James Hansen's nuclear fantasies

Don't nuke the climate! James Hansen's nuclear fantasies exposed

20 Nov 2015, The Ecologist, http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2986335/dont_nuke_the_cli...

Climate scientist James Hansen is heading to COP21 in Paris to berate climate campaigners for failing to support 'safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power', writes Jim Green. But they would gladly support nuclear power if only it really was safe and environment friendly. In fact, it's a very dangerous and hugely expensive distraction from the real climate solutions.

James Hansen will be promoting nuclear power − and attacking environmental and anti-nuclear groups − in the lead-up to the UN COP21 climate conference in Paris in December. The press release announcing Hansen's visit to Paris berates environmentalists for failing to support "safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power". It notes that the Climate Action Network, representing all the major environmental groups, opposes nuclear power − in other words, efforts to split the environment movement have failed.

Hansen won't be participating in any debates against nuclear critics or renewable energy experts. His reluctance to debate may stem from his participation in a 2010 debate in Melbourne, Australia. The audience of 1,200 people were polled before and after the debate. The pre-debate poll found an 8% margin in favour of nuclear power; the post-debate poll found a margin of 24% against nuclear power. The turn-around was so striking that Hansen's colleague Barry Brook falsely claimed the vote must have been rigged by anti-nuclear and climate action groups. "I can think of no other logical explanation − statistically, such a result would be nigh impossible", Brook claimed.

'Nuclear safety' − a contradiction in terms?

An article co-authored by Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, published in the Environment, Science and Technology journal, claims that between 1971 and 2009, "global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning".

Kharecha and Hansen ignore renewables and energy efficiency, setting up a false choice between fossil fuels and nuclear. Even as an assessment of the relative risks of fossil fuels and nuclear, the analysis doesn't stack up.

Kharecha and Hansen cite a UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report to justify their figure of 43 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster. But the UNSCEAR report did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths from radiation exposure from Chernobyl, citing "unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions". The credible estimates of the long-term cancer death toll from Chernobyl range from 9,000 (in Eastern Europe) to 93,000 (across Eastern and Western Europe).

Hansen states: "No people died at Fukushima because of the nuclear technology." The impacts of the disaster are more accurately summarised by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie:

"In sum, the health toll from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is horrendous. At the minimum:

  • "Over 160,000 people were evacuated, most of them permanently.
  • "Many cases of post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders arising from the evacuations.
  • "About 12,000 workers exposed to high levels of radiation, some up to 250 mSv.
  • "An estimated 5,000 fatal cancers from radiation exposures in future.
  • "Plus similar (unquantified) numbers of radiogenic strokes, CVS diseases and hereditary diseases.
  • "Between 2011 and 2015, about 2,000 deaths from radiation-related evacuations due to ill-health and suicides.
  • "An, as yet, unquantified number of thyroid cancers.
  • "An increased infant mortality rate in 2012 and a decreased number of live births in December 2011."

There are many reasons to conclude that Kharecha and Hansen's figure of 4,900 deaths from nuclear power from 1971 to 2009 is a gross underestimate, yet they claim that the figure "could be a major overestimate relative to the empirical value (by two orders of magnitude)."

However a realistic assessment of nuclear power fatalities would include:

  • Routine emissions: UNSCEAR's estimated collective effective dose to the world population over a 50-year period of operation of nuclear power reactors and associated nuclear fuel cycle facilities is two million Sieverts. Applying a risk estimate of 0.1 fatal cancers / Sievert gives a total of 200,000 fatal cancers.
  • Radiation exposure from accidents, including Chernobyl (estimated 9,000 to 93,000 cancer fatalities) and Fukushima (estimated 5,000 long-term cancer fatalities), and the large number of accidents that have resulted in a small number of fatalities.
  • Indirect deaths.

In relation to indirect deaths at Fukushima, Japanese academics state:

"For the Fukushima coastal region, no-one, not even Self-Defense Forces, could enter the area for fear of exposure to radioactive materials, and the victims were left in the area for a long period of time.

