Hansen makes the case for nuclear power

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 [1]. 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 [1].

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 [1]

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 [1].

and this:

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 [1].

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 [2].

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. [2]


An evidence – based radiation safety limit would be 100 mSv/y. [2]

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). [2]

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. [2]

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 [2].

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 [2].

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 [1].

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 [3].

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 [4]. 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.


[1] James Hansen: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions?
[2] Robert Hargraves: Radiation: The Facts
[3] James Lovelock: The Revenge of Gaia
[4] Energy Matters: The Primary Energy Tale of Two Continents

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35 Responses to Hansen makes the case for nuclear power

  1. Hugh Sharman says:

    A good review Euan.Thanks!

  2. Robert H says:

    I’m concerned about the suggestion that radiation dose limits should be raised. As far as I know, in general, in the UK, there is not a problem with the level at which radiation dose limits are set either for public or employees. I think the nuclear industry has done a good job in monitoring radiation exposure and optimising practice. The current dose limits are based on making the risk similar to the general risk in all employment. The limits are sensible and working

    It’s actually an alarming message to say ‘we could have more nuclear as the dose limits could be raised’. No, we can just have more nuclear!

    What we need is to seriously plan the waste issues and location of the plants to reduce the chance of accident and the outcome of an accident

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I believe doze limits should be set according to what “the science” guides us to. In decommissioning for example, costs may escalate inversely to doze limits. If there is a leak at Sellafield, one limit may result in the plant being shut down while another may permit normal operation while the spill is cleaned up. If there is a large accident, it may mean the difference between a 5 and a 50 mile exclusion zone. This doesn’t have to impact at all the safe working practices but it can impact how we react to unplanned events and the costs associated with their mitigation.

      A similar issue is emerging in North Sea oil and gas infrastructure decommissioning where a zero tolerance to oil or gas leaks is being adopted. Oil and gas leaks from the sea bed all the time and in small dozes does no harm, in fact it does good by providing feedstock to bacteria at the base of the food chain. Zero tolerance can make decommissioning significantly more expensive to the point it may drive operating companies out of business. I suspect that is the motivation. For the rest of us it means much more expensive energy and the companies that have provided our life blood departing these shores.

    • Leo Smith says:

      “The current dose limits are based on making the risk similar to the general risk in all employment”

      No they are not. Read Wade Allison. They are ‘as low as reasonably achievable’ not ‘as high as reasonably safe’.

      In short radiation limits are not set to achieve a given level safety, but to be as low as is (just) achievable. That wasn’t a bad way to go when no one knew what the long term effects of low level radiation might be: Today it’s insane.


      ” The limits are sensible and working”

      They are not sensible. And they add cost – stupendous costs.

      Sensible limits would have means that FUKUSHIMA required no evacuation, and cleanup at one percent or less would have been needed.

      Sensible limits would mean a nuclear power station at one third the price.

      Sensible limits would mean public liability insurance didn’t need to be underwritten by government.

      Sensible limits means that waste disposal could be undertaken without needing a UN conference to give consent. 🙂

      Sensible limits would have meant there was no need to store huge acres of spent fuel at FUKUSHIMA. It would already have been moved elsewhere.

  3. kakatoa says:

    Timely post Euan!

    Yesterday I was looking up how much LADWP is willing to pay PV developers, via a FIT, to meet their 33%RES goal. Via the wonders of the web it only took a couple of minutes to find a few suggestions on where to find a reference (see page 44 of 47)


    “The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) 150 MW FIT pricing program was
    approved by the LADWP Board of Commissioners on January 11, 2013.136 The initial phase of
    the program will consist of five 20 MW rounds. First round pricing is $0.17/kWh and will drop
    by one cent per kWh each round. 4 MW will be reserved for smaller projects between 30 and
    150 kW in each 20 MW increment.

    It wasn’t until your current post that I reread the conclusion of the paper entitled “Meeting California’s Electricity Needs Without San Onofre or Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plants.”

