Michael Shellenberger is an American author, environmental policy expert, and cofounder of Breakthrough Institute. He was named a Time magazine Heroes of the Environment, winner of the 2008 Green Book Award, co-editor of Love Your Monsters and co-author of Break Through and The Death of Environmentalism.
• David Rothkopf (David J. Rothkopf is CEO and Editor of The FP Group. The FP Group publishes Foreign Policy magazi...)
• Gary Taubes (Gary Taubes is the American author of Nobel Dreams, Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times o...)
• Kevin Bales (Kevin Brian Bales CMG is Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham, co-au...)» All Author Interviews
Thanks everyone! I have to go but I'll be back answering questions later tonight!
My bio: Hey Reddit!
You may recognize me from my [TED talk that hit the front page of reddit yesterday]
If not -- then possibly
*The 2013 Documentary Pandora's Promise
*My Essay, "Death of Environmentalism"
*Appearing on the Colbert Report
*Debating Ralph Nader on CNN "Crossfire"
Why I'm doing this: Only nuclear power can lift all humans out of poverty and save the world from dangerous levels of climate change, and yet's it's in precipitous decline due to decades of anti-nuclear fear mongering.
Proof: http://imgur.com/gallery/aFigL (Yeah, sorry, no "Harambe for Nuclear" Rwanda t-shirt today.)
Was there a single "aHA!" moment when you realized we needed nuclear, or was it a more gradual realization? What did it?
Multiple a ha moments — in fact, I keep having them.
Stewart Brand and Michael Lind pressed on me privately to rethink nuclear.
In 2007 we wrote we might need to consider nuclear.
We included nuclear innovation as one of many things needed for climate in 2009.
But the more I learned about energy and its role in human development the more I understood why reliable and cheap electricity was key and in that department there's only two low-carbon options: hydro and nuclear.
What's the biggest misconception about nuclear energy?
That it's a literally one of the safest things humans do. It's not just the safest way to make reliable power. It's just one of the safest things in general that we do.
As someone who's become very interested in advanced reactors, I still agree we should be keeping safe operating reactors up-and-running and be building out AP1000s.
The AP1000 seems to have safety systems which could be easily described to the public. Maybe there's even a narrative there about its development people might find engaging.
Why is it that "Pandora's Promise" and "Thorium: the far side of nuclear power" can offer up very compelling narratives around advanced reactors, and the industry can't cobble together anything to promote PWR?
It is like they're depending on pro-nuclear TED Talks (such as yours) for people to see the value of their product.
It is a billion dollar industry. What is their problem?
The idealistic nuclear visionaries of the fifties and sixties didn't know how to deal with the anti-nuclear zealots of the seventies and eighties, who didn't hesitate to lie and attack them personally. The response from the industry was to retreat into a kind of defensive crouch.
As usual, positive change is coming from younger folks who got concerned about global warming, figured out nuclear was the most important technology for addressing it, and became nuclear engineers.
20 years from now, which country will have built the most new nuclear energy?
Which country will have shut down the most existing nuclear facilities?
China will almost certainly have built the most new ones.
The US is on track to lose half of its nuclear plants, so it could be us.
However, I reject the idea that the future is written. There were a lot of good reasons to believe that the future would inevitably be nuclear, but the concerted efforts by a small group of people have put the technology in an existential crisis.
Hey Michael, it's been noted that one of the biggest problems with environmentalism is that a billion people don't have access to electricity, and they can't afford to take the route of expensive renewables. Given the security and proliferation concerns, do you think nuclear can help bring electricity to developing and poor countries?
I believe that the biggest environmental problem in the world is continued dependence on wood and dung by two to three billion people. This is a moral issue, since high amounts of energy consumption are required to free humans from drudgery, mafia rule and oppression. But it's also critical to saving forests and endangered species.
Poor nations where people still use wood and dung usually decide to build dams or burn coal, since they are simpler than nuclear.
But some big and important nations whose people still rely on wood and dung, like South Africa and India, could do a lot of nuclear in a way that would develop their own scientific and technical capacity and provide a cheap and reliable form of clean power for decades to come.
Thanks for doing this Michael, I’m not science literate so it’s difficult to find the line between fear-mongering and real science especially in the nuclear discussion.