"This resulted in so-called indirect fatalities, people who died due to difficult and long-term evacuation, or those who committed suicide, lamenting the radioactive pollution of their farm lands and farm animals and who had lost hope to ever rebuild their lives.

"These are considered as fatalities related to the nuclear accident, and their numbers have risen to 1459 as of September 2013, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Office. Though they are considered indirect deaths, they would have not died if there had been no nuclear accident."

Kharecha and Hansen ignore non-fatal impacts. For example, the permanent relocation of 350,000 people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster was associated with a great deal of trauma. Four and a half years after the Fukushima disaster, over 110,000 of the original 160,000 evacuees remain displaced according to the Japanese government. Using those figures (350,000 + 110,000), and the global experience of around 16,000 reactor-years of power reactor operations, gives a figure of 29 'nuclear refugees' per reactor-year.

Nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels when considering accidents and routine emissions (by a wide margin, though not as wide as Kharecha and Hansen claim) − but we also need to consider the unique WMD proliferation risks associated with the nuclear industry as well as related security issues such as attacks on nuclear facilities.

But of course the 'nuclear versus fossil fuels' argument is a false one. When accidents and routine emissions are considered, renewables are clearly safer than either nuclear power or fossil fuels, and of course nuclear power's proliferation and security risks don't apply to renewables.

Yet Hansen falsely claims that "nuclear power has the best safety record of any energy technology."

Nuclear WMD proliferation

Kharecha and Hansen correctly state that "Serious questions remain about [nuclear] safety, proliferation, and disposal of radioactive waste, which we have discussed in some detail elsewhere." However the paper they cite barely touches upon the WMD proliferation problem and what little it does say is a mixture of codswallop and jiggery-pokery:

  • It falsely claims that thorium-based fuel cycles are "inherently proliferation-resistant". Irradiation of thorium produces fissile uranium-233 which can be − and has been − used in nuclear weapons.
  • It falsely claims that integral fast reactors (IFRs) "could be inherently free from the risk of proliferation". Dr George Stanford, who worked on an IFR R&D program in the US, notes that proliferators "could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor − operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material."
  • And the paper states that if "designed properly", breeder reactors would generate "nothing suitable for weapons". India's Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor will be the next fast neutron reactor to begin operation. India refuses to place it under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. John Carlson, former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, describes the risks associated with India's plans: "India has a plan to produce [weapons-grade] plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. This is problematic on non-proliferation and nuclear security grounds. Pakistan believes the real purpose of the fast breeder program is to produce plutonium for weapons (so this plan raises tensions between the two countries); and transport and use of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors presents a serious terrorism risk (weapons-grade material would be a priority target for seizure by terrorists)."

Hansen and his colleagues argue that "modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks". But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation? In a word: No. Fast reactors have been used for weapons production in the past (e.g. by France) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. by India).

Thorium − another not-so-modern 'modern' nuclear technology − has also been used to produce weapons (e.g. by the US and India) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. India's breeder/thorium program).

It is disingenuous − and dangerous − for Hansen to be waving away those problems with claims that modern nuclear technology can somehow be made inherently proliferation-proof.

False hope: Generation IV nuclear technology

Here's Hansen's take on Generation IV nuclear technology − hyped up for it's claimed ability to burn up nuclear waste. Nuclear waste "is not waste", he writes. "It is fuel for 4th generation reactors! ... 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."

Hansen's views take little or no account of the real-world experience with fast neutron reactors (and Generation IV technology more generally). That real-world experience is littered with accident-prone, obscenely expensive reactors (and R&D programs) that have worsened waste and proliferation problems. Most countries that have invested in fast reactor R&D programs have decided not to throw good money after bad and have abandoned those programs.

Hansen's views are also at odds with reports published this year by the French and US governments. The report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) − a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health − states: "There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen."

IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: "At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors, except perhaps for the VHTR [Very High Temperature Reactors] ... "

Moreover the VHTR system could bring about significant safety improvements "but only by significantly limiting unit power".

