Hockey sticks, Harrisburg, and debates: resolved, nuclear is our fastest route by far to the low-carbon scenario

A few weeks ago James Hansen, the famous climatologist, gave a talk at a nuclear industry event in Ottawa. He pointed up the dangers of inaction on climate change and urged politicians to implement a carbon tax—he refers to his proposed scheme as fee-and-dividend. He then said perhaps nuclear energy should play a big role in replacing fossil fuels as more people around the world gain access to greater amounts of energy.

An actual hockey stick, the weapon of choice for those in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.  It is a weapon for other pursuits too; read below.

An actual hockey stick, the weapon of choice for those in pursuit of the Stanley Cup. It is a weapon for other pursuits too; read below.

This may sound like a weak endorsement of nuclear power, but I think Hansen is just being a scientist. Though he speaks definitely and forcefully when discussing climate change, about which he obviously knows a great deal, he is cautious when speaking about something he is not an expert in. In fact, during the talk he mentioned he is going to sit down and really examine the actual risks associated with nuclear power, and try to get that settled in his own mind. He is already sceptical about claims that it is irredeemably dangerous; he mentioned that life developed on a planet bathed in low level radiation. But he wants to take the time to really understand it. Good for him. I wish more public scientists were like that.

Hansen’s fellow climate scientist, the meteorologist Michael Mann, has also been very active and vocal in pointing up, in numerous public forums, the dangers of climate change. Like Hansen, Mann has been the target of some really half baked vitriol, and from all angles. Though his famous Hockey Stick—a graphical curve of surface temperatures since the year 1000 which, after being generally flat for the first 900 years curves sharply upwards beginning about 1900, like the shaft of a hockey stick from the blade—has survived numerous clever attempts to discredit it, it is still disparaged by climate-change sceptics. The image below, courtesy of SkepticalScience, is what the fuss is all about.

But sceptics attack Mann’s hockey stick not because it is wrong; it’s not wrong. Sceptics now generally do not even dispute it. Rather, they simply move on to other aspects of the debate. Anyone who has debated a factless opponent is familiar with this tactic. This has led Mann, as he tells his audience beginning around minute 23:00 in the lecture below, to suspect other motives behind climate scepticism. When you get a few minutes, watch the video. It is worth your while.

At after minute 21:00 in the lecture, Mann, discussing the record recent heat waves in the U.S. and especially his home state of Pennsylvania, shows a graphic of the unprecedented temperatures in 2003 near Harrisburg Pennsylvania. He makes the point that what was unprecedented in 2003 will become a normal summer day by mid-century if we continue dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

I say this because Mann, in another lecture (also available on Youtube; click here), says let’s debate how we can stop dumping CO2 into the air. He even mentions nuclear power: he says let’s debate nuclear power.

Okay, let’s debate it. Mann mentions in the first lecture that people died in the 2003 heat wave in Pennsylvania, and, as I mentioned, included a graphic of temperatures near Harrisburg. People dying because of extreme heat—this is how serious climate change is. Now, Harrisburg Pennsylvania is famous, or infamous, because of a major nuclear accident, Three Mile Island (TMI), which occurred in 1979. The 36th anniversary of TMI was just a couple of weeks ago.

We know the name Harrisburg because of Three Mile Island, not because people died there in the extreme heat of 2003. But how many people were killed because of Three Mile Island? None. Zero.

Exactly the same number of people who have been killed because of the Fukushima meltdowns, which occurred in Japan 4,582 days ago. There have been zero casualties from the nuclear meltdowns over those 4,582 days.

Now, Japan shut down its entire fleet of nuclear power generating reactors because of Fukushima. As a result, Japan’s CO2 emissions from power generation have skyrocketed.

I do not believe either James Hansen or his fellow climatologist and Pennsylvanian Michael Mann are happy about Japan’s skyrocketing GHGs.

Which makes a debate on nuclear power simply urgent.

I do not know why either man is cautious about nuclear power. Perhaps, as I suggest above, it is their natural caution as scientists: they do not want to simply assume things in an area with which they are not familiar. Fair enough: that is a good and noble attitude.

But surely they might find worthy of attention, and scrutiny, the phenomenon of public fear of a technology whose three greatest “accidents”—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, all of which are quite literally household words—have among them a mere 56 human casualties.

Perhaps they might come to realize that public fear of nuclear power is the product of a deliberate campaign, on the part of people whose motives, like those of climate sceptics, are not pure. Hansen, in his Ottawa talk, mentioned some of these motives. He said that an anti-nuclear environmentalist had told him her organization would lose its donations if it changed its position on nuclear power.

Well, public fear of nuclear power is dumping untold millions of tons of CO2 into the global atmosphere from Japanese and German power plants.

So how about we start the debate there. How about “Be it resolved: nuclear power is not dangerous.“ Who, for the sake of debate, will argue against that resolution?

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8 years ago

Excellent feature!

Re: “So how about we start the debate there. How about “Be it resolved: nuclear power is not dangerous.“ Who, for the sake of argument, will argue against that resolution?”

This blog would reap interesting hot attention if it posted that in a brief YouTube still, challenging doubters to a debate here.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

8 years ago

The hurried and unnecessary evacuations at Fukushima killed more people than all three accidents combined.

Here’s a little math formula. The increase of CO2 increases the harmful effects of ultra violet radiation some of which is ionizing which causes skin cancer and infra red causing global warming. An increase in nuclear power usage reduces CO2 and reduces skin cancer and global warming. Yet nuclear power emits radiation. In effect we are fighting one kind of radiation with another. Would you call that ironic? Who cares if it works. The essence of an ecomodernist’s philosophy is to use technology to assist in maintaining an ecological balance thus improving the quality of life. We owe it to ourselves and the well being of the planet to usher in the much overdue nuclear era. Let the healing begin.

Morgan Brown
8 years ago

I became a nuclear research engineer in 1989 (post-Chornobyl) because I was (and remain) concerned about humanity’s effects upon the environment; nuclear has a small environmental footprint relative to the amount of useful and reliable energy it produces. The waste products from energy production not only stay right in the fuel, but decay away with time – how great is that?! Like fire, radiation has to be respected and treated with due care, but we have learned how to do that.

I used to avoid claiming that anthropogenic climate change was real, because I am not a climatologist and therefore my opinion on this subject is of limited value. Also, any support I might give anthropogenic climate change could be perceived as self-serving.

But it’s time to take the gloves off – no more dilly-dallying with respect to climate change. Humans have had the benefits of 60+ years of nuclear electricity-generating experience, and almost 73 years of reactor experience. We have learned a great deal – physics, materials, engineering, operations, regulation, modelling, biology, etc. We can handle nuclear waste and have methods to dispose of it. There is more to learn (perhaps new reactor designs, even radical changes), but we have a wealth of knowledge learned when we had the luxury of time. So let’s use it, now!

Todd De Ryck
8 years ago

Also, Listen to how Dr. Mann raves about the German energy transition program in this April 9, 2015 interview, about 4 minute mark