That leads to my question, as a progressive concerned with climate change I'm in a minority that believes nuclear offers the best way forward. So it can be jarring to see progressive like Harvey Wasserman write that nuclear power facilities do contribute to climate change by 1) dumping water (either H20 used for cooling or by steam generated in the towers) that has been “irradiated” back into the environment above the temperature of the “natural environment” 2) Power plants emit Carbon-14 and finally 3) various forms of nuclear waste Wasserman lists.
Do you have a response to these claims?
Yes, we address directly all of the most commonly repeated myths about nuclear energy on our web site, and continue to update it in response to queries.
We also provide graphs from reputable sources like IPCC and Lancet that you can download or screenshot to upload as comments on social media.
Pretend you are the US electricity sector God-Emperor. In this almighty position, what role do variable renewable sources (wind and solar) play in the Shellenberger grid mix?
I wouldn't determined it in advance.
Our shared goal should be 100 percent clean power as soon as possible (timing is always constrained by cost-containment, in real world policies).
We need a framework that prioritizes clean energy, not a particular kind, even nuclear, in my view.
Is there any scenario of 100% renewables viable?
What about recent study from Frauenhofer Institute?
There are literally hundreds of scenarios of 100 percent renewables going back to the early 1800s. It was then that John Etzler proposed powering the US with 100% renewables. Henry David Thoreau was horrified at what it would do to the environment. The land use impact would be far, far greater than fossil fuels.
What's the most common infuriating question/comment you get?
Ha. Well, genuine questions never make me mad unless they ask something that I explicitly addressed in my talk, which is remarkably common.
IEA reports nuclear investment in new nuclear plants at just over $20 billion. Nearly 3/4 of this came from China. Compared to other generating fuels, this is tiny. As an advocate for nuclear, this concerns me. Any thoughts?
Yes, this is the same crisis I addressed in my TED talk.
Nuclear's decline is the main event when it comes to climate mitigation, and it's a huge event in terms of clean air generally.
The only reason we're not hearing more about it is that there's a tacit conspiracy of silence.
Anti-nuclear groups want to pretend like it's not a big deal to climate action.
The nuclear industry wants to whistle past the graveyard.
What has been your most shocking discovery in your investigation of the California Public Utilities Commission and it's role in the shutdown of San Onofre and possible shutdown of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants?
That Governor Jerry Brown was almost certainly behind it. I haven't met a single person who thinks that the President of the PUC would have — on his own — dictated San Onofre settlement terms to Southern California Edison without Brown having approved it and perhaps put him up to it in advance. Brown gets involved in all sorts of far smaller contracts. Inconceivable that Peevey would have kept him out of the loop.
What that means is that Brown has personally and through his people killed more nuclear power plants than any other individual in the world. Had Brown and his guys not killed nuclear plants — some built, some well-along in their planning — California would be 77 percent clean power today instead of 58.
So, how about those thorium salt reactors? They coming online anytime soon?
In my TED talk I discussed why I think there's a lot of wishful thinking about them, and I say that as a fan.
What do you think the future of small modular reactors (SMRs) is in the United States?
I think the future of all nuclear everywhere depends centrally on the ability of the pro-nuclear environmental movement to help societies appreciate nuclear's transcendent moral purpose. I think NuScale, the main SMR company in the US, has a really cool and promising design, but it like all other nuclear designs, cannot succeed without higher public and thus market demand for nuclear.
If you had the ear of Secretary Moniz, what would you recommend to him in regards to the nuclear industry?
Are you optimistic about nuclear being added/grandfathered into any RFS mandates in states? If so, which ones?
I would ask him to publicly address the fact that nuclear energy is in a crisis and that dramatic steps are needed to save it, starting with a wake-up call to everyone in the nuclear community and intensified public engagement on the issue, from the President of the United States to the Secretary General of the United Nations.
I am optimistic long-term about getting nuclear added, but in the short-term the goal is simply for nuclear to survive the next few years. After we save existing nuclear we need to step up our efforts to add nuclear to RPSs.
What role did the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 have in suppressing the development of nuclear power as a viable option in America?
I'm not aware that it played any role but maybe I'm uninformed. Do you think it did?
