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Nuclear power plant at Ohi, Japan. It may be gleaming and impressive looking, but the plant stands near several active seismic faults and lacks adequate protection against earthquakes. Photo: Kansai Electric Power Co. via IAEA Imagebank on Flickr (CC BY-S

Nuclear power plant at Ohi, Japan. It may be gleaming and impressive looking, but the plant stands near several active seismic faults and lacks adequate protection against earthquakes. Photo: Kansai Electric Power Co. via IAEA Imagebank on Flickr (CC BY-SA).

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Don't nuke the climate! James Hansen's nuclear fantasies exposed

Dr Jim Green

20th November 2015

NASA scientist James Hansen is heading to COP21 in Paris to berate climate campaigners for failing to support 'safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power', writes Jim Green. But they would gladly support nuclear power if only it really was safe and environment friendly. In fact, it's a very dangerous and hugely expensive distraction from the real climate solutions.

Wrong, stupid, and offensive: Hansen lines up with far-right nuts who argue that environmentalists want everyone living in caves. No wonder he is having so little success winning the green movement over.

James Hansen will be promoting nuclear power - and attacking environmental and anti-nuclear groups - in the lead-up to the UN COP21 climate conference in Paris in December.

The press release announcing Hansen's visit to Paris berates environmentalists for failing to support "safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power".

It notes that the Climate Action Network, representing all the major environmental groups, opposes nuclear power - in other words, efforts to split the environment movement have failed.

Hansen won't be participating in any debates against nuclear critics or renewable energy experts. His reluctance to debate may stem from his participation in a 2010 debate in Melbourne, Australia.

The audience of 1,200 people were polled before and after the debate. The pre-debate poll found an 8% margin in favour of nuclear power; the post-debate poll found a margin of 24% against nuclear power.

The turn-around was so striking that Hansen's colleague Barry Brook falsely claimed the vote must have been rigged by anti-nuclear and climate action groups. "I can think of no other logical explanation - statistically, such a result would be nigh impossible", Brook claimed.

'Nuclear safety' - a contradiction in terms?

An article co-authored by Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, published in the Environment, Science and Technology journal, claims that between 1971 and 2009, "global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning".

Kharecha and Hansen ignore renewables and energy efficiency, setting up a false choice between fossil fuels and nuclear. Even as an assessment of the relative risks of fossil fuels and nuclear, the analysis doesn't stack up. Kharecha and Hansen cite a UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report to justify their figure of 43 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster.

But the UNSCEAR report did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths from radiation exposure from Chernobyl, citing "unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions". The credible estimates of the long-term cancer death toll from Chernobyl range from 9,000 (in Eastern Europe) to 93,000 (across Eastern and Western Europe).

Hansen states: "No people died at Fukushima because of the nuclear technology." The impacts of the disaster are more accurately summarised by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie: "In sum, the health toll from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is horrendous. At the minimum:

  • "Over 160,000 people were evacuated, most of them permanently.

  • "Many cases of post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders arising from the evacuations.

  • "About 12,000 workers exposed to high levels of radiation, some up to 250 mSv

  • "An estimated 5,000 fatal cancers from radiation exposures in future.

  • "Plus similar (unquantified) numbers of radiogenic strokes, CVS diseases and hereditary diseases.

  • "Between 2011 and 2015, about 2,000 deaths from radiation-related evacuations due to ill-health and suicides.

  • "An, as yet, unquantified number of thyroid cancers.

  • "An increased infant mortality rate in 2012 and a decreased number of live births in December 2011."

There are many reasons to conclude that Kharecha and Hansen's figure of 4,900 deaths from nuclear power from 1971 to 2009 is a gross underestimate, yet they claim that the figure "could be a major overestimate relative to the empirical value (by two orders of magnitude)." In other words, they think the real figure may be as low as 50.

'Nuclear power has the best safety record of any energy technology'

However a realistic assessment of nuclear power fatalities would include:

  • Routine emissions: UNSCEAR's estimated collective effective dose to the world population over a 50-year period of operation of nuclear power reactors and associated nuclear fuel cycle facilities is two million Sieverts. Applying a risk estimate of 0.1 fatal cancers / Sievert gives a total of 200,000 fatal cancers.

