Michael Shellenberger: Why I Changed My Mind About Nuclear Power (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of author Michael Shellenberger’s TEDx talk: Why I Changed My Mind About Nuclear Power at TEDxBerlin conference. 

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Michael Shellenberger – Author

Like a lot of kids born in the early 70s, I had the good fortune to be raised by hippies. One of my childhood heroes was Stewart Brand.

Stewart is not only one of the originary hippies, he’s also one of the first modern environmentalists of the 1960s and 70s. As a young boy, one of my favorite memories is playing cooperative games that Stewart designed as an antidote to the Vietnam War.

I’m from a long line of Christian pacifists known as Mennonites, and every August, we would go as kids to remember the US government’s atomic bombing of Japan by lighting candles and sending them on boats onto Bittersweet Park.

As I graduated from high school, throughout college, I brought many delegations to Central America to bring diplomacy, seek peace and also to support local farmer cooperatives in Guatemala, Central America and Nicaragua.

And over time, as I’ve traveled all around the world, been through many small communities on all the different continents, I’ve come to appreciate that the young people I interview, they don’t want to be stuck in the village, they don’t want to spend their whole lives chopping wood and hauling wood, they want to go to the city for opportunity – most of them do – for education, for work.

And what I’ve realized is that that process of urbanization, of moving to the city, is actually very positive for nature. It allows the natural environment to come back. It allows for the Central African mountain gorillas, for example, an important endangered species, to have the habitat that they need to survive and thrive. And of course, in that process, you’ve got to go vertical.

So even places like Hong Kong, you see, can spare their natural environment around the city, but it requires a huge amount of energy to go up. And so the big challenge of our time is, how do you get plentiful reliable electricity and energy without destroying the climate? I started out as an anti-nuclear activist, and I quickly got involved in advocating for renewable energy.

So at the early part of this century, I helped to start a labor union and environmentalist alliance called the Apollo Alliance, and we pushed for a big investment in clean energy: solar, wind, electric cars, and the investment idea was picked up by President Obama. And during his time in office, he invested about 150 billion dollars to make solar and wind and electric cars much cheaper than they were. And that was having a lot of success, but we were starting to notice some challenges, some of them you’re familiar with: solar and wind generate electricity about 10 to 30% of the time, so we’re dependent on the weather for solar and wind.

There were other problems we were noticing. Sometimes, these sources of electricity generate too much power, and you hear a lot of hype about batteries, but we actually don’t have sufficient storage, even in California, where we have a lot of investment, a lot of Silicon Valley types putting money into battery storage technology. We were trying to figure out, how do you manage all those renewables?

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And while we were struggling with this problem, around 2005, Stewart Brand came out and he said we should rethink nuclear power. And this was like a shock to the system. I mean, for me and for all of my friends, Stewart was one of the first big advocates of solar energy anywhere. In the late 60s and early 70s, he advised the governor of California, but he said, “Look, we’ve been trying to do solar for a long time” – and at the time – less than 0.5% of our electricity, globally, comes from solar, about 2% from wind and the majority comes from nuclear and hydro.

And he said, “Look, despite what you might think, according to the intergovernmental panel on climate change, nuclear actually produces four times less carbon emissions than solar does.” In fact, that’s why they recommended in their most recent report that achieving deep cuts in emissions is going to require more intensive use of renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage.

Let’s take a closer look at Germany. Germany gets the majority of its electricity, and of course, all of its transportation fuels, from fossil fuels. So just the electrical sector, last year Germany got 40% of its electricity from coal, it got 12% from natural gas, 13% from nuclear, 12% from wind and about 6% from solar. So to go from 18% wind and solar to 100%, you actually have to go beyond that.

If you’re replacing all of the transportation sector with electric cars, you’re looking at something more like 150%. Germany’s done a lot to invest in renewables and to innovate solar and wind, but that’s still a pretty steep climb. That’s even before you get to the question of storage.

So well, let’s take a look at what happened last year. Last year, Germany installed 4% more solar panels, but it generated 3% less electricity from solar. Even in meetings with energy experts, I’ll ask people if they can make a guess as to why that is, and you’d be shocked at how many energy experts have no idea. It just wasn’t very sunny last year in Germany.

Well, that probably meant, though, then, that it was windier, right? Because if it’s not as sunny, maybe there’s some more wind, and those two things can balance each other out. In truth, Germany installed 11% more wind turbines in 2016, but it got 2% less electricity from wind.

Same story, just not very windy last year. So you might think, “We just have to do a lot more solar and wind so that in years where there’s not a lot of sunlight and wind, that there’s more electricity from those energy sources.” So Germany’s plan is to increase by 50% the amount of electricity it gets from solar. That would take you from 40 gigawatts to about 60 gigawatts in 2030.

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But if you have a year like 2016, that means that you’ll still only be getting around 9% of your total electricity from solar, and this is in, really, the biggest solar country in the world. Germany is really the powerhouse of renewable electricity. So the obvious response is, “We’ll just put it all in batteries.”

We hear so much about batteries, you would think that we just have a huge amount of storage. Our staff took a look at the numbers in California, and what we discovered is that we have 23 minutes of electricity storage for California’s grid. But to get that 23 minutes requires using every battery in every car and truck in the state, which as you can imagine, is not super practical if you’re trying to get somewhere. And Germany might be a little bit different, but not very different from that.

Most people are aware that to make this transition towards renewables, Germany has been spending a lot more on electricity, and you can see electricity prices in Germany rose about 50% over the last 10 years. Today, German electricity is about 2 times more expensive than electricity is in France. You might think, “Look it’s a small price to pay for dealing with climate change,” and I would agree with that.

Spending a little bit more money on energy, especially for those of us in the rich world, is a decent thing to do to avert some of the catastrophic possibilities of global warming. But the interesting thing is that when you look and when you compare France and Germany in terms of their electricity, France gets 93% of their electricity from clean energy sources, mostly hydro and nuclear; Germany gets just 46%, like about half.

And here’s the real shocking thing: German carbon emissions have actually been going up since 2009. They have increased over the last two years, and they may increase this year as well. And German carbon emissions have declined since the 1990s, but most of that is just due to the fact that after reunification, Germany just took offline all of those inefficient coal plants in East Germany. Most of that reduction is just due to that.

And let’s take a look at last year. One of the things that really quickly can reduce emissions is switching from coal to natural gas because natural gas is about half of the carbon intensity of coal, and that would have resulted in a pretty significant reduction in German carbon emissions last year, except for the fact that Germany took offline nuclear, and when it did that, it meant that the emissions actually ended up going up again.

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