Censored scientists, dirty politics and the nuclear distraction

As the world’s most famous climatologist and perennial thorn in the side of Fox News, coal barons and climate change deniers everywhere, James Hansen’s credentials are impeccable. I’ve admired his pluck in standing up for sound science against political intimidation for years. At Transition Voice, we’ve been fortunate to cross-post a couple of his columns.

But recently, a peak oil blogger emailed me some criticisms of Hansen, the biggest of which was that he supports nuclear power.

I was planning to write a review anyway of Hansen’s first book Storms of My Grandchildren, which just came out in paperback. It’s a book full of fascinating discussions of good science, bad politics and how the world can hope to stave off climate collapse. But just as my friend said, Hansen does stuff in a few pages about why nuclear power needs to be part of our future lower-carbon energy mix.

Breeder reactor core meltdown on Hansen Island? Let’s see.

Radioactive opinions

Hansen is not the first big environmentalist to embrace nuclear power. Others include Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand and James Lovelock, who came up with the Gaia hypothesis, which considers the Earth to be a self-regulating organism. A group called Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy lists Lovelock as an honorary member.

Hansen supports cleaner renewables and conservation. But like Lovelock and the other pro-nuke greens, Hansen thinks that nuclear power is the only practical alternative to coal, especially as fast-growing Asian economies ramp up their electricity demand.

“What if the utility executives are right,” Hansen asks, “and we must choose between coal or nuclear for baseload power? Even if renewables are sufficient to produce the electricity needed by the United States, what about China and India? It’s one world, and we have to live with pollution from China and India.”

Hansen tries to sugar the nuke pill by explaining that he supports “fast” nuclear reactors that are safer, cleaner and more efficient than than today’s thermal reactors. Even better, Hansen writes that these third- or fourth-generation nuclear plants can even eat up some of the waste stored at today’s plants, getting around both the storage and peak uranium issues in one neat stroke:

Fast reactors allow the neutrons to move at higher speed. The result in a fast nuclear reactor is that the reactions “burn” not only the uranium fuel but also all of the transuranic actinides — which form the long-lived waste that causes us so much heartburn. Fast reactors can burn about 99 percent of the uranium that is mined, compared with the less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors. So fast reactors increase the efficiency of fuel use by a factor of one hundred or more.

To seal the deal, Hansen writes that today’s nuclear waste and by-products of weapons production can supply all of our fuel needs for a thousand years. And after that, we can extract uranium from seawater.

Duke Nuke ‘em

My first impression is to wonder why someone as smart as Jim Hansen would fall for something that so clearly sounds too good to be true. Thousands of years of nearly free energy that’s also clean and perfectly safe? Isn’t that essentially the promise of zero-point energy, or cold fusion, or the hydrogen economy or any number of perpetual-motion schemes you can find online that seem much closer to magic than science?

I’m much more inclined to go with critics like Dr Helen Caldicott and Ralph Nader that any nuclear solution, no matter how advanced, is a danger today and a crime against future generations. Or, given how expensive it is to build new plants and how long it takes to get them online, even if it worked, nuclear today would be too little too late. And talk about an industry that’s easy to hate, Big Nuclear (is there any other size than big?) is right up there with Big Coal or Big Oil.

But here’s the rub for me when it comes to Hansen and nukes:

  1. Lots of other smart people who take a hard-nosed, skeptical approach to such industry-driven scams as clean coal or corn ethanol have proposed energy ideas that sound crazy. Just one example: the late Matt Simmons, investment banker and skeptic-in-chief when it came to industry denials of peak oil, gave one of the last interviews before his death last fall to this magazine about how he believed that the world’s oceans would provide industrial society with an unlimited amount of clean, renewable power at pennies on the kW.
  2. Hansen has been so right about so many other issues — the futility of cap-and-trade, the importance of paleoclimate data over computer modeling to predict future climate change, the censoring of science by government agencies driven by industry priorities — that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

I’ve never liked nukes. But could I be wrong?

A question for another time. What we do know right now is that dirty coal is killing us and dirty politics is stopping us from doing anything about it.

Forget the nukes, it’s about coal

There’s much in Hansen’s book that is worthwhile even if you disagree with him about nuclear power. Take discussions of topics in climate science  for example, from the role of aerosols (pollution could actually be our friend) and solar intensity (we could be in for even more heating if the sun brightens up, as it could very soon) to why collapse of the Antarctic ice-shelf is scarier than crazy-fast melting in Greenland.

And don’t forget the politics. When Hansen talks about government, he’s one scientist who speaks from experience. And his encounters with Washington have been a love-hate affair with lots of dirty laundry aired in public.

Hansen began his career with the Bush Administration by giving a hopeful briefing on the latest climate science at the White House to Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condi Rice and other officials on the cabinet-level Climate Task Force (does anyone remember that, during the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush actually promised to do more than Al Gore to cut carbon emissions?).

