Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons

Advocates including Dr. James Hansen visited the Clinton Nuclear Station in Illinois as part of an event promoting nuclear power as a climate solution.

Climate scientist James Hansen stumps for nuclear in Illinois as Exelon bill looms

James Hansen, a scientist famous for sounding the alarm about climate change, visited Illinois to rally support for nuclear energy this week in a trip some saw as a push for state state legislation backed by Exelon.

On Monday, a coalition of scientists and conservationists including Hansen; Michael Shellenberger, an anti-nuclear activist turned high-profile nuclear proponent; and Whole Earth catalogue founder Stewart Brand sent an open letter to Illinois legislators asking them to “do everything in your power to keep all of Illinois’s nuclear power plants running for their full lifetimes.”

That night, Shellenberger, Hansen and philanthropist Rachel Pritzker spoke at Northwestern University’s journalism school, and on Tuesday they paid a visit to workers at Exelon’s Clinton nuclear plant, one of up to three the company has threatened to close if the state does not pass a law ensuring Exelon up to $300 million more per year in revenue.

The letter says that 18,640 lives were saved by Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants, compared to the theoretical impacts of air pollution that would be caused by fossil fuel plants generating the same amount of energy. If those two plants close, the letter says, “much of the nuclear energy would have to be made up for with coal or natural gas.”

“One solution might be to expand Illinois’ Renewable Portfolio Standard to include nuclear energy,” says the letter. “Such a change would allow Illinois to be more ambitious, achieving 70 percent or more of its electricity from clean energy. The standard should be set so that renewable energy has plenty of room to grow while ensuring that Illinois does not go backwards.”

The energy bill previously proposed by Exelon would create a low-carbon portfolio standard to replace the renewable portfolio standard. Critics have argued that the bill would diminish the case for new renewable energy in the state.

Support for nuclear or for Exelon?

Elisabeth Moyer, a climate scientist who declined to sign the letter, was in the audience at Northwestern and criticized the speakers for using a general bid for support of nuclear energy to mask a push for legislation mired in the “swamp of Illinois politics.”

Opponents of Exelon’s bill say the company does not need more funds to keep the plants open, especially after capacity auctions last year that were very favorable for the plants.

Shellenberger stressed that he and Environmental Progress Illinois have not taken a formal position on Exelon’s proposed legislation. Speaking with Midwest Energy News, he expressed support for the concepts in the bill.

“Nuclear is not treated fairly as a clean energy source – it does not get the same subsidies as solar and wind gets, and everyone agrees if it were its plants would not be in trouble,” he said. “Everyone agrees if you had it included in the RPS, it would not be in trouble.

“You have complicated questions about how much Exelon is losing – are they demanding too much?” But the bottom line, he said, is that the Clinton plant and the others in Exelon’s fleet should stay open.

Shellenberger recently founded the group Environmental Progress Illinois (EPI), described as an independent organization that takes no donations from the energy industry. The slogan on its website is “protect and grow solar, wind and nuclear energy.”

“It’s too bad we have to have these corporations that own these plants,” Shellenberger said. “We have these magic machines – these are public assets – these are really important plants for all of us.”

Pritzker, a board member and major funder of Environmental Progress Illinois, said, “I realize it’s become a partisan issue but I have hope that by having more conversations like this, by talking to people on both sides of the aisle, we can find some compromises…providing a new model of how to properly value and price energy could have ramifications well beyond Illinois for the rest of the country and even the world.”

Hansen called for making nuclear more competitive by putting a price on the cost of carbon emissions and on the health impacts of fossil fuels. He cited statistics showing that pollution from fossil fuels is estimated to kill more people per day than have ever died in nuclear plant accidents.

“The way to do this is stop subsidizing solar, wind or any energy source but have a rising carbon fee,” Hansen said. “That way we can stop arguing about which one has the worst pollution. Just let the market make the decisions.”

Hansen touted the promise of next-generation nuclear technology, which would make it possible to build nuclear plants more quickly and cheaply. Talking with Midwest Energy News, Shellenberger described next-generation technology as farther away from viability than he had previously hoped, and urged more focus on the nation’s existing reactors.

“How much safer could they be?” he said. “If you have nuclear plants that don’t hurt anyone, keep running them.”

A matter of emotion?

Shellenberger told Midwest Energy News that support for nuclear energy has grown recently among environmental leaders and “elites,” even while opposition to nuclear power among the general public has risen in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

A Gallup poll last month found that for the first time, a majority of Americans – 54 percent – oppose nuclear energy.

In 2003 Shellenberger co-founded the Breakthrough Institute, aimed at “changing the way people think about energy and the environment.” The Breakthrough Institute was involved in the production of “Pandora’s Promise,” a 2013 film touting the benefits of nuclear energy. Some predicted the film would change the dialogue on nuclear energy; critics saw it as biased propaganda for the industry.