The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other 'advanced' reactor concepts in the US. The report concluded:

"While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges. Both SMRs and advanced reactors require additional technical and engineering work to demonstrate reactor safety and economics ...

"Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels ...

"Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process ... "

The glum assessments of the US and French governments are based on real-world experience. But Hansen prefers conspiracy theories to real-world experience, claiming that an IFR R&D program in the US was terminated due to pressure from environmentalists with devious motives.

The real reasons for the termination of the IFR program were mundane: legitimate proliferation concerns, the already-troubled history of fast reactor programs, the questionable rationale for pursuing fast reactor R&D given plentiful uranium supplies, and so on. But Hansen has a much more colourful explanation:

"I think it was because of the influence of the anti-nuclear people who realised that if this newer technology were developed it would mean that we would have an energy source that is practically inexhaustible − it could last for billions of years − and they succeeded in getting the Clinton administration to terminate the R&D for the fourth generation nuclear power plants."

Wrong, stupid, and offensive: Hansen lines up with far-right nuts who argue that environmentalists want everyone living in caves. No wonder he is having so little success winning the green movement over.

Renewables and energy efficiency

"Can renewable energies provide all of society's energy needs in the foreseeable future?" asks Hansen. "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."

But there are credible studies for the countries that Hansen mentions:

  • USA: The Nuclear Information & Resource Service maintains a list of reports demonstrating the potential for the US (and Europe) to produce all electricity from renewables.
  • China: A 2015 report by the China National Renewable Energy Centre finds that China could generate 85% of its electricity and 60% of total energy from renewables by 2050.
  • India: A detailed 2013 report by WWF-India and The Energy and Resources Institute maps out how India could generate as much as 90% of total primary energy from renewables by 2050.

There is a growing body of research on the potential for renewables to largely or completely supplant fossil fuels for power supply globally.

The doubling of global renewable energy capacity over the past decade has been spectacular, with 783 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable power generation capacity installed from 2005 to 2014 − compared to a lousy 8 GW for nuclear.

As of the end of 2014, renewables supplied 22.8% of global electricity (hydro 16.6% and other renewables 6.2%). Nuclear power's share of 10.8% is less than half of the electricity generation from renewables − and the gap is widening.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) anticipates another 700 GW of new renewable power capacity from 2015-2020. The IEA report also outlines the spectacular cost reductions: the global average costs for onshore wind generation fell by 30% from 2010-2015, and are expected to decline a further 10% by 2020; while utility-scale solar PV fell two-thirds in cost and is expected to decline another 25% by 2020.

There's also the spectacular potential of energy efficiency that Hansen sometimes ignores and sometimes pays lip-service to. A 2011 study by University of Cambridge academics concluded that a whopping 73% of global energy use could be saved by practically achievable energy efficiency and conservation measures.

Making nuclear power safe ... how would you do it?

But let's go with Hansen's argument that renewables and energy efficiency aren't up to the job of completely supplanting fossil fuels. It's not an unreasonable place to go given that the task is Herculean and urgent. What would make nuclear power more palatable, reducing the risk of Chernobyl- and Fukushima-scale catastrophes and reducing the WMD proliferation risks? 'Super-safe', 'proliferation-resistant' Generation IV reactor technology that's both unproven and grossly uneconomic? Not likely.

So how about improved safety standards and stricter regulation? That's something that really would reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents. A strengthened − and properly funded − safeguards system would reduce the WMD proliferation risks.

And therein lies the greatest irony of Hansen's nuclear advocacy. Many of the environmental and anti-nuclear groups that he attacks have a commendable track record of campaigning for improved safety and regulatory standards and for improvements to the safeguards system. Hansen has said little and done less about those issues.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia> and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a longer version of this article was originally published. Nuclear Monitor has been publishing deeply researched, often strongly critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue! jim.green@foe.org.au

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Betting on the wrong horse: Fast reactors and climate change

M.V. Ramana − Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University

Published in Nuclear Monitor #815, 3 December 2015, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor

In the last decade or so, many people who would likely identify themselves as environmentalists have turned to nuclear power as a way to deal with climate change. Among them are James Lovelock, Patrick Moore, James Hansen, and George Monbiot. Of these, Hansen has to be, and in some circles has been, taken most seriously. He is, after all, arguably the scientist who has done the most for raising concerns about climate change. What is also notable about Hansen is that he argues not just for any kind of nuclear power, but one based on a specific kind of a reactor − a fast reactor.

