Climate Alarmist Goes Nuclear
Writing in a paper to appear in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, NASA scientist and noted climate alarmist James Hansen has come down on the side of nuclear power. He and coauthor Pushker A. Kharecha claim that getting power from nuclear energy actually saves lives. “Global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths,” they report. Of course it also prevented 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, when compared to the burning of fossil fuels, perhaps explaining why Hansen has suddenly become a nuclear power booster. With global warming on hiatus for the past decade and a half, the climate change cabal may be growing desperate for allies and have turned to that most unloved of energy sources—nuclear. Is this a sign that warmists and tree-huggers have a developing schism over nuclear power?
The news is out. In a just accepted paper, entitled “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power,” Pushker A. Kharecha and James Hansen of NASA, have not only declared nuclear energy safe but a lifesaver. According to their study, using nuclear power in place of fossil-fuel energy sources, such as coal, has prevented some 1.8 million air pollution-related deaths globally and could save millions of more in the future. Here is the paper's abstract:
In the aftermath of the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future contribution of nuclear power to the global energy supply has become somewhat uncertain. Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, on balance it could make a large contribution to mitigation of global climate change and air pollution. Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. Based on global projection data that take into account the effects of Fukushima, we find that by mid-century, nuclear power could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7.04 million deaths and 80 to 240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.
Note that the actually mention the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident, caused by an earthquake and cited by anti-nuclear greens as the latest reason to eschew the use of atomic energy. In the wake of the disaster in Japan, critics of nuclear power have questioned if the world should rely on nuclear energy in light of possible risks it poses to the environment and human health. Fukushima is now part of the green crowd's unholy trinity of nuclear disasters, along with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
“I was very disturbed by all the negative and in many cases unfounded hysteria regarding nuclear power after the Fukushima accident,” says report coauthor Pushker A. Kharecha, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Working with Hansen, the researcher decided to take a look at nuclear power’s advantages over fossil fuels in terms of reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The NASA researchers combined mortality information from a 2007 study, published in The Lancet, with historical energy generation data to estimate how many deaths would have been caused if fossil-fuel burning was used instead of nuclear power generation from 1971 to 2009. They estimated that the use of nuclear power over that same period caused around 5,000 deaths, due to cancer from radiation fallout and worker accidents. Comparing those two estimates, Kharecha and Hansen came up with the 1.8 million figure. The figure below summarizes the authors' findings.
Cumulative net deaths prevented assuming nuclear power replaces fossil fuels.
Shown are the results for (a) the historical period in the study (1971-2009), showing mean values (labeled) and ranges for the baseline historical scenario. Results for (b) the high-end and (c) low-end projections of nuclear power production by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the period 2010-2050. Error bars reflect the ranges for the fossil fuel mortality factors. The larger columns in panels b and c reflect the All Coal case and are labeled with their mean values, while the smaller columns reflect the All Gas case; values for the latter are not shown because they are all simply a factor of ~10 lower (reflecting the order-of-magnitude difference between the mortality factors for coal and gas). Countries/regions are arranged in descending order of CO2 emissions in recent years. FSU15=15 countries of the Former Soviet Union and OECD=Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The authors' motivation should not be misinterpreted—for them the big win is a reduction in GHG emissions. Recognizing that large-scale implementation of renewable energy options, such as wind or solar, presents significant challenges, Kharecha and Hansen say their results strongly support the case for nuclear power as a critical energy source to help stabilize or reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. Their estimates for emissions reduction are shown below:
Cumulative net GHG emissions prevented assuming nuclear power replaces fossil fuels.
So this is not a case of sudden conversion, particularly in the case of Hansen. He remains a global warming true believer to the point that he has announced his resignation from NASA so he can pursue a new career in environmental activism. Reportedly, he plans to take a more active role in lawsuits challenging both federal and state governments over their failure to limit emissions, as well as fighting the development of oil from Canadian tar sands.
“As a government employee, you can’t testify against the government,” he said in an interview. But is the new 'activist' Hansen ready to be attacked by other environmentalists over this report in favor of nuclear power?
Bas van Ruijven, an environmental economist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, says the study's estimates on prevented deaths seem reasonable. Yet he wonders if the conclusion that nuclear power saves hundreds of times more lives than it causes will convince fanatical greens of its desirability. Van Ruijven agrees with the study's conclusions on the importance of nuclear power, but states that the nuclear power issue is “so polarized that people who oppose nuclear power will immediately dispute the numbers.”
Indeed, critics of nuclear power continue to raise safety concerns and the unresolved question of what to do with nuclear waste in the long term. This stance ignores the nuclear power industry's exemplary safety record and the fact that a number of solutions for solving the waste problem have been proposed and summarily blocked by those same green advocates. But the future of fossil fuel power plants is not without unknowns either. According to the older Lancet study.
The negative effects on health of electricity generation from renewable sources have not been assessed as fully as those from conventional sources, but for solar, wind, and wave power, such effects seem to be small; those of biofuels depend on the type of fuel and the mode of combustion. Carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage is increasingly being considered for reduction of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel plants, but the health effects associated with this technology are largely unquantified and probably mixed: efficiency losses mean greater consumption of the primary fuel and accompanying increases in some waste products.
As we reported in The Energy Gap, accidents in the wind and solar industries are ignored by green advocates and the environmental impacts can be great. Most certainly the risks of carbon capture and sequestration and the risks to workers at plants that use such technology are largely unknown at this time. By comparison, nuclear power has a proven track record a half a century long. At Three Mile Island the safety precautions worked and the accident was contained; at Chernobyl a poorly designed Soviet Era plant run by unqualified operators suffered a catastrophe that could have happened in no western nation; and at Fukushima an aging plant that was supposed to be decommissioned almost averted the release of radiation under the most extreme of circumstances.
All these factors considered, it is little wonder that Japan has quietly announced that it is bringing its closed nuclear power plants back online. Regarding the announced plan for Japan to be nuclear free by 2040, Shinzo Abe, who took over as Japan's premier in December of 2012, has derided the “zero nuclear” goal of the ousted Democratic Party of Japan as unrealistic.
In other, less advanced nations, the nuclear revival continues apace. Only in the world's most technologically advanced nations has the nuclear renaissance faltered, stymied by undereducated, overly hysterical anti-nuclear greens. It appears that the leading nuclear nations are dead set on ceding the future to the world's less developed ones.
For Hansen, starting his new career as a green activist off by endorsing nuclear power—which has been anathema to greens everywhere since the 1960s—seems an odd move. But then he has never been rational when it comes to his fear of CO2. If his new stance on nuclear power pits environmentalists against each other so much the better. In the end, much of the world is going nuclear, while idiot governments in the developed countries ruin their economies pursuing unworkable green energy schemes.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.