ENERGY WATCH #1 - September 4, 2018
An evening with ecomodernist Michael Shellenberger
Or: a defence of nuclear power you have not heard before
by Karel Beckman
Few debates seem to be as deadlocked as that around nuclear power. The opponents insist it’s too dangerous even if it’s CO2-free, the defenders say its risks can be managed. The opponents also argue that nuclear power is too centralized and inflexible to function well in the flexible power system of the future. The defenders say it’s the unreliability of variable renewables that makes nuclear power the ideal CO2-free backstop.
Recently the opponents have been able to marshal another powerful argument: they point out that nuclear power has become too expensive compared to renewables to compete in the market. Even Nobuo Tanaka, former Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and long-time nuclear advocate, recently admitted nuclear power is “ridiculously expensive”.
The high cost of nuclear power has created a huge dilemma for policymakers in many countries. They know, if they don’t provide some form of support, no new nuclear power stations will be built – and many existing ones will be closed. They wonder: should they ensure that their existing power plants keep running as long as possible – or even go completely against the market and actively promote the building of new nuclear power plants? Or should they let nuclear power die?
The basic question policymakers have to answer is this: is it possible to build a secure, affordable, and clean energy system without (new) nuclear power? Or is (new) nuclear power needed to achieve climate targets and ensure energy security at reasonable cost?
Some researchers, such as Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, argue that it is perfectly possible to create an energy system based 100% on renewables in time to prevent climate catastrophe, at affordable cost, without nuclear power. They are supported by many environmentalist groups, like Greenpeace, who oppose nuclear power despite its climate-friendliness.
Others say that’s an illusion. The International Energy Agency (IEA) for one is convinced that we need considerable growth of nuclear power if we are to keep global warming limited to 2 degrees.
Just recently, in June, the IEA went as far as to organize a high-level meeting for energy ministers to make them aware of the need to put “more efforts” into supporting nuclear power. The IEA showed the ministers this chart to show what is happening in the nuclear sector and what needs to happen if nuclear power is to make its expected contribution to a low-carbon energy system:
Source: IEA (SDS = sustainable development scenario)
Those who support nuclear power often point to the example of Germany to show what happens when a country decides to abandon nuclear power. Germany is spending tens of billions on renewable energy but is unable to meet its climate targets because the clean renewables are partly replacing the clean nuclear power that is being phased out.
However, Germany is an extreme example. Few policymakers would consider actively closing existing nuclear power plants. They are rather asking themselves whether they should help to keep existing plants open, and, an even more difficult question, whether they should actively promote the building of new ones.
Very few “western” countries have decided to actively support new nuclear build. The UK is the most prominent example. In the U.S., the Trump administration is looking for ways to support existing nuclear power plants and funds research into “advanced” nuclear reactors.
France had decided to reduce the contribution of nuclear power to its electricity supply from 75% to 50% – but it has delayed that project and there are even rumours now that the French government may be wanting to expand nuclear power. French newspaper Les Echos has reported that a confidential report commissioned by France’s government proposes building five new nuclear reactors.
The Japanese government’s latest Energy Plan probably demonstrates the hesitation among policymakers most clearly: it commits to nuclear – and to renewables – and to coal.
Most policymakers probably expect little help anymore from advisors and analysts to help them cut the nuclear knot. They surely must believe they have heard all the arguments for and against many times over. The nuclear debate may not be dead – it does smell funny sometimes.
However, they could be wrong. In recent years a new perspective has freshened up the stale nuclear debate – one that has not had a lot of attention yet. It is a perspective that has been developed foremost by maverick pro-nuclear activist Michael Shellenberger.
Shellenberger is the founder and president of pro-nuclear citizens movement Environmental Progress, which he started in late 2015 in California. Before that, in April 2015, when Shellenberger worked for the pro-nuclear think tank The Breakthrough Institute (which he co-founded), he along with 17 other researchers published “the Ecomodernist Manifesto”. (I may be wrong, but I think he even coined the term “ecomodernism”.)
Ecomodernists tend to be more optimistic about the future of the planet – and mankind’s role in it – than environmentalists. In their Manifesto the founders of the Ecomodernist movement write that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”
“A good Anthropocene”, they write, “demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.” To achieve this goal, the Ecomodernists believe – like environmentalists – that “humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature”, but – unlike environmentalists – they reject the idea that “human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse”.
Their way out of the ecological crisis may be viewed as the opposite of the environmentalist solution. “Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts”, they write.
In other words, according to the Ecomodernists, human beings should try to develop an advanced technological society not “in harmony” with nature, but as a way of allowing nature to run its own course as far as possible. Nuclear power fits in perfectly with this vision. Unlike solar and wind power, it is highly concentrated, producing a large amount of energy with a very small natural footprint, say the Ecomodernists.
For Ecomodernists nuclear power is just one of the causes they fight for. They are also in favour of intensive farming, for example. For Shellenberger, however, nuclear advocacy has become an intensely felt personal quest. He said as much when he was in Amsterdam on the last day of August, to liven up the initiation of a Dutch Ecomodernist foundation. “Nuclear power is a demanding mistress”, he told the small audience attending the event.
With the founding of Environmental Progress, his global “citizens movement for nuclear power”, he has chosen to serve that mistress full-time.
