If you’ve not yet read James Hansen’s latest letter I encourage you to do so. I hesitated to write anything after reading it – I didn’t want to write something inflammatory. Most of this will be familiar to those who have been thinking about climate and energy policy. Still, Dr. Hansen’s words are heavy with the frustration that we all feel. Following is an excerpt regarding the enormous cost of the worst US policy decisions:
Nuclear scientists were ready in 1976 to build a demonstration fast nuclear power plant. However, the project was stopped by President Jimmy Carter in his first State-of-the-Union message. Research continued at a low level until 1993 when President Bill Clinton delivered an intended coup de grace, declaring “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.” Clinton was caving in to a quasi-religious anti-nuke minority in the Democratic Party, whose unrealistic “belief” was that diffuse renewable energies could satisfy all energy needs.
R&D on advanced technologies, including thorium reactors with the potential to ameliorate remaining concerns about nuclear power, was stifled, seemingly because it was too promising. Powerful anti-nuclear forces had their way with the Democratic Party. “Green” organizations had indoctrinated themselves in anti-nuclear fervor, and their intransigence blinded them to the fact that they were nearly eliminating the one option for abundant clean electricity with inexhaustible fuel and a small planetary footprint.
The enormity of anti-nuclear policy decisions would be difficult to exaggerate. It meant China and other developing nations would have no choice but to burn massive coal amounts, if they wished to raise their living standards. It meant our children and grandchildren faced near certainty of large climate change. None of the developing nations and none of our descendants had any voice in the decision.
I cannot blame President Clinton. We scientists should have made clearer that there is a limited “carbon budget” for the world, i.e., a limit on the amount of fossil fuels that could be burned without assuring disastrous future consequences. We should have made clear that diffuse renewables cannot satisfy energy needs of countries such as China and India. It seems we failed to make that clear enough.
The United States, as the leader in nuclear R&D, had an opportunity not only to help find a carbon-free path for itself, but also to aid countries such as China and India. Indeed, such aid was an obligation. The United States had already used its share of the “carbon budget” and was beginning to eat into China’s.
Perhaps our leaders, and certainly the public, did not really understand the implications of decisions made more than two decades ago. But there can no longer be such excuse. If we do not now do what is still possible to minimize climate change and eliminate air pollution, will it not be a crime against future generations and nature? Will it not be a crime of one people against another?
I have been promoting intensifying nuclear power cooperation with China to accelerate China’s substitution of nuclear for coal; to bring forward the date of “China’s last coal plant”. Dr. Hansen is pressing hard for the same goals:
What the United States should do is cooperate with China and assist in its nuclear development. The AP- 1000 is a fine nuclear power plant, incorporating several important safety improvements over existing plants in the United States, which already have an excellent safety record. There has been only one serious accident among 100 reactors, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and it did not kill anyone. However, further advances in nuclear plants beyond AP-1000 are possible and the large demand in China allows rapid progress and building at a scale that can drive down unit cost.
China has initiated nuclear R&D programs, including cooperation with American universities and firms. Cooperation with our universities and the private sector could be expanded rapidly, and areas of relevant excellence persist in some Department of Energy Laboratories despite inadequate levels of support. Training of nuclear engineers and operators in the U.S. could help assure safe operations during a challenging period of rapid expansion. Benefits of cooperation in technology development can eventually circle back to United States industry and utility sectors as cost effective power plants are perfected.
I won’t say enjoy World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature, but please do share.