But as Cheney’s bent for promoting cheap fossil fuels displaced other energy priorities, Hansen found himself on the wrong side of the censor’s pen as political bosses at NASA tried to bully him into silence.

Having taken his battle to the press, Hansen continued to speak out while managing to keep his job at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. But even after the departure of Bush-Cheney, Hansen criticized the new White House for failing to take real action on climate, and his book gives no quarter to Obama for supporting cap-and-trade, which he has long denounced as a false solution that will only benefit polluters and Wall Street (Hansen prefers a form of carbon tax with consumer refund that he refers to as “fee-and-dividend“).

Finally, Hansen, who has called coal plants “death factories,” has taken the fight to the streets, getting arrested with coalfield activists at a Massey Energy office in West Virginia to protest mountaintop-removal coal mining in 2009 and again at the White House last year.

“The science is clear,” Hansen said at the time, “mountaintop removal destroys historic mountain ranges, poisons water supplies and pollutes the air with coal and rock dust. Mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, can and should be abolished. The time for half measures and caving in to polluting industries must end.”

Mind-forged manacles and green conformity

Reading Hansen’s book is a useful exercise in open-mindedness for people who care about climate and peak oil but don’t like nukes now and don’t plan to start liking them anytime soon. In learning to agree to disagree on one contentious point we can still appreciate how much we do agree on a thousand other points.

And nukes aside, Hansen is one scientist who sees that no real action will happen on climate or energy without getting big corporate money out of Washington, writing that “protection of our home planet, I suggest, is intimately related to protection of our democracy,” and placing his faith, ultimately, in an informed public:

In order for a democracy to function well, the public needs to be honestly informed. But the undue influence of special interests and government greenwash post formidable barriers to a well informed general public. Without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened.

I believe that people like my friend the peak oil blogger who care about climate change and peak oil would do well to embrace Hansen as a powerful and honorable ally.

It is a truism that the political left has a habit of eating its own children.

If we want to avoid climate hell and peak oil economic collapse, we need to join hands with any honest allies out there against the real enemy — corporate money in politics and the Koch-heads who will stop any reasonable attempt to save our civilization before it’s too late, and all just to protect their profits.

A well-informed public and a healthy democracy. Big corporations are ready to sell us on cons like clean coal or hydrofracking, but they want us to think that it’s hopeless for ordinary citizens to make a difference in politics. They want to keep the public cynical so we’ll stay home and let them continue to pillage what’s left of the world’s wealth and natural resources.

If enough of us start acting like we live in Egypt or Wisconsin, then who says we can’t get our democracy back and stop the worst affects of climate change? Jim Hansen says we owe it to future generations to try. And I’m inclined to agree.

– Erik Curren

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Comments

  1. Matt says

    An absolutely excellent article as always.
    I do have 1 question for Mr. Hansen though. OK actually 2.
    1) With the end of cheap oil and the costs of all the basic building blocks for these fast reactors going up. Not to mention the time required to permit and get these plants built. Who does he expect to still have the skills left to run these things.
    2) Transportation is run on fossil fuels, the amount of time needed to get this shifted over to use electricity, would be at least 15 years.
    In either case time is not our friend now, by the time these were up and running it would still be “Game Over” with no lives remaining.

    • says

      Yes, Matt, that would be the too-little-too-late problem. It’s a real issue for almost any high tech we propose to start building at this late date in the Oil Age, whether it’s nuclear plants or high-speed rail. And if things get dicey in the future, will be able to maintain ‘em? I’d like to interview Hansen sometime about the implications of peak oil and ask questions like yours. Cheers, Erik

    • Auntiegrav says

      “Transportation is run on fossil fuels, the amount of time needed to get this shifted over to use electricity, would be at least 15 years.”
      Part of the problem is that we automatically assume that people need to be transported as much as they are. Most of the trips are to drive to a job to make money to buy a car to drive to a job. A huge amount of our current transport is unnecessary: especially aircraft (toys of the rich, mostly).
      Cut out the unnecessary stuff first, prioritize food production usage and communities reorganized around their food production first. Re-establish the human muscle presence (not drudgery work..keep machines for that) in food production and preparation, THEN evaluate how much transportation is necessary to be replaced with electric.
      The current transportation behavior of humans is pretty much just consumptive madness. Who’s to decide what is necessary? Simple: put all taxes into a consumption tax so that the actual costs of the system are visible at the point of purchase. I predict that the flow of choice will shift according to real costs and needs. The current systems of tariffs and income taxes are bizarre and used to increase consumption in ways that only serve immediate monetary decisions, not the future usefulness of everyone.

