NASA’s James Hansen is calling for development of “next generation” power reactors as insurance against runaway climate change; it’s an understandable position that must be openly discussed
Statement from Executive Director Jim Warren:
In his new book, Dr. James Hansen further demonstrates that humanity has very little time left to avert tipping points that would lead to a full-blown and irreversible climate catastrophe, that feasible solutions are at hand and must be pursued rapidly, and that corporate influence and deception are at the core of what Hansen calls a planetary emergency.
Due to NC WARN’s enormous admiration and respect for him as both a leading climatologist and ally against Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant – along with the severity of the already-devastating and accelerating climate crisis – we told Dr. Hansen in a letter yesterday that NC WARN is in the “willing to be persuaded” camp regarding his call for development of 4th generation nuclear power. He argues this must be done as insurance in case energy efficiency and renewable energy don’t cut greenhouse gases quickly enough. It’s a valid position, right or wrong, and it’s vital that our society have this dialogue openly – not dominated by corporate influence.
To clarify: NC WARN remains fully opposed to current license efforts for “3rd generation” reactors now being sought by Progress Energy, Duke Energy and others. More on that below.
NC WARN is entirely in accord with Dr. Hansen in many ways:
- The urgent need to stop construction of new coal-fired power plants, phase out existing plants rapidly, and prioritize energy efficiency (including cogeneration) and renewables.
- Rejecting “cap-and-trade” schemes that enrich polluters and Wall Street traders while doing little to help with climate change. We share his frustration that a fully legitimate “fee and dividend” proposal is considered off the table by energy corporations and their allies.
- The root problem to the climate crisis is energy corporations’ pervasive use of deception and massive financial influence over politicians, civic leaders and the news media.
James Hansen will speak Monday night at UNC-CH. More than anyone else, he knows that climate change demands one of the greatest economic, technological, and political transformations in history if there’s a chance to pull humanity’s fat out of the fire. He believes nuclear technology might help if it could be deployed expediently, and if clean energy proves insufficient for whatever reason. That’s a legitimate position, even if it turns out to be incorrect.
Hansen has closely studied our complex energy predicament. The nation’s leading climate expert really got my attention with a compelling case in his book about the inability of Germany – as a prominent leader in renewables and efficiency – to move beyond its perceived need to build new coal-burning power plants. I look forward to seeing Amory Lovins, Arjun Makhijani and others respond to that point, and remain hopeful that they’re correct in arguing we can phase out both coal and nuclear within a few decades. But it’s essential to note that, technically accurate as these esteemed energy experts might be, their arguments clash with the anti-democratic stranglehold that energy corporations exert over society’s most vital decisions.
“4TH GENERATION” NUCLEAR, INCLUDING FAST BREEDER REACTORS:
NC WARN has studied the myriad problems plaguing past efforts for fast reactors and associated nuclear waste reprocessing. Proponents’ arguments remain questionable, particularly after repeated attempts by many countries over the past few decades to solve the problems – despite multiple assurances that success was just around the corner. 4th generation nuclear is touted as a means to use up thousands of tons of nuclear waste as fuel. But even some advocates acknowledge serious technical, cost and timing uncertainties.
Nevertheless, technical experts Jim Hansen trusts apparently believe that ironing out the problems is possible. The stakes are so high, a vigorous and honest debate, if possible in what Hansen correctly calls this “wounded democracy,” could help finally determine whether and where it might be necessary to pursue new nuclear – or to put all available resources behind clean, efficient energy.
To that end, we have asked Dr. Hansen to help launch the discussions that might help avoid more years of contention that continue to hamper efforts to slow climate change. Likewise, NC WARN is also calling for the U.S. news media, academia and other decision-shapers to help create a more honest debate than that of the past four years, which has been dominated by withering and deceptive industry PR regarding cost, safety, waste, water and the need for new plants.
CURRENT EFFORTS TO DESIGN, LICENSE AND CONSTRUCT 3RD GENERATION “ADVANCED” REACTORS are an entirely different story – they’re on a losing track that is badly impeding proven climate protections, primarily energy efficiency. NC WARN remains in the thick of that debate. Far from being “ready to go” as Dr. Hansen was told, several projects have already been delayed or cancelled. Westinghouse, Areva and others have run into serious setbacks, cost escalations and uncertainty based on design problems. Due to the multiple risks of widespread industry failure matching that of the 1980s, it remains clear that 3rd generation nukes won’t go forward without 100% taxpayer backing and insurance.
Therefore, especially if the industry believes 4th generation reactors are a viable option, we’ve asked Dr. Hansen to join NC WARN in calling for U.S. power companies to drop their current attempts to license 3rd generation reactors. As the climate clock ticks, corporate executives such as Duke CEO Jim Rogers are holding the line in favor of lucrative new nukes and “clean coal,” both of which require huge public subsidies and externalized costs. Thus, to protect their case for huge plants, the utilities continue to undermine efficiency, renewables, and cogeneration – except for largely token efforts to improve their corporate images.
Falling energy demand – even in this growth-prone region – due to recession and slowly advancing energy efficiency, provides a window of opportunity for the utilities to back off current licensing processes, thus allowing time for discussion and a feasibility review of the 4th generation plants versus phasing out coal via clean energy. The regional and/or national economies could take many years to restabilize – and are likely to do so at a lower level than before. This approach is also attractive because if 3rd generation nukes were ever completed, power bills would double, an economic barrier which, politically, would cause an aversion to cutting the use of coal.
To the extent that 4th generation nuclear power is possible, it seems strange that one of the most powerful industries in the U.S. chose instead to develop 3rd generation reactors that are clearly experimental, risky and uncertain regarding waste, safety, security, water usage and cost, and which may never be completed.
Despite many years as a nuclear power watchdog – gaining an up-front view of some extremely disturbing safety and security failures, cost-cutting, negligence, cover-ups, and pervasive duplicity by the industry and its captive regulator – it is clear to me that the damage from ongoing and accelerating climate change far exceeds the overall risks of nuclear power, although I fully respect the concerns of those most at risk: nuclear facility neighbors and workers.
While I remain hopeful more nuclear plants won’t be needed, seeking to develop fast reactor technology as insurance might become a prudent course of action if our industry-dominated society – which has gradually become a caricature of a democracy – continues stifling the widespread transition to clean energy.
Formed in the late 1980s, NC WARN is a member-based nonprofit tackling the accelerating crisis posed by climate change – along with the various risks of nuclear power – by watch-dogging utility practices and working for a swift North Carolina transition to energy efficiency and clean power generation. In partnership with other citizen groups, NC WARN uses sound scientific research to inform and involve the public in key decisions regarding their wellbeing.