climate science

Opinion: Hansen is right, nuclear is needed to fight climate change

A German nuclear power plant pictured in 2007. Photo credit: Andy Rudorfer via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

Many see him as one of the most radical scientists around, and he has time after time attacked the US government for not doing enough to tackle climate change. He famously said that if the now rejected controversial Keystone XL pipeline project had been approved it would be game over for the climate, and he even got arrested on an anti-Keystone XL pipeline protest.

And more recently he called the groundbreaking Paris Agreement on climate change pointless and being nothing more than hot air. Echoing remarks from his friend, activist, author and co-founder of the climate group, Bill McKibben. I’m talking about one of the best known and controversial climate scientists, James Hansen, often called the grandfather of climate science.

But there is one area where he is less radical. He belongs to a small group of climate concerned people and scientists who have called for nuclear energy as a tool to tackle climate change. In a blog, published here earlier on A greener life, a greener world, he warned of the dangers from the US Left and Right. The Right denies climate change while the Left continues to claim that we can create a 100% renewable-powered energy system.

He rightly uses Germany as an example, stating while they have decommissioned nuclear energy power plants, emissions have risen as a result of the consequent increase of coal burning. Hansen argues that the risks of climate change and air pollution are now so serious, that we cannot afford to say no to nuclear power. He dismisses claims that nuclear is not low-carbon. He says that the inconvenient truth is, that sometimes renewables actually have a higher carbon footprint than nuclear, which is being overlooked by many environmentalists. He does not want to dismiss renewables, though, and instead, he made the case that both technologies should be considered.

These are welcome statements from Hansen, and his scientific explanations for why we must continue to support nuclear energy, which you can read here, need to be taken extremely seriously.

This is an area that divides environmentalists, but I firmly believe that it is becoming more reasonable  to say you can’t both care about fighting climate change and oppose nuclear. By making those statements I’m likely to be attacked by the extreme Left, who hate nuclear because it is operated by large corporations, it has a proven safety risk, and there is a very small risk of a nuclear war. But caring about climate change and opposing nuclear is a bit like saying that we should fight alcoholism and then complain about high beer prices. The hard Left will have to wake up to the reality that nuclear is needed to fight climate change.

But making a pro-nuclear argument does not mean I have become opposed to renewables. In fact, I believe nuclear gives us the tool that allows us to rely more on renewables and rely less on fossil fuels more quickly. Let me give you an example from Denmark. I have time after time written about the success of Denmark’s wind power story. On days when it is very windy, Denmark can produce all of its electricity from the wind. However, if on the next day the wind drops significantly to as low as just a few %, this could present a major problem for Denmark’s grid operators. Therefore, Denmark needs to have a number of power plants running as a backup, as well as having strong grid connections to its neighbouring countries.

Denmark is just one example of a country with a high renewable energy share of the total electricity system.  However, I’m not arguing that Denmark should invest in nuclear power. That  is suitable for some countries and not others, and Denmark is definitely one of the countries where it is not appropriate. Recent breakthroughs in energy storage are encouraging, and so also is the idea of a European super grid. But we are years away from that super grid becoming a reality, and until it happens we need to think about other solutions. So far nuclear energy is our only option that gives us a dependable backup mechanism for renewables. The second best option is gas, but it does have a carbon footprint, and it is also disliked by many environmentalists if derived from fracking.

The one European country equipped to become fully zero-carbon is France. With a high share of nuclear power in the energy mix, together with increased wind and solar, their electricity is zero-carbon. And as they continue to electrify more transport infrastructure France is well on the way to becoming fully zero-carbon. The first step to a zero-carbon country is a carbon-free electricity system. Once you have that you’re halfway.

Pro-nuclear advocates do not attack, manipulate and create smear campaigns against renewable energy. In fact, all the pro-nuclear people and organisations I know of are also pro- renewables, and they are talking about renewables as a part of the mix, together with nuclear. It is time for the environmental and far Left movements to change their negative position about nuclear energy, because it is doing nothing to help our fight against climate change, quite the opposite in fact.

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