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Dr. Hansen, We Need You at Fukushima and Diablo Canyon

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Posted on Aug 26, 2013
DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0)

By Harvey Wasserman

The horrifying news from Fukushima worsens daily. It is an unparalleled global catastrophe that cries out for anyone and everyone with nuclear expertise to pitch in.

Topping this list should be Dr. James Hansen. Hansen is a climate scientist and a hero of the global warming movement. He has courageously engaged in civil disobedience against mountaintop removal and the Keystone Pipeline.

Hansen also claims some nuclear expertise, a credential he’s used to justify his support for a new generation of Small Modular Reactors.

Many of us in the No Nukes campaign find this advocacy profoundly mystifying. Even under the best of circumstances, there will be no SMR prototype for as long as a decade or more. 

The SMR’s primary customer, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has now pushed back to 2015 the target date for submitting its construction permit application. Even if wildly successful, the SMR could not meaningfully affect climate change for another 20 years—this in the midst of a crisis Hansen and so many others see as critical and immediate.

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The SMR blueprint hinges on technologies that have already failed. The leading candidate for SMR production at this point seems to be Babcock & Wilcox, which brought us Three Mile Island and Ohio’s infamous Davis-Besse. It was there that boric acid ate through a pressure vessel to within a fraction of an inch of major disaster.

Big questions remain unanswered about the SMR’s health and environmental impacts such as on water, vulnerability to terrorism, its effects on waste disposal and much more. 

But the most obvious deal killer is economic. Even by current calculations, any new reactor design would have difficulty competing with renewable energy sources, especially solar panels that can be installed on rooftops, thus avoiding transmission costs. 

With the nuclear industry’s half-century history of massive delay and cost overruns, we can expect the SMR to come in very late and billions over budget. As climate activist Bill McKibben told The Rumpus in December: “Nuclear power, I mean—it’s just too expensive. It really isn’t going to happen.”

By contrast, the cost of renewables routinely drops, while rising in efficiency and speed of deployment. Germany has addressed the intermittency problem by balancing wind, solar and other sources into an effective baseload supply system. Every dollar diverted from that green-powered mix only worsens our vulnerability to climate disaster. 

Given all that, the sales pitch for new nuclear technologies is a dangerous diversion, like building an experimental garage while a raging radioactive fire forever contaminates our only home.

A multimillion-dollar dis-infomercial called “Pandora’s Promise” apparently (the producers have refused to send a review copy) promotes the SMR much like Disney pushed “Our Friend the Atom”—as a “too cheap to meter” miracle with can’t-miss guarantees. Soon to air on CNN (supposedly without a balancing green point of view), the film was partly financed by billionaire Paul Allen, whose Microsoft cohort Bill Gates has invested heavily in new nukes.

But even Pandora’s mainstays waiver on today’s reactors. In a riveting YouTubed debate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calls Pandora an “elaborate hoax.” Director Robert Stone, in turn, terms the current generation of reactors “1960s technology.” Hansen refers to it as “that old technology” and criticizes Japan for building Fukushima in a spot vulnerable to tsunamis.

But California has two “old technology” reactors—at Diablo Canyon in an earthquake/tsunami zone in San Luis Obispo County. (It recently had four, but citizen action thankfully shut two at San Onofre in the southern part of the state.)


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