Nuclear Power Is Essential for Our Energy Future, says Michael Shellenberger

Part 4 of “Powering Earth 2050” Debate

California’s renewable energy march is on: State-regulated utilities must now get 50 percent of their electricity from wind, water, and the sun by 2050 — no fossil fuels or biofuels, no nuclear power. But even if the Golden State can achieve these goals, are they a roadmap for the rest of the United States — or the world?

Four experts debate. You decide.

On the con side: Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress. To read other positions, click here.

Michael Shellenberger: Those of us that hope to make it to the year 2050 have the chance to see something really amazing, which is that there is the possibility that every human being on Earth will be able to live a life of basic material prosperity. And that’s a pretty amazing thing when you think about the fact that we’ve been around for 200,000 years. In 1820, 85 percent of us lived in extreme poverty. Today, just 15 percent of us do. That’s an amazing possibility.

The other thing that could happen is that, overall, human kind’s negative environmental impact could peak and decline. And this follows the same pattern everywhere in the world. People go from being subsistence farmers who depend on wood and dung to getting jobs in cities, usually at factories or office buildings. They tend to have fewer kids, invest more in them. Pollution rises. All forms of pollution rise at first in cities. But then it peaks and declines. Pittsburgh 1940, smoke filled the streets. Beijing today. Delhi today. But over the last 40 years in the United States, pollution has been going down, all forms of conventional air pollution, except for one, and that’s carbon dioxide.

But here’s something that’s amazing. In the United States and in many European countries now, our carbon emissions have peaks and are going down. And much of that is from our transition from coal to natural gas. That’s a vision that I think should be inspiring to all of us, this vision of universal prosperity and more room for nature.

So here’s the challenge with it. To get to that, as Mark [Jacobson] mentioned, there’s still 2 to 3 billion people that depend on wood and dung as their primary energy. They built a lot of hydroelectric dams in Africa. They’ve got a lot of natural gas. Some of them will be able to leapfrog coal and natural gas. But everywhere in the world still — and a major study just came out of 76 economies — the amount of energy we consume is precisely coupled with our per capita GDP. In other words, the amount of energy it took for us to be making $50,000 per capita in the United States is the same amount of energy it takes the Chinese and Indians. In fact, it takes the Chinese and Indians a little bit more energy. So energy and quality of life are coupled. That’s why a lot of us think that energy will likely double or triple globally by 2050 [and] towards the end of the century.

In this process, you see some really exciting things happen. We’ll move to the cities. And wildlife returns. Forests grow back when people don’t need to use them as their wood fuel. In the United States and Europe, our forests have been coming back for a hundred years. Our wildlife has been coming back to the point we have so many more conflicts. And, as I mentioned, the big challenge is the final pollutant, CO2. We’ve got to get that number to zero. And you can see a pattern here. We’re going for more carbon-intensive fuels, wood and dung, to coal to oil to natural gas to uranium, which is what we use for nuclear fission, higher power densities in each fuel with fewer pollutants and waste.

So, when you think about any kind of productive process, when it comes to the environment, it’s really simple. You want the least amount of nature — or what we call natural resources — coming in. You want the most product, whether it’s electricity or shoes or anything else, coming out. You want the least amount of waste and the least amount of, hopefully zero, pollution. And what you find is in that progress, that process of wood and dung to coal to oil to natural gas to uranium, that’s exactly what happens, declining carbon content, declining pollution content. Smaller amounts of natural resource are required to produce more power.

To give you an example, not far away from here, the last nuclear power plant in California called Diablo Canyon, on three-football-fields area size, produces power for 3 million people. To produce that same amount of power with solar, you would need over a hundred times as much land. To produce that same amount of power from wind, you would need 500 times as much land.

Does nuclear, does uranium fuel, does it scare people? Sure. Do vaccines scare people? Absolutely. Do we get over our fears? We do when we realize that those fears put us at risk. We can’t let irrational fears put us at risk. Go look at the peer-review literature. Just Google it on the mortality, the deaths from energy sources. It goes in that same decline: wood and dung to coal to oil to natural gas to uranium. It’s a very simple process. It scares us, sure. but fertilizer, nitrogen fertilizer comes out of the same process to make ammunition, and we don’t ban nitrogen fertilizer, and say we’re not going to use nitrogen fertilizer anymore. It’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City building. We don’t allow our fears to govern what we do. We don’t ban high-rise buildings. I get terrified when I go into them. We overcome our phobias.

So let’s talk about the role of solar and wind. They’re vital. I mean, I’ve been an advocate for solar and wind for about 20 years of my life. One of the challenges we had, I spent about 10 years working to build Cape Wind off the coast of Cape Cod. One of [NRDC’s] board members, Bobby Kennedy Jr., stopped that project from getting built. It was in his viewshed. It was right where he liked to sail. He’s also been an obvious critic of vaccines. He says vaccines cause autism. And he’s been a big critic of nuclear power.

So can solar and wind play a role? Sure. But the opposition to solar and wind comes from — you guessed it — people who are concerned about the natural environment. That’s where it comes from in California. Local Sierra Club chapters sue to stop solar farms. And I’m not saying it’s a wrong thing. I’m not saying it’s a right thing. These are local land use issues. But the idea that you can scale up a power source that requires so much more land and put all your eggs in that basket, I think is a risky move when it comes from a climate perspective.

So let’s talk about the economics of this. NRDC, which I used to work for a number of years ago, succeeded in getting huge subsidies for wind and solar. So, to give you a sense of it, solar is subsidized at 140 times more than nuclear, and wind is subsidized at 17 times more than nuclear. Don’t believe me. Don’t take my word for it. Google those numbers. The Congressional Research Service did the study. Those are the subsidies. When the wind subsidy is cut off, no more wind turbines get built in the United States. Full stop. Same thing is true in the UK and Spain where they just are phasing out those subsidies.

So I’m going to wrap up by just asking a question of my panelists. I want to equalize energy subsidies too. I hope all my panelists agree with me. Let’s equalize energy subsidies. Let’s expand the renewable portfolio standards in all of the states to include nuclear. Let’s treat all zero-carbon sources of energy equally and fairly. And I’d also further ask, let’s work together to stop Diablo Canyon from getting closed down. NRDC hasn’t taken a position on it. Mark Jacobson has called for [it to be] the last nuclear plant in California. He wants to tear it down. That plant produces more power than all of our solar in the state, which has taken 20 years to build up. It will put the equivalent of 2 million cars worth of carbon dioxide pollution on the road overnight. How often do you get a chance to prevent that much carbon emissions from going up? So I want to invite all of you as well to please join me in saving Diablo Canyon and preventing California from going in the wrong direction on climate change.

This debate took place as part of the Oppenheim Lecture Series at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. To watch the whole debate, click here.