Clive Best sent me this link a couple of weeks ago suggesting I may want to build a post around it. “Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions?” in its current form is an opinion piece written by James E Hansen . I find myself disagreeing strongly with over 50% of the content and am therefore wary that the rest might also be suspect.
But there are four strands of Hansen’s argument that I find compelling;
1) The future of industrial society and prosperity of Mankind will require growing energy supplies for so long as population continues to grow and the poor aspire to be wealthy
2) Absent grid scale storage, intermittent renewables are locking the world into long-term dependency on fossil fuels (FF) to provide backup and to balance the grid
3) Health concerns that surround radiation and nuclear energy are to a large extent myths spread by Green, anti-nuclear movements.
4) Nuclear power, including breeder reactors, provides the best option to power industrial society without fossil fuels.
Hansen’s paper is interesting since it is written by someone who passionately believes that very substantial reduction in CO2 emissions is essential to avert a climate catastrophe, but he is not a Green. Hence he recognises and accepts the needs of societies, especially the emerging economies, to enjoy the benefits brought by electricity and lots of it. He recognises the limitations of renewables and looks at nuclear risks through the lens of physics and not Green hysteria. He also has many excellent charts. Below the fold I look at Hansen’s views in a series of quotes from his 16 page paper. Selecting these parts inevitably leads to a distortion of his global view, and so interested parties are advised to read the whole paper for themselves to get an accurate picture of his views.
Energy and Society
I will shortly write a post dedicated to documenting the importance of energy to industrial society. Hansen says this:
Abundant affordable energy is essential to address the world’s economic and environmental problems. Energy is needed to achieve adequate living standards and a stable human population. Economic progress makes it possible to pay attention to the environment, as required if we are to share the planet with the other species, which are needed for our own well-being. With economic progress fertility rates in most developed nations have fallen close to or below the level required for population stability or decline. I believe that the best hope for preserving Earth’s environment and its invaluable abundance of life is through intelligent economic development, and economic development requires a substantial level of affordable energy .
This is a substantial departure from Greenthinking. And he also introduces this handy concept:
The relation of carbon emissions to GDP is given by the simple formula:
Carbon = GDP * EI * CI
or, in words, Carbon Emissions = Gross Domestic Product * Energy Intensity * Carbon Intensity 
Or in other words, high value low energy GDP is good and low carbon energy is good. Manufacturing Chanel Perfume, Gucci handbags or Champagne from nuclear power may lead to the holly grail of low energy, low carbon high value GDP.
Renewables lock us into a FF future
This message is one intended particularly for anti nuclear, renewables obsessed, destroyer of The Union but saviour of the planet, Alex Salmond.
Hansen has this to say:
Renewables can do it. People who entreat the government to solve global warming but offer support only for renewable energies will be rewarded with the certainty that the U.S. and most of the world will be fracked-over, the dirtiest fossil fuels will be mined, mountaintop removal and mechanized long-wall coal mining will continue, the Arctic, Amazon and other pristine public lands will be violated, and the deepest oceans will be ploughed for fossil fuels. Politicians are not going to let the lights go out or stop economic growth. Don’t blame Obama or other politicians. If we give them no viable option, we will be fracked and mined to death, and have no one to blame but ourselves .
The asymmetry finally hit me over the head when a renewable energy advocate told me that the main purpose of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) was to “kill nuclear”. I had naively thought that the purpose was simply to kick-start renewables. Instead, I was told, because utilities were required to accept intermittent renewable energies, nuclear power would become less economic, because it works best if it runs flat out. What to do when the wind is not blowing? The answer was: have a gas plant ready as back-up. In other words, replace carbon-free nuclear power with a dual system, renewables plus gas. With this approach CO2 emissions will increase and it is certain that fracking will continue and expand into larger regions .
And so there you have it, absent cheap, energy efficient grid-scale storage, renewables are locking low carbon nuclear out of the equation whilst locking FF in. This is the consequence of Green Doublethinking.
Radiation exposure limits
Much of the public are terrified of radiation exposure. The vast majority do not understand the difference between safe and dangerous exposure levels and there is a tendency to gravitate towards zero tolerance. It seems that during the early years of the cold war, it was in the public interest to be terrified of radiation since this lowered the risk of nuclear weapons being used. Today the public needs to understand the risks associated with not having reliable and affordable supplies of electricity. A power failure may result in food rotting in supermarket freezers or an ambulance stuck in traffic chaos. Food poisoning is often lethal and as we shall see very few have ever died from exposure to radiation from civilian nuclear power.
At this point it is worth mentioning that I have worked on two research reactor sites and have a PhD in isotope geochemistry. I am no radiation expert, but neither am I entirely ignorant on this subject. Hansen refers to and draws on another Columbia University source authored by Robert Hargraves that is well worth reading .
A massive, single, whole-body radiation dose severely injures blood cell production and the digestive and nervous systems. A dose over 5,000 mSv is usually fatal. Spread over a lifetime it is harmless. Why? At low dose rates cells have time to recover. Cancer is not observed at dose rates below 100 mSv/y. 