    Dr. Hansen would likely be pulling his hair (say from his arms) out after reading the last paragraph of the paper-

    “Increasing the state’s RPS target from 33 percent to 51 percent, as proposed in legislation, would
    completely displace nuclear output with renewable power output. The proposed IOU energy
    storage procurement target of 1,300 MW by 2020 is a major step toward displacing nuclear
    power on a round-the-clock basis with renewable power.” And this conclusion is based on this:

    “The SONGS outage has had no effect on the high level of power supply reserves in Southern
    California. It has precipitated a series of relatively low-cost remedial measures to assure
    adequate substitutes for the local voltage support provided by SONGS. The principal reason that
    the loss of SONGS has had no effect on the reserve margin is that approximately 2,000 MW of
    additional gas-fired supply came online in the Los Angeles Basin in the first seven months of

    Low cost is in the eye of the beholder; unfortunately this paper doesn’t cover what it actually cost ($’s and say the energy and Co2 needed to put the remedial measures in place).

  4. clivebest says:

    In Scotland our current government is anti-nuclear and is passionate about renewables.

    This could be Alex Salmon’s biggest mistake (apart from dropping the proposal to join the euro). The latest figures from 2012 show that the two ageing AGR reactors in Scotland produced over 34% of Scotland’s power easily beating its “rich” renewables. What is more important is that the nuclear power output is also reliable whereas wind isn’t.

    Currently Scottish wind is being balanced by English coal !

  5. Roger Andrews says:

    Hansen claims that to save the world from catastrophe “the principal requirement (is) that fossil fuel emissions peak by 2020 and then decline by 2%/year” and that this goal can be met via rapid expansion of nuclear power combined with a carbon tax.

    I haven’t looked into the impacts of a carbon tax, but to cut global CO2 emissions by 2% annually after 2020 while at the same time filling growing global electricity demand we would have to retire ~150 gigawatts of coal capacity and commission ~200 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity each year. And even in the highly unlikely event that we could expand nuclear at such an astronomical rate (present total world installed nuclear capacity is only 370 gigawatts) the 2%-per-year emissions cuts would still come to an end in the early 2030s when we ran out of coal plants to retire.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Energy Math 101 😉

      In Europe we have astronomical carbon taxes already. I have concluded that if there is a real desire to abate emissions then FF reserves need to be ring fenced and left in the ground forever. I have also concluded that there is close to zero chance of that ever happening. Would the USA ring fence the Powder River Basin coal? Or the UK shut down the N Sea?

      • Roger Andrews says:

        Obama and the EPA are already doing their best to fence off Powder River and Hansen, who has been arrested three times in anti-coal and anti-Keystone Pipeline demonstrations, would shut it down tomorrow given the chance.

        Yes, my numbers were straight out of Energy Math 101, but you won’t find them in Emissions Math 101, which uses a totally different set of rules.

  6. Glen Mcmillian says:

    ”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 [3].

    I agree but I still support the expansion of sensibly sited renewables installations because I believe that we will not be able to get enough nukes permitted and built to avert a fatal energy crisis sometime in the next couple of decades. Renewables can be brought online quickly and in modest increments and they are well suited to local control of the investment money and employment of local people.

    And while renewables are intermittent and will alway be intermittent they can serve to extend depleting fossil fuel supplies to a substantial extent.

    Beyond that sensibly sited renewable generation can be used locally in real time to a very great extent as for instance air-conditioning in the American southwest.

    Putting all our eggs in the nuclear basket is a very risky undertaking in terms of proliferation of nuclear weapons on the one hand and on the other there is no way we can be sure that nuclear power plants will be sensibly maintained and operated in the future – especially in countries that are subject to political instability. Any country could suffer a major political or economic disruption that would leave the management and maintenance of nuclear plants in questionable hands.

    Having said all this there is no such thing as a risk free existence. IF you never get out of bed you will never get killed in an auto accident but you will be at a higher risk of death than most drivers due to the lack of exercise.

    Nuclear is scary as hell but I am even more scared of not having it. Even a temporary lack of electricity with the population of the developed world as high as it is, and dependent the way it currently is on water sewer and shipping and storage of refrigerated food, etc, could easily result in millions of people dieing in short order.

