Climate and energy scientists James Hansen, formerly with NASA, Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institute, Kerry Emanuel from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s and Tom Wigley at the University of Adelaide in Australia recently released an open letter calling on environmental leaders to support a call for a massive global ramp up of nuclear reactor construction. In their view, there needs to be a last ditch effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions with a massive expansion of unproven reactor designs. The November 3, 2013 letter, entitled “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power,” antes up an impressive array of institutional credentials against the anti-nuclear community and a high stakes gamble for the future of the planet.
Ironically, given the global decline of nuclear power largely due to failing the economic test, the letter’s argument against alternatively ramping up a 21st Century renewable energy policy starts with, “Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.”
Dr. Hansen argues that on the current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory the planet’s fate arrives at a “tipping point” of no return in less than ten years. Beyond Nuclear does not dispute the scientists’ urgency for human civilization to address a man-made climate crisis. However, we adamantly disagree with staking the planet’s future on perpetuating the nuclear mistake.
So why are these scientists urging environmental leaders to make a blind bet on yet another unproven generation of nuclear power plants?
This is not the first time that these same institutions have lent their prestigious names in what turns out to be a revolving door among academia, government and industry.
For example, take a closer look at the Carnegie Institute. The current and 9th President is Dr. Richard Meserve. Dr. Meserve, the academic, provided his promotional statement for nuclear power as the solution to climate change in an advertising supplement to the Washington Post, April 21, 2010 entitled “U.S. Cannot Dismiss Nuclear Energy in Quest to Control Global Warming.” The supplement also featured a front page advertisement by the industry’s top lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). It promoted nuclear power as “a zero greenhouse gas emitter while producing electricity," divisively omitting the significant carbon emissions from the uranium fuel chain. In 2012, the Nuclear Energy Institute presented Carnegie Institute President Meserve the nuclear industry’s William S. Lee Award for Leadership.
Dr. Meserve was also formerly the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1999 to 2003. He resigned his Presidentially posted five-year term early following disclosures in an Office of Inspector General event report on the 2002 near-miss accident at Ohio’s Davis-Besse nuclear power generating station. The OIG report found that the NRC under Chairman Meserve required “an unreasonably high burden of absolute proof of a safety problem, versus lack of reasonable assurance of maintaining public health and safety before it will act to shut down a power plant.” We almost lost Toledo and portions of the Great Lakes, where the nuclear power plant was potentially weeks away and 3/16th of an inch from the rupture of a severely corroded reactor pressure vessel.
Carnegie President Meserve also serves as Senior of Counsel with the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP which provides legal services to the nuclear power industry. He serves on the Board of Directors of Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) which owns and operates California’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Dr. Meserve also served on the Advisory Board of UniStar Nuclear Energy LLC which unsuccessfully sought to license and construct a new reactor in Lusby, MD, as well as the Board of Directors of Luminant Holding Company LLC which is the parent company of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Texas.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is long recognized as a champion of nuclear technology. Curiously, the climate scientists' missive fails to address the most fundamental obstacles to the expanded use of nuclear power as documented by Dr. Emanuel's own MIT 2002 report "The Future of Nuclear Power," which sought to answer already decades old questions to kick start the first "nuclear renassiance, a term now widely is disuse.
“The potential impact on the public from safety or waste management failure and the link to nuclear explosives technology are unique to nuclear energy among energy supply options. These characteristics and the fact that nuclear is more costly, make it impossible today to make a credible case for the immediate expanded use of nuclear power.”
MIT’s findings are now only amplified by the real world events since the report was published eleven years ago when the global nuclear industry was at its peak and since slipped into a steady dangerous decline. The public safety and the environment are more impacted by in the uncontrolled nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. The global industry remains without a geologically-secure repository operating anywhere in the world. Iran’s pursuit of “the peaceful atom” continues to threaten Middle East and global security with its inherent access to nuclear weapons. And finally, as evidenced most dramatically in the US, the increasingly exorbitant cost of atomic power has stymied the building of new reactors as corporate boardrooms abandon the construction license application process.
Rather than embark back down uranium's dirty, dangerous and expensive "yellow cake" road, we concur with Amory Lovins' plan for a stronger U.S. economy by 2050 with no coal, oil or nuclear power, one third less natural gas, a $5 trillion dollar net savings, and 82-85% lower carbon emissions. The most immediate these steps toward dramatically reducing carbon emissions from the energy sector can be quickly taken by ramping up energy efficiency technologies and conservation at residential, commercial and industrial levels.