‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power’

James Hansen, arguably America’s most famous climate scientist, has been a forceful advocate for nuclear power, including fast reactors such as the IFR that convert nuclear “waste” into zero carbon electricity: James Hansen on Kool-Aid, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

(…) people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work. This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation.

The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy

The insightful cynic will note: “Now I understand all the fossil fuel ads with windmills and solar panels – fossil fuel moguls know that renewables are no threat to the fossil fuel business.” The tragedy is that many environmentalists line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry, advocating renewables as if they, plus energy efficiency, would solve the global climate change matter.

On 3 November Dr. Hansen and three other top climate scientists joined together in an open letter directed at the Baptists in the “Bootleggers and Baptists” coalition that have made it impossible to make any real progress decarbonizing the global economy. Some examples of the Baptists are Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FOE), and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). We expect Bootleggers such as Peabody Energy to promote coal powered electricity. The tricky part is that the Bootleggers support the Baptists – who claim to be concerned about the environment. At the same time they contradict themselves by blocking every effort to deploy the one energy option that can scale affordably to achieve a zero carbon economy. If it isn’t affordable, reliable clean energy, then China, India et al are not going to stop building coal plants.

Based upon what I have read in recent weeks, the November 3rd open letter has had more impact than the individual scientist’s efforts. The letter has launched a long-avoided conversation about the critical importance of nuclear in the zero carbon energy mix. Regular Seekerblog readers will be familiar with signatory scientists Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley. Here’s the full text of their letter:

To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power

We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.

Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

While there will be no single technological silver bullet, the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.

We ask you and your organization to demonstrate its real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.


Dr. Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution

Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Atmospheric Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. James Hansen, Climate Scientist, Columbia University Earth Institute

Dr. Tom Wigley, Climate Scientist, University of East Anglia and the National Center for Atmospheric Research

What does this mean for citizens? China, India, Brazil et al are focused on economic growth, and hence on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. “Cheaper than Coal” is the only energy policy path that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases.

Nuclear is the only option that can deliver Cheaper than Coal at scale. And nuclear can compete sooner and more successfully if the technology leaders such as UK, America, France and Sweden help China et al to deploy mass manufactured nuclear power. But sadly, the anti-nuclear campaigns of the Baptists have been so successful that there is no hope of holding the line at 2°C. Almost all of the nuclear plants that could have been built have been replaced with coal [*]. 

Some of the more informed discussion of the scientists’ open letter has been at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth.

[*] Today in a few specific markets, such as America, many methane (gas) plants are being deployed. Burning methane initially produces 50% of the CO2 per MW that coal generates, but any methane that leaks is 20 times as bad for warming. And those plants won’t be destroyed until they have lived out their lives – which means 40+ years that could have been zero-carbon power.