James Hansen on Nuclear Power

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James Hansen, the famous climate scientist and author of Storms of my Grandchildren, talks about the possible role of nuclear power in addressing climate change, and in particular, reducing the release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere.

I think he is far to pessimistic on the use of solar and wind energy than he needs to be and notice that he, and no one else ever, seems to mention geothermal, which could reduce our release of carbon by double digit percentages using existing technology in a few years. Having said that, there is probably no way to solve our energy problem without implementing next generation nuclear power to some degree.

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25 thoughts on “James Hansen on Nuclear Power

  1. Meh, geothermal is limited geographically and is beginning to have earthquakes as a side effect. I think it is at best limited and has a risk.

    Wind is highly variable. Improved storage technology will help this and make power delivery more flexible. Still, I expect it will be an expensive option.

    I think solar is the best alternative to nuclear. It produces power during peak demand reducing dependance on storage. It can be broken up into a lot of small energy plants. It allows dual use of land such as roof tops and roads. But it isn’t ready for prime time yet and you will still need power at night.

    We need to be shutting down coal plants, a lot of current nuclear plants are old and will need to be shut down shortly, natural gas is currently bridging the gap but it will not be able to do so for long. And at the same time we need to be using more electric for cars putting even more pressure on the electric power grid.

    Yes we need nuclear.

  2. ppnl, I’m pretty sure you have got that wrong. You are thinking of the use of hot spots to drive turbines, and that is not even remotely what I’m talking about. So meh right back to you. Have a look at this:


    Wind is considered to be variable but I’ve yet to meet a person in real life who makes that claim who can tell me (accurately) how variable other forms of energy are, or how the energy grid words. So meh to that too!

    Have a look at this:


    And J.D Hamilton’s comments here:


    Solar is an excellent source of energy that has gotten cheaper. It is quite ready for prime time. If it was subsidized at half the level of fossil fuels we’d be using it big time already. You are absolutely right about all that real estate (flat roofs everywhere) that could be used.

    The problem with nuclear is that we are very far from implementing the next generation technology. If you took a few hundred billion dollars in each of two pots of money, and invested one in nuclear and one in solar tomorrow, properly done, that money would be producing solar energy much much sooner. If you took three pots of energy and the third one went into geothermal (of the type I’m talking about) that third pot would reduce the use of electricity for cooling and heating (mainly cooling) almost instantly, and that could be focused in areas where wind and/or solar would be less effective.

    The day-night problem with solar and the variation (which does exist but see above) in wind can be addressed with a smart grid, and the smart grid can involve all those new American Built battery/hybrid cars (a fourth pot of money) that can be charged on that grid (that’s where we store piles of extra solar during the day when commuter cars are in parking lots underneath and near all those solar panels.)

    It will require a wartime approach to make all this happen. Patton never said “meh” dammit!

  3. I don’t think that geothermal is even a source of energy. Mostly it is just using the thermal mass of the earth to even out temperature differences making heating and cooling more efficient. From the wiki article:

    Ground source heat pumps are also known as “geothermal heat pumps” although, strictly, the heat does not come from the centre of the Earth, but from the Sun. They are also known by other names, including geoexchange, earth-coupled, earth energy systems. The engineering and scientific communities prefer the terms “geoexchange” or “ground source heat pumps” to avoid confusion with traditional geothermal power, which uses a high temperature heat source to generate electricity.


    It really really should not be called geothermal energy. For example it can be used for cooling as well exactly because it is a thermal mass rather than a source of energy. A useful and important technique but not an energy source.

    I agree that both solar and wind can come online much faster than nuclear. In the short term that is the only direction to go. In the long term I just think they are seriously limited. Cheap and efficient energy storage will help here.

    I’m surprised to hear that nuclear plants are powered down for tornado warnings and I can’t imagine what purpose that serves. A quick search revealed a case where two plants were shut down by a tornado taking out a switching station but that was called “unprecedented in 23 years of operation”.

