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James Hansen – a prophet on climate change, but a crank on nuclear power

James Hansen and the whale, a tragi-comedy in four chapters, The Reality Based Community,  By James Wimberley

“………..[James Hansen]  he said :      
Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change. The dangers of fossil fuels are staring us in the face. So for us to say we won’t use all the tools [such as nuclear energy] to solve the problem is crazy.

At this stage, the position is harmless crankiness. Nuclear reactors, with their negative learning curve, regular delays, uncertainty, and long-tail risks drove off almost all private investors decades ago. There is no good reason to think new nuclear is essential or even useful to the energy transition. “Next-generation nuclear” doesn’t exist. The economics of the nuclear reactors that can be built, poor as they are, depend on use as “baseload”, a concept that cheap but variable wind and solar as primary generators have rendered obsolete. What these need is flexible despatchable backup, which can be supplied far more cheaply by storage, gas turbines, more trade (eg with Quebec or Norway), or paid-for demand response. On energy blogs like MIT Technology Review or GTM you can find a vociferous band of loyal pro-nuclear commentators, but they do not represent anybody with power or money. …..
Another group of prophets deserves to be honoured. ……… I cited earlier the fall in the cost of renewables as one key element in making possible the Paris Agreement and the energy transition it requires. This did not happen by accident or the magic of the free market. The slope of the learning curves of technologies like wind and solar power and batteries may be exogenous. But it’s a relationship between cost and volume, and depends on growth in volume and an appropriate level of R&D. Until wind and solar broke through cost parity with coal, oil and gas a few years ago, progress down the leaning curve depended on subsidised deployment and research. Car batteries are not quite there yet.

These crucial policy and technical developments were the fruit of a fairly small number of enterprising, determined and lucky individuals. They included:

  • Researchers on solar: Becquerel, Willoughby Smith, Fritts, Einstein, Czochralski, the Bell Labs team of Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson. On wind: Poul La Cour and Johannes Juul in Denmark. On batteries: John Goodenough, who coming up to his 96th birthday still unprized in Stockholm, has just announced a research breakthrough on a high-density solid-state lithium battery.
  • Politicians and bureaucrats: NASA in the 1960s, MITI in the 1970s; Hans-Josef Fell and Hermann Scheer, leaders of the Energiewende in Germany and instigators of the 2000 Renewable Energy Act (EEG); Jerry Brown of California; Barack Obama (through targeted ARRA funding and the bilateral deal with China that made Paris possible).
  • Businessmen: Tokuji Hayakawa of Sharp in Japan; Elon Musk of Tesla; Wang Chuanfu of BYD.

This is an incomplete list, and no doubt unfair from my lack of knowledge. But it is near-certain that without these 18, and the then leaders of MITI and NASA, renewable energy and electric transport would not be where they are today.

The challenge also induced a lot of effort on enhanced geothermal, wave energy, OTEC, power kites, fuel cell cars, and other ideas that have not so far panned out. Nobody knows in advance which ideas will work out, and the failures also deserve their share of praise…..


July 2, 2018 - Posted by | spinbuster, USA

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