Climate change is such an important threat to our planet that it is quite justified to assess whether nuclear power should be deployed to a much larger extent as a way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. This article does not − deliberately − address that question in general, but focuses on whether fast reactors could play a significant role in such a strategy. I argue below that because of the multiple problems with such reactors, relying on fast reactors to combat climate change is misguided.

In his book, Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen explains the details of the reactor and how he came to believe in the potential of this reactor system:

"When asked about nuclear power, I am usually noncommittal, rattling off pros and cons. However, there is an aspect of the nuclear story that deserves much greater public attention. I first learned about it in 2008, when I read an early copy of Prescription for the Planet, by Tom Blees, who had stumbled onto a secret story with enormous ramifications − a story that he delved into by continually badgering some of the top nuclear scientists in the world until he was able to tell it with a clarity that escapes technical experts. I have since dug into the topic a bit more and observed how politicians and others reacted to Blees' information, and the story has begun to make me slightly angry − which is difficult to do, as my basic nature is very placid, even comfortably stolid.
"Today's nuclear power plants are "thermal" reactors, so-called because the neutrons released in the fission of uranium fuel are slowed down by a moderating material. The moderating material used in today's commercial reactors is either normal water ("light water") or "heavy water," which contains a high proportion of deuterium, the isotope of water in which the hydrogen contains an extra neutron. Slow neutrons are better able to split more of the uranium atoms, that is, to keep nuclear reactions going, burning" more of the uranium fuel.
"The nuclear fission releases energy that is used to drive a turbine, creating electricity. It's a nice, simple way to get energy out of uranium. However, there are problems with today's thermal nuclear reactors (most of which are light-water reactors). The main problem is the nuclear waste, which contains both fission fragments and transuranic actinides. The fission fragments, which are chemical elements in the middle of the periodic table, have a half-life of typically thirty years. Transuranic actinides, elements from plutonium to nobelium that are created by absorption of neutrons, pose the main difficulty. These transuranic elements are radioactive materials with a lifetime of about ten thousand years. So we have to babysit the stuff for ten thousand years − what a nuisance that is!
"Along with our having to babysit the nuclear waste, another big problem with thermal reactors is that both light-water and heavy-water reactors extract less than 1 percent of the energy in the original uranium.
"Most of the energy is left in the nuclear waste produced by thermal reactors. (In the case of light-water reactors, most of the energy is left in "depleted-uranium tailings" produced during uranium "enrichment"; heavy-water reactors can burn natural uranium, without enrichment and thus without a pile of depleted-uranium tailings, but they still use less than 1 percent of the uranium's energy.) So nuclear waste is a tremendous waste in more ways than one.
"These nuclear waste problems are the biggest drawback of nuclear power. Unnecessarily so. Nuclear experts at the premier research laboratories have long realized that there is a solution to the waste problems, and the solution can be designed with some very attractive features.
"I am referring to "fast" nuclear reactors. Fast reactors allow the neutrons to move at higher speed. The result in a fast nuclear reactor is that the reactions "burn" not only the uranium fuel but also all of the transuranic actinides − which form the long-lived waste that causes us so much heartburn. Fast reactors can burn about 99 percent of the uranium that is mined, compared with the less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors. So fast reactors increase the efficiency of fuel use by a factor of one hundred or more.
"Fast reactors also produce nuclear waste, but in volumes much less than slow (thermal) reactors. More important, the radioactivity becomes inconsequential in a few hundred years, rather than ten thousand years."

