Voices for Nuclear: Experts Weigh In

In light of the ongoing climate talks at COP21 in Paris, Forum on Energy has decided to highlight one of the most influential interviews in our archive. In September 2014, we published the following video, filmed by Pandora’s Promise director Robert Stone. Here, Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University professor and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, breaks down exactly why society needs nuclear energy for any hope of a sustainable future.

In this quick interview, Dr. Hansen encapsulates the urgency of nuclear innovation, as well as the most prevalent sources of mainstream societal resistance. One of the most salient points he asserts is that reverting to pre-industrial conditions is simply not an option. “We’re not going to turn the lights out. No government no president or governor is going to turn out the lights. There has to be energy.”

This is a fundamental issue facing the world today, and inseparable from one of the key points of contention between delegate states at the COP21 negotiations. The hard truth is that some countries industrialized before externalities, such as carbon emissions, were understood, which allowed countries to pollute more profusely while benefitting from subsequent advancements. Now that the negative effects of emissions are understood, emerging markets must contend with balancing this threat against their development prospects, though countries differ in opinion on how to address this inequity.

This is where nuclear comes in. Although measures such as increasing energy efficiency and continuing renewable energy research is a necessary part of any solution, they are not the entire answer, according to Dr. Hansen. He asserts that increasing efficiency through methods such as these merely reduces demand for fossil fuels, subsequently lowering the prices, and ultimately incentivizing someone else to burn them. Similarly, as renewables simply cannot handle baseload capacity at this time or in the immediate future, governments are forced to turn to fossil fuels to pick up the slack. Until the developed system undergoes a fundamental shift, fossil fuels will maintain a significant share in the mix, and this same model simply cannot be implemented in the developing world.

Dr. Hansen effectively lays out the argument for reassessing and increasing the role of nuclear energy in the global power scheme and the fight against climate change, and he has not strayed from this message in the intervening year.

Last week, Dr. Hansen was named in The Huffington Post as “the most influential climate scientist urging the acceptance of nuclear power.” The piece, which thoroughly unpacks the relationship between the climate change mitigation challenge and the impending US presidential election, concluded that more informed and vigorous debate is needed before deciding the future of nuclear energy. It also notes that alongside Dr. Hansen, “Other prominent advocates have included renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs; former Greenpeace leader Patrick Moore; Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand; and billionaire Bill Gates.” This esteemed list demonstrates that expert support of nuclear energy is spreading, gaining momentum with environmentalists, economists, venture capitalists, and every sector in between.

At this historic crossroads, with time running short, the contribution of such experts and public figures cannot be overstated. Through continued public advocacy, authorities like Dr. Hansen have the power to improve public understanding of the current climate scenario and influence developing policy.

Though highly critical of the prospects for substantive and effective change to emerge from the COP climate talks, Dr. Hansen continues to engage, lending his expert voice to the conference in support of fast action and nuclear expansion.