However, this should not give you the impression that Shellenberger is an ideologically driven nuclear fanatic. Nor does he resemble anything like an “industry spokesman”. He insists that he does not take any money from the nuclear industry – and he certainly talks like he doesn’t care about what anybody thinks. Which does fit in with his personal background: he describes himself as a progressive liberal fan of Hillary Clinton and was involved in his life in a wide range of social campaigns, “from challenging Nike over its labour practices in Asia, to saving the Headwaters Redwood forest”, according to Wikipedia.
Shellenberger’s views, which are uniquely his own (he made it clear in Amsterdam that he was not speaking for other Ecomodernists, only for himself), should give any policymaker pause for thought. Let’s look at a few of the things he had to say.
His first and maybe most important point of the evening: “Ecomodernism”, he said, “is about protecting the natural environment by concentrating human activity.” That is not the first thing you would hear from a PR agency working for the nuclear industry.
Ecomodernists, said Shellenberger, want “to decouple from nature”. A lot of people don’t understand that, he added. “We like nature, people will tell me. W don’t want to decouple from it. We like nature too, I tell them, that’s why we do want to decouple from it.” He described seeing gorillas in Africa recently as a deeply moving experience. “We want to leave the gorillas alone, and the hump-backed whales, and the rainforest.”
At the same time, Shellenberger stressed that Ecomodernism is about a “high-energy life”. Ecomodernists don’t believe in energy saving as a goal in itself. “You want to increase the amount of energy you use”, Shellenberger said. Living in a city uses a lot of energy. Going on holidays does too.
But then, if you want to use a lot of energy, if you want to leave nature alone, if you are against water and air pollution, then all these roads lead to nuclear power, said Shellenberger.
So what about the objections so often heard against nuclear power? Isn’t it dangerous?
“A lot of things are dangerous”, said Shellenberger. “Germans want to live dangerously. They want to drive down the Autobahn at 180 km per hour. That’s looking for danger.”
Could a terrorist make a nuclear bomb by breaking into a nuclear power plant? Perhaps, but it’s easier to go into a hospital and steal radioactive material there, suggested Shellenberger. Or to drive a truck into a crowd.
Nuclear power is dangerous, said Shellenberger, but relatively it’s the safest from of energy. “7 million people a year die from fossil fuels and biomass. Wind turbines kill a lot of people.”
The Fukushima disaster he called a “moral panic”. “The Japanese industry and government pretended that nuclear power is absolutely safe. They isolated it from the people. So when Fukushima happened, people felt vulnerable. They evacuated a nursing home. That was horrifying. They killed a lot of people doing that.” The Fukushima story has to be re-narrated, said Shellenberger.
What about nuclear waste? “That’s the best damn part of nuclear power”, he said. He compared it to the waste from fossil fuels (CO2, pollutants, oil spills) and the “terrible waste” from renewables. “Solar panels contain cadmium, chromium, lead. These remain toxic forever.” By contrast, the amount of nuclear waste is extremely small, and “stored in cans that can’t be opened”. In fact, Shellenberger believes it is nonsense to want to bury nuclear waste. “Why bury it? The nuclear industry knows it isn’t necessary, but they will make billions doing it.”
With regard to renewables, Shellenberger is not only critical of the waste they produce, but also of the space they require. “A solar farm takes up 5000 times more space than nuclear power”, he said. The global expansion of solar power is “like spreading future electronic garbage all over the planet. Wind turbines are a horrible disaster. Anti-environmental.” He did emphasize that those are personal views.
As to the jobs renewables create: “Who wants to create a lot of jobs? You want to reduce the number of people producing energy, so they can do other things.”
Shellenberger does not deny for one moment the high costs of nuclear power. He has written extensively about how to bring down those costs. In order to survive, the nuclear sector must embark on a radical new course, he believes: create one company, comparable to Boeing or Airbus in the aircraft sector, that will develop a standardized, efficient reactor design. And then build a lot of them.
There is nothing wrong with the standard water cooled reactor, says Shellenberger. They function very well – and, he adds, we don’t even know how long they may last. “They could be immortal.” Build a lot of them in the same place, is his advice.
Unlike many in the nuclear industry, Shellenberger does not believe in the blessings of “advanced” nuclear reactor designs, such as molten salt reactors. “Molten salt reactors are really complicated to make”, he noted. He said they are mostly believed in by “professors who don’t work at nuclear power plants.” Advanced nuclear is “wishful thinking. It is the wrong timing for it. At this moment we need the opposite of advanced nuclear. We have to defend existing nuclear!”
With all of those arguments for nuclear power, why are so many people so radically opposed to it? This is a question that has been occupying his mind for three years now, Shellenberger said. His conclusion: because deep down people associate it with nuclear weapons. “It has everything to do with the bomb”, he said. “Nuclear has this aura of death. For most of the population this technology is fundamentally deadly.”
If you thought that Shellenberger would then start denying that there is a relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, you would be totally wrong. “For a long time many in the industry have insisted there is no relation. That is nonsense”, he said.
He went as far as to say that the countries that are currently pursuing new nuclear power for the first time, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, do this because they want to obtain the option of making nuclear weapons. If you don’t want a nuclear weapon, you probably don’t want to build new nuclear power plants, he suggested.
But this, said Shellenberger, is not necessarily a bad thing! Thanks to nuclear weapons, he argued, the number of wars and war deaths has gone down steeply since World War Two. “Why don’t India and Pakistan wage war on each other? Because they both have nuclear weapons.”
“Once you have nuclear”, Shellenberger concluded, “you can have prosperity and peace for all.”