An evidence – based radiation safety limit would be 100 mSv/y. 
This sets the limits to the debate. Short duration high level exposure such as exposure to a nuclear blast or direct exposure to the core of a nuclear reactor is lethal. Longer term low level exposure to radiation is harmless. It is defining this upper limit that is controversial and the 100mSv/y (millisievert per year) safe doze proposed by Hargreaves is much higher than accepted by public agencies. A spot check suggests the upper limit in the UK is 1 mSv/y.
Exposure limits that were set by LNT theory, ignore observed low-level radiation effects. Public radiation safety limits have become more restrictive, from 150 mSv/y (1948) to 5 mSv/y (1957) to 1 mSv/y (1991). 
In 1946, Hermann Muller won the Nobel Prize for the Linear No Threshold theory (LNT).
Radiation can break a chemical bond in a DNA molecule and create a slight chance it might recombine improperly to propagate cancerous cells. Linear no threshold theory (LNT) says the chance is proportionate just to radiation dose, even at low dose rates over long times. It’s wrong. 
In essence what actually happens is that radiation may break bonds in DNA the majority of which heal themselves perfectly with a very low risk of an imperfect repair taking place that may lead to a cancer. LNT theory envisaged aggregative damage over a lifetime that quite simply does not seem to take place. In fact the contrary seems to occur in that exposure to low levels of radiation appears to promote the bodies ability to repair itself.
Hargraves gives a number of interesting radiation case studies from Chernobyl, Nuclear submarines, Japanese nuclear bomb sites, Fukushima and Taiwan. On Fukushima:
Residents were evacuated from areas with > 20 mSv/y exposure. (IAEA 14 recommends > 220 mSv/y.) A UN panel of expert scientists concluded that radiation caused no attributable health effects and likely none in the future. Radiation killed no one, but the evacuation stress did kill hundreds. Most refugees could have safely returned home .
And on Taiwan:
Recycled steel contaminated with cobalt-60 was used to build apartments, exposing 8,000 people to 400 mSv of radiation over 20 years. Cancer incidence was sharply down, not up 30% as LNT predicted. Instead the adaptive response to low-level radiation seemed to confer health benefits .
Hansen’s commentary is damming of the anti-nuclear lobby and he makes some amusing comments about George Monbiot’s discovery of nuclear reality and goes on to say this:
Pushker Kharecha and I showed that nuclear power, in supplanting fossil fuels otherwise employed, has saved 1.8 million lives and 64 GtCO2-equivalent carbon emissions and could save millions more lives and billions more tons of emissions. These results were for 1960s-1970s nuclear technology. Advanced nuclear technology has the potential for greater savings .
One word of caution that I would add, that does not seem to be covered by either Hansen or Hargraves is the difference between passive exposure to a radiation source and ingesting radioactive materials – inhaling radon gas or swallowing milk contaminated with iodine-131. I have always presumed that ingestion is much more hazardous since a radiation source may become concentrated at one point in the body. Those temporarily exposed to a radiation hazard should be meticulous about hygiene when eating. These are lessons I learned from working on reactor sites many years ago.
To conclude, nothing written here is meant to suggest we can be more relaxed about nuclear safety. On the contrary, every reasonable measure should be taken to assure safe operation of reactors and storage of waste. But should an accident occur, as seems likely to happen again, we need to understand that the consequences for the surrounding population may be much less severe than currently believed or understood. These risks are tiny compared to those of not having reliable and affordable electricity. These same arguments have been made by James Lovelock .
The case for nuclear power
A recurring theme on Energy Matters is that the best solution for one country may not necessarily be well suited to another country. I find it convenient to consider the nuclear option in my own country, Scotland, and to allow others to scale this up or down to match the needs of countries else where.
Hansen has produced a number of interesting charts. The one above illustrates the futility of pursuing the renewables route in the USA. All of the effort so far has amounted to virtually nothing.
In Scotland our current government is anti-nuclear and is passionate about renewables. Intermittent renewables quite simply do not mix with monotonously stable and reliable nuclear power. Vast sums of capital have been miss-allocated building wind farms in isolated places and power lines to bring power from hundreds of sources to market simply adding noise to the grid that must be balanced by gas or hydro. The countryside around Aberdeen is becoming littered with turbines the mountains strewn with power lines and the next stage of this Green dream will be to build hundreds of pumped storage schemes, flooding hundreds of valleys. Soon, there will be no countryside left. The alternative would be to replace Scotland’s existing reactors with two new EPRs (European Pressurised Reactors) on the existing nuclear sites at Torness and Hunterstone. These would provide all of Scotland’s electricity needs for 60 years or more using the existing power distribution network.
Hansen makes his case for nuclear power based on his arguments to reduce CO2 emissions. My argument is based on energy security and the urgent need for Europe to expand its indigenous energy production . In this regard it is easier to make the case for nuclear power in FF depleted Europe than it is to make the case in coal rich USA, China and Russia.
 James Hansen: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions?
 Robert Hargraves: Radiation: The Facts
 James Lovelock: The Revenge of Gaia
 Energy Matters: The Primary Energy Tale of Two Continents