James Hansen’s Generation IV nuclear fallacies and fantasies
Jim Green, 25 Aug 2017, Nuclear Monitor #849, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/849/james-hansens-generation-iv-nuclear-fallacies-and-fantasies
The two young co-founders of nuclear engineering start-up Transatomic Power were embarrassed earlier this year when their claims about their molten salt reactor design were debunked, forcing some major retractions.1
The claims of MIT nuclear engineering graduate students – Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie – were trumpeted in MIT’s Technology Review under the headline, ‘What if we could build a nuclear reactor that costs half as much, consumes nuclear waste, and will never melt down?’2
The Technology Review puff-piece said Dewan “introduced new materials and a new shape that allowed her to increase power output by 30 times. As a result, the reactor is now so compact that a version large enough for a power plant can be built in a factory and shipped by rail to a plant site, which is potentially cheaper than the current practice of building nuclear reactors on site. The reactor also makes more efficient use of the energy in nuclear fuel. It can consume about one ton of nuclear waste a year, leaving just four kilograms behind. Dewan’s name for the technology: the Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor.”2
A February 2017 article in MIT’s Technology Review ‒ this one far more critical ‒ said: “Those lofty claims helped it raise millions in venture capital, secure a series of glowing media profiles (including in this publication), and draw a rock-star lineup of technical advisors.”1
MIT physics professor Kord Smith debunked a number of Transatomic’s key claims. Smith says he asked Transatomic to run a test which, he says, confirmed that “their claims were completely untrue.”1
Transatomic’s claim that the ‘Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor’ could “generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor” was severely downgraded to “more than twice.”1 And the company abandoned its waste-to-fuel claims and now says that a reactor based on the current design would not use waste as fuel and thus would “not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel”.1
Hansen’s Generation IV propaganda
Kennedy Maize wrote about Transatomic’s troubles in Power Magazine: “[T]his was another case of technology hubris, an all-to-common malady in energy, where hyperbolic claims are frequent and technology journalists all too credulous.”3 Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman said that “other start-ups with audacious claims are likely to receive similar levels of scrutiny” and that it “may have the effect of putting other nuclear energy entrepreneurs on notice that they too may get the same enhanced levels of analysis of their claims.”4
Well, yes, others making false claims about Generation IV reactor concepts might receive similar levels of scrutiny … or they might not. Arguably the greatest sin of the Transatomic founders was not that they inadvertently spread misinformation, but that they are young, and in Dewan’s case, female. Aging men seem to have a free pass to peddle as much misinformation as they like without the public shaming that the Transatomic founders have been subjected to. A case in point is climate scientist James Hansen. We’ve repeatedly drawn attention to Hansen’s nuclear misinformation in Nuclear Monitor5-9 ‒ but you’d struggle to find any critical commentary outside the environmental and anti-nuclear literature.
Hansen states that a total requirement of 115 new reactor start-ups per year to 2050 would be required to replace fossil fuel electricity generation ‒ a total of about 4,000 reactors.10 Let’s assume that Generation IV reactors do the heavy lifting, and let’s generously assume that mass production of Generation IV reactors begins in 2030. That would necessitate about 200 reactor start-ups per year from 2030 to 2050 ‒ or four every week. Good luck with that.
Moreover, the assumption that mass production of Generation IV reactors might begin in or around 2030 is unrealistic. A report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety − a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health − states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”11
Likewise, a US Government Accountability Office report on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other ‘advanced’ reactor concepts in the US concluded: “Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process, with costs up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design, and there is an additional construction cost of several billion dollars more per power plant.”12
An analysis recently published in the peer-reviewed literature found that the US government has wasted billions of dollars on Generation IV R&D with little to show for it.13 Lead researcher Dr Ahmed Abdulla, from the University of California, said that “despite repeated commitments to non-light water reactors, and substantial investments … (more than $2 billion of public money), no such design is remotely ready for deployment today.”14
In a nutshell, Hansen and other propagandists claim that some Generation IV reactors are a triple threat: they can convert weapons-usable (fissile) material and long-lived nuclear waste into low-carbon electricity. Let’s take the weapons and waste issues in turn.
Hansen says Generation IV reactors can be made “more resistant to weapons proliferation than today’s reactors”15 and “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks”.16 But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation and are they reducing proliferation risks? In a word: No. Fast neutron reactors have been used for weapons production in the past (e.g. by France17) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. by India).
India plans to produce weapons-grade plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors.18 Compared to conventional uranium reactors, India’s plan is far worse on both proliferation and security grounds. To make matters worse, India refuses to place its fast breeder / thorium program under IAEA safeguards.19
Hansen claims that thorium-based fuel cycles are “inherently proliferation-resistant”.20 That’s garbage ‒ thorium has been used to produce fissile material (uranium-233) for nuclear weapons tests.21 Again, India’s plans provide a striking real-world refutation of Hansen’s dangerous misinformation.
Hansen states that if “designed properly”, fast neutron reactors would generate “nothing suitable for weapons”.20 What does that even mean? Are we meant to ignore actual and potential links between Generation IV nuclear technology and WMD proliferation on the grounds that the reactors weren’t built “properly”? And if we take Hansen’s statement literally, no reactors produce material suitable for weapons ‒ the fissile material must always be separated from irradiated materials ‒ in which case all reactors can be said to be “designed properly”. Hooray.
Hansen claims that integral fast reactors (IFR) ‒ a non-existent variant of fast neutron reactors ‒ “could be inherently free from the risk of proliferation”.22 That’s another dangerous falsehood.23 Dr George Stanford, who worked on an IFR R&D program in the US, notes that proliferators “could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor − operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.”24
Hansen acknowledges that “nuclear does pose unique safety and proliferation concerns that must be addressed with strong and binding international standards and safeguards.”10 There’s no doubting that the safeguards systems needs strengthening.25 In articles and speeches during his tenure as the Director General of the IAEA from 1997‒2009, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei said that the Agency’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”, that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and “clearly needs reinforcement”, that efforts to improve the system were “half-hearted”, and that the safeguards system operated on a “shoestring budget … comparable to that of a local police department”.
