James Hansen is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Since 1988, he has warned about the threats of heat-trapping emissions, including carbon dioxide, that result from burning fossil fuels. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he received the Heinz Environment Award in 2001 for his climate research. In 2006, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Question: How would nuclear power work on a large scale?
James Hansen: Well, nuclear power -- the kind of nuclear power we have now is called second-generation nuclear power. It's comparable in cost to coal. Once you have the nuclear power plant, then the fuel is very inexpensive, so nuclear power is quite inexpensive. But it's difficult in the United States to get a nuclear power plant built, and it takes so many years that it drives the cost up. So now in England they've realized that they will need to have nuclear power in the future, so they've put a limit -- once a government commission decides on where the power plants will be built, the public will have one year to object to this and possibly get some changes. But they can't drag it out six or seven years, the way it happens in the United States, because that drives up the price tremendously.
And there's also the possibility for fourth-generation nuclear power. That's a technology which allows you to burn all of the nuclear fuel. Presently, nuclear power plants burn less than 1 percent of the energy in the nuclear fuel. Fourth-generation nuclear power allows the neutrons to move faster, so it can burn all of the fuel. Furthermore, it can burn nuclear waste, so it can solve the nuclear waste problem. And the United States is still the technology leader in fourth-generation nuclear power. In 1994, Argonne National Laboratory, now called Idaho National Laboratory, was ready to build a fourth-generation nuclear power plant, but the Clinton-Gore administration canceled that research because of the antinuclear sentiments in the Democratic Party. Well, we still have the best expertise in that technology, and we should develop it because it's something we could also sell to China and India, because they're going to need nuclear power. They are not going to be able to get all of their energy from the sun and from the wind.
Question: What is the most effective approach to alternative energy?
James Hansen: Well, the most effective one is energy efficiency. We waste a lot of our energy. We can get vehicles that get more miles per gallon. There are many ways to improve energy efficiency. In fact, some states are twice as efficient as other states, just because -- fossil fuels were so cheap we just didn't pay attention to how effectively we were using them. But in addition, there are renewable energies: solar energy, wind energy. And I think that nuclear power has to be part of the solution, because at this time it's the only alternative to coal for base-load electrical power. And we do now have the technology for much safer and more efficient nuclear power, as compared to the old versions that were used in the past several decades.
Despite its significant downsides, nuclear energy is still absolutely vital for America's (and the planet's) future. This will become all the more true when cleaner fourth generation reactors become available.