All of this description clearly suggests that Hansen thinks of fast reactors as a good, if not perfect, solution. Elsewhere he has expanded on the various other virtues of fast reactors. What Hansen does not talk about, however, are the various problems with fast reactors. And we have about six decades of experience with those problems.

Hansen actually does refer to the long history of fast reactors in his book, saying:

"The concept for fast-reactor technology was defined by Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and a principal in the Manhattan Project, and his colleagues at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. By the mid-1960s, the nuclear scientists at Argonne National Laboratory had demonstrated the feasibility of the concept."

The demonstration of the feasibility of fast reactors actually goes back to the early 1950s, with the Experimental Breeder Reactor constructed in Idaho in the United States. The term breeder is significant. It refers to the fact that in some fast reactors, those neutrons that are escaping the core are captured by a blanket made of "fertile materials", which then eventually get transformed into a new element that is itself fissile, i.e. can be used as a fuel in a reactor core. An example of such a fertile material is uranium-238, which gets converted into a fissile isotope of plutonium, plutonium-239. Uranium-238 is the most common isotope of uranium, constituting about 99.3 percent of naturally available uranium. It is this process of conversion of uranium-238 into plutonium-239 that makes a fast reactor utilize uranium much more efficiently.

If the fast reactor is designed suitably, it could produce more fissile material in its blankets than is consumed in its core. It is then said to "breed" plutonium and these reactors are called breeder reactors. The long-standing attraction of breeder reactors for nuclear power proponents is that when nuclear power was first developed, uranium was thought to be scarce and there was widespread concern that global resources would be insufficient to support the anticipated large expansion of nuclear power. This is why the United States started constructing the EBR-I so early into its nuclear power program.

Nuclear meltdowns

Indeed, on December 20, 1951, EBR-I became the world's first electricity-generating nuclear power plant when it produced sufficient electricity to illuminate four 200-watt light bulbs. On June 4, 1953, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced that EBR-I had become the world's first reactor to demonstrate the breeding of plutonium from uranium. About two years later, on November 29, 1955, the reactor had a partial core meltdown, not something that Hansen appears to talk about in any detail.

A decade later, in October 1966, it was the turn of Fermi-1 (yes, named after the famous physicist), a demonstration fast breeder reactor located in Lagoona Beach, Michigan, which suffered a partial core meltdown. What is more interesting is the cause of the accident. Pieces of zirconium from the "core catcher", a safety system that is supposed to prevent molten fuel from liquid sodium into a part of the core, leading to those fuel elements melting down because they could not be cooled. The implication; additional safety features, could, under some circumstances, end up causing accidents in unexpected ways.

These meltdowns also have a different cause that has to do with operating a nuclear reactor using fast neutrons. In fast reactors, when fuel starts melting locally and coming closer together, it increases the rate at which the chain reaction occurs. If this process were not stopped extremely fast − for example, by the insertion of control rods that absorb neutrons − the runaway reaction would cause the pressure inside the core to rise fast enough to lead to an explosion. Again, it was an illustrious physicist, Hans Bethe, who pointed out this possibility back in 1956. Such an explosion could fracture the protective barriers around the core, including the containment building, and release large fractions of the radioactive material in the reactor into the surroundings. This so-called "core disassembly accident" has therefore been a longstanding safety concern with fast reactors.

A second difference between breeder reactors and the more common thermal reactors is their choice of coolant. Because breeder reactors do not have any moderator to slow down neutrons, their cores, where most of the fissions, and thus energy production, occur are smaller in size as compared to thermal reactors. Thus, their power density will be much higher. Efficient transfer of this heat requires the use of liquid metals rather than the more commonly utilized water. The coolant that has been used in all demonstration breeder reactors to date is a liquid metal that melts at relatively low temperatures − sodium.

Though sodium has some safety advantages, it reacts violently with water and burns if
exposed to air. This makes fast reactors susceptible to serious fires. Almost all fast reactors constructed around the world have experienced one or more sodium leaks, likely because of chemical interactions between sodium and the stainless steel used in various components of the reactor. Finally, since sodium is opaque, fast reactors are notoriously difficult to maintain and susceptible to long shutdowns.

