to do with the radioactive waste products from nuclear power production. Second is the potential weaponization of plutonium, a real concern given the threats of global terrorism. Third, in the post-Fukushima world, is whether nuclear plants can ever be made safe enough to build near large population centers, or in regions prone to earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.

Hansen counters that, even factoring in the possibility of freak accidents, nuclear energy production is still far less harmful than coal-fired power plants. Those don’t just contribute mightily to the burden of greenhouse gases, he explains, they spew particulates into the atmosphere, leading to tens of thousands of deaths from lung and heart diseases in the United States every year. (In places like China, the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands.)

Other environmentalists acknowledge the atmospheric benefits of nuclear power, but still remain wary. Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Energy Program, says, safety concerns aside, nuclear power plants are just not cost-effective. With the prohibitively high price of new plants, none has been built in the United States since the Three Mile Island reactors were completed in 1974. Indeed, several aging plants have been closed recently, and more are slated to be shut down soon.

“We’re prepared to see the competitive process work its will,” Cavanagh told me. “We are convinced that energy efficiency and renewable energy will decisively defeat nuclear, as indeed they have for the past 40 years in the United States.”

Cavanagh says we need to focus on getting to a low-carbon energy future, and not try to guess what precise mix of approaches will get us there. It will take a mix, he insists. No single technology can do the trick. While the NRDC and other environmental groups do not completely rule out a role for nuclear, they consider wind and solar as better options — and more likely to succeed.

Nuclear power generation is now flourishing in only three countries, France, Russia and China — all nations where the state has aggressively subsidized its development. In France, the huge government-owned utility ÉlectricitĂ© de France now has 70 percent of its electricity generated by nuclear power, up from only 8 percent a decade ago.

Electricity “is much cheaper in France than in Germany,” Hansen told me, “because the French have mostly nuclear power while Germany has renewables.” He says that we should follow France’s lead.

But it is hard to see how the French model could fly in the United States, where energy decisions are made not by central planning, but by marketplace compensation. Hansen and environmental groups agree that mechanisms like a carbon tax will be necessary to spur the growth of clean technologies. It is questionable, however, whether even this powerful goad would be enough to revive a nuclear industry now languishing on life support.

Hansen is looking to the Integral Fast Reactor, a design that has been on the drawing boards for decades. But it has yet to be built — largely because it is viewed as being too expensive. This fourth generation nuclear plant, he says, would be far safer than what we have now, and would be fueled entirely from the byproducts of current nuclear plants. Fast Reactors would potentially burn 99 percent of their fuel and produce little toxic waste.

But this technology will require far more research and development before construction costs fall enough to tempt utilities. Where that R and D money will come from — in an era of diminishing government spending on science, as well as declining industry research budgets — is the question. The electric power industry has little incentive to develop tricky new technologies with cheap natural gas now pushing their production costs to new lows.

Hansen remains hopeful, however. Perhaps irrationally so, given the notoriously long lead times, cost overruns and the legal as well as technological problems that often bedevil new nuclear plants. He is urging Washington to cooperate with China to build reactors with good designs.

“If we don’t help China by cooperating in nuclear power technology development and deployment,” Hansen predicts, “they will do it themselves. That will be unfortunate, for two reasons. It will be slower and thus it will include a lot of coal use, such as building of many syngas plants [production of gas from coal, which has a bigger carbon footprint than burning coal directly]. And it will make them the leaders in nuclear technology. Too bad, it should have been the U.S.”

Hansen may convince some environmentalists that green nukes could help to save the planet. But– barring a major technological breakthrough – he won’t be able to convince electric utilities that nuclear plants could save them money. And, for the time being, they are the people whose opinions matter.

 

PHOTO (TOP): The Paluel nuclear plant is seen across fields in Paluel, northern France, April 6, 2012. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

PHOTO (INSERT 1): James Hansen stands behind a mock grave in the grounds of Coventry Cathedral during a climate change day of action in Coventry, central England, March 19, 2009. REUTERS/Darren Staples

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees wearing protective suits and masks stand next to an impervious wall made of steel pipe sheet pile installed along the coast facing nuclear rector No.1 to No. 4 buildings, at the tsunami-crippled TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama/Pool

Comments
23 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Mr. Schiffman, I have read 10000+ articles similar to yours, in the last 10 years, all about energy, climate changes, renewables etc. I do not remember ONE that explained to the readers how energy market works, how renewables work etc. I think 95%+ of authors (professional journalists, I do not mean professionals from the industry, for them it is ABC) were ignorant in this respect to the same extent as their readers. End of the rant.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive
 

