Tuesday, April 15, 2008

James Hansen's Open Letter to Governor Gibbons of Nevada

I've blogged in the past about James Hansen's apparent support for nuclear power. Back in January, Hansen stated in a BAS editorial that:
Therefore, the only practical way to prevent carbon dioxide levels from exceeding 450 ppm is to phase out coal power except at plants where carbon emissions are captured and stored.

An outline of a practical way to do this can be readily defined: First, establish a moratorium in developed countries on construction of new coal power plants until effective carbon-capture-and-storage technology is viable; second, establish a similar subsequent moratorium in developing countries; and third, phase out existing coal plants over the next several decades and replace them with energy sources that don't emit carbon, such as wind, solar, and nuclear power, and coal plants with carbon capture and storage. Specifically, developed countries need to stop building coal power plants that don't capture and store carbon by 2012, developing countries need to halt such construction by 2022, and all existing coal power plants without carbon capture must be bulldozed by 2050.
Therefore, I was somewhat surprised when I read his new open letter to Governor Gibbons of Nevada, in which he states that:
Although the fossil fuel industry pedals misinformation, claiming that renewable energies can only be a niche contribution to energy needs, that contention defies common sense. As proof of the contrary, consider just one of the renewable energies, solar power. The technology for solar thermal power stations already exists, power stations can be built rapidly, and as the market for them increases their unit costs will fall steadily, as the cost of coal power continues to rise. There is enough solar energy in a small fraction of our desert Southwest to provide all of the electrical needs of the United States. Nevada has the potential to be a leader in this field, providing power for itself and for distant locations as a low-loss grid is developed. Leadership would provide great economic benefit to Nevada and provide a large number of high-pay jobs and new businesses.
I'm really rather disappointed to learn that Hansen has drunk Ausra's Kool-Aid (why don't people realize that they haven't built a real plant yet and their estimated costs and capabilities are a marketing pitch?), as well as that he seems to have bought into the silly "solar grand plan" published in Scientific American a few months ago. However great an authority Hansen may be in the field of climatology, it seems he has a lot to learn when it comes to energy technology. The piece doesn't mention nuclear power at all, unlike the January editorial; I'm hoping that this is because of the Yucca Mountain boogeyman, but maybe it represents a shift in Hansen's position. That would be too bad, since he was pretty reasonable before but now seems to have bought into wishful thinking that, in practice, is preserving the energy status quo as much as the efforts of the fossil fuel industry.

1 comment:

Brian said...

The best I can say about Hansen is that, at least, he's not openly anti nuclear.

Nevertheless, if you go through his papers and his slides that he has been using for the past several years, you'll see lots of pictures of polar bears and squirrels, but you'll rarely see the word "nuclear" (and no pictures of nuclear plants). That word does appear occasionally -- say, once in an 18-page paper -- but it is always at the end of the list of solutions, after conservation and after renewables. Often, however, it is simply left out.

I guess I should cut Hansen some slack. After all, he's not an energy expert; he's a climatologist (perhaps ... these days, he seems to more of an activist than anything else). One thing is certain, however -- he's definitely one of the most alarmist voices out there. But if the situation is as dire as he makes out, then why hasn't he done more to educate himself on the possible solutions? Why haven't his alarmist friends and colleagues explained to him that fossil-fuel plants could be replaced within the next couple of decades by technology that is available and generating a substantial part of the world's electricity today (unlike "renewables," which are inconsequential)? This is a "crisis" after all! Could there be an ulterior motive at work?

Personally, I think that Zbigniew Jaworowski summed up the Global Warming "challenge" rather nicely:

"If this concern is genuine, then why do we not see a storm of enthusiastic environmentalists and United Nations officials demanding to replace all fossil-fuel plants with nuclear plants, which have zero emission of greenhouse gasses, are environmentally friendly, more economical, and much safer for plant workers and much safer for the general population than other sources of energy?"

Why indeed?