Michael Shellenberger

Ep 01: Michael Shellenberger - President, Environmental Progress
00:00 / 01:04


Q1 - Early Perceptions of Nuclear

Bret Kugelmass: How did you get involved in the nuclear space and what drew you to environmental activism?

Michael Shellenberger: Michael Shellenberger comes from a Mennonite family, went to a Quaker school, was a peace activist, and got his degree in peace and global studies. As a Gen Xer in the 1970’s, Shellenberger was bombarded with terrifying stories about nuclear war. In 1983, ABC showed a television miniseries called “The Day After” and showed nuclear war in unbelievable, graphic conditions and Shellenberger was encouraged to watch it. He didn’t know the difference between nuclear power and nuclear bombs. After college, Shellenberger worked on bringing peace delegations to Central America during the wars and started consulting to different groups, including environmentalists. In the early 2000’s, it became very clear that the environmentalist solutions were not anywhere close to adequate to solving the problem of replacing fossil fuel. Shellenberger created a group called the Apollo Alliance that was endorsed by labor unions and other groups, but influential environmentalist groups in policy didn’t like it because it was focused around technology rather than regulations. Shellenberger pushed his solar energy solution to Obama in his run for presidency. Obama spent a ton of money on solar, wind, and electric cars when he came into office. Shellenberger wrote a book on solar power called “Breakthrough” which was published in 2007 and sent a copy to Stewart Brand, who wrote the Whole Earth Catalog and started the New Games festival. Stewart Brand wondered why Shellenberger didn’t pursue nuclear energy, leading Shellenberger to investigate and clear out his childhood perception. Even if solar power was free, it would still be limited because it has a problem with intermittency. Stewart Brand comes out with a new book, “Whole Earth Discipline”, in 2009 and does a big TED talk that has a lot of the basic pieces of eco-modernist manifesto. Michael Shellenberger wanted to support Stewart Brand in nuclear, and shortly after Fukushima happened. Michael Shellenberger interviewed people in Germany after Fukushima and found that most people thought both Chernobyl and Fukushima caused about 100,000 deaths. A very small percentage accurately responded with the correct number of deaths at Chernobyl, but zero respondents accurately guessed the death toll at Fukushima. After Fukushima, George Monbiot, a left-wing columnist at The Guardian, wrote a column defending nuclear and went on Democracy Now in the U.S. He took a call from Dr. Helen Caldicott, an anti-nuclear activist, who beats Monbiot on the call and caused Monbiot to reconsider the anti-nuclear argument and radiation. Radiation is very well studied and understood and has been for a hundred years.

Q2 - Environmental Progress

15:44 Bret Kugelmass: What is the origin story of environmental progress and your activities?

Michael Shellenberger: After Fukushima, Michael Shellenberger defended nuclear and was scared that Fukushima was the end of nuclear. The perception of nuclear had never fully recovered after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima. Shellenberger didn’t believe that wind and solar could save the day, so he felt he had to defend nuclear and worked on the movie “Pandora’s Promise”. Nuclear is an incredibly important technology for the environment, human progress and prosperity, and equality. For nuclear to survive as a significant source of energy, the human consciousness has to evolve and people must understand what nuclear is and what it’s not. Shellenberger had to leave behind his technocentrism. Technocentrism is the idea that there will be some technological change that will resolve the social or political disagreements over nuclear. Energy has continued to transition and uranium is a better fuel. So little uranium is needed to produce nuclear energy, and one Coke can will power your entire life. Uranium has a high energy density, which is a high amount of energy in relationship to the matter. Nuclear power is breaking a chemical bond that releases energy with combustion. The atomic break is a huge leap in energy transition. Going from wood to coal is a 2:1 increase in energy, but the transition from oil to uranium is at least a 1,000,000:1 increase in energy. When nuclear comes under attack, such as the late 60’s and early 70’s, the guardians of nuclear go underground and the utilities that own the plants say nuclear is a good part of the mix along with coal and nuclear loses its specialness. There is an astonishing public backlash and public misunderstanding that is unparalleled. Nuclear needs advocacy and a champion. The tradition of nuclear, especially after the 60’s, was for industry to pay people to go forward on nuclear. Michael Shellenberger knew that he didn’t want to take any money from industry and found that people take you a lot more seriously.

Q3 - Nuclear Education and Marketing

25:25 Bret Kugelmass: What are some actions and strategies that Environmental Progress takes to launch your own education and marketing campaign?

Michael Shellenberger: Michael Shellenberger started Environmental Progress in January 2016. He first worked to figure out where nuclear was in trouble globally, starting out by counting the nuclear plants at risk of shutting down and calculating the environmental impacts of shutting them down. This research had never been done before, including Shellenberger’s first organization, Breakthrough Institute. He analyzed practical equivalents of shutting down nuclear plants. Shellenberger became close with Jim Hansen, a climate scientist, and they would team up on open letters to politicians explaining the impacts of closing nuclear plants. Nuclear plants have always talked about the jobs they create. What you want from your electricity is to be cheap, because they will use more and it drives more industries. The benefits of clean energy are large and the climate argument was the aspect of the nuclear story that got them on the front page of the New York Times. Robert Downey Jr. came out and gave a positive statement about the work Shellenberger was doing and Hilary Clinton spoke out supporting keeping nuclear plants open. To understand the challenges facing building new nuclear plants, one must understand some basics of nuclear technology and economics. Building nuclear plants is the outlier of extreme construction.

