What I Wrote to James Hansen

Dear Dr. Hansen:

You’ve asked for comment on your draft paper “Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions?“

I think your explanation of the gravity of the problem is fine, but I think the paper is unconvincing when it calls for expansion of nuclear power through fast reactors.  I also disagree on what to do with the money raised by a carbon tax.

1. Consider the Monju fast breeder reactor near Kyoto, Japan.  It was built 20 years ago, cost around $10 billion and has produced about 1 hour of electricity in all those years.  There was an accident in 1995 when there was a massive leak of the sodium coolant and then a major fire.  This is a real problem with the fast breeders because they can’t use water for coolant and must use very dangerous materials like liquid sodium.  As of a few days ago the Japanese government announced that it most likely won’t ever use the plant  to generate power at all, but would use it for “research”

2. The 2008 a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency stated, “During the past 15 years there has been stagnation in the development of fast reactors in the industrialized countries that were involved, earlier, in intensive development of this area. All studies on fast reactors have been stopped in countries such as Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States of America and the only work being carried out is related to the decommissioning of fast reactors.”

The theory of the fast breeder reactor that uses nuclear waste seems right, but in practice it has not worked.  Companies interested in pursuing it can’t find people with the experience and skills to work on it. It seems to be a technology to be on the way out.

3. Without fast breeders that can consume the immensely long-lasting nuclear waste we’re stuck with the same problem that has bedeviled the nuclear industry for decades, what to do with the highly radioactive fuel rods.  They sit in cooling ponds as they have for decades, without any place for disposal, targets for terrorists.

4. You ask readers to look over Robert Hargreaves summary about the relative lack of deaths caused by nuclear materials.  Hargreaves training is in math and physics, not in biology or in medicine as far as I can see.  His main prominence comes from recommending a thorium based nuclear power plant.  On the other hand you dismiss Helen Caldicott, regarding her as some kind of crank.   Yet she is a medical doctor who taught for a time at Harvard Medical School.  She organized Physicians for Social Responsibility which at one time was made up of 23,000 doctors.  That group helped create International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.  She herself was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling.

5. The business community has long avoided financing nuclear power plants without huge government subsidies and thinks the vaunted Nuclear Renaissance predicted for this century is another false hope.

6. You claim that the nuclear power stalled because “the Democratic Party in the United States had embraced the anti-nuke agenda.”   I don’t see that at all. President Obama is all for nuclear power as part of his “all of the above” energy program.  He just guaranteed $6 billion for a nuclear plant in Georgia without a peep from Congress or his party.

7. There’s 400 nuclear power reactors in the world.  Marc Jacobson, Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering  of Stamford University said that to power the whole world with nuclear we’d need 17,000 nuclear plants.  Now I know you didn’t say that we should go 100% nuclear, but at minimum we’d have to put fast reactors in every country in the world, giving every tin pot dictator or fanatic the materials to make nuclear bombs.

8. You warn that if nuclear power is rejected in favor of developing only renewables that we will end up being “fracked and mined to death”.  Yet Jacobson says the world can go 100% fossil free within 20 years without nuclear.  You don’t talk about his studies at all even though his arguments are based on engineer’s understanding of what is practical now.

You say, “In the United States bringing sun and wind to large scale requires time to get public approval (around the entire nation) and time to build new electric grids to take the power from its hotspots to where it is needed. It also requires development of energy storage technologies to deal with intermittent energy sources.”  OK, to go to renewables there will have to be dramatic changes in understanding and in the ways we produce and use energy.  Yet, if the public was leveled with by the Administration and explained the life and death nature of the situation I’m confident it would respond properly.

9. Finally, but while I think a sharply rising carbon tax is absolutely necessary I don’t think the proceeds can be given back to the people do appease the common (but artificially produced) prejudice against government and large scale projects. You believe the public will go along with large carbon taxes only if they get the money back in their pockets to go out spending.  You believe that the market will naturally and swiftly turn against products dependent on fossil fuels.

Yet it’s the chaos of the markets and the power it gives the super-rich that has brought us to the perilous point where we are today.   The world needs to use the money raised by carbon taxes to plan new industries, and new ways of living and working, with good jobs for 100% of the people who want to work.   Rather than just promises of more consumption, a guarantee of a tolerable climate in a fully employed world would be the best incentive for getting off our fatal carbon addiction.

With greatest regard,
Stanley  Heller

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