Hansen says he was converted to the cause of Generation IV nuclear technology by Tom Blees, whose 2008 book ‘Prescription for the Planet’ argues the case for IFRs.26 But Hansen evidently missed those sections of the book where Blees argues for radically strengthened safeguards including the creation of an international strike-force on full standby to attend promptly to any detected attempts to misuse or to divert nuclear materials. Blees also argues that “privatized nuclear power should be outlawed worldwide” and that nuclear power must either be internationalized or banned to deal with the “shadowy threat of nuclear proliferation”.26
So what is James Hansen doing about the WMD proliferation problem and the demonstrably inadequate nuclear safeguards system? This is one of the great ironies of Hansen’s nuclear advocacy ‒ he does absolutely nothing other than making demonstrably false claims about the potential of Generation IV concepts to solve the problems, and repeatedly slagging off at organizations with a strong track record of campaigning for improvements to the safeguards system.27
Hansen claims that “modern nuclear technology can … solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently.”16 He elaborates: “Nuclear “waste”: it is not waste, it is fuel for 4th generation reactors! Current (‘slow’) nuclear reactors are lightwater reactors that ‘burn’ less than 1% of the energy in the original uranium ore, leaving a waste pile that is radioactive for more than 10,000 years. The 4th generation reactors can ‘burn’ this waste, as well as excess nuclear weapons material, leaving a much smaller waste pile with radioactive half-life measured in decades rather than millennia, thus minimizing the nuclear waste problem. The economic value of current nuclear waste, if used as a fuel for 4th generation reactors, is trillions of dollars.”28
But even if IFRs ‒ Hansen’s favored Generation IV concept ‒ worked as hoped, they would still leave residual actinides, and long-lived fission products, and long-lived intermediate-level waste in the form of reactor and reprocessing components … all of it requiring deep geological disposal. UC Berkeley nuclear engineer Prof. Per Peterson notes in an article published by the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute: “Even integral fast reactors (IFRs), which recycle most of their waste, leave behind materials that have been contaminated by transuranic elements and so cannot avoid the need to develop deep geologic disposal.”29
So if IFRs don’t obviate the need for deep geological repositories, what problem do they solve? They don’t solve the WMD proliferation problem associated with nuclear power. They would make more efficient use of finite uranium … but uranium is plentiful.
In theory, IFRs would gobble up nuclear waste and convert it into low-carbon electricity. In practice, the IFR R&D program in Idaho has left a legacy of troublesome waste. This saga is detailed in a recent article31 and a longer report32 by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior scientist Ed Lyman (see the following article in this issue of Nuclear Monitor). Lyman states that attempts to treat IFR spent fuel with pyroprocessing have not made management and disposal of the spent fuel simpler and safer, they have “created an even bigger mess”.31
Japan is about to get first-hand experience of the waste legacy associated with Generation IV reactors in light of the decision to decommission the Monju fast spectrum reactor. Decommissioning Monju has a hefty price-tag ‒ far more than for conventional light-water reactors. According to a 2012 estimate by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, decommissioning Monju will cost an estimated ¥300 billion (US$2.74bn; €2.33bn).30 That estimate includes ¥20 billion to remove spent fuel from the reactor ‒ but no allowance is made for the cost of disposing of the spent fuel, and in any case Japan has no deep geological repository to dispose of the waste.
Generation IV economics
Hansen claimed in 2012 that IFRs could generate electricity “at a cost per kW less than coal.”33,34 He was closer to the mark in 2008 when he said of IFRs: “I do not have the expertise or insight to evaluate the cost and technology readiness estimates” of IFR advocate Tom Blees and the “overwhelming impression that I get … is that Blees is a great optimist.”35
The US Government Accountability Office’s 2015 report noted that technical challenges facing SMRs and advanced reactors may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large light-water reactors or power plants using other fuels.36
A 2015 pro-nuclear puff-piece by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) arrived at the disingenuous conclusion that nuclear power is “an attractive low-carbon technology in the absence of cost overruns and with low financing costs”.37 But the IEA/NEA report made no effort to spin the economics of Generation IV nuclear concepts, stating that “generation IV technologies aim to be at least as competitive as generation III technologies … though the additional complexity of these designs, the need to develop a specific supply chain for these reactors and the development of the associated fuel cycles will make this a challenging task.”37
The late Michael Mariotte commented on the IEA/NEA report: “So, at best the Generation IV reactors are aiming to be as competitive as the current − and economically failing − Generation III reactors. And even realizing that inadequate goal will be “challenging.” The report might as well have recommended to Generation IV developers not to bother.”38
Of course, Hansen isn’t the only person peddling misinformation about Generation IV economics. A recent report states that the “cost estimates from some advanced reactor companies ‒ if accurate ‒ suggest that these technologies could revolutionize the way we think about the cost, availability, and environmental consequences of energy generation.”39 To estimate the costs of Generation IV nuclear concepts, the researchers simply asked companies involved in R&D projects to supply the information!
The researchers did at least have the decency to qualify their findings: “There is inherent and significant uncertainty in projecting NOAK [nth-of-a-kind] costs from a group of companies that have not yet built a single commercial-scale demonstration reactor, let alone a first commercial plant. Without a commercial-scale plant as a reference, it is difficult to reliably estimate the costs of building out the manufacturing capacity needed to achieve the NOAK costs being reported; many questions still remain unanswered ‒ what scale of investments will be needed to launch the supply chain; what type of capacity building will be needed for the supply chain, and so forth.”39
Hansen has doubled down on his nuclear advocacy, undeterred by the Fukushima disaster; undeterred by the economic disasters of nuclear power in the US, the UK, France, Finland and elsewhere; and undeterred by the spectacular growth of renewables and the spectacular cost reductions. He needs to take his own advice. Peter Bradford, adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, said in response to a 2015 letter10 co-authored by Hansen:40
“The Hansen letter contains these remarkably unself-aware sentences:
‘To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice.’
