July 27, 2013
Jame Hansen: Nuclear Energy Essential For Climate

Fearless climate scientist James Hansen doubles down on for unpopular positions. Hansen makes the argument that renewable energy sources are not sufficient to allow us to get off of burning fossil fuels. Would you prefer to take offense with Hansen's position in global warming or Hansen's position on nuclear power? Or are you an outlier who agrees with him on both topics?

Hansen likes fast reactors that burn more of the fuel and produce less waste. But waste disposal isn't the main problem with nuclear power. Lower cost coal and natural gas power are why we see few nukes getting built in the United States. In Europe the competing sources cost more. European coal mines are less extensive and more depleted and Europe has much higher natural gas prices. Renewables cost more in Europe too. Since europe is further north solar power costs more, Europe has far less hydro wind power per person due in part to geography and population density. Yet even in Europe nuclear has cost problems as well as more popular opposition.

In the United States nuclear power is going nowhere until shale natural gas becomes more expensive. Maybe the shale natural gas boom won't last long and coal will start regaining electric power generation market share. Short of that, only a much cheaper nuclear reactor design could enable a nuclear power come back.

The thing about agreeing or disagreeing with Hansen: It does not matter. Humanity will continue to burn large quantities of fossil fuels until either the fossil fuels become too expensive to extract or competing energy sources become much cheaper.

What I'd like to know: the costs of oil, natural gas, coal, solar, nuclear, and wind 20 years from now. My guess is that all fossil fuels will cost more (especially oil) while solar, wind, and nuclear power decline in price (with solar declining the most in percentage terms). But I'm less clear on how much their costs will go up and down.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 July 27 11:06 AM 

James Bowery said at July 27, 2013 12:37 PM:

I've been trying to get the folks that are following up on the Fleischmann Pons Phenomenon to stop referring to it in their papers as "cold fusion", "low energy nuclear reaction", "chemically assisted nuclear reaction", etc and, instead, refer only to the "Fleischmann Pons Phenomenon".

This more neutral term would cut through establishment pseudo-skepticism and demand that the evidence be admitted to discourse -- even if only of interest to the social and political sciences.

The deeper problem here does seem to be a social or political Illuminating its structure may have ramifications well beyond the hundreds of trillions of dollars in present value to the world economy represented by the energy technology involved.

Engineer-Poet said at July 27, 2013 12:48 PM:

Proud outlier here.  I've only been touting the same solution for about 30 years now.

Shale gas will become expensive when people stop putting equity into money-losing companies and they go bankrupt, cutting drilling and bringing prices up to what actually pays for the effort.  At the 39%/yr decline rates typical of fracced wells (which can get as bad as 47% decline in 3 months), this won't take long.

Ronald Brak said at July 27, 2013 4:24 PM:

Wind and solar are now cheaper than new coal or gas capacity in Australia:


As renewables are cheaper than nuclear, renewables are what will be built. If anyone disagrees please feel free to go and build a reactor that can compete with renewables, but I don't think you'll be successful. Especially not when the cost of insurance is included.

Lawrence Karch said at July 27, 2013 4:48 PM:

The main problem with reactor construction is that we're always building the first of a kind. It's like the first prototype of anything whether it be an airliner, fighter, ship, space telescope or whatever - the cost is astronomical. But if we could get to serial production of a proven reactor design, then the costs for each succeeding unit would come way down.

Nuclear power will never be too cheap to meter (A pox on whoever said that first!), but its cost can get down to that of coal or nat gas assuming we can get over the hysteria surrounding waste disposal. Just reprocess the spent fuel (like the Brits, French, and Japanese do) and put the Pu back into mixed oxide fuels and BURN IT! Problem solved!!!

Blaze said at July 27, 2013 8:42 PM:

The truth is the truth, regardless of what James Hansen or any other celebrity chooses to say. Nuclear energy has the power density and abundance that future generations of humans will need to exploit. And most current methods of burning coal are polluting the environment.

The mood of energy discussions is a bit more relaxed and laid back than it has been in years past. Frenzy over both peak oil and climate change has subsided slightly, as huge global shale resources can now be accessed, and global temperature curves are diverging slowly but surely away from CO2 curves.

As for industrial scale on-grid wind and solar, any honest and competent power engineer (not on the take) could explain the folly of going down that road.