    There are numerous scenarios possible where in fossil fuel generated electricity supplies could fail for days or weeks or even months.

    These have to do with natural disasters, political revolutions in exporting countries, war between major powers and so forth.

    The only sensible thing to do is my estimation is to keep the pedal to the metal on nukes , renewables, conservation and efficiency.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Glen, renewables quite simply don’t sit well alongside nuclear power. In Scotland we are building a hugely expensive power line to no where to transport renewable energy to market. Come the day of reckoning it will be realised that capital was wasted and countryside trashed.


      And I don’t really buy the proliferation argument. Saudi and UAE are well on their way to getting civilian nukes. Controlling the fuel cycle is key to preventing proliferation. Lots of countries can have nukes without having the enrichment facilities. Which countries that don’t already have nukes are you afraid may develop weapons that remain extraordinarily difficult to make. Iran and who else?

    • Willem Post says:

      “I agree but I still support the expansion of sensibly sited renewables installations because I believe that we will not be able to get enough nukes permitted and built to avert a fatal energy crisis sometime in the next couple of decades. Renewables can be brought online quickly and in modest increments and they are well suited to local control of the investment money and employment of local people.”


      Please look at the above graph of “% total energy vs years”. It clearly shows the miniscule wind, solar and geothermal contribution. There is no way that is going to increase to 15-20% of total energy by say 2050, which, as we all know by now, will make not one iota of difference regarding GW, as OTHER nations do not have the means to reduce the rate of increase of THEIR CO2 emissions.*

      These other nations should be encouraged to burn coal cleanly.

      Of course, we all may WISH it to be the case, but that is an unrealistic pipe dream, based on the REAL world data in the above graph.

      *Total US energy consumption is about 100 quads/yr. Energy input, quads/yr, to produce electrical energy (4000 TWh/yr) is about 1/3 of that.

      The problem with coal is not the flora-beneficial CO2 but the health and environment damaging particulate emissions.

      They can be great reduced by the use of ultra-super-critical coal plants that have efficiencies of about 42%, compared with about 32 – 35% for standard coal plants.

      If such plants are equipped with fabric filter systems, they remove almost all particles greater than 0.5 micron from the flue gasses. The bottom ash is typically used for making concrete.

      China would have much less of a pollution problem if it built hundreds of such plants.


      China has 21 reactors in operation, total capacity about 22 GW
      China has 28 being built, total capacity about 58 GW, on line by 2020
      China has plans for 200 GW by 2030 (a very ambitious 10-yr goal) and 400 GW by 2050

      If China eventually, by 2050, had an average wind energy CF of about 0.25 (the present CF is much less), the 400,000 MW of nuclear would be equivalent to about (0.90 nuclear/0.25 wind x 400,000) = 1,440,000 MW of wind turbines, or 480,000 units @ 3 MW each to produce the same quantity of energy, but it would be variable, supplementary energy, i.e., not on a continuous basis, because wind energy varies up and down with the wind conditions, AND almost ALL other generators would be required to balance the variable energy AND fill in any shortage, especially during wind lulls.

      The BRIC countries do not much care that the US and Europe are adverse to using nuclear plants for CO2 reduction.

      Russia will build 10 more nuclear reactors for Iran; two Russian reactors are in operation.

      The US has a nuclear plant capacity of about 100 GW and it declining.


  7. OldTech says:

    I too think that we are way too scared of nuclear. Yes nuclear can be dangerous, but that does not mean that we can not deal with it. I worked at Hanford when I was first out of college over 30 years ago. My first office was in a room that had radiation warnings on the walls (it had been painted over seal in the radiation). I also had an office in an old processing building with 3 foot thick concrete walls. Hanford is one of the most contaminated sites in the US, yet wild life flourished. One incident that set off alarms was due to a mud dabber’s nest falling onto a loading dock and then tracked throughout the building. Apparently the mud dabber got its mud from a near by radioactive waste pond. This was a minor incidence that was only notable for its unusual cause.