‘The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking.’
‘The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long held biases when it comes to nuclear power.’
- James Temple, 24 Feb 2017, ‘Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises’, www.technologyreview.com/s/603731/nuclear-energy-startup-transatomic-backtracks-on-key-promises/
- Kevin Bullis, 2013, ‘What if we could build a nuclear reactor that costs half as much, consumes nuclear waste, and will never melt down?’, www.technologyreview.com/lists/innovators-under-35/2013/pioneer/leslie-dewan/
- Kennedy Maize, 8 March 2017, ‘Molten Salt Reactor Claims Melt Down Under Scrutiny’, www.powermag.com/blog/molten-salt-reactor-claims-melt-down-under-scrutiny/
- Dan Yurman, 26 Feb 2017, ‘An Up & Down Week for Developers of Advanced Reactors’, https://neutronbytes.com/2017/02/26/an-up-down-week-for-developers-of-advanced-reactors/
- Nuclear Monitor #814, 18 Nov 2015, ‘James Hansen’s nuclear fantasies’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/814/james-hansens-nuclear-fantasies
- Nuclear Monitor #776, 24 Jan 2014, ‘Environmentalists urge Hansen to rethink nuclear’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/776/nuclear-news
- Michael Mariotte, 21 April 2016, ‘How low can they go? Hansen, Shellenberger shilling for Exelon’, Nuclear Monitor #822, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/822/how-low-can-they-go-hansen-shellenberger-shilling-exelon
- M.V. Ramana, 3 Dec 2015, ‘Betting on the wrong horse: Fast reactors and climate change’, Nuclear Monitor #815, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/815/betting-wrong-horse-fast-reactors-and-climate-change
- Michael Mariotte, 9 Jan 2014, ‘The grassroots response to Dr. James Hansen’s call for more nukes’, http://safeenergy.org/2014/01/09/the-grassroots-response-to-Dr.-James-Hansens-call-for-more-nukes/
- James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley, 4 Dec 2015, ‘Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change’, www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/nuclear-power-paves-the-only-viable-path-forward-on-climate-change
- IRSN, 2015, ‘Review of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems’, www.irsn.fr/EN/newsroom/News/Pages/20150427_Generation-IV-nuclear-energy-systems-safety-potential-overview.aspx Direct download: www.irsn.fr/EN/newsroom/News/Documents/IRSN_Report-GenIV_04-2015.pdf
- U.S. Government Accountability Office, July 2015, ‘Nuclear Reactors: Status and challenges in development and deployment of new commercial concepts’, GAO-15-652, www.gao.gov/assets/680/671686.pdf
- A. Abdulla et al., 10 Aug 2017, ‘A retrospective analysis of funding and focus in US advanced fission innovation’, http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7f10/meta;jsessionid=71D13DABD51435540783FCC24BCE831B.c2.iopscience.cld.iop.org
- 9 Aug 2017, ‘Analysis highlights failings in US’s advanced nuclear program’, https://phys.org/news/2017-08-analysis-highlights-advanced-nuclear.html
- James Hansen, 7 June 2014, ‘Scientists can help in planet’s carbon cut’, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2014-06/07/content_17570035.htm
- K. Caldeira, K. Emanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley, 3 Nov 2013, ‘Top climate change scientists’ letter to policy influencers’, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/03/world/nuclear-energy-climate-change-scientists-letter/index.html
- See pp.44-45 in Mycle Schneider, 2009, ‘Fast Breeder Reactors in France’, Science and Global Security, 17:36–53, www.princeton.edu/sgs/publications/sgs/archive/17-1-Schneider-FBR-France.pdf
- John Carlson, 2014, submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Parliament of Australia, www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=79a1a29e-5691-4299-8923-06e633780d4b&subId=301365
- John Carlson, 2015, first supplementary submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Parliament of Australia, www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=cd70cb45-f71e-4d95-a2f5-dab0f986c0a3&subId=301365
- P. Kharecha et al., 2010, ‘Options for near-term phaseout of CO2 emissions from coal use in the United States’, Environmental Science & Technology, 44, 4050-4062, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es903884a
- Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015, ‘Thor-bores and uro-sceptics: thorium’s friendly fire’, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/801/thor-bores-and-uro-sceptics-thoriums-friendly-fire
- Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen, March 2013, ‘Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power’, Environment, Science and Technology, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197
- George Stanford, 18 Sept 2010, ‘IFR FaD 7 – Q&A on Integral Fast Reactors’, http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/09/18/ifr-fad-7/
- See section 2.12, pp.100ff, in Friends of the Earth et al., 2015, ‘Submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’, https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/NFCRC-submission-FoEA-ACF-CCSA-FINAL-AUGUST-2015.pdf
- Tom Blees, 2008, ‘Prescription for the Planet’, www.thesciencecouncil.com/pdfs/P4TP4U.pdf
- James Hansen, 2011, ‘Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid’, www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110729_BabyLauren.pdf
- Breakthrough Institute, 5 May 2014, ‘Cheap Nuclear’, http://theenergycollective.com/breakthroughinstitut/376966/cheap-nuclear
- Reiji Yoshida, 21 Sept 2016, ‘Japan to scrap troubled ¥1 trillion Monju fast-breeder reactor’, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/09/21/national/japans-cabinet-hold-meeting-decide-fate-monju-reactor/
- Ed Lyman / Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug 2017, ‘The Pyroprocessing Files’, http://allthingsnuclear.org/elyman/the-pyroprocessing-files
- Edwin Lyman, 2017, ‘External Assessment of the U.S. Sodium-Bonded Spent Fuel Treatment Program’, https://s3.amazonaws.com/ucs-documents/nuclear-power/Pyroprocessing/IAEA-CN-245-492%2Blyman%2Bfinal.pdf
- Mark Halper, 20 July 2012, ‘Richard Branson urges Obama to back next-generation nuclear technology’, www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jul/20/richard-branson-obama-nuclear-technology
- 27 Dec 2012, ‘Have you heard the one about the Entrepreneur, the Climate Scientist and the Nuclear Engineer?’, http://prismsuk.blogspot.com.au/2012/
