‘Fear of nuclear’ contributes to climate change, author says

Noted environmental author Michael Shellenberger gave a “TED Talk” recently that warned premature retirement of existing nuclear power plants will contribute to a clean energy crisis.

Nuclear “has been in decline in absolute terms,” Shellenberger said during the Ted Talk in June. The increase in solar and wind energy is insufficient to compensate for the decline in nuclear energy, Shellenberger said.

Solar and wind only provide electricity about 20% of the time, while nuclear is designed to run around-the-clock. Shellenberger said. Batteries still have a long way to go because they expend much of their energy just starting and stopping, Shellenberger said.

As a result, the large amount of 24-hour carbon-free power lost when a nuclear plant retires is typically replaced by burning more natural gas, the author said.

He pointed to the methane leak resulting from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage site in California.

Despite nuclear energy’s importance in limiting greenhouse gases, nuclear power is largely struggling to keep its existing plants running.

“In much of the rich world, we are not talking about building new reactors,” Shellenberger said. “We are actually talking about taking existing reactors down.” Such retirements will wipe out gains from new deployment of wind and solar energy, he added.

“We are not in a clean energy revolution. We are in a clean energy crisis,” Shellenberger said. This is hard to fathom, the author said, adding that in California, where he lives, he tends to see new solar panels or a new electric car all the time.

Shellengber’s message isn’t too unusual to people in the electric power industry. The messenger, however, is not your typical nuclear energy booster.

Shellenberger has authored many environmental books and has been named a Time Magazine “Hero” of the environment. He is co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, which says its mission is “to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.”

For over a decade Shellenberger has been a leader in shifting the climate policy paradigm shift from a focus on making fossil fuels expensive to a focus on making clean energy cheap. He is the author of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”

Nuclear energy’s big problem is that “people really don’t like it. … nuclear is one of the least popular forms of electricity,” Shellenberger said.

Safety, waste “and the association with weapons,” all make the public leery of nuclear energy, Shellenberger said.

On safety, every medical journal concludes “that nuclear is the safest way to make reliable power,” Shellenberger said. The amount of “waste” produced by nuclear plants is pretty small and safely stored.

Fossil fuel waste “is called pollution” and it kills millions annually, Shellenberger said.

TED Talks are devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. TED Talks are run by the non-profit Sapling Organization. The speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can.

Shellenberger’s presentation “How fear of nuclear power is hurting the environment” lasts about 16 minutes.


About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.