June 24th, 2011 | 1:38 pm

NASA’s James Hansen on Nuclear Power

On a wide ranging and excellent interview, the environmental site Treehugger interviews NASA’s James Hansen, who is the head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The interview covers a variety of energy and climate science-related questions. But then they ask this:

TreeHugger: Has the Fukushima situation in Japan changed your thoughts in any way on nuclear power?

His reponse is excellent, including this:

Well, it’s changed the situation for us solving this climate problem, because a number of nations have indicated that they’re going to phase out nuclear power, which, I think, is very unfortunate. 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.

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.

And he closes his answer with this:

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.

It’s an excellent interview, do go read the whole thing.