- James Hansen, 2008, ‘Trip Report – Nuclear Power’, http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/20080804_TripReport.pdf
- U.S. Government Accountability Office, July 2015, ‘Nuclear Reactors: Status and challenges in development and deployment of new commercial concepts’, GAO-15-652, www.gao.gov/assets/680/671686.pdf
- International Energy Agency (IEA) and OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), 2015, ‘Projected Costs of Generating Electricity’, www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/ElecCost2015.pdf
- Michael Mariotte, ‘Nuclear advocates fight back with wishful thinking’, Nuclear Monitor #810, 9 Sept 2015, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/810/nuclear-advocates-fight-back-wishful-thinking
- Energy Innovation Reform Project Report Prepared by the Energy Options Network, 2017, ‘What Will Advanced Nuclear Power Plants Cost? A Standardized Cost Analysis of Advanced Nuclear Technologies in Commercial Development’, http://innovationreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Advanced-Nuclear-Reactors-Cost-Study.pdf
- Peter A. Bradford, 17 Dec 2015, ‘The experts on nuclear power and climate change’, http://thebulletin.org/experts-nuclear-power-and-climate-change8996
Don’t nuke the climate! James Hansen’s nuclear fantasies exposed
20 Nov 2015, The Ecologist, http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2986335/dont_nuke_the_climate_james_hansens_nuclear_fantasies_exposed.html
Climate scientist James Hansen is heading to COP21 in Paris to berate climate campaigners for failing to support ‘safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power’, writes Jim Green. But they would gladly support nuclear power if only it really was safe and environment friendly. In fact, it’s a very dangerous and hugely expensive distraction from the real climate solutions.
James Hansen will be promoting nuclear power − and attacking environmental and anti-nuclear groups − in the lead-up to the UN COP21 climate conference in Paris in December. The press release announcing Hansen’s visit to Paris berates environmentalists for failing to support “safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power”. It notes that the Climate Action Network, representing all the major environmental groups, opposes nuclear power − in other words, efforts to split the environment movement have failed.
Hansen won’t be participating in any debates against nuclear critics or renewable energy experts. His reluctance to debate may stem from his participation in a 2010 debate in Melbourne, Australia. The audience of 1,200 people were polled before and after the debate. The pre-debate poll found an 8% margin in favour of nuclear power; the post-debate poll found a margin of 24% against nuclear power. The turn-around was so striking that Hansen’s colleague Barry Brook falsely claimed the vote must have been rigged by anti-nuclear and climate action groups. “I can think of no other logical explanation − statistically, such a result would be nigh impossible”, Brook claimed.
‘Nuclear safety’ − a contradiction in terms?
An article co-authored by Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, published in the Environment, Science and Technology journal, claims that between 1971 and 2009, “global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning”.
Kharecha and Hansen ignore renewables and energy efficiency, setting up a false choice between fossil fuels and nuclear. Even as an assessment of the relative risks of fossil fuels and nuclear, the analysis doesn’t stack up.
Kharecha and Hansen cite a UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report to justify their figure of 43 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster. But the UNSCEAR report did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths from radiation exposure from Chernobyl, citing “unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions”. The credible estimates of the long-term cancer death toll from Chernobyl range from 9,000 (in Eastern Europe) to 93,000 (across Eastern and Western Europe).
Hansen states: “No people died at Fukushima because of the nuclear technology.” The impacts of the disaster are more accurately summarised by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie:
“In sum, the health toll from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is horrendous. At the minimum:
- “Over 160,000 people were evacuated, most of them permanently.
- “Many cases of post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders arising from the evacuations.
- “About 12,000 workers exposed to high levels of radiation, some up to 250 mSv.
- “An estimated 5,000 fatal cancers from radiation exposures in future.
- “Plus similar (unquantified) numbers of radiogenic strokes, CVS diseases and hereditary diseases.
- “Between 2011 and 2015, about 2,000 deaths from radiation-related evacuations due to ill-health and suicides.
- “An, as yet, unquantified number of thyroid cancers.
- “An increased infant mortality rate in 2012 and a decreased number of live births in December 2011.”
There are many reasons to conclude that Kharecha and Hansen’s figure of 4,900 deaths from nuclear power from 1971 to 2009 is a gross underestimate, yet they claim that the figure “could be a major overestimate relative to the empirical value (by two orders of magnitude).”
However a realistic assessment of nuclear power fatalities would include:
- Routine emissions: UNSCEAR’s estimated collective effective dose to the world population over a 50-year period of operation of nuclear power reactors and associated nuclear fuel cycle facilities is two million Sieverts. Applying a risk estimate of 0.1 fatal cancers / Sievert gives a total of 200,000 fatal cancers.
- Radiation exposure from accidents, including Chernobyl (estimated 9,000 to 93,000 cancer fatalities) and Fukushima (estimated 5,000 long-term cancer fatalities), and the large number of accidents that have resulted in a small number of fatalities.
- Indirect deaths.
In relation to indirect deaths at Fukushima, Japanese academics state:
“For the Fukushima coastal region, no-one, not even Self-Defense Forces, could enter the area for fear of exposure to radioactive materials, and the victims were left in the area for a long period of time.
“This resulted in so-called indirect fatalities, people who died due to difficult and long-term evacuation, or those who committed suicide, lamenting the radioactive pollution of their farm lands and farm animals and who had lost hope to ever rebuild their lives.
