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Why James Hansen is wrong about nuclear power

Climatologist James Hansen argued last month, “Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change.” He is wrong.

As the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and International Energy Agency (IEA) explained in a major report last year, in the best-case scenario, nuclear power can play a modest, but important, role in avoiding catastrophic global warming if it can solve its various nagging problems — particularly high construction cost — without sacrificing safety.

Hansen and a handful of other climate scientists I also greatly respect — Ken Caldeira, Tom Wigley, and Kerry Emanuel — present a mostly handwaving argument in which new nuclear power achieves and sustains an unprecedented growth rate for decades. The one quantitative “illustrative scenario” they propose — “a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system” — is far beyond what the world ever sustained during the nuclear heyday of the 1970s, and far beyond what the overwhelming majority of energy experts, including those sympathetic to the industry, think is plausible.

They ignore the core issues: The nuclear power industry has essentially priced itself out of the market for new power plants because of its 1) negative learning curve and 2) inability to avoid massive delays and cost overruns in market economies. This is doubly problematic because the competition — renewable power, electricity storage, and energy efficiency — have seen steady, stunning price drops for a long time.

Hansen et al also continue the myth that somehow nuclear power is being held back by environmental opposition, rather than its own marketplace failures, a point I will return to later.

Those interested in what new nuclear power can and cannot plausibly contribute to stopping global warming should start with the most objective, independent, and comprehensive analysis done in recent years — the 2015 “Technology Roadmap” from the IEA and NEA. Those agencies’ bottom is line is that, if the industry gets its act together — a big IF, given recent history — new nuclear power can play an important but limited role. This just happens to be what I’ve been arguing consistently on Climate Progress for a long, long time.

The IEA is the international body responsible for energy analysis, and one of the few independent agencies in the world with a sophisticated enough energy and economic model to credibly examine in detail the role of various low carbon technologies in a 2°C scenario (2DS) aimed at averting catastrophic climate change. The NEA was established by the OECD countries “To assist its member countries in maintaining and further developing, through international co-operation, the scientific, technological and legal bases required for a safe, environmentally friendly and economical use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

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Sober climate hawks need to remember the reality that the price of nuclear power has been headed up for decades. Equally problemmatic for nukes, the price of the zero-carbon competition to nuclear power has been headed down for decades, a trend that continues even now as explained in a November DOE report, “Revolution…Now The Future Arrives for Five Clean Energy Technologies.”

The good news is that, even in the worst-case scenario, where nukes continue to price themselves out of the low-carbon market, renewables could, in theory, do the job by themselves, as Stanford’s Mark Jacobson explains.

Bottom Line: If the world is able to put itself on the 2°C path in the coming years, and if the nuclear industry can resolve a variety of issues and avoid a major disaster, then nuclear power can make a modest but important contribution. At the same time, the IEA and many others have concluded that new renewable energy will play a far bigger role in the transition.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission