"The idea that the growing demand for energy worldwide can be met with energy from nuclear power is nonsense."
-- Sigmar Gabriel, former German environmental minister
Dr. James Hansen, a leading world expert on climate change, has been my hero for more than a decade. But he now has brought me great disappointment. On Nov. 3, 2013, Dr. Hansen decided to support the construction of large numbers of nuclear plants as a way to save the day for climate change.
Dr. Hansen, what in the world were you thinking?
I applaud the work Dr. Hansen has done over the decades. He was the man who rang the wake-up call before Congress concerning the threat of global warming, and he has dedicated his life to educating the public and looking for safe, viable and sustainable solutions.
Subsequent to my study of this issue in depth, the results were published with my co-researchers/co-authors, Professor Jerry B. Brown and Rinaldo S. Brutoco, J.D., in our book Freedom From Mid-East Oil.
Why, then, do I believe that Dr. Hansen is categorically wrong in his views on nuclear power?
His reference to a "new and safer" technology refers to breeder nuclear power. This technology has been on the drawing boards for decades and has never been built because, as with all nuclear power technology, it is hugely expensive and cannot compete economically with any other form of safe power generation. Globally, more than $100 billion in public funds have been spent over 60 years on breeder reactor research and development. The results are dismal.
1. Nuclear power has always required taxpayer subsidies as well as publicly financed indemnity in case of an accident. No nuclear plant anywhere has ever been completed on time and on budget. Overruns are most often huge, in the billions of dollars, and these costs are always placed on the shoulders of taxpayers through an increased electric power rate structure.
Furthermore, taxpayers are never informed upfront that when the plant is decommissioned 30 years down the road, it is they or their children who will pay for this decommissioning with significant increased taxes. The costs are prohibitive due to the requirement to safely deconstruct a large facility contaminated by long-lived radioactive materials.
Plutonium-239, which is present in radioactive fuel, has a half-life of 24,400 years. It is dangerous to all living species for a quarter-million years, or 12,000 human generations. As it decays, uranium-235 is generated, which has a half-life of 710,000 years. Thus the hazard of irradiated fuel will continue for millions of years.
2. Nuclear power is not only expensive but slow to build, requiring more than a decade to bring a single plant to commercial fruition. Because of unacceptable economics and unquestionable and proven hazards, none has been built in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island accident in 1974.
3. Nuclear power is not safe. There have been two catastrophic international accidents (Chernobyl and Fukushima) and numerous smaller accidents for this allegedly "fail-safe" technology. As was the case with Chernobyl, we may not know the full impact of Fukushima for many decades. A number of studies in the U.S. and Europe have shown that people, especially young children, who live close to nuclear plants incur a significant increased rate in the incidence of cancer and leukemia.
4. Nuclear power provides the possibility of weapons-grade radioactive isotopes falling into the hands of terrorists.
5. There is no known safe means of storing and processing long-lived, dangerous radioactive waste that will be hazardous for millions of years. Billions of dollars and decades of time have been spent looking for a solution, with none in sight.
Dr. Hansen, there is a better alternative!
The negative press on renewable energy, primarily supported by the fossil-fuel and nuclear lobbies, is nonsense. There is much to be gained in energy efficiency, and the world is not only ready for renewable energy but poised to make the shift to this safe and sustainable form of power.
Technological progress over the last five years, mainly driven by courageous, technically creative entrepreneurs, has demonstrated this case. Renewable energy such as wind and solar can be deployed more quickly, cheaply, and safely than any known nuclear power system. For example, over the last 10 years in the U.S., more than 50,000 megawatts (equivalent to 100 large-scale coal-fed power plants) of wind power were built. Not one nuclear power plant was built, despite huge taxpayer subsidies.
Progress in solar photovoltaic electric power is equally impressive. While taking nearly 40 years to install the first 50,000 megawatts of global solar power, the same amount of solar power was installed in the last two and a half years. Another 100,000 megawatts will be installed by 2016, the equivalent power output of 100 nuclear plants. That's progress, and it is accelerating.
Furthermore, there are indications that within the next three years new technologies will be available that will allow cheap, efficient storage of electrical power. This will have a positive impact on both wind and solar power, and it will be a definite game changer.
Dr. Hansen, ask yourself this simple question:
Wall Street investors who pounce on nearly any investment that will make even a modest return have never shown even the slightest interest in putting up their investment funds for a single nuclear plant, even so-called fourth-generation nuclear power you are supporting. Why is that?
Follow James A. Cusumano, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JamesACusumano