  • Radiation exposure from accidents, including Chernobyl (estimated 9,000 to 93,000 cancer fatalities) and Fukushima (estimated 5,000 long-term cancer fatalities), and the large number of accidents that have resulted in a small number of fatalities.

  • Indirect deaths.

In relation to indirect deaths at Fukushima, Japanese academics state: "for the Fukushima coastal region, no-one, not even Self-Defense Forces, could enter the area for fear of exposure to radioactive materials, and the victims were left in the area for a long period of time.

"This resulted in so-called indirect fatalities, people who died due to difficult and long-term evacuation, or those who committed suicide, lamenting the radioactive pollution of their farm lands and farm animals and who had lost hope to ever rebuild their lives.

"These are considered as fatalities related to the nuclear accident, and their numbers have risen to 1459 as of September 2013, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Office. Though they are considered indirect deaths, they would have not died if there had been no nuclear accident."

Kharecha and Hansen ignore non-fatal impacts. For example, the permanent relocation of 350,000 people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster was associated with a great deal of trauma. Four and a half years after the Fukushima disaster, over 110,000 of the original 160,000 evacuees remain displaced according to the Japanese government.

Using those figures (350,000 + 110,000), and the global experience of around 16,000 reactor-years of power reactor operations, gives a figure of 29 'nuclear refugees' per reactor-year.

Nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels when considering accidents and routine emissions (by a wide margin, though not as wide as Kharecha and Hansen claim) - but we also need to consider the unique WMD proliferation risks associated with the nuclear industry as well as related security issues such as attacks on nuclear facilities.

But of course the 'nuclear versus fossil fuels' argument is a false one. When accidents and routine emissions are considered, renewables are clearly safer than either nuclear power or fossil fuels, and of course nuclear power's proliferation and security risks don't apply to renewables.

Yet Hansen falsely claims that "nuclear power has the best safety record of any energy technology."

Nuclear WMD proliferation - there's no way to stop  it

Kharecha and Hansen correctly state that "Serious questions remain about [nuclear] safety, proliferation, and disposal of radioactive waste, which we have discussed in some detail elsewhere." However the paper they cite barely touches upon the WMD proliferation problem and what little it does say is a mixture of codswallop and jiggery-pokery:

  • It falsely claims that thorium-based fuel cycles are "inherently proliferation-resistant". Irradiation of thorium produces fissile uranium-233 which can be - and has been - used in nuclear weapons.

  • It falsely claims that integral fast reactors (IFRs) "could be inherently free from the risk of proliferation". Dr George Stanford, who worked on an IFR R&D program in the US, notes that proliferators "could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor - operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material."

  • And the paper states that if "designed properly", breeder reactors would generate "nothing suitable for weapons". India's Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor will be the next fast neutron reactor to begin operation. India refuses to place it under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. 

John Carlson, former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, describes the risks associated with India's plans: "India has a plan to produce [weapons-grade] plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. This is problematic on non-proliferation and nuclear security grounds.

"Pakistan believes the real purpose of the fast breeder program is to produce plutonium for weapons (so this plan raises tensions between the two countries); and transport and use of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors presents a serious terrorism risk (weapons-grade material would be a priority target for seizure by terrorists)."

Hansen and his colleagues argue that "modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks". But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation? In a word: No. Fast reactors have been used for weapons production in the past (e.g. by France) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. by India).

Thorium - another not-so-modern 'modern' nuclear technology - has also been used to produce weapons (e.g. by the US and India) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. India's breeder/thorium program).

It is disingenuous - and dangerous - for Hansen to be waving away those problems with the claims that modern nuclear technology can somehow be made inherently proliferation-proof.

False hope: Generation IV nuclear technology

Here's Hansen's take on Generation IV nuclear technology - hyped up for it's claimed ability to burn up nuclear waste. Nuclear waste "is not waste", he writes. "It is fuel for 4th generation reactors! ... The 4th generation reactors can 'burn' this waste, as well as excess nuclear weapons material, leaving a much smaller waste pile with radioactive half-life measured in decades rather than millennia, thus minimizing the nuclear waste problem."

Hansen's views take little or no account of the real-world experience with fast neutron reactors (and Generation IV technology more generally). That real-world experience is littered with accident-prone, obscenely expensive reactors (and R&D programs) that have worsened waste and proliferation problems. Most countries that have invested in fast reactor R&D programs have decided not to throw good money after bad and have abandoned those programs.

