Over at Dot Earth, my colleague Andrew Revkin has been carefully walking his readers through the nuclear power briar patch ever growing inside the American environmental movement. Looming large is Dr. James Hansen, former NASA climate scientist who used his influential post to become a global voice on climate change. In the video below Hansen makes his case why nuclear is our only fuel option for averting climate disaster.
Because of his massively pro-nuclear stance, the heroic, federal whistleblower Hansen is now the fearless, foolish or feckless civilian Hansen, depending on who is describing him. And for many of those who elevated him to climate guru status, his total lack of faith in alternative energy sources is seen as an almost worse betrayal than his nuclear stance. Hansen is unblinking, even harsh, about the poor prospects of renewables, as Revkin describes in his July 23 Dot Earth post:
But his statements pose a particularly tough challenge for those who embrace his take on the dangers attending an unabated greenhouse-gas buildup but see a fast transition to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources as the solution. Here he reprises the points he made in a 2011 essay, “Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid“:
Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? 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.
Those who believe the dramatic Fukushima disaster is the answer to any debate about the dangers of nuclear should not expect Hansen to flinch. In a research paper published in Environmental Science and Technology he and co-researcher Pushker A. Kharecha go by the numbers (Note: GtCO2-eq = the equivalent of giga-tons of carbon dioxide):
On the basis of global projection data that take into account the effects of the Fukushima accident, we find that nuclear power could additionally prevent an average of 420 000–7.04 million deaths and 80–240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels by midcentury, depending on which fuel it replaces
With mid-century less than four decades away, the massive build-out of nuclear power Hansen calls for is far-fetched, given technological, political, regulatory and economic realities. But it is no more far-fetched than the planet shifting to a massive dependence on renewable energy by 2050. In that sense, the playing field is evened between the two. As Hansen wins new converts from the environmental and public opinion communities, a far more public debate within the ranks of American environmentalism will certainly emerge.