A group of four well-known climate scientists created a stir earlier this week with an open letter imploring environmentalists to back nuclear power as a low carbon energy source that can stave off the havoc of climate change.
With signatories including James Hansen, the Columbia University professor and longtime campaigner in the global warming fight, the missive could put nuclear power firmly into the consciousness of this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference kicking off in Warsaw on Nov. 11.
But what much of the general press missed in reporting on the clarion call was that the scientists were not simply advocating nuclear. They were pressing for a move away from conventional nuclear technology – the uranium fueled, water cooled reactors of the last 50+ years – and toward alternative reactor types, such as those we write about here at Weinberg.
“We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect,” the letter stated. “Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants.”
In addition to Hansen, who recently retired from over 30 years as head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, the authors included senior scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel from MIT, and climate scientist Tom Wigley from Australia’s University of Adelaide.
For Hansen, alternative nuclear technology would include integral fast reactors (IFR) such as the PRISM reactor from GE-Hitachi which can burn plutonium and thus make use of existing nuclear “waste.” It can also breed fuel. Last year, Hansen, along with entrepreneur Richard Branson and GEH engineer Eric Loewen, wrote to U.S. President Barrack Obama encouraging support of IFRs (Loewen signed the letter in his then capacity as president of the American Nuclear Society).
Several other alternative reactor designs also augur improvement in safety, cost, efficiency, waste and weapons proliferation risks.
Those include molten salt reactors (MSRs), which deploy liquid fuel and which can operate safely at high temperatures and thus improve generating efficiencies and also serve as a clean heat source for high temperature industry processes that today rely on CO2-intense fossil fuels. MSRs also operate at atmospheric pressures rather than at potentially dangerous high pressure, and have a fail safe engineering that prevents meltdowns and and that allows fuel to drain harmlessly into a tank if necessary. They offer a number of other advantages, such as reduced waste and a potential to breed fuel.
Other alternatives include another type of high temperature reactor called a “pebble bed reactor,” small modular reactors (which crosses many reactor types), and fusion.
The alternative reactor types – as well as conventional reactors – could also tap thorium fuel rather than uranium. Proponents of thorium point out that it is more plentiful than uranium, that it has a higher energy content, and that it can reduce waste and proliferation risk, among other benefits. Thor Energy in Norway is currently conducting thorium tests in a conventional reactor. Scientists at the University of Cambridge and elsewhere believe that thorium could potentially be re-used over and over again in modified conventional reactors.
As I reported here recently from the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 in Geneva, thorium supporters include Nobel Prize winning physicist Carlo Rubbia and former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix. Conventional French nuclear giant Areva last week publicly stated that is investigating thorium possibilities.
This week’s letter by Hansen and his fellow climate scientist did not mention the alternative technologies by name, but issued a call “for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.”
It said that “renewable” energy technologies such as wind and solar simply won’t be enough to avoid further serious consequences from global warming.
Many formerly anti-nuclear environmentalists have crossed over into the pro-nuclear camp, a theme conveyed in the feature length documentary film Pandora’s Promise. This week’s letter hopes to broaden that trend.
“We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change,” it said.
It further noted that, “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. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
It’s no coincidence that Hansen et al published the letter in the run-up to the two-week UN conference, where policy makers from around the world will attempt to agree on action to slow the effects of climate change. Often, these annual UN confabs – such as the 2009 Copenhagen installment – are remembered more for what they did not accomplish than anything else. Let’s see if Warsaw 2013 can at least leave some sort of positive nuclear impression.
For a full copy of the letter click here.
Photo is from Tarsandsaction via Wikimedia