    My biggest concern with nuclear is us (including the greens). Because of our collective concerns and fears we have made nuclear more complex than it needs to be and we do not deal well with complexity. So IMO it is not really a viable option as long as we have other choices. The dilemma is that it takes time to build new energy sources and I think that we only have a few years until peak oil and its impacts will become visible to everyone. Even if we started now or in the near future (a virtual impossibility into today’s political climate), we would still likely feel the impacts of peak oil. I also have questions about it scalability at a global level. Iran on the other hand seems to be preparing for peak oil and beyond.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      My biggest disappointment at Fukushima was that the power stations were built in harms way in the first place. Most of Japan’s power stations are on the west coast and I don’t understand why they did not manage to resist building this handful of stations on the east coast. I agree that Man and complexity do not mix well. But the risks to Mankind of not having sufficient supplies of reliable electricity are immense. The whole of life is a big gamble, trading off one set of risks against another.

      Peak oil began in 2005 when a plateau in conventional crude oil production was reached. This important milestone has been buried by a deluge of Greenspeak and CO2 reduction measures.

  8. Hi Euan,

    Thanks for a thoughtful summary. As you point out, responses will need to have a local quality. One challenge in the US to nuclear power is that we have created serious legal and regulatory barriers to nuclear waste disposal and to new plant construction that will likely block many plant license extensions and limit new construction to just a few plants.

    It is true that wind and solar are base generation destroyers. The generation share for wind and solar in California are about 6% each, comparable to Germany’s. While we have not yet seen the massive dumping of electricity to other states comparable to Germany’s exports to neighboring countries, we are starting to see negative prices in some hours.


    • Euan Mearns says:

      Negative prices for high cost energy doesn’t sound good to me Dave. Do consumers get paid for using electricity? I’ve not yet managed to work out who benefits from negative prices.

      • Hi Euan,

        Wind farms here get a 2.3 cents per kWh producer tax credit. Since they have no fuel costs, it makes sense for them to supply electricity even at negative prices. This situation has been cited by people trying to kill the producer tax credit.


  9. Willem Post says:


    Interesting article on radiation exposure. Bob Hargraves is a member of our Coalition for Energy Solutions. He wrote a book “Thorium; energy cheaper than coal”. He has given talks in China and elsewhere regarding its thorium program.


    It is amazing to me not more people analyze the true costs of wind energy. The “externality” of having to rebuild the grid, and the “externality” of capacity adequacy adds at least 5 c/kWh to any major build out of wind turbine facilities, i.e., doubles the annual average generating costs of energy.

    PV solar energy, without storage, is minimal or zero about 65% of the hours of the year, and wind energy in New England is minimal or zero about 30% of the hours of the year. Many of these hours overlap. That means almost ALL conventional generating units are required almost ALL hours of the year to provide energy when solar and wind energy are insufficient, even at higher average percentages of wind and solar energy on the grid.

    It is called capacity adequacy and it is NOT free, because all these generators would need to be:

    – Staffed,
- Fueled, and
- Kept in good working order, and be
- Replaced on a scheduled basis with new ones,

    to be ready to serve on a moment’s notice.

    Capacity adequacy, and its operation, adds at least 5 c/kWh to the cost of delivering the sum of “fill-in” conventional energy + wind and solar energy to users, a significant “externality”, in addition to the “externality” of extensive redesign and augmentation of existing grids to connect the distributed energy sources and control their variable, intermittent energy with the less-efficiently-operated conventional generators.


    • Euan Mearns says:

      Willem, you have written a lot of very interesting articles.

      It is amazing to me not more people analyze the true costs of wind energy.

      Me too! Have you any idea why this should be the case? In the UK all of these additional costs are being lumped onto consumers, who of course are complaining and the government blames the utilities. But why have governments embraced a technology (wind) that is effectively useless at doing what it is supposed to do, wrecks the landscape, is at core expensive and has all these additional “hidden” costs.

