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NASA’s James Hansen Says Nuclear Is Safer Than Fossil

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In a Treehugger interview on Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice, NASA’s James Hansen says it is very unfortunate that “a number of nations have indicated that they’re going to phase out nuclear power… The truth is, what we should do is use the more advanced nuclear power. Even the old nuclear power is much safer than the alternatives.”

This blog disagrees with his thinking. Nevertheless, it is worth assessing why he favors nuclear power for base-load electric power.

Consider the United States, for example. We had one nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. The National Academy of Sciences has indicated that the people in Pennsylvania who were exposed to the radiation could suffer one or two deaths over the next several decades from cancer caused by radiation, in addition to the 40,000 people who will die from cancer in that same population.

In fact, the safety record of nuclear power has been exceptional, even taking account of Fukushima, which hasn’t, as yet, killed anyone from radiation, and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. A million people a year die of air and water pollution, most of which is associated with fossil fuel use. But people are frightened by radiation because it’s something that’s harder to understand.

They can hold a piece of coal in their hand, and it’s really nasty stuff. It’s got arsenic and mercury, and the black soot that you get is itself a very bad air pollutant. But that doesn’t frighten people. But nuclear power does.

And you can make nuclear power even more safe than the best type of reactors that exist today. With the fourth generation nuclear power, you can actually burn the nuclear waste, and solve the biggest problem with nuclear power.

So it hasn’t changed my mind, but it has made everybody realize that it’s going to be more difficult to sell nuclear power in many places. Fortunately, China and India-which are going to be the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide-I don’t think are changing their minds.

They do need to learn a lesson from Fukushima. You shouldn’t build a nuclear power plant on a coastline and design it to withstand, at most, a three meter tsunami when much bigger ones are possible. They’re very infrequent, but they’re possible. So you need to be aware of that sort of situation.

And even now, with the current technology, you can design nuclear power plants such that they don’t require external power to cool in the case of an accident. So nuclear power has a tremendous potential. And as yet, we don’t have any alternative to fossil fuels other than nuclear power for base-load electric power.

Hansen’s position is consistent with recent research from the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making (SES-0949710), through a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University. Via Green Car Congress we learn that CMU researchers and researchers at DAI Management Consultants, Inc., warn a shift away from nuclear power “could affect the reliability of the electricity supply, electricity costs, air pollution, [and] carbon emissions.” Like Hansen these researchers warn about a reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, to run electric power plants in the future.

CMU/DAI study also contends that shutting down US nuclear plants would have significant negative economic consequence because of the low cost of electricity generation by nuclear plants.

Content Discussion

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on June 25, 2011

 

“We have a way of completely losing track of relative risks….. There’s a way in which we just do a fantastically bad job in comparing the risk of say, the Fukushima accident, or disaster or whatever you want to call it to these risks that are just everyday.  Fukushima likely will kill, by all the induced cancers its going to cause, as many people as one or two days of the people killed by the US coal fired power industry.  The US coal fired power plants in their normal operations kill 10,000 people a year.  Fukushima will kill the equivalent of one or two days of that.  And in the rich world, this [ normal operations of coal fired plants ] dwarfs other environmentally caused sources of injury.”


“We have a way of completely losing track of relative risks….”   said Dr. David Keith, 
Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment, University of Calgary, who is prominent these days as a researcher into air capture of CO2.  He was speaking at the Equinox Summit:  Energy 2030, held June 6-9.  He went on:

“There’s a way in which we just do a fantastically bad job in comparing the risk of say, the Fukushima accident, or disaster or whatever you want to call it to these risks that are just everyday.  Fukushima likely will kill, by all the induced cancers its going to cause, as many people as one or two days of the people killed by the US coal fired power industry.  The US coal fired power plants in their normal operations kill 10,000 people a year.  Fukushima will kill the equivalent of one or two days of that.  And in the rich world, this [ normal operations of coal fired plants ] dwarfs other environmentally caused sources of injury.”

Others might come up with greater numbers for the deaths Fukushima will cause – I heard Dr. Robert Gale, who was the director of the medical effort at Chernobyl, say several months ago he thought people might be able to calculate that 200 to 1,500 cases of cancer over the next 50 years, “diluted in about 20,000,000 normally occurring cancer deaths in Japan in the same period”.  So Gale might say the entire effect of Fukushima in the way of dead people over the next 50 years would be exceeded by the normal operations of the US coal fired power industry in 10 or 20 days, which would be repeated the next 10 or 20 days, and so on and so on.  

No wonder your blog disagrees with Hansen about nuclear power.  Who would want to use something this dangerous?  

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 25, 2011

In fact, nuclear is so much safer than fossil fuel, it’s also safer than any plausible mix of fossil and renewables.

