James Hansen criticizes state climate plan, leads calls for expansion of nuclear energy generation
By Cayte Bosler
The state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act calls for a rapid transition to carbon-free electricity by 2040, but the strategy plan needs a nuclear component, a leading climate scientist asserts.
“I am shocked by this document,” James Hansen said this month at an Albany press conference. “It looks like it’s a prescription for making New York the Germany of the U.S. It’s almost a carbon copy of the disastrous German energy plan.”
As a NASA scientist in the 1980s, Hansen testified to Congress that the planet was warming and that it was because of a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gasses in the atmosphere. His climate study, identifying a “greenhouse effect,” had already been featured in 1981 in the New York Times in a story that showed scientists found a trend of temperatures rising year by year with human activity. Dangers to wildlife and human communities from greater storms and floods and rising sea levels, described by Hansen then, have come to pass.
Now, Hansen is urging New York’s leaders to listen to the science, which he says points to a clear need for nuclear power as part of the solution to the climate crisis.
Germany decommissioned the majority of its nuclear plants because of strong public opposition following the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima. As a result of taking its nuclear fleet offline, Germany has risen to be one of the biggest carbon emitters in the European Union only second to Poland. The shift away from nuclear also made the country dependent on Russia for most of its gas. Across Europe, some countries rely heavily on nuclear energy like France whereas Denmark remains nuclear-free. The overall makeup of any country’s energy portfolio relies on a complex mix of political, economic and environmental factors.
The success of New York’s plans hinge on the state’s ability to decarbonize the grid. The “scoping plan” to get there, open for public comment through June 10, buries any mention of nuclear power and stated benefits appear only in the appendix.
Instead, it ramps up renewables – and with this comes the extensive conversion of farms, forests and off-shore coastal habitats. The plan includes massive investments in battery storage, which brings its own manufacturing emissions and environmental degradation due to the mining for critical minerals needed for production.
Nuclear advocates: Renewables not enough
The debate surrounding the role of nuclear power in meeting the United State’s energy demands has resurged in recent weeks as the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict spikes gas prices domestically.
Around the world, 440 nuclear reactors provide over 10% of global electricity. In the U.S., nuclear power plants have generated about 20% of electricity for the last 20 years. Natural gas is the largest source of electricity generation in the country.
The recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report recommends nuclear expansion. In concert, President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan includes support for the development of nuclear energy innovations to address efficiency and safety concerns. The National Academy of Science, an authoritative body on scientific research, has published recent findings weighing the benefits of nuclear energy.
From the report, “Achieving deep decarbonization of the energy system will require a portfolio of every available technology and strategy we can muster. It should be a source of profound concern for all who care about climate change that, for entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy, over the next few decades.”
More to Explore
For just $10, you can dive into all the fresh content
from our print magazine, plus the annual Outings Guide
Use the code EXPLORE at checkout to save 20%!
Moving away from nuclear
New York’s leadership, however, has chosen not to include investment in nuclear technologies as part of their portfolio. A spokesperson for the Department of Conservation stated that the Draft Scoping Plan was developed based on recommendations from various advisory panels and working groups, including the Power Generation Advisory Panel.
That panel analyzed the potential of nuclear power based on cost, health, safety, community impact and environmental concerns, according to the DEC spokesperson.
In New York, three nuclear plants, James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego, R. E. Ginna Nuclear Power in Ontario, and Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in Oswego, the upstate reactors make up nearly half of the state’s carbon-free electricity supply, according to the New York Independent System Operator. And the three plants provide nearly a quarter of the state’s total energy supply. This dipped from over 30% after the closure of Indian Point Energy Center in Westchester County last year.
Those who supported the shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant cited damage to Hudson River’s biodiversity, as well as a sleuth of safety concerns. Amplifying latent fears, oil slicked the river’s surface after a fire in 2015 sparking renewed calls to shutter it. Those campaigns were eventually successful and the plant closed in phases through April 2021.
The closure fiercely divided clean energy advocates – with some who were neither for or against nuclear power wholesale but viewed Indian Point as having specific risks that differed from the use of nuclear power elsewhere. A member of the state’s Power Generation Advisory Panel, Kit Kennedy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote about her support for the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant here.
Indian Point supplied almost 12% of the state’s carbon-free electricity. That’s more than all of the wind turbines and solar panels in New York combined, according to calculations by Climate Coalition. Opponents of Indian Point champion large-scale renewable projects and “energy-efficiency” policies as the pathway to replace that energy source, but before those projects are completed, the state must burn natural gas as a substitute. Analysis by Nuclear New York (which lobbied to keep Indian Point open) shows that Indian Point’s carbon-free output was “replaced primarily by methane gas-fired generation at Cricket Valley (online from March 2020) and CPV, the largest and 3rd largest fossil plants in New York State, respectively.”
That means more fossil fuel combustion is being produced downstate for the metropolitan New York City area, according to the Climate Coalition. Additional materials from the coalition conclude that shutting down the Indian Point reactors is equivalent to the annual production of about 8 million tons of “avoidable” carbon emissions.
Addressing safety concerns
All energy sources require raw materials and land and resource uses that come with pros and cons. Energy experts and engineers perform “cost-benefit analyses” and “life-cycle analyses” to compare the consequences. All inputs considered, when solving for public health, nuclear is cited among the safest options according to Our World in Data, almost on par with solar and wind. The risk of accidents from nuclear power plants is low and declining according to the World Nuclear Association and as Jordan Wilkerson writes for Harvard University, “the problems associated with nuclear power do not justify its immediate dismissal as a potential energy source for the world.”
Hansen explains in a video how safety concerns that live in the public mind, like Fukushima, can now be addressed by engineering innovations. The bipartisan Nuclear Energy Leadership Act introduced in 2019 is designed to advance nuclear reactor concepts from research to commercialization by matching private capital. The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators, will create a new entity to focus on nuclear waste management. With proper funding and support, Hansen has said he thinks the major problems with nuclear power can be solved.
He appears in a recent documentary “The New Fire” which explores approaches to nuclear innovation. The research and development could bring more efficient technologies for waste management where the half-life of the radiation can be measured in decades, not millennia, he said.
For Hansen and like-minded climate scientists, sidelining nuclear power is a recipe for blundering climate goals.
“We need a credible climate plan that does not discriminate against viable carbon-free sources,” Keith Schue, a member of New York Energy and Climate Advocates said. In his own commentary for the Times Union, he states that “the public has good reason to be concerned about where New York’s [climate plan] is headed.” He argues that renewables are definitely part of the equation, but that there is no workable solution for “clean” energy without nuclear energy.
Sign up for Cayte’s weekly “Climate Matters” newsletter.