      From your link:

      Energy Source Mortality Rates; Deaths/yr/TWh

      Coal – world average, 161
      Coal – China, 278
      Coal – USA, 15
      Oil – 36
      Natural Gas – 4
      Biofuel/Biomass – 12
      Peat – 12
      Solar/rooftop – 0.44-0.83
      Wind – 0.15
      Hydro – world, 0.10
      Hydro – world*, 1.4
      Nuclear – 0.04

      Can you explain a bit about what these numbers mean. In nuclear, for example, there may be deaths during U mining, fuel enrichment, construction of power station, operation of power station, unplanned release of radiation, decommissioning etc. This anti-wind site has some “sobering” stats on mortality from wind farms – but I’ve never been sure what they mean and how to compare them.


      • Willem Post says:


        Regarding mining, processing of uranium, etc., the quantities are much less than coal, i.e., the deaths per TWh are much less.

        Nuclear plants have CFs of about 0.85-0.90, much better than most other plants, i.e., more TWh over which to spread any deaths.

        By far the major sickness, shorter life, and death causers of coal is its air pollution. Proper air pollution control systems, i.e., fabric filters systems, would do much to minimize the air pollution.

        A system with a removal efficiency of 99.95%, passes 5 lbs in 10,000 to the atmosphere. A system with a removal efficiency of 90.0% (typical or worse in China and India), passes 1,000 lbs in 10,000 to the atmosphere. Hence a ton of coal there is 200 times worse than in the US and Europe, AND these two countries are the biggest coal burners in the world!!!

  10. Bernard Durand says:

    Euan, I am always surprised that, when discussing the effects of nuclear radiations on public health, effects of medical applications are never thoroughly discussed for comparison.
    The main difficulty for quantifying the dangers of nuclear radiations, either natural or artificial, is that in the vast majority of cases, the doses and therefore their effects are so weak that you need a vast cohort of people and statisticals methods to make an evaluation, by a comparison between irradiated and non-irradiated people during a long period of time, given the length of illness evolution. Furthermore, you have a large uncertainty on the efficient dose which was received by each individual.
    In medical applications, vast cohorts of people, roughly 700 000 persons in France only, adults and children, received various doses, sometimes very high in local applications, or for a long time, on a large variety of organs. Moreover, the doses are known precisely and individuals are systematically followed afterwards. This has been analyzed by dozens of highly specialized doctors and their conclusions (I had discussions with eight of them) is that under 100 mSV , they never observed any harm, even on the long time.
    Therefore this value of 100 mSv should be taken as the limit of what you can safely receive in one year. On longer periods, it is very likely that you can receive much more if the annual dose is lower, say 50 mSV/year on the average, during all your life.
    The LNT ” rule” begins to make sense for health when you receive doses higher than said above. Below these values, there is no risk or so little that it is undetectable, and LNT can be used only as a guide for establishing precaution rules, in any case for an estimation of health impacts.

    These conclusions from medical observations have never been seriously exposed on the French TV at prime time, which has very rarely invited a specialist without inviting in the same time a panel of contradictors having a very poor knowledge of the subject, generally barristers , lawyers or sociologists belonging to antinuclear organizations. Specialists of UNSCEAR are never invited either.
    I guess this is the same in every country.

    This is a demonstration of the assymetry of the information quoted by Hansen in his paper, and a proof of a very strong collusion between antinuclear organizations and medias.

    The result of this is an extreme confusion in people minds, when they have little personal knowledge of the subject, ie the vast majority, even for people well educated in sciences. This had a very adverse effect on the development of civil nuclear, much greater than technical difficulties.

    This is also the cause of the impossibility we have to-day to build a sensible energy politicy in Europe.

    • clivebest says:

      My son was working in Tokyo during the earthquake and Fukushima accident and apart from a week in Hong Kong remained there throughout. Many other foreigners were evacuated and all sorts of crazy rumours were flying around. At the time I wrote a post to put the fear of radiation in its proper context – see http://clivebest.com/blog/?p=2082 Below is an extract of that post relevant very to your point above !

      Extreme Medical Exposure.