“These are considered as fatalities related to the nuclear accident, and their numbers have risen to 1459 as of September 2013, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Office. Though they are considered indirect deaths, they would have not died if there had been no nuclear accident.”
Kharecha and Hansen ignore non-fatal impacts. For example, the permanent relocation of 350,000 people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster was associated with a great deal of trauma. Four and a half years after the Fukushima disaster, over 110,000 of the original 160,000 evacuees remain displaced according to the Japanese government. Using those figures (350,000 + 110,000), and the global experience of around 16,000 reactor-years of power reactor operations, gives a figure of 29 ‘nuclear refugees’ per reactor-year.
Nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels when considering accidents and routine emissions (by a wide margin, though not as wide as Kharecha and Hansen claim) − but we also need to consider the unique WMD proliferation risks associated with the nuclear industry as well as related security issues such as attacks on nuclear facilities.
But of course the ‘nuclear versus fossil fuels’ argument is a false one. When accidents and routine emissions are considered, renewables are clearly safer than either nuclear power or fossil fuels, and of course nuclear power’s proliferation and security risks don’t apply to renewables.
Yet Hansen falsely claims that “nuclear power has the best safety record of any energy technology.”
Nuclear WMD proliferation
Kharecha and Hansen correctly state that “Serious questions remain about [nuclear] safety, proliferation, and disposal of radioactive waste, which we have discussed in some detail elsewhere.” However the paper they cite barely touches upon the WMD proliferation problem and what little it does say is a mixture of codswallop and jiggery-pokery:
- It falsely claims that thorium-based fuel cycles are “inherently proliferation-resistant”. Irradiation of thorium produces fissile uranium-233 which can be − and has been − used in nuclear weapons.
- It falsely claims that integral fast reactors (IFRs) “could be inherently free from the risk of proliferation”. Dr George Stanford, who worked on an IFR R&D program in the US, notes that proliferators “could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor − operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.”
- And the paper states that if “designed properly”, breeder reactors would generate “nothing suitable for weapons”. India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor will be the next fast neutron reactor to begin operation. India refuses to place it under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. John Carlson, former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, describes the risks associated with India’s plans: “India has a plan to produce [weapons-grade] plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. This is problematic on non-proliferation and nuclear security grounds. Pakistan believes the real purpose of the fast breeder program is to produce plutonium for weapons (so this plan raises tensions between the two countries); and transport and use of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors presents a serious terrorism risk (weapons-grade material would be a priority target for seizure by terrorists).”
Hansen and his colleagues argue that “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks”. But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation? In a word: No. Fast reactors have been used for weapons production in the past (e.g. by France) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. by India).
Thorium − another not-so-modern ‘modern’ nuclear technology − has also been used to produce weapons (e.g. by the US and India) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. India’s breeder/thorium program).
It is disingenuous − and dangerous − for Hansen to be waving away those problems with claims that modern nuclear technology can somehow be made inherently proliferation-proof.
False hope: Generation IV nuclear technology
Here’s Hansen’s take on Generation IV nuclear technology − hyped up for it’s claimed ability to burn up nuclear waste. Nuclear waste “is not waste”, he writes. “It is fuel for 4th generation reactors! … The 4th generation reactors can ‘burn’ this waste, as well as excess nuclear weapons material, leaving a much smaller waste pile with radioactive half-life measured in decades rather than millennia, thus minimizing the nuclear waste problem.”
Hansen’s views take little or no account of the real-world experience with fast neutron reactors (and Generation IV technology more generally). That real-world experience is littered with accident-prone, obscenely expensive reactors (and R&D programs) that have worsened waste and proliferation problems. Most countries that have invested in fast reactor R&D programs have decided not to throw good money after bad and have abandoned those programs.
Hansen’s views are also at odds with reports published this year by the French and US governments. The report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) − a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health − states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”
IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: “At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors, except perhaps for the VHTR [Very High Temperature Reactors] … “
Moreover the VHTR system could bring about significant safety improvements “but only by significantly limiting unit power”.
The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other ‘advanced’ reactor concepts in the US. The report concluded:
“While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges. Both SMRs and advanced reactors require additional technical and engineering work to demonstrate reactor safety and economics …
“Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels …
“Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process … “
The glum assessments of the US and French governments are based on real-world experience. But Hansen prefers conspiracy theories to real-world experience, claiming that an IFR R&D program in the US was terminated due to pressure from environmentalists with devious motives.
The real reasons for the termination of the IFR program were mundane: legitimate proliferation concerns, the already-troubled history of fast reactor programs, the questionable rationale for pursuing fast reactor R&D given plentiful uranium supplies, and so on. But Hansen has a much more colourful explanation:
“I think it was because of the influence of the anti-nuclear people who realised that if this newer technology were developed it would mean that we would have an energy source that is practically inexhaustible − it could last for billions of years − and they succeeded in getting the Clinton administration to terminate the R&D for the fourth generation nuclear power plants.”
Wrong, stupid, and offensive: Hansen lines up with far-right nuts who argue that environmentalists want everyone living in caves. No wonder he is having so little success winning the green movement over.
Renewables and energy efficiency
“Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future?” asks Hansen. “It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
But there are credible studies for the countries that Hansen mentions:
- USA: The Nuclear Information & Resource Service maintains a list of reports demonstrating the potential for the US (and Europe) to produce all electricity from renewables.
- China: A 2015 report by the China National Renewable Energy Centre finds that China could generate 85% of its electricity and 60% of total energy from renewables by 2050.
- India: A detailed 2013 report by WWF-India and The Energy and Resources Institute maps out how India could generate as much as 90% of total primary energy from renewables by 2050.
There is a growing body of research on the potential for renewables to largely or completely supplant fossil fuels for power supply globally.