    Anyway that is a different kind of variability. The grid has to match supply to demand on a moment to moment basis. Wind power can vary quickly and constantly. As long as you have sufficient load following capacity all is well. But for example I think China has overbuilt wind so that much of it cannot be connected to the grid.

    A smart grid with energy storage would mitigate some of this with both load following and demand following. But the capitol cost of both the grid and the need to overbuild wind will make it an expensive choice.

  4. If you like you can call Geothermal Energy something else, but the truth is that a huge amount of the electricity we make (with coal, etc.) is used for cooling and a fair amount for heating, and much less would is needed if “geoexchange” was used. And yes, there was never an implication that the heat (energy) from geothermal comes from anywhere but the sun. In most places, it is warmish and fairly consistent at a certain depth, and below that things get colder and colder in the range that humans generally can go. Eventually, of course, it get hotter and hotter but that is a whole other thing. I’m thinking that this whole geothermal thing is something you’ve just not encountered before and it will take you some time to warm up to it.

    Yes, different kinds of variability are … well, different. These are all manageable issues according to people in the industry.

    Have you read this? http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/04/02/an-excellent-book-on-energy-be/

  5. Actually I have looked into installing it in my house. It is fairly expensive but does increase the efficiency of both cooling and heating and saves energy. So do my LED light bulbs. I have enough land that I can have a huge heat exchanger. I just object to it being seen as a source of energy. The major mechanism is simply the thermal mass of the earth. I like the term “ground source heat pump”.

    I have wondered what would happen if everyone in a large city used a horizontal loop field for heating.

    But it does point to an important issue. In the shortest term the most economical thing we can do is increase efficiency. It is the lowest cost and fastest thing we can do.

  6. Nuclear power plants are powered down when ever there is a chance the power lines will be cut. It is not only because of a loss of off-site power, but also from a loss of off-site power sinks. The electricity being generated has to go somewhere and if it can’t, it takes a while to shut everything down. Better to shut everything down before you need to, than to shut it down on an emergency schedule.

    I saw a recent article where GE is pushing wind power from batteries and inverters as the “premium” energy source because it can be used for frequency regulation. The newest inverter technology allows you to source and sink current independent of phase, so you can correct for power factor. The inverters can respond much faster than generators can respond, so the regulation of frequency and power factor they can supply is more valuable and so the power they supply is worth more, on the order of twice as much as power from large fossil fuel plants.

    You should be able to do the same thing with electric vehicles (they are powered by induction motors run by inverters). If you could take off peak power and sell it back at peak, an electric vehicle could pay for its power with the savings. If battery cycle life is high enough, then it all works out.

  7. I ‘m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that geothermal installation in new buildings is often cheaper than retrofitting. Also, retrofitting requires replacing a furnace or throwing out your air conditioner in many cases, I would imagine, which may not have reached useful lifespan.

    Which is why I am mad about the fact that we didn’t start doing that in the 1970s when it was clear we should have. Half the buildings in the US would be fitted with geoghermal at this point in time had we done that.

    We would NOT be at the 400 ppm level yet had we done that. Why the fuck did we not do that. Stupid, stupid humans.

  8. Greg,

    I don’t think new construction will make it much less expensive. The ground is warm (or cool) but it is a poor conductor so you need a sizable heat exchanger over a sizable area buried reasonably deep. If you can tap into your ground water that can make it much cheaper.


    I have asked about nuclear plants and tornadoes on a nuclear engineering forum.

    I saw a recent article where GE is pushing wind power from batteries and inverters as the “premium” energy source because it can be used for frequency regulation. The newest inverter technology allows you to source and sink current independent of phase, so you can correct for power factor. The inverters can respond much faster than generators can respond, so the regulation of frequency and power factor they can supply is more valuable and so the power they supply is worth more, on the order of twice as much as power from large fossil fuel plants.

    Well yes but these benefits are in no way connected to wind power. That is just the batteries and we need them with or without wind. Currently the problem is that batteries are expensive and don’t last. But progress is being made. The same batteries will make solar and even nuclear cheaper and more reliable.