      In 2000 I discovered a small lump in my salivary gland which turned out to be malignant, which was a bolt out of the blue. I had an operation to remove the whole salivary gland which was followed by radiotherapy. The radiotherapy was personally a nightmare which I had to endure. A steel mask was made to target the area affected on the right side of my face from just below the eye to the lower neck and I was placed in a shielded room below an electron accelerator delivering essentially beta rays (electrons) at 100 KeV and sometimes gamma/X-rays. It is a nerve racking experience as the operator closes the 12 inch thick steel shielding door and you are left alone waiting for the machine to hum. In my case with eyes shut I could see a light show of Cherenkov radiation as the high energy electrons passed through the liquid surface of my right eye – a very unnerving experience. I had 30 sessions over 6 weeks each delivering a dose of 2 grey – 60 grey in total. Radiation burns eventually caused the external skin of my face to scale like leather. I had blisters inside my cheeks plus scarring down my throat. Luckily I have a very good dentist to thank for protecting my gums and for preventing bad damage to my tongue. He made a special protective shield which I could wear with air holes for breathing. This saved my sense of taste and my gums. It then took me about 6 months to a year to return to a more or less normal life. However I have permanent hair loss on the right side of my face, a permanent numbness and occasional throbbing, plus slight loss of feeling in my right ear. Other than that – over 14 years later I feel great !

      A whole body dose of 5 Gray in one go is usually fatal !

      • Euan Mearns says:

        Clive, I’ve always been amused by the health benefit claims of replacing NaCl by radioactive KCl in ones diet. You’d think they should put a little radiation sticker on the KCl salt jar.

  11. Roger Andrews says:

    Back to the subject of this post, which is Hansen’s article on “Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions?”

    Hansen has a basic misconception of his own, and one shared by many others, namely that:

    “The crucial requirement for achieving a clean energy future and a stable climate is carbon-free ….. electricity generation.”

    But is it? How far does carbon-free electricity actually take us along the road to a decarbonized world economy? By applying a little more Energy Math 101 I came up with the following numbers (not exact but good enough for emissions work). If we converted all the world’s fossil-fuel generating plants to zero-carbon generation tomorrow:

    * Global CO2 emissions would decrease by only a third (from ~36 billion tons/year to ~24 billion tons/year).

    * Fossil fuels would still supply 69% of the world’s energy, down from 87% at present (~8,600 MTOE vs ~10,900 MTOE).

    These results make it clear that decarbonizing electricity generation isn’t the crucial requirement. The crucial requirement is to decarbonize the cars, buses, trucks, airplanes, trains, ships, oil and gas-fired heaters etc. that consume the lion’s share of the world’s fossil fuels. But while many countries have developed plans for decarbonizing their electricity generation that make sense at least on paper I’m not aware of a single one that has developed a coherent plan for decarbonizing, say, its transportation sector. Maybe too difficult? Or could it be that the people doing the planning simply don’t understand where the carbon comes from?

  12. Sandy Lawrence says:

    The work that James Hansen has done over the last several decades has been of inestimable value, and his book Storms of my Grandchildren worth reading. But I part company with him when it comes to promoting nuclear-based electricity generation, even though it is low-carbon [note however that construction requires inordinate amounts of concrete and uranium enrichment is very energy-intensive as well].

    To put into some perspective into the radiation discussion, here are some background radiation doses experienced by all of us [all in mSv/yr]:
    Worldwide mean individual background radiation dose 2
    US mean natural background radiation dose 3
    Background radiation parts of Iran, India, Europe 50

    Other exposures
    Smoking 20 cigarettes/day 9-40
    Chest xray [2 views] 0.04
    Abdominal CT scan 8

    Radiation workers
    Current dose limit US nuclear workers 20
    Japanese radiation workers before Fukushima 100
    Dose limit applied to workers 4 days after onset Fukushima 250

    There continue to be concerns even about medical exposure to ionizing radiation:
    Projected cancer risks from computed tomographic scans performed in the United States in 2007, Archives of Internal Medicine, v. 169, no. 22, December 14/28, 2009
    Radiation dose associated with common computed tomography examinations and the associated lifetime attributable risk of cancer, Archives of Internal Medicine, v. 169, no. 22

