With governments under mounting pressure to decarbonise their electricity networks, US author and activist Michael Shellenberger argues nuclear energy has a vital role to play.
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You advocate greater use of nuclear energy in addressing the climate crisis. Why?
To move to 100 per cent renewables would mean returning to an agrarian society. That would be devastating for the natural environment, because of the land-use impact alone. What nuclear does is provide a way to have a high-energy society that produces close to zero carbon.
Even if you’re not apocalyptic about the risks of climate change, you want to keep your emissions low to prevent temperatures rising too high. Even most climate sceptics would say a four-degree rise in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels is significant. The two most important tools to solve that problem are natural gas and nuclear, because they replace coal.
Eventually, nuclear may be able to produce hydrogen gas that can be pumped through the existing natural-gas infrastructure for use in cooking, heating and transportation. There are engineering problems that must be solved, but the basic physics of it are possible. You could potentially power up hydrogen fuel-cell cars at home. Nuclear could even be used to desalinate water or recycle waste water.
Why did you become a pro-nuclear activist?
The Nuclear Pride Coalition [an alliance of independent and non-profit pro-nuclear organisations] has done 33 “Stand up for Nuclear” events. It’s extremely important that people who care about the environment, who care about technological progress, understand nuclear is the best of all the energy technologies. Nuclear has been deeply misunderstood and defamed. It’s still early days, but we’re starting to see politicians and the media showing up at our meetings, and that’s what it takes to build a coalition of supporters.
It’s just about getting public support and arguing the case that we need it
There are supposed to be lots of issues around nuclear. But in reality, it’s just about getting public support and arguing the case that we need it.
Do policymakers need to do a better job at communicating to people that nuclear is a safe way of generating power?
Generally, what we find is that support for nuclear fundamentally turns on whether you think it is needed. If you go to comparatively poor countries like India and China and ask people, “Should we have nuclear energy?”, they are enthusiastic supporters because they see it as a way of providing abundant amounts of cheap energy.
If it is so safe, why are so many countries scaling back their nuclear ambitions?
Countries such as Germany, South Korea and Japan are mostly doing so out of fear. Yet our biggest fears turned out to be totally wrong. It’s a Cinderella story. I think nuclear is the most beautiful source of energy, because it has such a small environmental footprint, even if some people don’t see it.
Many of the people who are concerned about climate change often hate nuclear
The irony is that many of the people who are concerned about climate change often hate nuclear, because they are apocalyptic about nuclear in the same way they are apocalyptic about climate change. If you are saying that climate change will bring about the end of the world, then even a Chernobyl-scale meltdown pales in comparison to that risk.
But I see attitudes changing at both ends of the spectrum. Within the US Republican Party, there seem to be fewer and fewer climate deniers. I think the party knows climate denial is a problem in terms of winning in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. These are important swing states with millennial suburban voters who care about climate change.
What about other concerns, such as cost and how to safely dispose of the waste?
To me, waste isn’t an issue; I think that problem is solved. The waste is kept on-site now; there’s no reason to move it. As for the cost, the answer is to build nuclear reactors on existing sites, as it’s far easier to get planning approval and NIMBYism can be a problem in building in new areas.
If you look at the US, UK, France, we already have enough places where nuclear could easily produce double or triple the amount of energy it presently does
This is partly why I’m so fanatical about defending the nuclear plants we have. If you look at the US, UK, France and elsewhere in Europe, we already have enough places where nuclear could easily produce double or triple the amount of energy it presently does, without the development of any new sites. A lot of these plants have plenty of room for more reactors. One of its strengths is that nuclear is so energy dense. What is a two-gigawatt plant right now could be five, ten, 15 gigawatts in the future.
But the plants we have already are fine; they will get better, but you can say that about every technology. Nuclear represents a significant improvement over natural gas in the same way natural gas is a significant improvement over coal.
What can the nuclear industry do better?
We need to stop trying to change the design of reactors. When new reactors are developed, only a few of each design are built. It’s crazy. We know the only thing that works to make nuclear cheaper is to build the same reactor over and over again, using the same construction managers so they don’t have to re-learn everything – like the Koreans did, like the French have sometimes done and like the Russians are doing.
What risks, if any, do you see in poorer, politically unstable countries using the technology?
There’s a weapons proliferation issue, which is related to the collapse of the global system. The US and the Soviet Union prevented the bomb from spreading by promising a nuclear shield to protect their allies. But that system is now in serious question. If the European Union falls apart, if NATO falls apart, what happens to the nuclear shields? If I were a vulnerable country right now, I would definitely want to have a nuclear option, both for energy and for weapons.
The countries that really matter for climate change are China and India
But the countries I see doing nuclear in a big way, the ones that really matter for climate change, are China and India. They already have the technology. Rwanda is in discussions with the Russians about getting a nuclear plant, but the big issue there would be finding Rwandans who could run it. It’s more likely it would have to be run, at least initially, by Russians.
At a moral level, I think poorer countries should be able to use whatever forms of power they want. I found out the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has a per-capita annual income of $561, has a climate plan. When I learned this, I felt offended on behalf of Congo. At a moral level these countries should not have any climate commitments; they should use as many fossil fuels as they need for their development. The moral obligation to use nuclear and natural gas should fall especially on rich countries.