Hey Michael- good to see you doing this AMA. I organize on climate justice issues alongside youth (fossil fuel divestment, etc.). In my experience with millennial organizers there isn't the same fervent opposition to nuclear energy that you see from the older environmental movement, but there is a distrust of top-down solutions that lock in corporate actors. I see nuclear as essential to achieving the emissions reductions we need, but I understand and share this concern.
How do you communicate with folks who hold this sentiment, and how can nuclear be implemented as a solution with community buy-in? Do you see a role for more active government in building out nuclear capacity, or is this going to require reliance on the private sector? Thanks!
Thanks for asking! I think saving and building nuclear plants should be the highest priority for climate justice activists. They are zero-pollution and high-wage. They require the involvement of the whole society.
All energy decisions involve government and markets, democracy and capital, whether solar or nuclear. Because solar requires 150 times more land than nuclear, it often provokes much more local resistance than nuclear. There are very few things that can be imposed top down these days, certainly not a nuclear plant.
Thanks for this AMA Michael!
I am currently am engineer at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Your documentary Pandora's Promise had a short clip of the Remote Handling bay here at WIPP. It was interesting to see my workplace in a pro-nuclear documentary.
I have a degree in nuclear engineering so I am aware of the science and safety behind the technology. My question is this: given the economic costs associated with reprocessing nuclear fuel (France spends billions per year for reprocessing), would you rather see the fuel recycling technologies be developed to possibly make reprocessing cheaper or see the fuel placed into a permanent repository like WIPP?
I'm really really meh on waste. I think it's fine being kept where it is, and monitored. Or moved. Whatever causes the least fuss. Reprocessing isn't needed for now, and adds to the cost.
Is there a way to do nuclear power with no water cooling, or at least not on a major body of water?
Yes, there are new designs, and UK mostly uses carbon dioxide gas.
But the water impact is very low in my view.
Yes Michael, how do you address the biggest misconception about nuclear energy: that it will not turn us into the X-Men?
Give it time, give it time.
Michael, a question about economics. I used to be a democrat and am a newly identified libertarian. As of now, I am under the impression that the biggest threat to climate progress is the government itself. They are trying to solve a technical problem with the biases and feelings of the general populace. Part of that is nuclear and climate illiteracy. I am a rare breed, given that the traditional environmental movement is associated with the left. Here is what I think should happen. Nobody in the energy industry should get subsidies, because that warps true market costs. Cap and trade ends up turning into a bogus "green credit" market. Here, people that consume fossil fuels, like Apple, can claim they are powered by 100% clean energy. I would be fine letting energy be solved just by a free-market, because nuclear would win out. It uses the least amount of resources for the most amount of energy. The only government interference should be Citizen's Climate Lobby's carbon fee and dividend, as put forth by James Hansen. Wouldn't you say this would be the most fair for all energy parties? Competition and innovation and capitalism might be our best bet.
I agree that a lot of energy subsidies and mandates are making things worse. Wind has been getting subsidized 23 years. Solar roofs get about 2/3 their cost subsidized by taxpayers and ratepayers.
All this subsidized solar and wind is killing nuclear plants in Illinois and California, and so we end up paying higher electricity rates and taxes to make our air dirtier.
I'd like to see 100 percent clean power as the standard everywhere, allowing for clean energy sources to compete fairly. If that can't happen, then nuclear should at least be included in the support we give to other sources of clean energy, otherwise we'll be effectively killing off our largest and most important source of clean power.
Is Ecomodernism going to have an impact on government policy or even the environmental movement?
Who are the best scientists that can communicate the issues and point towards likely solutions. Is there a barometer of progress (maybe the CIPK) by which to judge results?
James Hansen is the stand-out pro-nuclear scientist.
How is your organization funded? Does it receive support from the nuclear industry? (not that this means you aren't right, I'm just interested to know)
Entirely by individuals. We don't take money from any energy companies of any kind. We list our donors here:
Waste Control Specialist in west Texas have applied for an NRC license for 100 years of above ground storage. Do you think it is wise to move the waste to one central location where it can be monitored and secured or would you feel more safe about the waste leaving it where it currently sits?
Honestly I'm fine where it is. I can see the benefits to a larger repository, but it's been outrageous to delay new nuclear plants because of some paranoid aversion to storing waste on site.