The grassroots response to Dr. James Hansen’s call for more nukes

Yesterday NIRS and the Civil Society Institute released a grassroots response to renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen and three colleagues to their November 3 letter urging environmental groups to support development and deployment of new nuclear power across the globe.

The NIRS/CSI statement was signed by 311 grassroots organizations across the world, from 46 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. and from 22 nations. Those signatures were collected over a three week period smack in the middle of the holiday season. Under the circumstances, we thought it was a pretty impressive outpouring of opposition to new nuclear power. Given another three weeks, we probably could have added a couple hundred more.

Some in the media have been a bit dismissive since the signatories didn’t include most of the big U.S. “green groups.” But we didn’t ask most of the “green groups” to sign the letter–probably most didn’t even know we were doing it. That’s because this was meant to be a grassroots response–from the people on the ground across the U.S. and much of the world (India, which is more threatened than most countries by proposed new reactor projects, was particularly well-represented) who are working every day to build a clean energy future. This included not only those of us who focus on nuclear power issues, but also groups whose primary focus is coal, or fracking, or mining, building renewables and other important issues. The diversity of groups signing the statement was pronounced. The big groups can–and many already have–issued their own statements countering Hansen’s letter.

But here’s a little more background as to why we decided to issue this statement at this time. Dr. Hansen has done the entire world an incredible service with his focus and expertise on climate and his unrelenting warnings that the global community must act to prevent a climate catastrophe. We agree completely.

But Dr. Hansen’s expertise is climate, not energy. And when he steps in to the energy arena, it becomes clear that his expertise is on climate, not energy. His dismissal of renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as distributed energy, growing capabilities in energy storage and really all of the rapidly growing and improving energy technologies of the 21st century, is simply staggering. He really doesn’t know what is happening in the energy world around him. When you have major investment research firms like Credit Suisse predicting 85% of all new U.S. energy demand through 2025 will come from renewables, when you have corporate leaders like David Crane of NRG Energy predicting that it will take about as long for the grid to become decentralized as it did to move from landlines to iphones, when you have new rooftop solar PV installations going up every 3-4 minutes, arguing–as Hansen does–that renewables can’t be deployed fast enough or economically enough falls dramatically flat.

In fact, just the opposite is true: it is nuclear that–even it if didn’t carry all of its other baggage like radioactive waste, meltdowns, devastation from uranium mining, etc.–cannot be deployed fast enough or economically enough. Both the experience of the first generation of nuclear construction and the current, mostly stalled, nuclear “renaissance” provide ample evidence of that. Reactors are too expensive to build without government support or taking money from ratepayers in advance of construction. That’s why we’re not seeing the actual construction of the 30 or so new reactors that were proposed for the U.S. from 2008 through about 2010, nor much new actual construction in any of the western world. Only in China and India at this point–both fully government subsidized–are any significant nuclear construction programs underway, and even those are less ambitious than those governments pledged a few years ago.

Moreover, Hansen and his colleagues do acknowledge that existing reactors are really not all that safe, and have called for “safer” reactor designs. Hansen personally, in numerous other speeches and papers, has promoted so-called Generation IV reactors, that he claims would be essentially fail-proof, and would use fuel reprocessed from existing reactors.

The problem (or one problem anyway, there are many) is that those reactors don’t actually exist except on paper and mock-ups in various labs. So, in order to be deployed, here’s what would have to happen:

*Full designs would have to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for design certification. So far, no “Generation IV” designs have been submitted, nor are any ready for submission. And no utilities have expressed an interest in building any of these reactors, so the incentive to submit such designs is rather lacking. The design certification process, for technologies that the NRC already is basically familiar with (i.e., like the Westinghouse AP-1000 reactor that are fundamentally based on current Pressurized Water Reactor technology), takes several years. For radically new designs, the review process could be expected to take longer. Some might argue that other countries might not need to go through such a lengthy certification process, and in the abstract that’s true, but the reality is that the NRC is the gold standard for nuclear regulation across the world, and few, if any, countries can be expected to approve a radical reactor design that has not first been through the NRC process.