The doubling of global renewable energy capacity over the past decade has been spectacular, with 783 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable power generation capacity installed from 2005 to 2014 − compared to a lousy 8 GW for nuclear.
As of the end of 2014, renewables supplied 22.8% of global electricity (hydro 16.6% and other renewables 6.2%). Nuclear power’s share of 10.8% is less than half of the electricity generation from renewables − and the gap is widening.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) anticipates another 700 GW of new renewable power capacity from 2015-2020. The IEA report also outlines the spectacular cost reductions: the global average costs for onshore wind generation fell by 30% from 2010-2015, and are expected to decline a further 10% by 2020; while utility-scale solar PV fell two-thirds in cost and is expected to decline another 25% by 2020.
There’s also the spectacular potential of energy efficiency that Hansen sometimes ignores and sometimes pays lip-service to. A 2011 study by University of Cambridge academics concluded that a whopping 73% of global energy use could be saved by practically achievable energy efficiency and conservation measures.
Making nuclear power safe … how would you do it?
But let’s go with Hansen’s argument that renewables and energy efficiency aren’t up to the job of completely supplanting fossil fuels. It’s not an unreasonable place to go given that the task is Herculean and urgent. What would make nuclear power more palatable, reducing the risk of Chernobyl- and Fukushima-scale catastrophes and reducing the WMD proliferation risks? ‘Super-safe’, ‘proliferation-resistant’ Generation IV reactor technology that’s both unproven and grossly uneconomic? Not likely.
So how about improved safety standards and stricter regulation? That’s something that really would reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents. A strengthened − and properly funded − safeguards system would reduce the WMD proliferation risks.
And therein lies the greatest irony of Hansen’s nuclear advocacy. Many of the environmental and anti-nuclear groups that he attacks have a commendable track record of campaigning for improved safety and regulatory standards and for improvements to the safeguards system. Hansen has said little and done less about those issues.
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a longer version of this article was originally published. Nuclear Monitor has been publishing deeply researched, often strongly critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue! email@example.com
Betting on the wrong horse: Fast reactors and climate change
M.V. Ramana − Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University
Published in Nuclear Monitor #815, 3 December 2015, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor
In the last decade or so, many people who would likely identify themselves as environmentalists have turned to nuclear power as a way to deal with climate change. Among them are James Lovelock, Patrick Moore, James Hansen, and George Monbiot. Of these, Hansen has to be, and in some circles has been, taken most seriously. He is, after all, arguably the scientist who has done the most for raising concerns about climate change. What is also notable about Hansen is that he argues not just for any kind of nuclear power, but one based on a specific kind of a reactor − a fast reactor.
Climate change is such an important threat to our planet that it is quite justified to assess whether nuclear power should be deployed to a much larger extent as a way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. This article does not − deliberately − address that question in general, but focuses on whether fast reactors could play a significant role in such a strategy. I argue below that because of the multiple problems with such reactors, relying on fast reactors to combat climate change is misguided.
In his book, Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen explains the details of the reactor and how he came to believe in the potential of this reactor system:
“When asked about nuclear power, I am usually noncommittal, rattling off pros and cons. However, there is an aspect of the nuclear story that deserves much greater public attention. I first learned about it in 2008, when I read an early copy of Prescription for the Planet, by Tom Blees, who had stumbled onto a secret story with enormous ramifications − a story that he delved into by continually badgering some of the top nuclear scientists in the world until he was able to tell it with a clarity that escapes technical experts. I have since dug into the topic a bit more and observed how politicians and others reacted to Blees’ information, and the story has begun to make me slightly angry − which is difficult to do, as my basic nature is very placid, even comfortably stolid.
“Today’s nuclear power plants are “thermal” reactors, so-called because the neutrons released in the fission of uranium fuel are slowed down by a moderating material. The moderating material used in today’s commercial reactors is either normal water (“light water”) or “heavy water,” which contains a high proportion of deuterium, the isotope of water in which the hydrogen contains an extra neutron. Slow neutrons are better able to split more of the uranium atoms, that is, to keep nuclear reactions going, burning” more of the uranium fuel.
“The nuclear fission releases energy that is used to drive a turbine, creating electricity. It’s a nice, simple way to get energy out of uranium. However, there are problems with today’s thermal nuclear reactors (most of which are light-water reactors). The main problem is the nuclear waste, which contains both fission fragments and transuranic actinides. The fission fragments, which are chemical elements in the middle of the periodic table, have a half-life of typically thirty years. Transuranic actinides, elements from plutonium to nobelium that are created by absorption of neutrons, pose the main difficulty. These transuranic elements are radioactive materials with a lifetime of about ten thousand years. So we have to babysit the stuff for ten thousand years − what a nuisance that is!
“Along with our having to babysit the nuclear waste, another big problem with thermal reactors is that both light-water and heavy-water reactors extract less than 1 percent of the energy in the original uranium.
“Most of the energy is left in the nuclear waste produced by thermal reactors. (In the case of light-water reactors, most of the energy is left in “depleted-uranium tailings” produced during uranium “enrichment”; heavy-water reactors can burn natural uranium, without enrichment and thus without a pile of depleted-uranium tailings, but they still use less than 1 percent of the uranium’s energy.) So nuclear waste is a tremendous waste in more ways than one.
“These nuclear waste problems are the biggest drawback of nuclear power. Unnecessarily so. Nuclear experts at the premier research laboratories have long realized that there is a solution to the waste problems, and the solution can be designed with some very attractive features.
“I am referring to “fast” nuclear reactors. 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.
“Fast reactors also produce nuclear waste, but in volumes much less than slow (thermal) reactors. More important, the radioactivity becomes inconsequential in a few hundred years, rather than ten thousand years.”
All of this description clearly suggests that Hansen thinks of fast reactors as a good, if not perfect, solution. Elsewhere he has expanded on the various other virtues of fast reactors. What Hansen does not talk about, however, are the various problems with fast reactors. And we have about six decades of experience with those problems.