    Currently selling your car’s charge back probably would not be economical because of the reduced life span of your battery. In the future maybe. But a better solution is to just use your battery pack to power your house in an outage. Make the power company buy their own batteries. If batteries are cheap, efficient and reliable then it is worth it to them to buy their own. If they are not then it would be expensive for you to try to ballast the power grid with you car.

    I’m betting on cheaper more reliable batteries soonish. Make them cheap enough and it will change everything.

  9. > Half the buildings in the US would be fitted with geothermal

    Yeah, but it’d have been made of the early bad-plastic PEX, have leaked the wrong kind of antifreeze into the groundwater, and have been abandoned during the next cheap fuel cycle. Dammit. We’re not smart enough.

    They’re still learning how to do geothermal. Coils — overlapping for constrained space — bind and pinch if not perfectly separated. Cheap materials fail. It’s not easy to replace the components. In limestone/karst/cave sites punching vertical wells has various problems.

    You can get a “ditch witch” that will dig a shallow narrow slot good for glass fiber, http://www.ditchwitch.co.uk/uploads/documents/TAN11-09%20Micro-trench%20Reinstatement%20%28Issue%202%29.pdf , but nothing I can find to dig narrow deep slots suitable for ground source.

    Heck, a roof separated into south-slope for heat collection and north-slope, high emissivity, for heat emission, might be enough separation. Nobody makes roofing like that yet.

  10. ppnl: New construction makes it cheaper for a number of reasons. Unrelated to the digging itself is the simple fact that where you put your equipment inside the house is determined by where you put outside facilities. Also if you have an existing furnace and AC unit they would have to be replaced before their useful life, so you are paying for similar equipment (sort of) twice. With respect to digging, planning out an installation of geothermal and other utilities, landscaping, pavement, and foundations all at once is more efficient and cheaper than messing around with everything later. But yes, putting it in existing homes and other buildings is not necessarily cost prohibitive. It depends on the situation. Generally speaking, though, some of the problems one might encounter in installing in existing buildings would be obviated by planning prior to new construction.

    Hank, I can’t think of an energy source that doesn’t have problems. Modern geothermal is good. I know a few people with it and everyone is happy with it. It is quite possible that earlier systems would have to be retrofitted, but again, I can’t think of an energy system that does not have analogous problems.

    What we need to do is to stop demanding that non-fossil fuel burning energy sources dance backwards and in high heels while at the same time fossil fuel burning sources are heavily subsidies and their problems (mostly) ignored. Geothermal does not release mercury, does not release fossil carbon, does not melt down and create radiation hot spots that need to be encrypted for thousands of years, does not heat up rivers, and so on and so forth.

  11. Greg,

    Unrelated to the digging itself is the simple fact that where you put your equipment inside the house is determined by where you put outside facilities.

    Not really no. In a typical residential installation the location of both the inside and outside equipment is purely a matter of convenience and preference with very little impact on cost. The only connection between them is a hot line, a cold line and a thermostat wire. While you would generally want to keep the distance to a minimum there really isn’t much of a cost issue.

    As For me I lost a compressor so my choice was to push a new condenser of the back of a truck and bolt it on or dig up my yard and then push a new condenser off the back of a truck. My brother has a freon license so he did the bolting on for free.

    What I need to do is tear down this curse from the 70s and build a new house. It has chemically treated wood fiber in the attic, inadequate insulation in the walls, no vapor barrier and a mold problem. It isn’t worth the investment of a ground source heat pump. If I ever build a new house I probably would consider ground source. The only problem is if I build a smaller better insulated house it may not need enough heat to matter. And I’ve been thinking about solar heat lately. But for cooling…