Shellenberger compared the shift in environmentalists’ attitudes toward nuclear as akin to changing views on rural versus urban living. “Today environmentalists love cities,” he said. And he compared fears about the safety of nuclear energy to fears about the safety of vaccines.

“Our fears of these technologies are completely out of whack with what all the objective science says,” Shellenberger told the crowd at Northwestern.

He told Midwest Energy News that while concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of nuclear energy are especially high in the West and the Northeast, where the future of California’s Diablo Canyon and New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant are in doubt, Midwesterners are more concerned about the financial aspects of energy.

“Support for nuclear energy rises when energy prices are high,” he told Midwest Energy News.

Some critics in the audience at Northwestern said they have valid concerns about waste and safety. “My concerns are not unfounded and my concerns are not silly, which is what you are saying,” said attendee Margaret Aguilar.

Shellenberger countered that evidence shows no significant safety risks from stored nuclear waste or nuclear reactors, and he said people who don’t have science to back up their positions on nuclear could be seen as in the same category as climate change deniers.

Such calculations were among the reasons he shifted from his early days of anti-nuclear activism to become an ardent nuclear advocate. Despite public opposition and funding challenges like that facing the Clinton plant, Shellenberger said he is confident that nuclear energy will prevail.

“The Rosie the Riveter meme has spread in the nuclear community,” Shellenberger said at Northwestern, showing slides of a woman with an image of an atom inked on her bicep, and the slogan “We Can Do It.”

14 thoughts on “Climate scientist James Hansen stumps for nuclear in Illinois as Exelon bill looms

  1. Bc we all know that finding, mining, smelting, purifying, transporting and disposal of nuclear fuels/waste has no carbon footprint at all. And the last time I checked Chernobyl and Fukushima are going to be quiet neighborhoods for about the next 50,000 years.

    • And we all know the same is true of solar panel and wind turbine production, maintenance, and repair – no carbon footprint to find, mine, transport, produce the materials needed? And the last time I checked the amount of space required to replace the output of a nuclear plant with a solar farm or wind farm is about 5 and 200 square miles respectively. And the neighborhood around a wind farm is not quiet – just ask the neighbors. And there are toxic chemicals in the solar panels and production process – where is that waste going to be stored? And last time I checked that toxic waste lasts forever.

      The rebuttal point here is that you should not narrowly focus your concerns on nuclear, rather look at the risks of all energy sources objectively, on a per MW basis, and then determine if the benefits (reduced carbon) outweigh the risks.

    • All energy sources have some net CO2 emissions, when the whole generation process is considered. According to the IPCC (official global warming body), nuclear’s total net CO2 emissions are tiny compared to fossil fuels, and are several times lower than most renewable sources (including biomass, hydro, geothermal and solar). Nuclear roughly tied with onshore wind as the lowest emitting source of all:


      The real punch line, however, is that all non-fossil (i.e., nuclear or renewable) sources essentially have negligible emissions, and negligible global warming impact.

      50,000 years? The radiation levels around Fukushima and Chernobyl are almost entirely due to isotopes that have a ~30-year half-life (mainly Cs-137). And radiation levels fall far faster than those half-lives suggest, due to other factors like natural dispersion (washing away of the contamination) and active decontamination efforts.

      As a result, radiation levels are falling rapidly, over a time scale of years (vs. decades, let alone centuries or millennia). Most of the initially evacuated area around Fukushima already has radiation levels well within the range of natural background, and they’ve already removed the restrictions over ~half the area (with more areas to be cleared soon).

  2. If the general news media were TRULY even-handed in giving nuclear energy equal (non-ominous) reporting as they generously do other “green” energy sources, nuclear’s positives would show head and and shoulders above others on its own merits. One has to ask why virtually no news organ has ever done this.

  3. I posted scientific information on Shellenberger’s site regarding U.S. nuclear waste storage canisters that may soon have major leaks. There are 2000 of these in the country. Each contain about as much Cesium-137 as released from Chernobyl. He chose to ignore the evidence. Illinois has a large percentage of these thin (1/2″) steel canisters. Most of the rest of the world uses thick metal casks 10″ to almost 20″ thick.
    Learn more at SanOnofreSafety.org.

    • You have not presented any “evidence” at all that all the dry storage canisters in the US “may soon have major leaks”. I know this, in part, because I work in the dry storage industry.

      With dry storage casks, there is no credible mechanism by which a significant release of radioactive material, sufficient to have any measurable impact on public health, is possible. There aren’t even any terrorist attack scenarios that would result in significant loss of life. (They’d inflict a lot more by simply attacking any grade school……)

      The thick steel around casks overseas is there for shielding, not containment. The US has chosen to use concrete for shielding. Three feet or more of it.

  4. Have not Hansen and Shellenberger listened to the news? The terrorist attack in Belgium had the terrorists following a nuclear scientist with hopes of obtaining nuclear material.

    Nuclear is not an option because we have not solved the critical problem of what to do with the radioactive waste.

