Houston Chronicle 1/5/2010
NASA climatologist James Hansen's research into global warming has brought him fame — and put him in the big fat middle of controversy on more than one occasion.
The intellectual journey that first led Hansen to warn against the imminent perils to our planet of continuing to burn fossil fuels, particularly coal, began in the 1980s. Over the years it has also led him to another, somewhat surprising conclusion: Nuclear power could offer an environmentally acceptable way out of the problems caused by heavy reliance on coal.
Specifically, Hansen says, the Generation IV nuclear power plants now under development offer an alternative to burning coal that ought to be pursued, in this country and globally.
Gen IV plants use far more of the nuclear fuel that they process than their predecessors, leaving less waste and fewer headaches with waste storage. Gen IV waste also has a much shorter half life than the waste created by older plants, Hansen says. These advantages have made development of Gen-IV technology a priority in much of the world, including China and France (which has long relied on nuclear to power its economy).
Hansen, who visited with the Chronicle Editorial Board last month, is very matter-of-fact in his advocacy for nuclear power over coal, which now supplies about half of the electricity in this country. And that runs the soft-spoken scientist-turned-advocate directly into a group that is otherwise in his corner — greens, especially green Democrats.
Unfortunately, nuclear power in the United States continues to operate under a stigma dating at least to the 1970s and the incident at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. This has resulted in an approval process that is in slow motion by world standards, as Hansen rightly observes. It has also meant that engineering talent that would help keep this country in the forefront in development of nuclear technology has gradually been attracted to other, more receptive markets for their skills, he says.
The case Hansen makes for nuclear is a straightforward one: The United States would benefit by depoliticizing its approach to nuclear power and basing it more on the science.
We agree. Advances in nuclear power technology that promise solutions for problems with nuclear waste disposal and half life deserve a hearing in this country free of the taint of decades-old politics.
This is not to minimize the problems that remain for nuclear. Chief among these appears to be the security problem created by fuel that can be shifted to military uses. Iran is the focus of concern at the moment, but placing nuclear plants in other politically volatile areas obviously could pose the same dilemma.
Securing nuclear plants will add a cost to nuclear power that must be factored into the ultimate decision to use it on a broader scale globally. But its potential environmental benefits strongly recommend an objective examination of costs.
What ought not continue is the dismissal out of hand on grounds that have less to do with science than with politics. Let's get the full and up-to-date information about nuclear power. It seems likely to have a large role to play in addressing our global warming issues.