  12. Actually I think the number 1.8 million lives spared is a gross underestimation in lieu global population and numbers of reactors going operational since the early ’70s. Several tens of millions at least smells more right in my book. Speaking of environment, I notice how lately the fair and rational media in Japan and here are in a tizzy about how Fukushima is “spewing” and “gushing” several liters per hour of irradiated water into the ground and ocean. If anyone takes a long study of the tsunami videos showing massive waves plowing inland through smashed coastal towns and cities churned into a thick muddy goo and brew of every possible thing you can find like sludge, raw sewage, storm drain excrement, industrial chemicals, gasoline and insecticides and tars, unearthed body parts from cemeteries, slaughterhouse parts, go on and on — and not most of it ran back out to sea but was left behind inland as a goo percolating into the ground in such sticky toxicity that the Japanese Government isn’t even airing research into it, hiding behind the decoy skirts of Fukushima. Which is the greater threat to groundwater and public health I wonder; a few radioative (decaying fast) atoms per cubic meter of local Fukushima ground water seeping into the ocean that wouldn’t even register on most Geiger counters, or groundwater tainted for how long by a far more widespread nasty toxic chemical and organic brew which medical science knows has a far more deleterious effect?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  13. Cesium 137 has a half life of 30 years. Sewage has a half life of months. Yes, if one were to chose between all the environmental damage of the entire tsunami vs. just Fukushima the rational choice might be to pick Fukushima, and it is probably true that they are afraid of radiation at an irrational level would make the wrong pick (though my suggestion of which is the right pick is just a guess, as would be yours).

    But this does not make the mess of Fukushima not a very bad and expensive mess, and if some people have an irrational fear of radiation, that does not make radiation perfectly safe.

    The idea that the Japanese Government and/or Tepco is exaggerating the situation at Fukushima to minimize perception of the rest of the disaster is very different from the idea that these two entities are trying to minimize perception of Fukushima’s problems. That may be a testable hypothesis.

    I think the hypothesis would probably be rejected because there is a great deal of evidence that both the government and Tepco have repeatedly downplayed various issues and events at Fukushima.

  14. Many years have gone by now and we can see that James Hansen was spot on in changing his mind on nuclear power.

    100% renewable power cannot work and therefore nuclear power can and should be a great source of always available baseload power, for when it is dark and not windy.

    We are learning more about the problems with mining lithium and the rare earth metals and the problems with disposal of wind farm equipment and solar panels.

    Bottom line – wind and solar are good up to about 30% or so and then we need something else to provide baseload power. Could be hydro or nuclear. Without hydro or nuclear we have to fall back on fossil fuels to provide power. So more nuclear is good and shutting down nuclear is dumb.

    Germany just changed its mind on shutting down its last nuclear power plants.

    I think the future will be thorium based nuclear power and hope the USA goes that route.

    As I have advocated before – I would like to see the USA triple its nuclear from 100 plants providing 20% of the power to 300 (providing 60%) or 400 (providing 80%).

    Hopefully people will learn more about how safe nuclear is and we will have a good baseload non-carbon producing source of power in the future.

    At least until fusion power is a reality (still 50 years away).

    James Hansen was right!

    1. Rare earths are not used in renewable energy. They are used in some electric motors, but for the most part are not really part of the technology.

      For both Cobalt and Lithium, about half of the element that is used in the US is used for things other than batteries. In the case of Cobalt for sure, and may be Lithium, the non-battery uses are easily displaced. For example, Cobalt is used in alloys, but there are other non-Cobalt allies that are better, but the industry is not tooled up to make those. A bit of government spending there could help the industry shift over, and boom, there is twice the amount of Cobalt available.

      Meanwhile, Cobalt and Lithium are used in batteries that don’t need to be light, fast, or have any of the other characteristics LiIon batteries have, such as the large batteries used at new solar peaker plants. Shifting the elements out of those uses frees up way more of them.

      Both elements are … well, elements. They are easily recycled from battery uses. So we just add and add and add these elements as needed then the adding slows down and we are at equilibrium. That is attainable.

      Meanwhile, over in the petroleum industry, Cobalt is used and some not recovered, as a catalyst. Not using petroleum frees up even more Cobalt.