      • Matt says

        Auntiegrav, I could care less about transporting people. The transportation I was talking about is the transportation of goods. Most importantly food. The rail system in the US is so antiquated these days that it is ranked as a being 3rd world in maintenance and track availability. We would need to first build enough rails to get food from the farms to the local markets, again, where do we get the energy to make the steel… oil.
        Also we here in america produce nothing, almost everything we consume is produced in a different country, so we get that here how?
        I agree with what you stated “Cut out the unnecessary stuff first, prioritize food production usage and communities reorganized around their food production first.” But again when you talk about reorganizing, it all requires energy, oil. You just can’t stick and antigrav unit on a city and move it closer to the farm, you need rails or roads for that. We need to start producing our basic needs locally but again how do we do that with ever increasing energy costs?
        Super advanced technology is not the answer, our current education system has insured that. We need to concentrate on what we KNOW works, wind, solar, and hydro, and then try to improve on efficiency and output.

        • Auntiegrav says

          The first thing we know works is human muscle. They can frickin’ walk out to the farms from the cities. They don’t have to go back.

          How did humans get here in the first place?
          The ‘technology’ of farming lies in our knowledge of how to grow food, not the machines or fuel. Those things have enabled people to leave the land and be replaced by oil, but reversing the process does not require oil. It only requires the desire to do so and the brains and muscles. The ‘goods’ that are made overseas are not all that critical, and the ones that are can be made here in short order without a lot of restructuring.
          The key words are “necessary” and “desire to work”.
          We have spent the last 100 years and then some replacing humans with oil. Reversing that process doesn’t mean we have to become ignorant of agriculture all of a sudden. Crop rotations, weeding, composted human manure instead of wasting it, cleanliness, husbandry: all things which can be accomplished by hands which currently are complaining because they don’t have ‘work’.
          Replacing trains doesn’t have to be “high speed rail”, either. Just going the way that the Milwaukee Road (electric) was originally intended would be a quantum leap from what we have.
          It is encouraging to read the things here on Transition. We all know things can’t be very rosy, whatever transition paths are followed.
          P.S. Don’t be surprised about the antigravity plates if they show up, though. What would the world be like if we DID have free energy to enable consumption? There might be some darn good reasons that we don’t have access to some of that type of technology: whether or not it exists.

  2. Auntiegrav says

    Don’t poo-poo cold fusion offhand. It’s a very serious subject to some of us, and all of the items in your byline apply: “Censored scientists, dirty politics and the nuclear distraction”.
    The problem with cold fusion is not that it doesn’t exist, but that it does, and in doing so, it causes problems for the standard model of physics, which is (even to the most casual observer) limping along until the other cylinders are repaired or replaced so that science can run smoothly.

    There is one flaw with nuclear power and it can be considered and accepted or used as the definitive argument against it. It goes like this, “With conventional and alternative energy sources, there are some things that can go wrong that are manageable with technology. With nuclear power, things can go VERY wrong to the point that it cannot be ‘fixed’.” (the exception to this is the general use of fossil fuels to the point of tipping the climate into a runaway condition, but that we have probably already done and in that light, is a moot point which could be used to say “we’re doomed anyway, so we might as well radiate everything, too”.)
    Humans should imagine they don’t have computers and then behave accordingly. Too much technology is enabling the belief that we are smarter than we really are. Actions taken based on blind beliefs are evil.

    • says

      Auntiegrav, I worry about relying too much on high tech and computerized technology also in the future. Will the internet still work the way it does now? How are Google and all the other big tech companies going to continue to run all those server farms, which are such energy hogs? Can the electronic age be powered by much more by renewables?

      And fair enough to mention cold fusion. OK, I’m game. We need to be open-minded about new energy sources. Can you post a good link about it? I’d like to know more and I’ll bet others would too.

  3. Auntiegrav says

    okay, sorry but I’ll try this again without actual html addresses
    infinite-energy.com/resources/faq.html
    scroll down to “questions about cold fusion”

    Also:
    Questions about Lattice Enabled Nuclear Reactions (LENR):

    infinite-energy.com/images/pdfs/nagel.pdf

    Yes, Virginia, you are being lied to.

    The worries about the internet and computers should be less on your mind than what the use of computers has done to the human brains which use them to make life ‘easier’. To quote a Star Trek movie (lame, I know), “Whenever you use a machine to do the work of a man, you take away part of the man.”

  4. says

    I realize this conversation happened back in the spring, however I just read Hansen’s book and wanted to chime in.

    The thing missing from a lot of the dialogue is if you are against the nuclear option – a prerequisite should be to offer an alternative. Or don’t comment. It is easy to slam ideas like this as too “risky”, too “expensive” or highlight some other problem. I’d like the comment on cold fusion…maybe something there?

    But my point – for serious dialogue…any criticism needs to be followed up with an alternative solution. Otherwise I’m inclined to dismiss it.

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