Obama’s nuclear play

Allen Greenberg | Nov 29, 2015

Here’s a nice bit of irony:

Energybiz – James Hansen, the scientist who was first to raise the alarm about climate change, fueling calls to shut down coal-fired power plants, will later this week urge the expansion of nuclear power.

In other words, depending on how things work out, utilities that were forced to close down or convert their coal-powered operations because of Hansen’s work, could soon find themselves thanking him for encouraging policymakers and regulators to approve plans to build new nuclear plants.

Hansen will issue his call in Paris, during the two-week climate conference that kicks off Monday. The conference is expected to draw some 20,000 attendees, including President Obama and 120 or so other world leaders.

Also read: First U.S. small modular reactor inches ahead

The hope of the climate talks is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Few, however, expect the conference to deliver anything meaningful. That’s because the pledges being made to cut greenhouse gas emissions are voluntary and are unlikely to be enough to stave off environmental catastrophe.

As in previous climate conferences, these talks pit the interests of developed countries such as the U.S. and China — which have historically produced most of the CO2 behind global warming — against developing nations such as India and Brazil.

If you were feeling the least bit optimistic about this conference, David MacKay of the University of Cambridge, a leading sustainable energy researcher, had this to say, based on the climate action plans submitted by some of the nations ahead the summit:

“Many of the pledges are just pledging what countries would have done out of pure self-interest anyway – so they’re actually pledging nothing,” he told German news outlet Deutsche Welle. “China, for example, pledged to reduce coal use compared with an absurd scenario where they would have polluted their whole country and had terrible health problems. So actually, what China is pledging to do is just consistent with self-interest — reducing the health problems from coal use.”

Still, something must be done, because otherwise we’re talking about truly irreparable harm, including the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. That, at least, is the considered assessment of some climate scientists — Hansen no doubt among them.

Joined by several other top climate scientists, Hansen is expected to present research showing that renewables alone cannot realistically meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C, and that a major expansion of nuclear power “is essential to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

While nuclear power is on the mitigation list for China, the U.S. and India, Hansen will call for more, including the deployment of light-water reactors.

Just as significantly, he and his fellow scientists will challenge environmental leaders to support their position.

As noted in a news release announcing the press conference, the Climate Action Network, which represents major environmental groups, “still insists despite all evidence to the contrary that `nuclear has no role to play in a fully decarbonized power sector.'”

“The anti-nuclear position of these environmental leaders is in fact causing unnecessary and severe harm to the environment and to the future of young people,” Hansen and his fellow researchers say in their news announcement.

Of course, Hansen and his colleagues are not alone.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the UN Sustainable Solutions Network and the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate have all argued for more nuclear energy.

This might surprise some people, but nowadays so is President Obama, who has made climate change a focal point of his second term.

In fact, although it attracted far less attention, the Obama administration hosted an important summit on nuclear energy in early November at which it announced a number of steps it was taking to help sustain and finance nuclear energy, including:

  • earmarking $900 million in the Department of Energy’s 2016 budget to support commercial nuclear energy;
  • making construction of advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors and other projects eligible for DOE loan guarantees;
  • launching the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), to accelerate commercialization of the latest nuclear reactor designs by providing outside researchers access to expertise within the DOE;
  • providing support to small modular reactor licensing, simulation and control room development for light-water reactors.

The administration’s efforts generated praise from, among others, the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The institute said it appreciated the “administration’s efforts to spotlight the fact that nuclear energy is key to reducing carbon emissions in the electric sector,” adding, “If the U.S. is to substantially reduce carbon emissions, the nation cannot afford to prematurely shut down any more operating nuclear plants because of flawed electricity markets.”

That’s not mere hyperbole. Amid all of the fawning attention showered on wind and solar energy, nuclear power last year generated about 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the U.S.

And if that strikes you as ironic, you might not have been paying attention.

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