The question of costs

Having to deal with all these properties and safety concerns naturally drives up the construction costs of fast reactors, to the point that they are significantly more expensive than the more common thermal reactors that Hansen talks about. In addition, they also operate with less reliability. Economically, therefore, fast reactors have proved to be uncompetitive with current generation thermal reactors.

This is the main reason that decades after breeder reactors were piloted, no country has successfully built a commercial breeder reactor. France, the country that is most reliant on nuclear power in the world, did try. The Superphenix started operating in 1986, experienced a series of accidents, and was shut down in 1997. During this period, it generated less then 7% of the electricity of what it could have done at full capacity. Currently, only a few demonstration reactors are being built or operated, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor that is being constructed in Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu being one such reactor. This result is not for want of trying; just the OECD countries, between themselves, have spent about US$50 billion (in 2007 dollars) on breeder reactor research and development and on demonstration breeder reactor projects.

In today's electricity markets, with nuclear power rapidly losing ground to cheaper renewables, the idea that fast reactors would establish an economically viable path forward for nuclear power is far-fetched, to say the least. Hansen's advocacy of fast reactors therefore seems a little at odds with current economic realities.

What of nuclear waste?

What of the other argument Hansen makes; about the ability of fast reactors to deal with the nuclear waste problem. Here again, what is not mentioned is as important, if not more important, than what is said. First, actinides are not the only long-lived radioactive materials produced in a nuclear reactor. There is also what is called fission products, some of which have a very long radioactive half-life; Technetium-99, for example, has a half-life of 200,000 years.

Second, there are so many actinides and they have a variety of nuclear reactions that are trying to "transmute" (i.e., convert) them into elements that have shorter lifetimes, or even radioactively stable elements, requires an elaborate strategy involving the reprocessing of spent fuel, multiple rounds of special fuel fabrication, and irradiation in fast reactors. In 1996, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences examined the potential benefits of such a scheme and concluded: "none of the dose reductions seems large enough to warrant the expense and additional operational risk of transmutation".

Third, just in the process of doing this transmutation, a large quantity of radioactive materials that are currently held within the spent fuel from nuclear reactors will be released into the biosphere in the form of liquid or gaseous wastes. This is what happens at all reprocessing plants and estimates of the radiation dose to populations around the world from just the gaseous fission products routinely released by reprocessing plants suggest that these exceed the doses from future leakage from geological repositories.

To conclude, James Hansen's advocacy of a nuclear solution to climate change based on fast reactors is misplaced. The six decades of global experience with breeder reactors shows that they are very problematic, much more so than nuclear power in general. So any strategy based on rapid construction of these untested technologies is very likely to suffer from setbacks. There is simply not enough time for us to go down these blind alleys.

Let’s Call Them What They Are: Climate Liars

Linda Pentz Gunter, 20 Nov 2015, CounterPunch


In 2004, when I was working at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I had an interesting email exchange with my fellow countryman and ardent climate change columnist, George Monbiot.

This was before he went to the dark side and became a nuclear power apologist. We were discussing climate skeptics and, as we did so, I began to think about their similarity to Holocaust deniers. I suggested to Monbiot that climate “denier” was a more apt term than “skeptic.” Monbiot ran with it. Today it’s in the lexicon.

But it’s time for a change. Because, as the revelations surrounding Exxon clearly illustrate, these “deniers” actually know better. Even Donald Trump, for all his repulsive policies and personality traits, is not necessarily stupid. He probably gets climate change. It’s just vaguely possible that even Ted Cruz and Ben Carson do, too. Which means none of them are really Climate Deniers. They, like Exxon, are Climate Liars.

This makes them worse than genuine skeptics because they are deliberately sabotaging the long-term survival of our planet for short-term gain. Some are doing this to win election to, or retain, public office. Others are simply lining their pockets, eager for the lavish handouts the fossil fuel industry is willing to make to stay alive and perpetuate the myth that it is relevant.

