Famed climate change scientist, James Hansen shares his viewpoint on nuclear energy
James Hansen became known for his testimony on climate change for congressional committees in the U.S. in 1988 and is an important voice in the worldwide movement towards climate awareness. Hansen is featured in Myriam Tonoletto’s film Thorium, the far side of nuclear power, release in november 2015. From 1981 to 2013, he was the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is presently (2015) an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.
The interview below was part of the Pandora’s promise project, and was published on YouTube on July 23, 2013. As Hansen’s message is both clear and important, it was worth typing it out for easier spreading. It’s worth noting that where Hansen speaks of fast reactors, the same numbers apply to most of the proposed molten salt reactors.
The text below is as close to the spoken text as I could get it.
0:00 James Hansen: I think the only hope we have of phasing down emissions and getting to the middle of the century with much lower level of fossil fuel emissions, which is what we will have to do if we want young people to have a future, then we’re gonna have to find alternatives. And at this time nuclear seems to be the best candidate.
0:27 What was the lesson of Fukushima?”
James Hansen: Fukushima was of course extremely unfortunate, because it was at a time when we really have to move off from fossil fuel for generating electricity. And yet that going to cause many countries to reassess whether they want to go the nuclear route. The fact is that we have much safer technologies than what existed then. And of course, they should never have built a plant that was designed to withstand a three meter tsunami when it was possible to have a much bigger one. It’s easy to avoid that even with the old technology.
But with the new technology, they are passively safe, in the sense that if there is an anomaly like an earthquake or tsunami or both, they will just shut down an require no power to cool them. But that was not the case with that old technology. Once they lost power they could not cool their reactors.
1:35 Can’t we just become more energy efficient?
James Hansen: It’s useful to show that you can have a lifestyle that produces less carbon. But it doesn’t solve the problem. Because if that is all that happens, even if you convince a thousand people or a million people or a billion people to reduce their emissions, what it does is reduce the demand for the fuel, lower its price and somebody else will burn it. So as long fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, we are going to keep burning them and can’t solve the problem.
2:12 Why is there such strong opposition to nuclear power?
James Hansen: “There’s multiple reasons I think that there is opposition to nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is harder for people to understand. The idea of radiation, I mean, radiation is natural. The earth is bombarded by radiation all the time. So the radiation for instance that was released at the accident at Three Mile Island, that exposed residents nearby to radiation that is equivalent to what you get if you fly a commercial aircraft across the continent and back. It’s not really that dangerous. But it’s mysterious to people. And it has been painted as very dangerous, and it hasn’t been compared with dangers that you get from burning coal. Which are very substantial and well known; there’s not mystery about them, but it’s hard to get public to understand that and make that scientific comparison.
3:30 What about renewable energy?
James Hansen: I think it’s unfortunate that so many environmentalists are just assuming that these renewables will be able to satisfy all of our requirements. Renewables, the ‘soft renewables’, are only providing between one and two percent. Hydropower provides a significant amount of electricity. But that’s limited as to how much of that we can have. The hope that sun and wind and geothermal can provide all of our energy is a nice idea, but I find it unlikely that that is possible. The environmental community is basically asking the governments to reduce their emissions and subsidizing clean energy. Well, that simply doesn’t work, we don’t get enough energy from renewables to make a difference. That then forces any government to approve expanded oil drilling, hydro fracking to get more gas, mountain top removal to get more coal… We’re not going to turn the lights out. No government, no president, no governor is going to turn out the light, there has to be energy. And if renewables are not providing it, then it’s fossil fuels.
5:06 And nuclear waste?
James Hansen: The scientist that developed nuclear power, they did not expect light water reactors, which is what we have now for about fifty years.. These are thermal reactors, they use neutrons that are slowed down, it’s one way to generate energy from nuclear fuel, but it’s less than one percent of the energy in the nuclear fuel. There is an alternative, in which you let the neutrons move faster; these so called fast reactor can use more than 99 percent of the energy in the fuel. It can then in fact leave a waste pile that is much smaller and which has a half life which is measured in decades, rather than in millennia. So the big problem with current reactors that they have this waste pile, that you have to babysit for millennia, that can be solved with the next generation of nuclear technology.
But the problem was that when the united states scientist got to the point when it was close to being time that they could make a commercial reactor, the program was turned off. And I think this was because of the influence of the anti-nuclear people who realized that if this newer technology it would mean that we would have an energy source which 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 4th generation nuclear power plants.
7:00 What is your message to the environmental movement?
James Hansen: What I find disturbing is that environmentalists who recognize that we have a problem with fossil fuels, that we are, if we don’t find an alternative, that we are guaranteed that our children and grandchildren will suffer consequences. So we should be looking for alternatives for fossil fuels. And to turn down the potential of nuclear without looking at it… You have to agree, some countries some states may decide they can get along without nuclear power, and that is fine. But we should find out what it’s potential is. So why shut off the R&D, which was progressing very well, that’s extremely irresponsible. And yet it’s really forced on the government by the strong preferences of a rather small number of strong anti-nuclear people, who manage to make a significant portion of the public believe that nuclear is just unacceptably dangerous. That’s a decision that should be made after scientific analysis. It’s not something that you should have Jane Fonda or someone pushing the decision of a nation without objective analysis of what the potential is.
We do need authoritative scientific bodies that look at and discuss the relative merits of different approaches for energy. And the National Academy of Science and the Royal Society in Great Britain have done that and issued reports, and it’s generally concluded that we need to push the research and development and move toward even more effective and safe use of nuclear power. It’s analogous – yeah there have been a couple of accidents that were significant over the last fifty years, but it’s like with airplanes. If you have an airplane crash, that doesn’t mean that you decide: ‘oh, we’re not going to have airplanes anymore’. You find out what the problem was and you make the next one safer. It’s very clear in the case of nuclear technology that there are approaches that are far superior to existing light water reactors and we should be persueing those, because we do not have any alternatives on the horizon that can come close to competing with that.