On his Storms of My Grandchildren site, James Hansen talks about how intolerable coal-powered power stations are in any realistic future, and claims that:
in most countries, phase-out of coal emissions requires also a carbon-free source of baseload electric power that is competitive in price with coal. Until we have another way to meet 21st century energy needs while eliminating coal and carbon emissions, nuclear power appears to be the only option.
From this he infers that even nuclear power would be the lesser of these two evils, concluding that
The (“3rd generation”) nuclear technology ready to replace the aging 2nd generation reactors in the United States and other counties is inherently safer than existing nuclear power, which already has an exemplary safety record – however, it still burns less than one percent of the nuclear fuel and leaves a long-lived nuclear waste pile. Hansen recommends initiating urgent development of a fourth-generation nuclear power plant. These “fast” nuclear reactors utilize more than 99 percent of the fuel and can “burn” nuclear waste, thus solving the nuclear waste problem that concerns so many.
This doesn’t seem to me to follow. Why is he so confident that these fourth-generation nuclear power plants are any less pie-in-the-sky than carbon capture? It’s the first time I have heard anyone suggest that the problems of safety and spent nuclear fuel could be a thing of the past. I would very much like to hear Hansen’s reasoning. Not that I would like CCS any more than him, but it doesn’t make much sense to be asked to choose between two mirages.
But there’s a more important assumption in Hansen’s commentary. He argues that, if we are to avoid both fossil fuels and nuclear power, then we need ‘a carbon-free source of baseload electric power that is competitive in price with coal’. It is certainly a most attractive option. However, my reading of the technical literature leads me to two conclusions. One, such an option will not exist for many years to come. And two, we can’t afford to wait that long.
So how is it Professor Hansen can claim that the solution needs to be ‘competitive in price with coal’? Given the magnitude of the potential problem – a series of disasters and creeping destruction that will dwarf any previous human experience short of, perhaps, a re-run of the global plague in the 14th century, surely this is like saying that we should have decided our strategy for the Second World War on the basis of whether it would have been as painless as peace.
Plainly this would be nonsense, and as in the case of WW2, there is little doubt what the consequences of continuing prevarication will be. Add to this the impact of ever-expanding resource depletion, ecosystems collapse and 40% more people by 2050, and waiting for another cheap energy source to come along sounds like madness. It would be nice if we were in a position to choose between cheap, friendly, familiar options, but we aren’t. Meanwhile, our social, political and economic system is awash with people and interests for which an effective solution would be anathema, if not fatal.
Of course, we are not at war, and such metaphors are as likely to be misleading as helpful. But to pretend that we can reach Professor Hansen’s own goals without paying a price and making preparations comparable to a war strikes me as unwarranted optimism, if not self-deception.