Whether lying or denying, dismissing climate change is a winning formula because the public has been fed a steady diet of misinformation about the urgency of global warming. More disturbingly, we are bombarded daily with news about truly inconsequential, often celebrity-driven gossip, or quotidian stories that are sensationalized into national dramas. These obliterate the opportunity to impart information of genuine significance. Instead, click bait and trivia have created an addiction to soft, rather than hard, news.

Meanwhile, the empirical facts languish like leftovers, of no interest to a fast-food consumer who prefers an easily digestible sound bite, even if it isn’t true. Politicians know this and latch onto the messaging that will serve their ends, regardless of the veracity factor.

Mired in this melange of myths is nuclear energy. Its spokespeople include a handful of misguided climate scientists like James Hansen who should know better but are pushing nuclear anyway as a climate change solution. Just before the recent violent events in Paris, Hansen was promoting a press conference he planned to hold there during the upcoming COP 21 (Conference of Parties) climate talks. Although COP is still going ahead, it’s not yet clear how many, if any, of the side events will.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the ravages of climate change are now a present crisis rather than a distant threat, the Hansen crowd will be unrelenting in their promotion of nuclear energy. This has historically stifled progress on climate change, and will continue to do so.

Are Hansen and his followers nuclear deniers, or actually nuclear liars? It’s hard to know. Hansen has refused to debate us or answer the obvious flaws in his thesis — such as the fact that nuclear energy cannot possibly come on line in time or in sufficient capacity to address climate change.

Hansen’s press releases and public statements tend toward rhetorical over-reaching and even insults. This has become a favorite pastime of the nuclear power panderers, catering once more to the easy sell and quick snicker at the opposition’s expense. Thus, Hansen, with all his lofty NASA credentials, has stooped to calling on donors to pull funds from green groups that oppose nuclear energy. He even mocks solicitation requests that are “doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear.” Such cheap shots seem unworthy of a man who professes to represent serious science and uses his august curriculum vitae as a door-opening calling card.

Rectifying this problem is no easy task. For one thing, blasting people with the truth about nuclear power doesn’t always work. It is too technical, too complicated, too wonky and too grim. Try telling someone about the dangerous state of a nuclear reactor drywell liner. It’s a problem that could lead to disaster, cost people their lives and livelihoods, and force permanent evacuation. But as a piece of messaging, it is dead on arrival compared to the “safe, clean and reliable” misleading mantra adopted by the pro-nuclear cronies.

The dialogue has to change, and obviously, though fun and even effective, name calling, like “climate liars,” isn’t the answer either. Or at least, it isn’t an answer. What we must do is stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. taxpayer dollars funding further, futile attempts to build a better nuclear mousetrap.

Like the billions spent on bombing raids that create more terror rather than eradicating terrorism, the never-ending flow of dollars toward the illusory phantom of a so-called “next generation” nuclear reactor is a failed strategy. Such nuclear reactors have been “in progress” for decades and will likely never arrive in time for climate change, if at all. They have demonstrated no strong likelihood that they will even work or ever be safe and will simply swallow up precious dollars and time that we cannot afford to waste.

For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a “next generation” favorite, the Small Modular Reactor (SMR), since the 1990s. Today, there are still no SMRs in operation, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to receive a single license application.

Climate disruption is adding to the terrible strife in our world. Another nuclear disaster would destabilize the globe even more. Things could not be more urgent. Like terrorism, nuclear energy delivers fear and tragedy. From leukemia clusters to meltdowns; the environmental racism of uranium mining to the exclusion zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima; we live in the perpetual shadow of disaster as long as nuclear power continues.

As everyone from Hansen to Huckabee doubtless knows, there are other ways forward. They need look no further than the empirical evidence found in the 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, where we see nuclear energy continuing to stagnate and even decline while wind and solar energy soar globally. It’s time to follow the example of Germany and take nuclear power out of the energy equation. Continued nuclear irresponsibility will have only one, tragic outcome; allowing the climate crisis to slip beyond the point of no return.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.