Hansen is absolutely right. Electrical grids deliver energy on demand. Mating renewables to storage to make them largely compatible with this on-demand mandate is not feasible economically or technically at the current time. Nuclear may be expensive in the US but is not in China or Korea. Nuclear plants have been affordable historically which is why we have a 20% penetration in the US and France has a 70% penetration. Prices rose due to regulatory ratcheting lobbied primarily by fossil interests. Most of the regulation, litigation, and licensing required to build a nuke plant in the US was enacted not to make nuclear safer, but to make it uncompetitive with fossil fuels in free markets. The most energy dense fuel known to man is obviously going to provide the cheapest electricity all things being equal.

Posted by joules73 | Report as abusive
 

Thorium was not even mentioned in this article.

Posted by joebenlabrant | Report as abusive
 

Well written presentation of the issue, but there is a small (yet significant) mistake in the reporting. France installed built their nuclear capacity in 3 phases over several decades commencing in the 70s. Their present fleet delivers inexpensive electricity because the plants are old and have paid off their extremely high capital costs.

A few more points that are relevant:
The average time to build a nuclear plant is 14 years. Wind and solar can be installed within a year. By devoting the same resources to those technologies we begin production of electricity immediately, resulting in a much larger lifetime reduction in CO2 compared to the nuclear plant.
The technology that Dr. Hansen is calling for is unproven; meaning that we can add at least a decade before construction begins on the first plant – if it begins at all (again, it is unproven).
Energy efficiency along with renewable wind, solar and water power are accepted by energy systems specialists around the world as the fastest, safest, least expensive and most socially desirable course to pursue.

I am appreciative of the work and passion Dr. Hansen has brought to the climate issue and the take away message I see in his endorsement of nuclear is more related to climate than energy.
He is frightened.
I agree wholeheartedly with him that we SHOULD be frightened. We should not, however, let panic overrule our search for the most effective path to a sustainable, carbon free economy.

Posted by TaosEddy | Report as abusive
 

Hansen is the equivalent of an religious fanatic in terms of the environment.

Like all fanatics, he has taken an extreme position that bears little or no relation to reality.

His apocalyptic pronouncements, if followed, would lead to human catastrophic disaster that is beyond comprehension.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive
 

Thank you for reporting on this vital discussion. We need to be united in a commitment to address climate, and do so effectively. The grassroots groups that this week issued a reply to Hansen are pointing out that nuclear is not cost-effective in anything, and makes other wastes we cannot live with.

I think there is a typo in this otherwise sound article:
“In France, the huge government-owned utility ÉlectricitĂ© de France now has 70 percent of its electricity generated by nuclear power, up from only 8 percent a decade ago.”

The point on government sponsorship is correct, but the time frame is off. Should be 2 or 3 decades ago, I think. 1970′s is when the French government invested in a large number of reactors. Today France is scaling back on nukes and turning to off-shore wind.

Posted by MaryOlson | Report as abusive
 

“Nuclear power generation is now flourishing in only three countries, France, Russia and China”. And South Korea, which has made a real commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emmissions.

Posted by SLOjohnny | Report as abusive
 

France, Russia, China, South Korea, and Sweden, plus several other countries get a substantial amount of their electricity from nuclear, with dozens of new plants under construction and several coming online this year.

As for the author’s comments on the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It does NOT “require far more research and development…” GE has offered to build two of them right now for the UK to dispose of their plutonium inventory. As for the supposedly prohibitive cost of the IFR, the author has nothing but the baseless assertions of anti-nuclear writers to substantiate that idea. Indeed, the entire IFR concept was developed with economics in mind, and GE’s PRISM reactor is designed to be mass-produced in factories and then shipped to the power plant sites. The simplicity of the IFR—it operates at atmospheric pressure, for one thing, eliminating the need for pressure vessels—and its mass-producible design flies in the face of those who, like this author, claim it will be too expensive.

If the author would have bothered to do his homework, his caution about “the still unresolved problem of what to do with the radioactive waste products from nuclear power production” would be mitigated by the fact that IFR technology uses that mis-named “nuclear waste” as fuel and could power the entire world for centuries with waste products that we already have out of the ground.