    Nuclear is not safe; not profitable (dependent on governmental support); injurious to our health i.e. Three Mile Island and constant radioactive leaks into our water and air. And we have to store it safely for hundreds of years and don’t know where. To say nothing about the dangers of mining uranium.

    Why bother – when low carbon solutions are sun and wind – and they are a free source.

    • It’s you who have not been reading (or at least correctly interpreting) the news. The real question is why people (like Hansen, Shellenberger, or myself) even bother to present facts and rational arguments to people who refuse to listen.

      The main thing we learned from Fukushima is that even the worst-case meltdown event (that we all feared so much) results in no public deaths and no measurable public health impacts. While fossil generation continues to cause global warming and hundreds of thousands of deaths *every year*. And Fukushima was the only significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire history.

      Statistics, based on a 50-year operational record, clearly show nuclear to be one of the safest, and perhaps THE safest, of all sources, yet you continue to assert that it is “not safe”. The record also shows (and all govt. agencies and formal scientific bodies agree) that non-Soviet nuclear has never had any measurable public health impact, yet you assert that it is “injurious to our health”. So why should we even bother….

      No weapons-useable nuclear material exists at commercial nuclear power plant sites, so they do not contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation risks. As for dirty bombs (which do not have the potential for killing significant numbers of people anyway), hospitals and other industrial sites are an infinitely greater threat than nuclear power plants. They are nowhere near as protected, and they have small, highly concentrated, portable radiation sources that are far *more* useful for making a dirty bomb.

      As for nuclear waste, read my post below. It is more accurate to say that nuclear is the *only* energy source that has fully solved (addressed) its waste “problem”.

      Solar and wind generation is hardly free. In fact, they require (and receive) far larger subsidies than those that would be required to keep existing nuclear plants open (or that nuclear gets in general). In many cases, nuclear is profitable (w/o any subsidy). Some plants are not. But that is due to the fact that nuclear is required to compete directly with fossil plants that get to pollute the environment (and cause global warming and significant health impacts) for free. If nuclear was given the credit it deserves for being non-polluting (or if fossil plants were appropriately penalized for their pollution) all nuclear plants would be profitable.

  5. Whether or not Exelon is profitable overall is not relevant. If an individual nuclear plant is losing money, they will close it. And if the plant’s losing money is due to the fact that nuclear gets no financial credit for its non-polluting, non-CO2-emitting nature, it’s just plain wrong, and its closure is a result of flawed policy.

    In fact, whether or not individual nuclear plants are really losing money (or even if none of them are) is not relevant. Nuclear plants deserve the same credit for their non-polluting nature as renewable sources do. Does anyone ask if all those renewable projects are profitable, or if they would have still been profitable with a lower subsidy? No! The financial incentive is there to reflect (i.e., put a value on) their benefits; mainly the lack of pollution.

    It’s true, however, that as Hansen said, the best approach would not be to subsidize clean sources, but instead to penalize dirty (fossil) sources, so that their market cost reflects their true, overall costs, including the (very real) costs associated with air pollution and global warming emissions.

  6. I have to sympathize with Shellenberger with respect to his response to Aguilar concerning nuclear waste. And I appreciate his response. One shouldn’t have to kowtow to “concerns” that are, in fact, not legitimate, and have no rational basis. One should not shrink from telling the truth.

    The fact is that nuclear’s waste streams are generated in extremely small volumes (almost a million times smaller than fossil generation, per kW-hr produced). Nuclear waste is also in a much easier to contain (ceramic) physical/chemical form. Finally, it is handled and disposed of with infinitely more care than the waste streams of other energy sources. For all those reasons, it will actually pose a far *smaller* hazard than the waste streams of other energy sources, even over the very long term.

    Nuclear’s wastes have always been safely stored and isolated from the environment. Nuclear wastes have not caused a single public death or injury, and have never had any public health impact. In stark contrast, fossil fueled power generation’s waste streams (esp. coal) are either continually released (en masse) directly into the environment, or are carelessly shallow buried or just left in piles. As a result, fossil generations “wastes” (pollution) cause ~10,000 deaths *annually* in the US alone (hundreds of thousands worldwide), and a re a leading cause of global warming.

    Even more to the point, nuclear is the only waste stream for which society demands proof/demonstration (by rigorous and conservative analysis) that it will remain contained, and have no significant health or environmental impacts, for as long as it remains hazardous. No other waste streams are held to anywhere near that standard. And yet, NRC has recently concluded that Yucca Mountain would meet even those (impeccable, unprecedented) standards.

    It would be more accurate to say that nuclear is the *only* energy source that has “solved” its waste problem.

  7. The nuclear waste issue had a viable path to elimination back in the 90s via GE’s PRISM project. The U.S. killed the project here but now the UK is looking strongly at using it to burn nuclear waste and even weapons grade plutonium. I used to be very anti-nuke until I did a lot of research in 1989 for a college paper. The safety and cost issues can be addressed but the will to do so has not existed in this country.