Hansen actually does refer to the long history of fast reactors in his book, saying:
“The concept for fast-reactor technology was defined by Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and a principal in the Manhattan Project, and his colleagues at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. By the mid-1960s, the nuclear scientists at Argonne National Laboratory had demonstrated the feasibility of the concept.”
The demonstration of the feasibility of fast reactors actually goes back to the early 1950s, with the Experimental Breeder Reactor constructed in Idaho in the United States. The term breeder is significant. It refers to the fact that in some fast reactors, those neutrons that are escaping the core are captured by a blanket made of “fertile materials”, which then eventually get transformed into a new element that is itself fissile, i.e. can be used as a fuel in a reactor core. An example of such a fertile material is uranium-238, which gets converted into a fissile isotope of plutonium, plutonium-239. Uranium-238 is the most common isotope of uranium, constituting about 99.3 percent of naturally available uranium. It is this process of conversion of uranium-238 into plutonium-239 that makes a fast reactor utilize uranium much more efficiently.
If the fast reactor is designed suitably, it could produce more fissile material in its blankets than is consumed in its core. It is then said to “breed” plutonium and these reactors are called breeder reactors. The long-standing attraction of breeder reactors for nuclear power proponents is that when nuclear power was first developed, uranium was thought to be scarce and there was widespread concern that global resources would be insufficient to support the anticipated large expansion of nuclear power. This is why the United States started constructing the EBR-I so early into its nuclear power program.
Indeed, on December 20, 1951, EBR-I became the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant when it produced sufficient electricity to illuminate four 200-watt light bulbs. On June 4, 1953, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced that EBR-I had become the world’s first reactor to demonstrate the breeding of plutonium from uranium. About two years later, on November 29, 1955, the reactor had a partial core meltdown, not something that Hansen appears to talk about in any detail.
A decade later, in October 1966, it was the turn of Fermi-1 (yes, named after the famous physicist), a demonstration fast breeder reactor located in Lagoona Beach, Michigan, which suffered a partial core meltdown. What is more interesting is the cause of the accident. Pieces of zirconium from the “core catcher”, a safety system that is supposed to prevent molten fuel from liquid sodium into a part of the core, leading to those fuel elements melting down because they could not be cooled. The implication; additional safety features, could, under some circumstances, end up causing accidents in unexpected ways.
These meltdowns also have a different cause that has to do with operating a nuclear reactor using fast neutrons. In fast reactors, when fuel starts melting locally and coming closer together, it increases the rate at which the chain reaction occurs. If this process were not stopped extremely fast − for example, by the insertion of control rods that absorb neutrons − the runaway reaction would cause the pressure inside the core to rise fast enough to lead to an explosion. Again, it was an illustrious physicist, Hans Bethe, who pointed out this possibility back in 1956. Such an explosion could fracture the protective barriers around the core, including the containment building, and release large fractions of the radioactive material in the reactor into the surroundings. This so-called “core disassembly accident” has therefore been a longstanding safety concern with fast reactors.
A second difference between breeder reactors and the more common thermal reactors is their choice of coolant. Because breeder reactors do not have any moderator to slow down neutrons, their cores, where most of the fissions, and thus energy production, occur are smaller in size as compared to thermal reactors. Thus, their power density will be much higher. Efficient transfer of this heat requires the use of liquid metals rather than the more commonly utilized water. The coolant that has been used in all demonstration breeder reactors to date is a liquid metal that melts at relatively low temperatures − sodium.
Though sodium has some safety advantages, it reacts violently with water and burns if
exposed to air. This makes fast reactors susceptible to serious fires. Almost all fast reactors constructed around the world have experienced one or more sodium leaks, likely because of chemical interactions between sodium and the stainless steel used in various components of the reactor. Finally, since sodium is opaque, fast reactors are notoriously difficult to maintain and susceptible to long shutdowns.
The question of costs
Having to deal with all these properties and safety concerns naturally drives up the construction costs of fast reactors, to the point that they are significantly more expensive than the more common thermal reactors that Hansen talks about. In addition, they also operate with less reliability. Economically, therefore, fast reactors have proved to be uncompetitive with current generation thermal reactors.
This is the main reason that decades after breeder reactors were piloted, no country has successfully built a commercial breeder reactor. France, the country that is most reliant on nuclear power in the world, did try. The Superphenix started operating in 1986, experienced a series of accidents, and was shut down in 1997. During this period, it generated less then 7% of the electricity of what it could have done at full capacity. Currently, only a few demonstration reactors are being built or operated, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor that is being constructed in Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu being one such reactor. This result is not for want of trying; just the OECD countries, between themselves, have spent about US$50 billion (in 2007 dollars) on breeder reactor research and development and on demonstration breeder reactor projects.
In today’s electricity markets, with nuclear power rapidly losing ground to cheaper renewables, the idea that fast reactors would establish an economically viable path forward for nuclear power is far-fetched, to say the least. Hansen’s advocacy of fast reactors therefore seems a little at odds with current economic realities.
What of nuclear waste?
What of the other argument Hansen makes; about the ability of fast reactors to deal with the nuclear waste problem. Here again, what is not mentioned is as important, if not more important, than what is said. First, actinides are not the only long-lived radioactive materials produced in a nuclear reactor. There is also what is called fission products, some of which have a very long radioactive half-life; Technetium-99, for example, has a half-life of 200,000 years.
Second, there are so many actinides and they have a variety of nuclear reactions that are trying to “transmute” (i.e., convert) them into elements that have shorter lifetimes, or even radioactively stable elements, requires an elaborate strategy involving the reprocessing of spent fuel, multiple rounds of special fuel fabrication, and irradiation in fast reactors. In 1996, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences examined the potential benefits of such a scheme and concluded: “none of the dose reductions seems large enough to warrant the expense and additional operational risk of transmutation”.
