Why climate scientist James Hansen’s exhortation to embrace nuclear power is just wishful thinking

T. Vijayendra, POI Founder- Member

Climatologist James Hansen is the former head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading advocates of the dangers of climate change. Last year, he joined senior scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology; prominent hurricane researcher Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Tom Wigley, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in calling on “those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power” to embrace nuclear power. The scientists said renewables cannot scale up fast enough to “deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires” and that there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power. They asserted that continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

Responding to the open letter by Hansen and others, some U.S. anti-nuclear activist groups, spearheaded by the Civil Society Institute and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), called for a global phasing out of nuclear power since wind and solar deployment, in the United States in particular, is far outpacing the development and construction of new reactors. The Civil Society Institute is an advocacy group focused on clean energy issues and climate change, and the NIRS is a Maryland-based anti-nuclear activist group.

“Instead of embracing nuclear power, we request that you join us in supporting an electric grid dominated by energy efficiency, renewable, distributed power and storage technologies,” the groups wrote in their open letter to Hansen & Co. “We ask you to join us in supporting the phase-out of nuclear power as Germany and other countries are pursuing.”

The letter was signed by a number of groups opposed to fossil fuels and uranium mining, including the Coal River Mountain Watch and Utah-based Uranium Watch, as well as pro-renewables, social and religious organizations.

Nuclear Power is not viable
Here I am not arguing against their (Hansen and others) position but simply pointing out that their plan cannot happen in real time – it is simply wishful thinking.

Of the nearly 200 countries worldwide, only 30 have nuclear power, produced by a total of 437 reactors. Today there are only 72 new reactors are under construction. It takes about 5-6 years to build a nuclear reactor. By the time they are built, a greater number of old reactors will be closed. Thus, nuclear power has already peaked and net nuclear power generation will keep on falling. The falling rate may even get accelerated as more and more countries opt out of nuclear power.

Germany and Switzerland are committed to phase out their reactors. Japan which had closed all 54 of its reactors after the Fukushima accident, has reopened 48 of them in the face of fierce opposition from Japanese people. The Japanese government has promised that will all close down in due time, and it is unlikely that Japan will order new reactors.

There are 11 countries which are officially opposed to nuclear power: Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal. Also, every country that has nuclear power has groups who oppose nuclear power. There are some 300 such groups active today.

Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Weapons
If nuclear power is not an economically viable option why do many countries keep on pouring money into it? The probable answer is that it is linked to the weapons programme.

There are eight countries that have nuclear weapons: USA, Russia, France, UK, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Out of the total of 437 nuclear reactors in the world, seven of these countries (data about N. Korea is not available) have 252, or 58% of the reactors. Again out of a total world production of nuclear power of 375 GW, these seven countries produce 219 GW or 58.4%. So there is a good correlation between energy production and weapons production.

Why do Hansen and others advocate support to Nuclear energy?
But why do Hansen and others support nuclear power? The appendix gives their full letter. I think these people are not prepared for a scenario where we have to scale down the energy consumption. They live in countries which have high energy consumption and they want to save the world without leaving their personal comfort zones.

But changes do not occur only because some groups support or oppose some policies. Change is a law of nature and social changes occur because of the internal dynamics of society. Resource depletion (including and primarily that of oil) are forcing economies to shrink all over the world and the fact is, ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again’.