A good book on the subject that can introduce readers to the entire IFR technology and what it portends for the future of humanity is available for free. To download a pdf of the book, just visit this link:
tinyurl.com/9992kma

Posted by JackLindsay | Report as abusive
 

Study: Dead sea creatures cover 98 percent of ocean floor off California coast; up from 1 percent before Fukushima
January 02, 2014 (NaturalNews)

The number of dead sea creatures blanketing the floor of the Pacific is higher than it has ever been in the 24 years that monitoring has taken place, a phenomenon that the data suggests is a direct consequence of nuclear fallout from Fukushima.

In March 2012, less than 1 percent of the seafloor off California coast was covered in dead sea salps.
By July 2012, more than 98 percent of the seafloor off California coast was covered in the decomposing organisms.

NO more sea life means NO more oxygen in our atmosphere.
Human life is dependent upon healthy oceans, the life of which provides the oxygen that we all need to breathe and survive.

Posted by pkjn | Report as abusive
 

NRDC director Cavanagh makes several specious/misleading statements about nuclear’s economic competitiveness, especially relative to renewables.

It’s fossil fuels, not renewables, that nuclear has had trouble competing with, and that’s only due to a completely unfair playing field where nuclear is not allowed to pollute at all, and is required to do everything possible to reduce even the chance of pollution to a miniscule level, while fossil fuel plants are not only allowed to pollute, but to do so for free. More generally, in terms of dollars spent per unit of public health risk or environmental impact avoided/reduced, nuclear regulations are literally thousands of times as strict as those applied to fossil fuels.

If fossil plants were held to the same zero emissions standard (where all toxins/wastes are completely contained) they would be more expensive than nuclear. At a minimum, making them pay something (e.g., a carbon tax) for polluting the air would at least be a start.

Whatever success renewables have had is NOT due to their beating nuclear, or fossil fuels for that matter, on any kind of fair, objective economic playing field. Renewables construction has been almost entirely driven by govt. mandates for their use (as well as enormous subsidy).

In short, govt. has intervened tremendously, in the market, to help renewables, while doing everything it can to hold nuclear back. It has treated nuclear to absurdly strict over-regulation; essentially requiring it to be a zero impact, clean energy source, but then it turns around and treats it as though it were a dirty source, requiring it to compete directly against truly dirty sources that pollute for free, and not giving it any credit at all (economic or otherwise) for its non-polluting, non-CO2-emitting nature. There are no govt. mandates, or large subsidies, for nuclear.

Finally, Cavanagh refuses to discuss renewables’ limitations. Intermittentcy will limit contributions from such sources to ~20%, perhaps 25% tops. We’ll need something else to the remaining 75%, and nuclear is a far better choice in terms of health and environmental impact. As Hansen knows, renewables alone simply aren’t capable of getting us where we need to go in terms of preventing global warming.

Posted by JimHopf | Report as abusive
 

Nuclear is capable not only of reducing a larger amount of CO2 emissions than renewables, it is capable of doing so far faster, not slower. All it takes is the political will to deploy it.

France went from ~0% nuclear to 80% nuclear in less than 20 years. Many other nations are ~50% nuclear and ~50% hydro. There is no equivalent accomplishment on the renewables side, in terms of overall penetration or speed of penetration. With all the US efforts (mandates and massive subsidy) renewables are finally all the way up to ~4% of overall generation. After decades of serious support.

The biggest share renewables has ever provided is ~25%, in Denmark. Denmark was only able to do that because it is a small nation surrounded by bigger nations that use hydro and nuclear power, whose grids can absord the wildly varying output of Denmark’s wind farms. Even at that low penetration level (of 20-25%) renewables in Denmark and Germany are causing serious grid stability issues.

Again, intermittentcy will limit renewables contribution to a minority share of overall production. Also, since only gas (fossil) plants can practically vary their output to accommodate (offset) variable renewable generation, renewables actually ensure and enshrine a significant (actually, majority) share of generation for fossil fuels, as opposed to being the means by which fossil fuels are phased out. As France shows, nuclear can be used to replace the great majority of fossil generation.

Posted by JimHopf | Report as abusive
 

Brain say: Nuclear good. Heart says: Nuclear bad. Always follow your heart.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive
 

Climate change has been going on long before humans have been on this earth and it will continue long after we are gone . It has become just another redistribution of wealth sceme just like every other liberal cause.

