James Hansen: Right on climate, Wrong on Nukes

by Lorna Salzman

James Hansen continues to promote nuclear power as a solution to climate change, even though it clearly is not and even though the reasons are fairly obvious and commonsensical to the man in the street.

If the climate change situation is as dire as Hansen believes, then the speed with which we reduce greenhouse gases and implement renewable energy technologies should be our main concern. In this case, a substantial carbon tax to raise the price of fossil fuels (Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says it should be $200 per ton), plus a massive commitment to mandatory energy efficiency measures and standards are the clear answers. That Hansen does not seem to understand this is troubling.

We know that efficiency can reduce our energy consumption by 30% to 50% within months with proper funding. The failure of our government to make this commitment is deplorable but so is the failure of people like Hansen to take this into account. Promoters of nuclear power have a vested interest in pushing a technology that, safety and waste aside, will starve renewables and efficiency of proper funds and attention, thus undercutting any hopes they offer for solving the climate change crisis even partially. We can cut fossil fuel use and bring wind turbines on line almost overnight, at a tiny fraction of the cost of one nuclear reactor which, ten years from its inception, will only provide electricity and therefore will have no impact on our transportation sector (or any sector requiring liquid fuels) which consumes nearly 50% of our liquid fossil fuels.

Hansen has his head in the sand or the clouds; either way, he can't see clearly and has been mesmerized by self-interested nuclear scientists anxious to get their mitts on government funding for what Amory Lovins calls "a future technology whose time is past". The dis-economics and extended time frame are so obvious to those with eyes and ears that it is troubling to see how wrong Hansen is, and doubly troubling to see Pres. Obama supporting loan guarantees for nuclear reactors and moving a sane energy policy off his desk calendar indefinitely.

Not even Wall St. is cheering the nuclear industry on; it it were, it wouldn't need loan guarantees in the first place if investors were falling all over themselves to invest in it. Again, Lovins nails it when he said that investors may love nuclear power but they love the market more. Like many specialized scientists, Hansen is not looking at the broader context of energy policy but at a very small and speculative part of it, which is to say finding substitutes for electric power generation presently dominated by coal. The electricity sector of our energy economy is the least of our problems. In the metropolitan region, it has just been revealed that only about 8% of the Indian Point nuclear reactors' power is needed by NYC itself, so that the balance of their output will now be exported elsewhere. Why the metro region should bear the risks of nuclear power for other areas is not clear, but in any case this proves an OVER capacity of electricity for which ratepayers will be paying indefinitely.

Hansen and his nuclear cheerleader friends, by supporting nuclear power, are actually working against the mitigation of climate change. With friends like this....ironically the climate doubters are in the position of dismissing Hansen's views on climate change but accepting his views on nukes. I don't think they can have it both ways.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.