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.
Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity
By James Hansen
Bloomsbury, 319 pp, $16
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:
- 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.
- 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