Michael Shellenberger: "Nuclear is the safest way to make electricity"
February 25, 2019

Michael Shellenberger: "Nuclear is the safest way to make electricity"

Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine "Hero of the Environment," and the founder and president of Environmental Progress. Invited by Foro Nuclear to give a lecture in Madrid, Shellenberger considers that "only nuclear energy can lift all humans out of poverty while preventing dangerous levels of global warming".

Only nuclear energy can lift all humans out of poverty while preventing dangerous levels of global warming

Why do you consider that nuclear energy is necessary to curb global warming?

Only nuclear energy can lift all humans out of poverty while preventing dangerous levels of global warming. Just look at France and Sweden. In the 1970s and 1980s, they built nuclear plants at the rate required to achieve the alleged climate goals of the Green New Deal. Sweden in 2017 generated a whopping 95% of its total electricity from zero-carbon sources, with 42% and 41% coming from nuclear and hydroelectric power. France generated 88 % of its total electricity from zero-carbon sources, with 72% and 10%, respectively, coming from nuclear and hydroelectric power. Now look at Germany. By 2025 Germany will have spent $580 billion on renewables and related equipment, while shutting down its nuclear plants. All that Germany will have gotten for its "energy transition" is a 50% increase in electricity prices, flat emissions, and an electricity supply that is 10 times more carbon-intensive than France's.

What led you to consider nuclear technology as part of the solution?

Three things changed my thinking. First, Stewart Brand, a famous founder of environmentalism in the U.S., came out as pro-nuclear in 2005. This shook me and made me re-think everything. Second, a few years later, it became clear to me that we couldn't power the world on solar and wind alone. They are too unreliable and make electricity expensive, which is highly regressive, hurting the poor more than the rich, both directly and indirectly through harming energy-intensive industries like manufacturing. Third, I read the United Nations and World Health Organization reports on Chernobyl and was shocked to discover how few people died. I dawned on me that nuclear wasn't what I thought it was. After a while, I started to wonder why, if whole countries like France could run on nuclear power, we even needed renewables at all.

Do you consider that the nuclear taboo harms the environment?

Yes. Every study over the last 40 years finds that nuclear is the safest way to make electricity. The reason is simple: nuclear plants don't produce smoke, which results in the premature deaths of seven million people per year, according to the World Health Organization. When nuclear is used instead of biomass or coal, lives are saved. The climate scientist James Hansen did a study and found that nuclear has saved 1.8 million lives to date by avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels. The taboo even hurts France. It has increasingly done what Germany wants. According to the Commision de Regulation de L'Energie, €29 billion (US$33) billion was used to purchase wind and solar electricity in mainland France between 2009 and 2018. But the money spent on renewables did not lead to cleaner electricity, according to a new analysis by my Environmental Progress colleagues, Mark Nelson and Madison Czerwinski. In fact, the carbon-intensity of French electricity has increased. After years of subsidies for solar and wind, France's 2017 emissions of 68g/CO2 per kWh was higher than any year between 2012 and 2016. The reason? Record-breaking wind and solar production did not make up for falling nuclear energy output and higher natural gas consumption. And now, the high cost of renewable electricity is showing up in French household electricity bills.

Every study over the last 40 years finds that nuclear is the safest way to make electricity

Are your messages convincing?

Yes, the pro-nuclear movement is growing rapidly. In just three years, Environmental Progress has helped save nuclear plants in Illinois, New York, Connecticut, France, South Korea, New Jersey and Taiwan. We helped organize a "Nuclear Pride Fest" that held its first public demonstration in Munich last October. Now we are planning on two more Nuclear Pride Fests. The first will be in Brussels, on April 28, and the second will be in Paris on October 20.

Do you think that the number of environmentalists in favor of nuclear energy is growing?

Yes. Voters in the U.S., Asia, and Europe are increasingly opting for nuclear power in response to rising electricity prices from the deployment of renewables like solar panels and wind turbines. After a coalition of grassroots groups rallied in Munich, to protest the closure of nuclear plants, a wave of mostly positive media coverage spread across Europe, inspiring a majority of Netherlands voters, and the nation's ruling political party, to declare support for building new nuclear reactors.

In the wake of rising public support for nuclear energy, a longstanding foe of nuclear power, the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, last November reversed its blanket opposition to the technology and declared that existing U.S. nuclear plants must stay open to protect the climate. In 2016, state governments in Illinois and New York acted to prevent nuclear plants from closing.

Do you think that a problem of nuclear energy is the lack of knowledge or prejudices of the people?

Sometimes but not always. Increasingly pro-nuclear advocacy is grassroots. In places like South Korea, Taiwan, and Europe, where the electric utilities that own nuclear plants are often government-owned, and thus unable to engage in politics, it has been up to independent environmental groups -and outspoken climate scientists- to advocate for nuclear power. In 2017, a South Korean "citizens jury" went from 60 % opposed to 60 % in favor of nuclear. That victory was quickly followed actions in Connecticut and New Jersey to save their nuclear plants. By a more than two-to-one margin (70% to 30%), voters in Arizona last November rejected a ballot initiative (proposition 127) that would have resulted in the closure of that state's nuclear power plant and in the massive deployment of solar and wind. A few weeks later, voters in Taiwan decisively rejected the government's phase-out of nuclear power, 59% to 41%.

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