Think tank founder dives into nuclear energy activism
Umair Irfan, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, May 19, 2016
Last December, Michael Shellenberger crossed the threshold from analysis to activism.
The co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based environmental think tank, concluded that the threat of climate change is severe and that one of the most potent weapons to combat it, nuclear energy, is in peril.
"I really wanted to dedicate myself to our largest source of clean energy," said Shellenberger, 44. "There's just really urgency everywhere."
In the United States, where 99 reactors provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity without emitting carbon dioxide, utilities are threatening to close down some plants, and the fear is that dirtier fossil energy will fill the void, rolling back the already slow progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Now Shellenberger is barnstorming throughout the country under the banner of his new group, Environmental Progress, in the hope of pushing languishing nuclear power plants off the ropes and back into the fight against climate change, with ambitions of taking this message global.
"We actually have a double focus," he said. "It's basically a focus on nuclear for climate and the environment, and basically liberating all humans from wood fuel."
The thinking started from his work at the Breakthrough Institute, which he established with environmental policy analyst Ted Nordhaus in 2003.
"Breakthrough was needed originally because there was, and remains, a lot of unchallenged dogma in the traditional environmental movement," said Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the Breakthrough Institute, in an email.
"There are a lot of other environmental groups that start with their conclusion, and then do analysis to prove it," she added. "Our analysis starts with much broader questions like 'What are the main challenges to decarbonization of the power sector today?', 'Which countries have been most successful and decarbonizing?', 'What policy options are available to address this market failure?'"
Making the case for Diablo Canyon
From Breakthrough's research, nuclear energy emerged as a potent solution to lethal air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as an important rung in the ladder out of poverty that many nations are struggling to climb.
That led to more analysis on next-generation nuclear reactors, ones that are cheaper, safer and more efficient to operate. However, fighting to keep current plants open is outside the wheelhouse of a policy research institute.
"The reason we've now focused on the advanced nuclear is that it needs much more thorough research, whereas keeping existing plants open is more of a movement building, or political coalition building, which is not the type of work we do," Lovering said.
But a problem like averting dangerous levels of climate change does not allow time for a solution that will materialize decades down the line. It demands drastic cuts in emissions over the next few years.
"Those advanced nuclear technologies are a lot farther away," Shellenberger said. "Molten salt [reactor designs] are not scheduled to be commercialized until 2040."
With funding from the Pritzker Innovation Fund, he launched a new group to tackle the more immediate problem of keeping existing nuclear plants online.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for example, has said it may not seek license renewals for the two reactors at Diablo Canyon, a 2.2-gigawatt nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.
The licenses are due to expire in 2024 and 2025, and Shellenberger wants a commitment from the utility to keep the plant that provides 8 percent of the state's electricity and 22 percent of the state's clean electricity running.
In January, Shellenberger co-signed a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) making the case to keep Diablo Canyon. James Hansen, a former NASA climate scientist who made a similar jump from research to climate activism, also co-signed the letter and has joined Shellenberger in many engagements laying out the case for nuclear energy.
Shellenberger is also organizing activists to defend Diablo Canyon. "We're talking a lot about Gandhi," he said. "You don't just write letters; you gotta march."
Many environmentalists call for a shutdown
One group, Mothers for Nuclear, has taken this to heart. On June 24, organizers plan to march with their families almost 100 miles from Sausalito, Calif., to the state capital, Sacramento, to attend a California State Lands Commission meeting that could decide the fate of Diablo Canyon.
"I felt for many years now that working there and being able to generate greenhouse gas-free electricity, that felt like my contribution to humankind," said Heather Matteson, a co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear and a veteran employee at Diablo Canyon.
She crossed paths with Shellenberger at a public debate on nuclear energy at California Polytechnic State University and joined forces with his group when she learned that her employer, PG&E, might not keep Diablo Canyon up.
"We're definitely not representing them in what we're doing," Matteson said. "They have even told us that they don't want our help."
She is raising funds for the march through personal donations as well as sales of $20 pendants in the shape of an atom made from uranium glass that glows under ultraviolet light.
"We're not necessarily pro-nuclear," she said. "We're pro- whatever tools can help us. We don't want people to discount nuclear due to irrational fears."
Concerns over accidents, long-term waste disposal and nuclear weapons proliferation pervade discussions on nuclear energy, and many environmental activists say these are completely rational apprehensions.
Making the climate call
Friends of the Earth described Diablo Canyon on their website as "a dangerous, destructive and expensive hangover from an outdated energy production process."
The Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club has opposed the license renewal for Diablo Canyon, arguing that the California Independent System Operator has shown it can operate the grid without the plant and that its baseload generation actually makes it difficult to accommodate intermittent renewable energy.
They also pointed to a report from energy research firm E3 that found that California could meet its emissions targets without the Diablo Canyon plant.
Michael Peck, a former senior resident inspector at Diablo Canyon for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, produced a differing professional opinion report on the plant that showed that three nearby fault lines could generate earthquakes stronger than the plant could safely withstand.
The plant also takes in 2.5 billion gallons of water a day to cool its reactors and discharges it back into the Pacific Ocean 20 degrees warmer. California decided to end this type of once-through cooling in 2011, but PG&E is lobbying for an exemption.
Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, noted that many of the recent nuclear power plant shutdowns in the United States were not due to environmental opposition but due to high operating costs for utilities and low prices of competing energy sources.
Though nuclear power provides a steady baseload, it has a hard time keeping up with changes in demand, which yields similar load-matching problems to renewable energy.
"Nuclear doesn't help the grid to be stable," Jacobson said. "It's just flat. Nuclear does only partial load following."
Meanwhile, the United States still does not have a long-term solution for nuclear waste, which can remain hazardous for thousands of years.
These arguments don't sway Shellenberger. "The problem with nuclear is the same everywhere: They don't like it and fear it because they see it as something that it's not," he said.
As for the nuclear plants struggling to compete with cheap natural gas, and in some markets, renewables, Shellenberger said nuclear would fare much better on a level playing field. Solar gets 140 times the level of federal subsidy of nuclear, while wind get 17 times more, he noted. States also leave nuclear out of renewable energy portfolio standards and clean energy mandates.
But in his call to arms, one argument in particular seems to resonate more loudly and change minds.
"Climate," he said. "Climate."
Shellenberger and Lovering will both be speaking on Capitol Hill today at a Department of Energy summit on the nuclear fleet in the United States.