    The ongoing demise of the American nuclear industry has little to do with environmental opposition. Even the drop-off in reactor orders in the 1970s was not due to the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, but actually began a year earlier. Economics are the limiting factor instead. Nuclear in a competitive market simply fails to perform, and this in spite of subsidies including the Price-Anderson Act limiting liability and insurance costs that add up to aproximately US$0.055 per kWh. Competing with nuclear now are energy efficiency such as LEDs, demand modulation, renewables and natural gas [largely related to directional drilling and hydrofracking]. Four nuclear power plants were shut down last year, with at least one more scheduled for 2014, and Exelon is poised to make an announcement later this year about closing other plants, such as the James A. FitzPatrick plant in New York State, slated to lose US$18 million this year.

    There are four commercial reactors currently under construction in the US, 2 Vogtle plants in the State of Georgia and 2 Summer plants in South Carolina. Both projects benefit from new state laws shifting financial risk to ratepayers, Vogtle received federa loan guarantees of US$6.5 billion in February this year, and all four reactors are behind schedule and over budget. No renaissance happening here. From a peak of 121 reactors we will be down to 99 this year and quite probably lower. Stay tuned for news from Exelon before the end of this year about further shutdowns.

    The key Achilles heel of fracking of tight oil and tight gas in shale [or source] formations is the unbelievable decline rate of producing wells, typically 40% the first year vs. a conventional oil or gas well at 4%. per year I expect to see the US peak in fracked oil and NG before the end of this decade.

    Finally, don’t be too quick to write off the contribution of wind-generated electricity. In 2013 nine of our 50 states generated at least 12% of their electricity from wind, and two of them [South Dakota and Iowa] were at 27%. Solar may be less than 1%, but then all new sources of energy start at this level, and photovoltaic in the US in 2013 added more than a GWe each quarter and is projecting 6.6 GWe of new construction this year.
    Source: http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/A-PV-Market-First-Residential-Solar-in-the-US-Exceeded-Commercial-Installa

    Finally, an article with graphic from the US National Climate Assessment showing global warming continuing apace. Source: http://climatecrocks.com/2014/06/04/despite-cold-winter-climate-change-reality-becoming-mainstream-in-us/

    I continue to enjoy this blog for its contrarian stance. Appreciate the fact that I have tried to respond to too many threads all at once. My background is not in radiation physics, although I I did spend most of my career as an associate professor of medicine at the University of California at Davis.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Sandy, thanks for this thoughtful contribution. Its curious how I disagree with much of Hansen’s work on climate but quite strongly aligned with his view on energy and society. It seems we are a pole apart 😉 Despite having a range of fairly well qualified commenters, we are not going to reach a consensus or valid conclusion on dose limits here. I think Leo Smith parsed this extremely well

      No they are not. Read Wade Allison. They are ‘as low as reasonably achievable’ not ‘as high as reasonably safe’.

      This is bound to have a major impact on costs and complexity of operating procedures. Complexity can actually lead to greater, not less hazard. I would be interested to know what size of exclusion zone would be required at Fukushima if the dose limit was 100 mSv / y?

      I think the points you make about costs, project delays and cost over runs are relevant and we need to ask why this is the case. The point you make about reactors costing a lot of energy as does fuel enrichment are less valid since the reactors produce a huge amount of energy over their life. Having said that, the EROI for nuclear is published at around 5 which is much lower than I care to believe. France and Sweden would have struggled to function during the construction phase of their nuclear fleets if this were the case.

      Your link takes us to a nice graph that reproduces an IPCC graph from AR5 WG1. My understanding is that the warming 1900 to 1940 is viewed as mainly natural but 1960 to present day is mainly man made. Explain to me how the natural warming process got switched off and replaced by CO2 and I’ll begin to be less sceptical. To be clear, my view is that the 1960 to present day trend contains a component of natural and a component of man made warming, maybe split 50:50 or maybe much less man made. The moment you accept there is a natural component in the post-1960 data then climate sensitivity tumbles. I believe that a large number of IPCC authors understand this but their views and voices are being drowned out by the alarmists at present. Here is the IPCC view:

      While there are other scenarios not shown, 32 scenarios show virtually no warming this century while 39 show “catastrophic” warming. We are supposed to believe that this is consensus when in fact it should be presented as scientists cannot agree at all (Doublethinking). The other important point from this graphic is that we are led to believe that the 32 and 39 scenarios both replicate past temperature up to 2005 – it is I believe a physical impossibility for this to be the case.