*Once certified (or perhaps while certification is underway), a utility would have to order such a reactor and submit an application for a Construction/Operating License to the NRC. Again, this is a legal process that takes a few years, and could be expected to take longer for a first-of-a-kind project. The public has a right to intervene in these procedures and challenge an application, and no one can expect that someone would not intervene. That’s how democracy works–even though the process is certainly stacked against intervenors…

*Then, the first reactor would have to be built, and it would be unreasonable to expect more than one or two radical new designs would be built at once. Electric utilities are traditionally pretty cautious and conservative; most are going to wait until someone else has gone first before they put their toe and several billion dollars into the water. Historically and reaching into today, reactor construction has averaged about eight years per reactor; some have taken much longer, a precious few have taken less.

*So now, we’ve already taken up at least 20 years, and we’ve only got the first one built. What was that Hansen, said about speedy deployment of nuclear and slow deployment of renewables? In 20 years, we are confident in projecting that renewables will play a major role–probably even a dominant role–in electricity generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world.

*Oh, and we haven’t even gotten to the need–if we’re going to use the Generation IV reactors Hansen touts that use reprocessed fuel as their fuel–to build a multi-billion dollar reprocessing infrastructure. That’s a technology that hasn’t worked well anywhere it’s been tried (France, the poster child for reprocessing, reprocesses only a tiny portion of its fuel; most of it, just like in ever other nuclear country in the world, sits in fuel pools and casks waiting for an eventual high-level waste dump to be constructed). Did we mention that reprocessing is even dirtier and more dangerous than the reactors themselves? Or that reprocessing, unlike Hansen’s claims, doesn’t reduce the volume of high-level radioactive waste that must ultimately be stored? So we have to add some more years and many billions of dollars for this infrastructure to be built–which again would require massive government support.

Hansen has argued we need to streamline the regulatory processes. That, of course, is what Congress already did back in the 1990s, when it moved from the old two-step licensing process that was in place when all currently operating reactors were built, to the one-step process that exists now. How can it be further streamlined? By cutting the public out of the process entirely? We’re confident Dr. Hansen would vociferously–and very correctly–argue against cutting the public out of the regulatory process for the Keystone XL pipeline. That he favors a particular technology–and one as potentially damaging as nuclear power–means it’s ok to cut the public out of it? We don’t think so. And, in the real world, that’s not going to happen anyway. Nuclear power and democracy have never co-existed very warmly, but the public does have some rights and trying to take those away would cause a serious shitstorm. We promise.

If all of the above actually happened, think about it: We’d have spent decades waiting for this

no nukes no coal

no nukes no coal

“solution” to be implemented and at the same time we’d have spent untold billions of dollars–trillions if the thousands of reactors it would take for nuclear to make a meaningful dent in carbon emissions were actually built. That’s time and a lot of money we could and should be spending on deploying renewables, improving energy storage, building the distributed grid, improving energy efficiency and the like. In that sense, going nuclear would actually be counterproductive and delay real carbon reductions.

We could have ignored Hansen this time around, as we have for the past several years as his pro-nuclear stance has become more and more strident. But the sad part is, we agree with Hansen on so much. His warnings on climate (which also have become more strident) are to be taken seriously. We certainly do. After all, he is a real expert on that issue. It’s his solutions that don’t pass muster.

The choice is not nuclear versus coal, or nuclear versus gas or oil. Nor is it simply carbon or no (or less) carbon. There are other pollutants to keep in mind, and nuclear has more than its share. Carbon is not the only environmental problem we face. And then there’s water: nuclear power uses far more water than any other source of electrical generation; at a time of growing water constraints, that’s a real problem. No one has yet figured out the impact on U.S. water supplies, much less anywhere else in the world, if we were to build hundreds of new reactors in the U.S. and thousands across the globe. We need clean air and clean water to survive as a species.

The choice is dirty energy versus clean energy. Renewable energy versus energy derived from extraction from the earth. 21st century energy technologies versus the dinosaurs left over from the 20th century. It’s mystifying, saddening and frustrating that Dr. Hansen cannot see that. We hope he, and his colleagues, will take our statement seriously, as well as our invitation to publicly debate these issues. In the meantime, we’ll continue organizing, educating, empowering and mobilizing, to both effectively address our climate crisis and to end nuclear power and build a clean energy system.

Michael Mariotte
January 9, 2014

The statement signed by 311 organizations can be found here.

A press release about the statement can be found here.

The November 3 letter from Dr. Hansen and three colleagues can be found here.



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