Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Open Letter to Jim Hansen

Following up on my previous post (below), I have accessed the actual video of the Hansen talk at Dartmouth and have written to Hansen himself with exact quotes in hand. The letter is as follows:

April 28, 2009

Dear Dr. Hansen,

I had the pleasure of seeing you speak at Dartmouth College on April 2 (video
here). I learned much, but was disconcerted by a couple of remarks you made during the question-and-answer session. You said,

Amory Lovins is dead wrong, and I’ve had my high-school students make a graph of what he said in the 1970s — and his graph — y’know, he says renewables can do everything, he says you don’t need nuclear power, you don’t need large hydro, you don’t need coal; energy efficiency plus ‘soft’ technologies will do everything. Well, you make a graph, and these soft technologies — his graph had them doing this [hand zooms upward] but in reality they’ve stayed under 2%.

I am familiar with most of Lovins’s work from the 1970s and am not aware that he ever made any forecasts or predictions about what the “soft path” technologies would do, though he did talk a great deal about what he thought they
could do. You seem to be referring to the following graph, which Lovins included in his book Soft Energy Paths (1977, p. 38 -- and I will gratefully accept new information if you have a different reference to point to):

This figure was not a forecast or a prediction. It was (as labeled at top) an “alternative illustrative future,” i.e., a claim about what would or could happen if certain energy policies were adopted. But those policies were not adopted. So how can the figure fairly be characterized as “dead wrong”? How can a conditional prediction be accused of failure if its conditions are not met?

A second point: you also said at Dartmouth,

But Amory Lovins says you don’t need a carbon price. Well, he’s dead wrong on that.

However, I find the following 2008 statement by Lovins at
http://old.rmi.org/images/PDFs/Energy/E08-02-the-policy-of-energy-change.pdf :

Carbon pricing is a good idea and we should do it. Putting carbon in the air should not be free any more.

I bring these points up both as a matter of professional fairness and because it seems to me that Lovins is actually a natural ally in the climate-change battle, given the huge need and potential for greenhouse mitigation from increased energy efficiency — his
raison d’etre.

One final point. At Dartmouth you characterized 4th-generation nuclear as a way of “burn[ing] essentially 100% of the fuel instead of less than 1%, which is what current technology does.” Actually, as I understand it, in the UREX+ fuel cycle proposed by the US government in 2006, reprocessing would separate the spent fuel from existing once-through reactors into four moieties, only one of which (transuranics, including plutonium) would go to fast-neutron reactors for transmutational burnup; the other three would all be waste. One waste stream would consist of the 30-year-half-life fission products, mostly strontium-90 and cesium-137, constituting the majority of the radiological hazard, to be placed in interim surface storage for several centuries before ultimate deep burial. Thus, fourth-generation nuclear power, as actually proposed, does not offer “essentially 100%” burnup (if a thing sounds too good to be true, it probably is) but rather -- as blueprinted by its advocates -- will continue to generate a large, high-intensity, multigenerational, surface-storage waste burden, with all the vulnerabilities (e.g., terrorism) that such a burden entails. A review for the International Panel on Fissile Materials of the technology and rather grim economics of this matter is given by physicist Frank von Hippel at
http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/FvHReprocPanelCarnegie26June07Rev.pdf .

I earnestly thank you for all your work.


Larry Gilman