Q4 - Financial Challenges of Nuclear Development

32:28 Bret Kugelmass: What financial mechanisms do we have to support such nuclear plant construction as an outlier in the industry?

Michael Shellenberger: Usually the utility building the nuclear plant is allowed to charge some amount of money while the plant is getting built. In state-owned utilities like in France, they use government finance to build them and the cost to build, in terms of interest rates, is pretty low. If you want to get cost down, have the same people build the same kind of plant and reactors over and over again, preferably right next to each other. Michael Shellenberger serves on the MIT Future of Nuclear Advisory Board. A popular saying is, France has 500 kinds of cheese and one kind of nuclear reactor. The U.S. has 500 kinds of nuclear reactors and one kind of cheese. France kept costs stable and saw cost declines when they kept the same design standard. They also saw cost increase when they changed the design. Korea is the most conservative and has the least amount of design changes. During a recent visit to Korea, Shellenberger interviewed past executives about two reactors about the last ones. They admitted the reactors were bigger, but were basically the same. The technological innovations that are the closest to being realized are the most incremental and the least radical.

Q5 - Public Understanding of Nuclear Technology

Bret Kugelmass: If one of the big problems with nuclear is the marketing and people’s lack of understanding, should we invest in new designs to get people excited about it, even if the better technical solution is to go with the tried and true old design?

Michael Shellenberger: The public understanding has to be close to what’s reality. Other non-nuclear industries have promoted things that they don’t have the technology for and it harms the entire brand and industry. Fuel pebbles are great if they existed and worked, but they are complicated and hard to get to work, in part because the burnup is not even. In the near term, different fuels with a higher melting point are exciting because it might get you 8 to 72 hours before they melt, which could prevent Fukushima and Three Mile Island. On these accident tolerant fuels, there is a lot of bipartisan support. Even opponents of nuclear couldn’t oppose fuels that melt down slower. Shellenberger did a history of the fracking shale gas revolution. It was a combination of technologies, such as fracking, underground mapping, horizontal wells, and multiple wells. There was also an incremental improvement of each of those technologies. This is the opposite of a breakthrough. After Fukushima, Obama and industry put a lot of emphasis on new fuels. Shellenberger is interested in molten salt thorium reactors. What we miss when we get so design-focused is we don’t see the biggest part of the supply chain, which is the workforce. The old industry does not have to die for the new technology to emerge. In the history of technology, this has rarely or never happened. Today’s nuclear fleet can be kept and innovating so we can get more technology one day. The regulations for nuclear are excessive and all they know how to do is regulate light water reactors. For the near term advanced fuels that get you 8 hours before they melt, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) needs $80 million a year of additional people to build tests, labs, and teams. Everything goes slower because you don’t have the people needed.

47:03 Q6 - Global Nuclear Expansion

Bret Kugelmass: How does international nuclear build affect the overall health of the industry and the U.S. place in that?

Michael Shellenberger: There is less reality to the global expansion of nuclear than people realize. China is doing less nuclear than expected and will go from two to three percent of their electricity from nuclear from now to 2020. India didn’t revise their reliability law and both India and the U.K. are taking bids to get three or four different kinds of reactors, which is a recipe for cost escalation. When Westinghouse went bankrupt, who invented the pressurized water reactor, which is the dominant reactor globally, woke people up and reminded people of the importance of standardization and centralizations. The Chinese government is forcing its utilities to make a decision on a single reactor design going forward. Standardization has not been as widely embraced as it should be, given how clear the data is and how non-controversial the importance of this is among academics. Shellenberger hopes the crisis facing nuclear right now forces a rethinking among everybody. Public acceptance of nuclear is not optional; every technology must have social license.

50:19 Q7 - Future of Different Energy Options

Bret Kugelmass: What is the potential for solar and wind to actually fix the climate change problem?

Michael Shellenberger: Energy density allows you to understand the big picture really simply. The energy density of the primary energy fuel determines its environmental impact, as well as its health, safety, and economic impact. This has been masked in some ways for nuclear. The more land you have to cover or use to get a given amount of energy, the more expensive and damaging to the environment it will be. Solar takes, on average, 150 times more land than nuclear and wind takes 750 times more land, dependent on how you count land for wind. Rooftop space is much more expensive than solar farms, due to the installation cost. The space required and the intermittency of solar and wind are unsolvable problems. California has all the solar they can use, but does not have any backup. It may not even be physically possible to store as much energy as needed. Incremental changes, like better fuels, may be very close to what we hoped from advanced nuclear. There are many statewide campaigns to save nuclear in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut and California that require a lot of activity. There is important stuff happening in Asia, with a huge anti-nuclear backlash in Japan, South Korea trying to shut down their nukes, and Taiwan had a blackout that killed people, which would not have happened if they had been running a nuclear plant. Michael Shellenberger and Environmental Progress is coming out with a statement about atomic humanism and what that means. Nuclear is special and we have to stop treating it like it is just another way to make electricity. Nuclear has been victimized by misinformation and fear and needs defenders and advocates. A lot of this work is cultural before it can become political before it can become policy.

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