Third, just in the process of doing this transmutation, a large quantity of radioactive materials that are currently held within the spent fuel from nuclear reactors will be released into the biosphere in the form of liquid or gaseous wastes. This is what happens at all reprocessing plants and estimates of the radiation dose to populations around the world from just the gaseous fission products routinely released by reprocessing plants suggest that these exceed the doses from future leakage from geological repositories.
To conclude, James Hansen’s advocacy of a nuclear solution to climate change based on fast reactors is misplaced. The six decades of global experience with breeder reactors shows that they are very problematic, much more so than nuclear power in general. So any strategy based on rapid construction of these untested technologies is very likely to suffer from setbacks. There is simply not enough time for us to go down these blind alleys.
Let’s Call Them What They Are: Climate Liars
Linda Pentz Gunter, 20 Nov 2015, CounterPunch
In 2004, when I was working at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I had an interesting email exchange with my fellow countryman and ardent climate change columnist, George Monbiot.
This was before he went to the dark side and became a nuclear power apologist. We were discussing climate skeptics and, as we did so, I began to think about their similarity to Holocaust deniers. I suggested to Monbiot that climate “denier” was a more apt term than “skeptic.” Monbiot ran with it. Today it’s in the lexicon.
But it’s time for a change. Because, as the revelations surrounding Exxon clearly illustrate, these “deniers” actually know better. Even Donald Trump, for all his repulsive policies and personality traits, is not necessarily stupid. He probably gets climate change. It’s just vaguely possible that even Ted Cruz and Ben Carson do, too. Which means none of them are really Climate Deniers. They, like Exxon, are Climate Liars.
This makes them worse than genuine skeptics because they are deliberately sabotaging the long-term survival of our planet for short-term gain. Some are doing this to win election to, or retain, public office. Others are simply lining their pockets, eager for the lavish handouts the fossil fuel industry is willing to make to stay alive and perpetuate the myth that it is relevant.
Whether lying or denying, dismissing climate change is a winning formula because the public has been fed a steady diet of misinformation about the urgency of global warming. More disturbingly, we are bombarded daily with news about truly inconsequential, often celebrity-driven gossip, or quotidian stories that are sensationalized into national dramas. These obliterate the opportunity to impart information of genuine significance. Instead, click bait and trivia have created an addiction to soft, rather than hard, news.
Meanwhile, the empirical facts languish like leftovers, of no interest to a fast-food consumer who prefers an easily digestible sound bite, even if it isn’t true. Politicians know this and latch onto the messaging that will serve their ends, regardless of the veracity factor.
Mired in this melange of myths is nuclear energy. Its spokespeople include a handful of misguided climate scientists like James Hansen who should know better but are pushing nuclear anyway as a climate change solution. Just before the recent violent events in Paris, Hansen was promoting a press conference he planned to hold there during the upcoming COP 21 (Conference of Parties) climate talks. Although COP is still going ahead, it’s not yet clear how many, if any, of the side events will.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the ravages of climate change are now a present crisis rather than a distant threat, the Hansen crowd will be unrelenting in their promotion of nuclear energy. This has historically stifled progress on climate change, and will continue to do so.
Are Hansen and his followers nuclear deniers, or actually nuclear liars? It’s hard to know. Hansen has refused to debate us or answer the obvious flaws in his thesis — such as the fact that nuclear energy cannot possibly come on line in time or in sufficient capacity to address climate change.
Hansen’s press releases and public statements tend toward rhetorical over-reaching and even insults. This has become a favorite pastime of the nuclear power panderers, catering once more to the easy sell and quick snicker at the opposition’s expense. Thus, Hansen, with all his lofty NASA credentials, has stooped to calling on donors to pull funds from green groups that oppose nuclear energy. He even mocks solicitation requests that are “doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear.” Such cheap shots seem unworthy of a man who professes to represent serious science and uses his august curriculum vitae as a door-opening calling card.
Rectifying this problem is no easy task. For one thing, blasting people with the truth about nuclear power doesn’t always work. It is too technical, too complicated, too wonky and too grim. Try telling someone about the dangerous state of a nuclear reactor drywell liner. It’s a problem that could lead to disaster, cost people their lives and livelihoods, and force permanent evacuation. But as a piece of messaging, it is dead on arrival compared to the “safe, clean and reliable” misleading mantra adopted by the pro-nuclear cronies.
The dialogue has to change, and obviously, though fun and even effective, name calling, like “climate liars,” isn’t the answer either. Or at least, it isn’t an answer. What we must do is stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. taxpayer dollars funding further, futile attempts to build a better nuclear mousetrap.
Like the billions spent on bombing raids that create more terror rather than eradicating terrorism, the never-ending flow of dollars toward the illusory phantom of a so-called “next generation” nuclear reactor is a failed strategy. Such nuclear reactors have been “in progress” for decades and will likely never arrive in time for climate change, if at all. They have demonstrated no strong likelihood that they will even work or ever be safe and will simply swallow up precious dollars and time that we cannot afford to waste.
For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a “next generation” favorite, the Small Modular Reactor (SMR), since the 1990s. Today, there are still no SMRs in operation, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to receive a single license application.
Climate disruption is adding to the terrible strife in our world. Another nuclear disaster would destabilize the globe even more. Things could not be more urgent. Like terrorism, nuclear energy delivers fear and tragedy. From leukemia clusters to meltdowns; the environmental racism of uranium mining to the exclusion zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima; we live in the perpetual shadow of disaster as long as nuclear power continues.
As everyone from Hansen to Huckabee doubtless knows, there are other ways forward. They need look no further than the empirical evidence found in the 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, where we see nuclear energy continuing to stagnate and even decline while wind and solar energy soar globally. It’s time to follow the example of Germany and take nuclear power out of the energy equation. Continued nuclear irresponsibility will have only one, tragic outcome; allowing the climate crisis to slip beyond the point of no return.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.