The sooner the discussion gets away from wishful thinking escapism and compulsive apocalypticisms, the sooner genuine long term solutions can be assembled.

dscott said at July 31, 2013 2:21 PM:

Irregardless of what Hansen has to say, it's what we collectively as consumers and producers have to say and we say it has to be cost effective. The average person can not afford $0.50 kwhr electric rates. Right now it is not cost effective to go nuclear because of the Lawfare practiced by environmental nutjobs and the Courts who stupidly entertain such nonsense. So the first thing that has to happen for nuclear or any other energy technology for that matter is legal reform to end Lawfare.

Additionally, nuclear waste is an issue but not because of its long half life, the problem is the idiot Jimmy Carter who cancelled the Breeder reactor program in the 1970s. France does not have a nuclear waste disposal problem. Why? The Breeder Reactor in which they reprocess the spent fuel rods.

Secondly, it is not the government's business to interfere in the consumer - supplier relationship. Government interference is begat by ignorant busybody know-it-alls who think they have the right to micromanage the economy or engage in social judgments. Ethanol being the chief example of such ignorant stupidity.

Right now as it stands, coal to oil technology is cost effective (above $45/barrel oil) to produce enough domestic diesel and gasoline. You all know why it isn't happening and as a result hundreds of thousands of high paying domestic jobs won't appear with this industry.

As far as the snarky comments on fracking not lasting long, only time will tell as the peak oil fools have been forced to shut up for now. Again, it's the economics that drive the energy industry, that's why we use gasoline in cars. At some point the cost efficiency of buying a diesel powered car may overcome the initial price of the diesel engine and when that happens, say goodbye to gasoline as a major source of transportation energy. The bottom line is when the economics are favorable, the energy source matched to the type of power required will push aside the existing paradigm, that's the evolutionary nature of Capitalism. No amount of subsidies will make something cost effective as by definition, to be cost effective it must be sustainable.

The thing about agreeing or disagreeing with Hansen: It does not matter. Humanity will continue to burn large quantities of fossil fuels until either the fossil fuels become too expensive to extract or competing energy sources become much cheaper. on this we agree but for different reasons.

Cost is always a factor in making these type of decisions, that is unless you have no problem with only yourself getting electricity because you forced the rest of the population to sit in the dark by making it too expensive (padding the price with subsidies and mandates) for them while you got them to pay for your inefficient battery system. I for one would like to see all the econut jobs live under their own edicts, force them to live on only solar and wind power for electricity. Let them pay for their expensive electricity themselves without subsidy with numerous power interruptions. Last time I checked, solar was good for only 4 hours a day, and wind at best was good for 40% of time... Yeah, that's what I thought, you were going to depend upon fossil fuels and nuclear to make up the difference from here to eternity.

k.t.kendrick said at July 31, 2013 4:29 PM:

Actually,the solution to all the world's problems is potatos.There have been two great technological developments in human history.The invention of the wheel,which occurred in 6400 b.c.,in Mesopotamia,and the discovery that potatos can be grown in a barrel.Put some seed potatos in the bottom of a barrel and voila,you've got a barrel full of potatos.Potatos can be used for a number of things.First you can eat them.You can use them as a feed stock for animals.And here's the kicker,you can make ethanol from them.They can be grown in the desert with minimal water requirements.You may get several crops a year.We need a national potato program.

Nick G said at August 3, 2013 1:17 PM:

I read Hansen's discussion in 20110729_BabyLauren.pdf, and was disappointed to find many basic errors:

"Ruthless extrapolation" from his early residential PV installation.

An apparent lack of understanding of exponential growth - he incorrectly compares the incremental capacity additions for renewables to those of fossil fuel.

Similarly, a casual dismissal of renewables based on existing market share. I expected serious analysis - this is the kind of thing you see in a casual newspaper blog.

A confusion of oil and electricity: "when such people are elected to the executive branch and must make real world decisions, they end up approving expanded off-shore drilling and allowing continued mountaintop removal, long-wall coal mining, hydro-fracking, etc. maybe even a tar sands pipeline."

A casual acceptance of economic myths: "a principal reason for slow growth of energy use is that much of our manufacturing moved overseas."

I really hate to say it, but it makes me worry about his climate research...

Randall Parker said at August 3, 2013 11:33 PM:

Nick G,

It is very common for experts to greatly underestimate how much there is to understand about other fields.

I want go digging for nuclear power plant costs. I'm wondering if the industry has gotten any better at timely construction outside of China.

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