The DOE NREL has studied scenarios with 20-35% renewables and found them feasible. But even if we could do 40-60% renewables, we would still have more people killed in accidents and by pollution compared to a French-like 80% nuclear scenario.

There’s a lot of bad science behind the renewables movement.  The some of the biggest misconceptions are about the relative risks of nuclear and fossil, and the relative cost of nukes and renewable.  There is also a big underestimation of the breakthroughs that are required to make 80-100% renewable systems possible, and the likely outcome of continued dependence on fossil fuel that a nuclear phaseout would cause.

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on June 26, 2011

The cars:planes and fossil:nuke comparison is right on I think. And gets proportional media coverage!

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on June 26, 2011

Hey Nathan- can you cite data for “if we could do 40-60% renewables, we would still have more people killed in accidents and by pollution” that isn’t that one article from next big future?

Paul O's picture
Paul O on June 26, 2011

It s refreshing to see scientists of note come out and expound the facts as concerning Nuclear Power and Mortality. As I see it, Nuclear Power is a very potent form of energy, that deserves a lot of care and consideration when it is implimented, but can and should be implimented. 

I have never been able to understand the basis for the almost superstitious fear of nuclear power,  for  some people there seems to almost be an unspoken ethos that if you believe in saving Earth, then you must renounce all power sources that do not come directly from Mother Nature. In other words, you have to hate Nuclear power before you can be in support of Solar and Wind. This ethos, as I see it is almost reminesent of Cave Men hiding in uderground caverns praying to the Gods to spare their lives from the Lightning Storm, or  during an eclipse, praying for the Sun to survive being eaten by some mythical demon or dragon.

Nuclear energy is Science. Mankind MUST seek its future though science and education, not through superstition and fear. My view is that Nuclear power done right, and moved from the 1950’s to the 2000’s technology can be both Safe and abundant. I also believe that in the right places (loacations) Solar and wind energy make utmost sense, and when linked to storage and backups, they will serve humanity very well.

Just as mankind has learnt to handle electricity (lightning) with the right precautions and technology, so also must we leaarn to manage and design nuclear power.

It would be delightful if more Scientists and Engineers would come forward and de-link Nuclear power from what I see as a modern form of willful superstition.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 27, 2011

Amelia,

I highly recommend Bernard Cohen’s book, “Then Nuclear Energy Option”, available free on-line:  http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/

It has a whole chapter on understanding risks, with comparisons to other risks we gladly tolerate, like driving in cars and eating peanut-butter.

His numbers for electrical generation risk are slightly different from those in the Next Big Future article linked above, but the bottom line is the same, nuclear power is enormously safer than fossil fuel.  He does not state it explicitly, but his numbers show that even if we one used renewables to reduce fossil fuel demand by a factor of 2 or more (or 1000 for coal!), nuclear is still safer.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 27, 2011

Breath on the Wind,

I understand that many people outside of scientific fields are hesitant to trust the judgment of scientists on matters of risk assessments assessments and geological stability of waste disposal sites.  But your claim that the risks of nuclear power are somehow harder to analyze than other risks seems to be based on nothing more than your own gut feel. 

Rest assured that scientifically derived risk assessment are required to include the effects of even very rare failure modes (you can analyze the result of a generator failing, even if you don’t anticipate that it might be a tsunami or terrorist that caused the failure).

Ultimately, these risk analyses are grounded in the historic record.  We have had many decades of experience with nuclear power, and we have had several catastrophes and many near-catastrophes.  We are not rushing into the unknown.

Yes, using nuclear power does entail a small risk that some pieces of land around accident sites will have to be evacuated for many decades, and require expensive cleanup (similar in cost to building a replacement power plant), but the impact on human life is an increase in safety.   Similarly, animal and plant life also benefit when people use small nuclear power plants instead of large renewable facilities or ecologically disruptive fossil fuel facilites (they also benefit when humans evacuate contaminated nuclear sites – the high death rate due to predation means that animals are essentially invulnerable to low level radiation).

So before you say I’m callous for tolerating the risks of nuclear power, consider the 30,000 live that would be saved every year (in the United States alone), if we were to replace all of our coal-fired electric plants with nuclear ones.  

So before you say I’m callous for tolerating the risks of nuclear power, consider the 30,000 live that would be saved every year (in the United States alone), if we were to replace all of our coal-fired electric plants with nuclear ones.  Or consider the 15,000 lives per year that we’d save if we adopted an all nuclear approach, rather than an equal split of renewables and coal.

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on June 28, 2011

Hey Nathan, That sounds rad. I will definitely check it out. Right now I’m enjoying David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air” http://www.withouthotair.com/. Thanks!