Nuclear energy? Pah! Too dangerous (risk of meltdown or weapons proliferation), too expensive, too slow to come on line, insufficient uranium reserves to power more than a small fraction of the world’s energy demand, blah di blah blah blah blah. There is certainly plenty of opposition out there to nuclear energy in any way, shape or form. Nuclear is bad news, it’s a distraction, it’s a carry over from the cold war, it’s old school thinking. And so on.
Well, the above is what the majority of environmentalists and pacifists would tell you. And there is some very solid reason for scepticism about the widespread use of nuclear power, especially Generation II nuclear fission reactors (I suggest we keep the ones we’ve got, but don’t bother with any more of them). But in the brave new world of the Sustainability Emergency (climate crisis + energy crisis + water crisis + mineral crisis + biodiversity crisis, etc.), we simply haven’t got time or scope for such hard-line negativity. We need every solution we can lay our hands on — and more for good measure.
Hansen is willing to talk about nuclear energy. I am too – given chronic intermittency issues with large-scale renewables and the need for plenty of extra energy to fix huge looming problems with hanging together a sophisticated civilisation on a habitable planet, it’s got to be in the mix. Indeed, in the long run, it, in the form of fusion power, could well be the only form of energy that matters to humanity (if we manage to get through the post-industrial crunch, that is). There are plenty of tantilising prospects for safe, effective, long-term baseload power from 4th+ generation nuclear fission power. But for now, there is just nowhere near enough action ($$ and willpower) on the R&D and roll out front.
Hansen explains this in part III. He also goes into more detail on this issue in his earlier Trip Report, which I also quote below…
Tell Barack Obama the Truth – The Whole Truth (Part III of IV)
Nuclear Power. Some discussion about nuclear power is needed. Fourth generation nuclear power has the potential to provide safe base-load electric power with negligible CO2 emissions.
There is about a million times more energy available in the nucleus, compared with the chemical energy of molecules exploited in fossil fuel burning. In today’s nuclear (fission) reactors neutrons cause a nucleus to fission, releasing energy as well as additional neutrons that sustain the reaction. The additional neutrons are ‘born’ with a great deal of energy and are called ‘fast’ neutrons. Further reactions are more likely if these neutrons are slowed by collisions with non-absorbing materials, thus becoming ‘thermal’ or slow neutrons.
All nuclear plants in the United States today are Light Water Reactors (LWRs), using ordinary water (as opposed to ‘heavy water’) to slow the neutrons and cool the reactor. Uranium is the fuel in all of these power plants. One basic problem with this approach is that more than 99% of the uranium fuel ends up ‘unburned’ (not fissioned). In addition to ‘throwing away’ most of the potential energy, the long-lived nuclear wastes (plutonium, americium, curium, etc.) require geologic isolation in repositories such as Yucca Mountain.