Positive data on nuclear power gets short shrift

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On April 4, a Discover magazine blog entry read, “Study: Nuke Power Has Saved Millions of Lives. Media Yawns.” Discover, Scientific American and Chemical & Engineering News reported on the study after it was published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

ONE OF THE study’s authors, James E. Hansen, recently retired from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is the climate expert who first brought the science and potential impacts of global warming to the attention of the world. Because he believed so much in his own research showing the potential for the warming of Earth because of greenhouse gas emissions, he became an ardent proponent of nuclear power, noting that other “renewable” energy concepts could not sate the world’s growing appetite for energy.

The other author, Pushker Karecha, who proposed the study because of sensational misinformation in the media concerning the Fukushima nuclear disaster, still is with NASA.

Lacking direct data on deaths prevented by nuclear power, the authors used previously published peer-reviewed data on deaths caused by burning fossil fuels and calculated how much fossil fuel would have been required to replace the nuclear contribution to our energy mix.

THEIR CONCLUSION was that the use of nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions that would have resulted from fossil-fuel burning.

Further, if nuclear were to be replaced by coal, by 2050 there would be 7 million additional deaths, or 420,000 additional deaths if replaced by natural gas. Obviously, the additional carbon dioxide burden in our atmosphere and oceans could become a matter of great concern.

The authors made no attempt to estimate the enormous cost associated with treating all of the maladies related to fossil-fuel use, including heart disease, cancer, emphysema, black lung and a host of other respiratory conditions.

ORDINARILY, IF Hansen made a pronouncement about global warming studies, it would get extensive media coverage. But except for the tech-oriented publications mentioned earlier, the mainstream media have shown little interest in carrying this story that highlights the advantages of nuclear power. While anti-nuclear ideologues continue to call for an end to the use of nuclear power, rational voices should be calling for nuclear power to assume a larger role in energy production.

The mainstream media do a disservice to the public interest by not covering more fully a report of this importance by such renowned climatologists. Apparently the conclusions of the report, which are based on facts, do not meet the criteria for news that the media think we need to know.

(The writer is executive director for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.)

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Bodhisattva 04/21/13 - 10:24 am
Studies concerning the XL

Studies concerning the XL pipeline are newsworthy because the decision to go forward and the determination of its potential damage have yet to be made. Since Dr. Wolfe is executive director or a group that's made up of people whose bread is buttered by the nuclear industry (or more accurately, people who receive our tax dollars making sure as much as possible gets fed to SRS), they should be well aware that the decision to continue to expand nuclear energy in this country has already been made. If they have doubts, a short drive south of Augusta (or is it Aiken?) should ease any doubts they have. Just look for the massive cooling towers spewing steam. So is the problem no nuclear energy or that its just not in the right city? Now if they could just get it cheaper and make the shareholders shoulder some of the costs.

Roger Witherspoon
Roger Witherspoon 04/22/13 - 01:02 am
Covering Hansen

There is no mystery as to why Dr. Hansen's hypothetical projection of the lives that would have been saved if the nation had relied more heavily on nuclear power: it wasn't news.
Hansen has enormous credibility as a climatologist. He has, however, no expertise in environmental health, physics, or any branch of engineering. A report showing what might have been if, a half century ago, the nation had opted to fund hundreds of additional nuclear power plants instead of coal plants is an interesting academic exercise with no current relevance. Plans for widespread nuclear power usage were halted because the notion that the would produce electricity "too cheap to meter" proved false, and the technology was far more difficult than envisioned. The plans for a "nuclear necklace" around NYC ended up with just 2 power plants and a nearly bankrupt utility.
Going forward, replacing the existing ageing fleet of 100 nuclear plants, and adding another 100 -- at a cost of about $15 billion each -- would require a public investment of some $3 Trillion. That's public investment, since the free market will not fund nuclear development. So where, Dr. Wolfe, would that money come from?
Power plants currently use more surface water in the US than agriculture, with nuclear plants being the largest users. In a warming world, where would that additional water come from?
And how would that many plants be sited and built in time to prevent the planet's climate from reaching Hansen's projected "tipping point?"
Hansen's report on the theoretical benefits of nuclear power was an interesting academic exercise, and was treated as such. It had nothing to do with ideologues -- either for or against nuclear power.

Tom Blees
Tom Blees 04/23/13 - 04:46 pm
How about some facts?

For someone so glibly criticizing Jim Hansen for lack of expertise in advocating for nuclear power, your comments reveal either a far greater ignorance or an astounding disingenuousness. For starters, you posit a cost for nuclear power plants of $15 billion per gigawatt, even as China is building the first state-of-the-art AP-1000 reactors for barely more than a tenth that cost, and expect to get it down to about $1 billion/GW once their supply chain is in place for subsequent units.

As for water use, nuclear plants are NOT the largest users of cooling water. If you know anything about power plant cooling you know that any thermal power plant—coal, gas, oil or nuclear—uses about the same amount of water per kWh produced. As for using more surface water than agriculture, I find that very difficult to believe but am not going to take the time to chase down that dubious stat. Suffice it to say that the largest nuclear power plant in the USA—Palos Verdes outside Phoenix—uses only water derived from sewage treatment plants for all its cooling. In other words, NO surface water. If that can be done in the Arizona desert, it could certainly be done pretty much anywhere else. The only reason it’s not done elsewhere is because other water is available and cheap to access.

As for how long it takes to build nuclear power plants, it usually takes longer and costs more to build FOAK (first of a kind) plants, yet the first two ABWR plants built back in the Nineties in Japan took just 36 and 39 months to build, and cost about $1,600/kW (just a tad over a tenth of what you say nuclear plants cost). France built the bulk of their nuclear fleet—going from about 15% to 80% nuclear power—in about a decade, all while their electricity usage was increasing dramatically (it tripled in 22 years). And that was without modular plants like we can build today, and in France where urgency is usually not even in the lexicon. So as to your purported concern whether nuclear can be rolled out quickly enough to affect climate change, the answer would be an unequivocal yes.

Mental_Floss 04/27/13 - 04:51 pm
Fascinating discourse

I enjoyed the previous two posts.
Interesting perspectives.
And the original letter was not bad either.

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