Posted by RayM. | Report as abusive
 

Interestingly France is now reconsidering its dependence on nuclear and may soon shift toward renewables. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/510 046/will-france-give-up-its-role-as-a-nu clear-powerhouse/

Posted by Richschiff | Report as abusive
 

What a crappy biased article. Primarily from an American environmentalist approach.
@joebenlabrant is right; not one mention of thorium?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Schiffman is mentioning Thorium reactors. Actually there exists a Thorium reactor research cooperation between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Department of Energy. Although in my opinion nukes are not wanted on this planet and I really could get used to the idea of climate change. Change means, that we’re still alive, doesn’t it?

Posted by google_pass | Report as abusive
 

Nuclear garbage is deadly for thousands of years. The suggestion that we pollute the planet for all our children and grandchildren ad infinitum just in order to have cheaper fuel now is beyond so far beyond selfish that it’s truly unbelieveable.

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive
 

Conservation of course, is never addressed. THE most cost effective part of the solution. Even the slightest inconvenience cannot be considered by the spoiled Roman like consumers of the first world. Inconveniences so small as to be negligible. Instead we rush madly towards a world that for billions will be a nightmare. Elysium is not about the future, its about the present.

And for the right wingers who advocate Nuclear… they say they believe in the open market, but Nuclear cannot find anyone STUPID enough to insure them. Never has never will. It has to be insured by BIG GOVERNMENT, and of course vastly under insured. So much for free market hypocrites.

Posted by doren | Report as abusive
 

@doren
Actually people tend to misunderstand how much current world depends on infrastructure and how even big busyness is too small and narrrow-sighted to keep said basic infrastructure in working order. Even POTUS somewhat clumsily acknowledged this in ‘you didn’t build that’ speech. Energy is part of that vital infrastructure now.
As for big gov’t vs ‘Laissez-faire’ – even in golden era of industrial revolution private companies couldn’t build railroads (vital for development of USA and Russia) without ‘a little help’ from gov’ts in form of essentially officialized landgrab.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive
 

Wow, the scientist that is the basis for much of what Al Gore and the Environment crew believe disagrees with Al Gore and the Environment crew. Now *there* is an Inconvenient Truth.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive
 

Americans could have any sort of power sources they’d like to have, if they could get propagandists like this fool off of their backs. Apparently, they can’t.

Initial cost is not an issue for a nation that can throw $4,000,000,000,000.00 into an Iraqi/Afghanistan toilet. We are so vastly wealthy, and the payoffs for green energy so big, that whether or not it is affordable is a sideshow. The problem is that the current profiteers run the game.

Posted by Bookfan | Report as abusive
 

If you’re answer to climate change is to further the spread of dangerous radiation into our global air, soil and water? This has been tried; And failed.

Nuclear Cold Fusion is 98+% more efficient and cleaner.

All Big Corporate “Lobbies” must move to advance their technologies to cleaner and more economically efficient fuel sources that will stimulate the economy and repair Our Earth’s natural balance.
This is the answer to rapid accelerated climate change. “Change” to new and easily adaptable technology to suit the rapidly changing economic and global climate.

To disregard the necessary advancement of Nuclear Cold Fusion is irresponsible to say the least.

Now is the time to quickly adapt your technology as to negate your global responsibility will only further the damage done to Our Earth, that sustains us All, and you’re precious economy (you’re bottom line).

So say’s God.

Peace be with you All.

Love
Omega

Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive
 

If you believe that climate change is a
serious threat, and yet you oppose nuclear power as one of, if not the only, serious contender to create large amounts of electricity without CO2 emissions then you and your ideology are part of the problem- not the solution. If you believe so called renewables alone can supply the electricity this planet needs now and in the future you are dreaming.

The world needs more power not less- that is unless you want to sentence the balance of the humans on the planet that don’t currently have reliable electric power to stay that way. Even many of the environmental crusaders of the last several decades have finally come to the realization that there is no free lunch, and are now nuclear advocates.

Most renewable facilities utilize a fossil fuel backup for base load as solar and wind are sporadic suppliers of electricity, and we need to carry a base load at all times. Recently burning natural gas is the go to method for this base load production, and it is way better than coal regarding CO2 emissions and pollution, but is still emitting CO2. For a very balanced documentary regarding nuclear and the future please see the CNN produced documentary film Pandora’s Promise.

The argument regarding cost is strictly due to the permitting hurdles artificially erected to dissuade further development in the wake of three mile island. Government has a role to play, but they need to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Posted by MartyPorter | Report as abusive
 

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