James Hansen on Kool-Aid, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy

Don’t miss the latest dispatch from James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. You will learn that Jim has no patience with the Easter Bunny fable whereby carbon emissions can be eliminated entirely by “renewable” energy sources. Here are a few excerpts (emphasis mine):

(…) 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.

Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? 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.

This Easter Bunny fable is the basis of ‘policy’ thinking of many liberal politicians. Yet when such people are elected to the executive branch and must make real world decisions, they end up approving expanded off-shore drilling and allowing continued mountaintop removal, long-wall coal mining, hydro-fracking, etc. – maybe even a tar sands pipeline. Why the inconsistency?

Because they realize that renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future and they have no real plan. They pay homage to the Easter Bunny fantasy, because it is the easy thing to do in politics. They are reluctant to explain what is actually needed to phase out our need for fossil fuels.

(…) Amory Lovins is the most popular person that I know and has received uncountable awards. He deserves them. But I believe his popularity is in part because he says everything people want to hear. He even says there is no need to have a tax on carbon. Thus even fossil fuel companies love him. Fossil fuel companies are happy to support energy efficiency, which places the onus on the public and guarantees fossil fuel dominance far into the future.

(…) Recently I received a mailing on the climate crisis from a large environmental organization. Their request, letters and e-mails to Congress and the President, mentioned only renewable energies (specifically wind and solar power). Such a request offends nobody, and it is worthless.

Jim included comments on nuclear energy in five footnotes – where he concisely dispatches the common anti-nuclear activist talking points. Note that Jim is quite up to speed on the 4th generation IFR (Integral Fast Reactor), including the 1994 cancellation:

Pushker Kharecha and I will write a paper with an objective post-Fukushima assessment of the role of nuclear power, but first we must complete papers 2 and 3 (Energy Imbalance and Case for Young People). However, a few comments on safety5, technology status6, nuclear waste7, fuel supply8,and cost9 are warranted to balance the opportunistic barrage of misinformation from dedicated ‘anti-nukes’ and an undiscerning sensation-minded media.

5 Safety: The lobbying organization Union of Concerned Scientists on 25 July broadcast a request to all citizens to write their governors and congress-people to demand improved nuclear power safety. Huh? The number of people who have died from nuclear power in the U.S. is zero. How to improve on that? The safety record of the nuclear industry is the best of all major industries in the U.S.

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that the Pennsylvania population exposed to radiation by the Three Mile Island accident may experience one or two resulting cancer deaths; that population will experience about 40,000 cancer deaths due to other causes. However, the estimate of 1-2 deaths is from the “linear no threshold” (LNT) approximation, i.e., an assumption that known radiation effects for large doses continue proportionally for small doses. That assumption is uncertain – there is at least as much anecdotal evidence suggesting that small radiation doses are beneficial to health (some mentioned here: http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=42347) as the contrary. However, no adequate scientific study with proper controls has been made.

Curiously, people seem to ignore the far greater dangers of fossil fuels. Mountain-top removal for coal alone has been linked to 60,000 cancer cases. The United Nations has estimated global deaths due to fossil fuel air and water pollution to be of the order of one million annually.

6 Technology: Fukushima nuclear power plants are a 50-year-old technology. They withstood a powerful earthquake, but were washed over by a 10-meter tsunami that wiped out the power sources used to cool the reactors. Modern 3rd generation light-water reactors can use passive cooling systems that require no power source.

No people died at Fukushima because of the nuclear technology. Four people died from other causes (one fell from a crane, one died of a heart attack, and two were drowned by the tsunami). When a plane crashes and kills 100 people do we choose to terminate the airline industry? No, we take steps to make planes safer. Already nuclear power has the best safety record of any energy technology, and the newest nuclear plants have great improvements.

7 Nuclear “waste”: it is not waste, it is fuel for 4th generation reactors! Current (‘slow’) nuclear reactors are light- water 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.

Nuclear reactors deployed in the next 1-2 decades would be primarily improved light-water reactors, with passive cooling capability and other safety improvements, because these are ready for commercial use. However, it is important to also deploy the first 4th generation reactors to demonstrate that the nuclear waste problem can be solved and to optimize the 4th generation technology.

8 Fuel supply: anti-nuke environmentalists argue that it takes energy to mine and process uranium, and that the uranium supply is limited. In fact, 4th generation nuclear technology, by using more than 99% of the energy in the fuel, expands the fuel supply by a factor of the order of 100.

China has just announced its first 4th generation nuclear reactor, thus increasing the expected lifespan of their proven uranium reserves from 50 years to more than 3000 years.

The United States was the first country to develop 4th generation nuclear technology. But, when General Electric and Argonne National Laboratory disclosed that they were ready to build a commercial scale reactor in 1994, anti- nuke people persuaded the Clinton administration to terminate the program. The U.S. still has top brainpower in this technology, but, unless there is a change of policy, China will soon leave the United States behind.

9 Cost: the ‘real solution’ to the climate/energy problem allows the market to determine winning technologies. Westinghouse AP-1000 advanced 3rd-generation nuclear power plants are being built in China Although anti-nukes may do everything they can to make nuclear power as expensive as possible in the United States, they are not likely to affect nuclear power development in China.

I was also pleased that Jim referenced Bill Gates’ recent interview with Chris Anderson.

Bill Gates is so distressed by the irrational pusillanimous U.S. energy policy that he is investing a piece of his personal fortune to help develop a specific 4th generation nuclear technology.

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