Hansen's views are also at odds with reports published this year by the French and US governments. The report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) - a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health - states:

"There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen."

IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: "At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors, except perhaps for the VHTR [Very High Temperature Reactors] ... "

Moreover the VHTR system could bring about significant safety improvements "but only by significantly limiting unit power".

'Technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated'

The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other 'advanced' reactor concepts in the US. The report concluded:

"While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges. Both SMRs and advanced reactors require additional technical and engineering work to demonstrate reactor safety and economics ...

"Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels ...

"Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process ... "

The glum assessments of the US and French governments are based on real-world experience. But Hansen prefers conspiracy theories to real-world experience, claiming that an IFR R&D program in the US was terminated due to pressure from environmentalists with devious motives.

The real reasons for the termination of the IFR program were mundane: legitimate proliferation concerns, the already-troubled history of fast reactor programs, the questionable rationale for pursuing fast reactor R&D given plentiful uranium supplies, and so on. But Hansen has a much more colourful explanation:

"I think it was because of the influence of the anti-nuclear people who realised that if this newer technology were developed it would mean that we would have an energy source that is practically inexhaustible - it could last for billions of years - and they succeeded in getting the Clinton administration to terminate the R&D for the fourth generation nuclear power plants."

Wrong, stupid, and offensive: Hansen lines up with far-right nuts who argue that environmentalists want everyone living in caves. No wonder he is having so little success winning the green movement over.

Renewables and energy efficiency

"Can renewable energies provide all of society's energy needs in the foreseeable future?" asks Hansen. "It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy."

But there are credible studies for the countries that Hansen mentions:

  • USA: The Nuclear Information & Resource Service maintains a list of reports demonstrating the potential for the US (and Europe) to produce all electricity from renewables.

  • China: A 2015 report by the China National Renewable Energy Centre finds that China could generate 85% of its electricity and 60% of total energy from renewables by 2050.

  • India: A detailed 2013 report by WWF-India and The Energy and Resources Institute maps out how India could generate as much as 90% of total primary energy from renewables by 2050.

There is a growing body of research on the potential for renewables to largely or completely supplant fossil fuels for power supply globally.

The doubling of global renewable energy capacity over the past decade has been spectacular, with 783 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable power generation capacity installed from 2005 to 2014 - compared to a lousy 8 GW for nuclear.

As of the end of 2014, renewables supplied 22.8% of global electricity (hydro 16.6% and other renewables 6.2%). Nuclear power's share of 10.8% is less than half of the electricity generation from renewables - and the gap is widening.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) anticipates another 700 GW of new renewable power capacity from 2015-2020. The IEA report also outlines the spectacular cost reductions: the global average costs for onshore wind generation fell by 30% from 2010-2015, and are expected to decline a further 10% by 2020; while utility-scale solar PV fell two-thirds in cost and is expected to decline another 25% by 2020.

There's also the spectacular potential of energy efficiency that Hansen sometimes ignores and sometimes pays lip-service to. A 2011 study by University of Cambridge academics concluded that a whopping 73% of global energy use could be saved by practically achievable energy efficiency and conservation measures.

Making nuclear power safe ... how would you do it?

But let's go with Hansen's argument that renewables and energy efficiency aren't up to the job of completely supplanting fossil fuels. It's not an unreasonable place to go given that the task is Herculean and urgent.

What would make nuclear power more palatable, reducing the risk of Chernobyl- and Fukushima-scale catastrophes and reducing the WMD proliferation risks? 'Super-safe', 'proliferation-resistant' Generation IV reactor technology that's both unproven and grossly uneconomic? Not likely.

So how about improved safety standards and stricter regulation? That's something that really would reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents. A strengthened - and properly funded - safeguards system would reduce the WMD proliferation risks.

And therein lies the greatest irony of Hansen's nuclear advocacy. Many of the environmental and anti-nuclear groups that he attacks have a commendable track record of campaigning for improved safety and regulatory standards and for improvements to the safeguards system.

Hansen has said little and done less about those issues.



Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia> and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a longer version of this article was originally published.

Nuclear Monitor has been publishing deeply researched, often strongly critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue!

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