      Meanwhile, over in the Nuclear power industry, Cobalt is one of the metals used in the aforementioned alloys. I’ve yet to hear a pro-nuker complaining about Congolese child mining.

      Then, we have this: Battery technology is developing at an amazing pace. There will be batteries that don’t use Lithium or Cobalt that are better than or equal to batteries that do, within a few years.

      Finally, Lithium can be mined from water (and is in the US, that is our major source) and Cobalt has sea-mount extraction that would make the global supply go up something like 1000X.

      That is all.

    2. Sorry, that link was behaving badly, had to remove it. Please just finish your sentence. There is a good chance there is a misunderstanding on your part, as per usual. Perfectly innocent I’m sure! For example, yes, they are used in electric motors but they need not be, higher end car motors often don’t use them, and Tesla designed the REEs out of their process entirely. REEs don’t give you anything you can’t get with an electric magnet.

    3. Rare earth metals are used to make solar panels.

      Google tellurium and solar panel, for example.

      Nuclear power uses much less fuel – in terms of mass. Compare the amount of coal need to to generate a gigawatt of power versus nuclear:

      “Thus, 1 kg natural uranium – following a corresponding enrichment and used for power generation in light water reactors – corresponds to nearly 10,000 kg of mineral oil or 14,000 kg of coal and enables the generation of 45,000 kWh of electricity.”

      So not only does nuclear emit very little CO2 – but the mining is less and the transportation of the fuel is less. It also takes up much less space than renewable.

      So nuclear should be tripled from 20% to 60% – or even bumped up to 80%. Over time that is the conclusion most scientists and policy makers will come to. The greater the concern over global warming the more incentive to go nuclear.

  15. The issues of mining rare earths and recycling wind and solar materials is an engineering problem that can be solved. In fact, there are researchers working on fly ash extraction methods at Rice University. Here’s a recently published paper:


    and here Bob MacDonald interviews James Tours from RIce on their work (listen to the 4th segment.)


    I’m not opposed to nuclear fission as a method of generating electricity, but seriouslym, even with modular reactors I don’t see much in the way of addressing the storage of waste materials in a way that doesn’t cause long term damage to the environment, and right now the plan seems to be in the US to continue to push it onto reservation land.

    Greg has shown me how we don’t need to replace all of the energy we use right now with renewables, due to the large percentage of energy used in extraction, refining, transport and disposal of non-renewable carbon sources of energy. I think there is a tendency in this discussion of how much we should expect to generate from renewables to leave out factors that can shed light in their favor.

    Fusion seems to be going from always 50 years in the future to always being 30 years in the future, so I don’t know how much we can count on it solving the next generation’s problems.

    1. If we would build a couple of recycling nuclear reactors we could reprocess the spent nuclear waste and reuse 90% of the nuclear waste, leaving only 10% as a storage problem.

      We could just store that onsite like we do now.

      Nuclear power is the answer to carbon emissions, together with about 30% solar and wind (and 6% hyrdo).

      I hope our policy makers figure that out and get started.

  16. I assume by “recycling” you mean fast breeders. The technology does not actually exist at this time. It would be interesting to see what can be actually done, but so far not enough evidence of progress or of scalability.

    Right, Mike, Fusion would be great, but right now there is a race for which one will become available first: Fusion or dilithium crystals.

    But seriously, Fusion may well be a thing at the end of the present century. I don’t see utility scale fusion before then, if in fact it is possible.

    1. I mean reprocessing already spent nuclear waste. It totally exists and reduces the amount of waste to 1/10 its original amount, while providing more power from the waste. It also lowers the half life of the remaining waste. France and Japan both had plants which reprocess and we can do it also. The waste can be reprocessed several times also.

      I see several regional reprocessing plants to reprocess fuel from surrounding plants, to keep shipping of waste to lower distances. So we should triple our nuclear plants from 100 to 300 and add about 8 regional reprocessing plants and we would have 60% of our power CO2 free while dealing with existing nuclear waste. Win win.

      Here is an article about reprocessing nuclear fuel.


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