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In a Treehugger interview on Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice, NASA’s James Hansen says it is very unfortunate that “a number of nations have indicated that they’re going to phase out nuclear power… The truth is, what we should do is use the more advanced nuclear power. Even the old nuclear power is much safer than the alternatives.”

This blog disagrees with his thinking. Nevertheless, it is worth assessing why he favors nuclear power for base-load electric power.

Consider the United States, for example. We had one nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. The National Academy of Sciences has indicated that the people in Pennsylvania who were exposed to the radiation could suffer one or two deaths over the next several decades from cancer caused by radiation, in addition to the 40,000 people who will die from cancer in that same population.

In fact, the safety record of nuclear power has been exceptional, even taking account of Fukushima, which hasn’t, as yet, killed anyone from radiation, and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. A million people a year die of air and water pollution, most of which is associated with fossil fuel use. But people are frightened by radiation because it’s something that’s harder to understand.

They can hold a piece of coal in their hand, and it’s really nasty stuff. It’s got arsenic and mercury, and the black soot that you get is itself a very bad air pollutant. But that doesn’t frighten people. But nuclear power does.

And you can make nuclear power even more safe than the best type of reactors that exist today. With the fourth generation nuclear power, you can actually burn the nuclear waste, and solve the biggest problem with nuclear power.

So it hasn’t changed my mind, but it has made everybody realize that it’s going to be more difficult to sell nuclear power in many places. Fortunately, China and India-which are going to be the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide-I don’t think are changing their minds.

They do need to learn a lesson from Fukushima. You shouldn’t build a nuclear power plant on a coastline and design it to withstand, at most, a three meter tsunami when much bigger ones are possible. They’re very infrequent, but they’re possible. So you need to be aware of that sort of situation.

And even now, with the current technology, you can design nuclear power plants such that they don’t require external power to cool in the case of an accident. So nuclear power has a tremendous potential. And as yet, we don’t have any alternative to fossil fuels other than nuclear power for base-load electric power.

Hansen’s position is consistent with recent research from the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making (SES-0949710), through a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University. Via Green Car Congress we learn that CMU researchers and researchers at DAI Management Consultants, Inc., warn a shift away from nuclear power “could affect the reliability of the electricity supply, electricity costs, air pollution, [and] carbon emissions.” Like Hansen these researchers warn about a reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, to run electric power plants in the future.

CMU/DAI study also contends that shutting down US nuclear plants would have significant negative economic consequence because of the low cost of electricity generation by nuclear plants.