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?

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.

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