    • clivebest says:

      The costs for both nuclear and wind power are capital intensive in the construction phase while the running costs are low. Cost comparisons are all based on total energy produced per year while ignoring reliability. Despite this nuclear power is still a little cheaper than wind energy – and much cheaper than off-shore wind energy. Furthermore there are still 3(4) main drawbacks to relying on wind power.

      1. Energy density. The theoretical maximum power generation for a large wind farm is 2 watts/m2. This means that to replicate a modern nuclear plant the wind farm needs to cover an area of 1000 square kilometers. This is a big problem for a small island like UK.

      2. Energy storage. Wind is notoriously unreliable and cannot meet the energy security requirements of power delivery at peak demand. The UK does not have enough high mountains to build pumped storage (not included in wind costs) so must keep fossil fuel backup when there is no wind – such as last week when total UK wind power rarely exceeded 1GW. It is hard to imagine a breakthrough in safe energy storage when the wind blows at night.

      3. Turbine lifetime. A nuclear plant has an operational life span of 60 years or more and is ultra-reliable. Wind turbines need replacing after 15-20 years. Off-shore turbines operate in an extreme environment and their lifetimes may well be far shorter. This means replacing 10,000 turbines every 20 years with unknown costs and waste of raw materials.

      4. Theft! Turbines are scattered across remote countryside. Each turbine contains > £1000 worth of copper. Recently a gang in Germany have stolen the copper out of several turbines by climbing up the tower at night. Pretty soon we will need to also pay 1000s of security guards to patrol huge areas of the countryside. Another hidden cost ? Perhaps these are the green jobs we have been promised for so long?

      Given the assumption that the UK must eventually move to a non carbon power generation there really is only a choice between nuclear power and wind power or a mix of the two. Solar energy makes no sense in the UK.

      Relying on wind energy is like choosing to sail round the world rather than take the QE2. Sailing is great fun but the journey time is out of your control. You can be becalmed for days on end or be hit by a storm at 3am when you need to sleep. Therefore you need a large nuclear powered generator to keep everything working and power the ship’s infrastructure most of the time.

      • Euan Mearns says:

        Clive, a year ago I conceived and co-convened an energy conference in Edinburgh that was viewed by many as the best energy conference ever. I gave the opening address and chose the history of naval ships to illustrate energy transitions. If there is anyone wants to go up against the Nimitz in a sail boat then bring it on. Unfortunately I missed most of the conference since I had to attend my son’s graduation in Cambridge.

        • kakatoa says:


          Thank goodness for the ingenuous engineers in the US Navy. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had a big impact on the Bay Area grid. Not noted in the summary of events, see the Disaster Recovery Journal summary link below, is that one of the Navy’s ships was able to power up a restart of PG&E Hunters Point power station!



          Pacific Gas & Electric reported damage to two power plants, Moss Landing and Hunter’s Point. Power at Hunter’s Point was restored within days after the earthquake, while restoration at Moss Landing took several weeks….”

  13. Colm Barry says:

    The problem is that nuclear energy is the brainchild of nuclear armament. It has never been conclusively proven to release more (usable, i.e. electrical) net energy than it consumes over its entire lifecycle (which spans at least hundreds of thousands of years). Not that “renewables” strike out better in these areas. But as long as states decide to subsidize either, no market-driven answer based on scarcity pricing can ever be ascertained. Most likely both “sources” of “energy” will never be exposed to market forces and we will never know until they have been buried in time.

  14. Kit P says:

    Colm we produce energy and deliver it when and where you need it. ‘Net energy’ is something made up by those who make up reasons to be against something rather than produce something. Electricity is not subject to market forces because it is a cheap commoidity vital to the well being oc society and as such heavily regulated.

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