Chosun Biz Interview with Michael Shellenberger

Translated from original at:

July 7, 2017

Michael Shellenberger is an environmentalist. He was dubbed a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine in 2008. What makes him stand out is that unlike many other environmentalists, he is a pro-nuclear advocate. Environmental Progress, founded and headed by Shellenberger, is dedicated to saving nuclear reactors from shutting down in the United Sates. He appeared arguing the necessity of nuclear power in Pandora’s Promise, which Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) bought rights to and distributed in South Korea, and made a major contribution to protecting nuclear reactors from closing in New York and Illinois.

On 5th July, Shellenberger sent to President Moon Jae-in a letter signed by 13 nuclear and climate scientists, urging him to “reconsider the South Korean government’s policy to phase out nuclear energy.” The letter says, “South Korea has earned a global reputation for its ability to build well-tested and cost-effective nuclear plants.” It continued to argue, “If South Korea withdraws from nuclear, the world risks losing a valuable supplier of cheap and abundant energy needed to lift humankind out of poverty and solve the climate crisis.”

In April 2017, he attended the Korea Atomic Annual Power Annual Conference (KAP) 2017 as a member of the Expert Panel and discussed the safety of nuclear reactors with local residents in Gyeongju.

In his earlier days, he used to be like many other environmentalists who extremely support total withdrawal from nuclear energy. In 1999, he pulled all kinds of maneuvers to stall the construction of a radioactive waste dump in Mojave Desert. In 2009, He upheld the Obama administration’s public investment plan to expand renewable energy.

But his 5-year research into nuclear changed his mind. He studied with his fellow scientists how much CO2 emissions would be generated in the renewables-driven society. He concluded that as renewable energy sources have low energy density, more fossil-fuel such as natural gas should be burned for power generation, hence more pollutants emitted. He decided that to respond to climate change, using nuclear reactors should be reconsidered as a viable option. Although the Fukushima disaster in 2011 put his faith in nuclear to the test, Shellenberger visited Fukushima to conduct an investigation and met authors of the reports on the accident. He still believes that nuclear energy is the most green and efficient energy source if its safety can be improved.

We met Shellenberger at the Millennium Seoul Hilton and asked him why the American environmentalists and scientists sent a letter to President Moon.

Why did you write a letter to President Moon?

“We are deeply concerned about South Korea’s future energy policy as well as its plan to phase out nuclear reactors. South Korea is special. It is one of the countries with the most advanced technology to construct and operate reactors. South Korea is also the only country where the cost of nuclear plant construction has declined over time. A case in point is the reactors built by KEPCO in the United Arab Emirates.

There is a strong consensus among climate policy experts that expanding nuclear energy is required to cut CO2 emissions and improve air quality. Given the financial failures of French nuclear giant Areva and Japanese-owned and U.S.-based Westinghouse, Korea’s withdrawal from nuclear would leave only Russia and China in the global competition for new nuclear construction. If this happens, the world would lose a valuable supplier of cheap and abundant energy needed to lift humankind out of poverty and solve the climate crisis.”

Were you invited by a South Korean organization?

“No. I came here at my expense. I represent my colleagues who co-signed the letter. “Environmental Progress” that I represent is a financially independent organization. We don’t have a lot of money. (chuckle) Our organization is funded by individual sponsors. We are not sponsored by stakeholders or organizations related to the nuclear industry. Donations are mostly from venture capitalists in Silicone Valley. You can find the list of sponsors on our website.”

Being an environmentalist who is a pro-nuclear advocate is quite peculiar. What made you become one?

“When young, I was also against nuclear power like many environmentalists. I tried to “clog the toilet” to stall nuclear projects. But research on climate change changed my mind. While working at the Breakthrough Institution, a U.S.-based thinktank, I studied the effect of renewables on climate change.

Renewable energy has not solved the issue of intermittency. To complement the intermittency of photovoltaic and wind power generation, paradoxically, more fossil fuels such as natural gas should be used. That’s why greenhouse gas emissions increased in California and Japan.

Energy density of renewables is another problem. Low energy density means that less amount of energy is created with the same amount of fuel. Let’s take South Korea as an example. When all nuclear plants are replaced with solar energy, South Korea would need to build 4,400 solar farms the size of its largest solar farm in Shinan. To do the same with wind would cover an area 14.5 times bigger than Seoul. Photovoltaic power generation can produce pollutants like cadmium and tellurium as they are required in the panel production. It’s a paradox where environmental movement worsens the environment.”

South Korea plans to increase natural gas and renewable energy production to replace nuclear.

“At this point, it doesn’t sound realistic. Photovoltaic and wind power generation accounts for 1 and 0.35% of the nation’s total electricity supply, respectively. Considering the intermittency of photovoltaic and wind energy and expensive grid-scale storage, the continued operation of fossil fuel power stations is inevitable. To replace nuclear with natural gas, $23 billion will be required as up-front investment in new power plants and $10 billion per year to import natural gas. Environmentally, total shutdown of nuclear reactors would be equivalent to adding roughly 27 million cars to the road.

In April, when I met local people in Gyeongju, they were worried about the safety of nuclear reactors. If safety is the issue, getting rid of reactors isn’t a solution. Experience and data accumulated over 40 years can help improve the operations. Then, set up a powerful regulatory organization and enhance transparency. There are many ways to make nuclear reactors safer and U.S. and Canada has a lot of knowhow about this to share.”

People raised a concern over the safety of nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster. It must have not been easy for you to keep your faith in nuclear too.

“The Fukushima accident put my faith to the test. Like you said, it wasn’t easy at all. So, I went to Fukushima, Japan for investigation. I interviewed Kiyoshi Kurokawa from the Japanese government and Yoichi Hunabashi, former chief editor of Asahi Shimbun newspaper, authors of the two prominent reports on the nuclear catastrophe.

They both said the Fukushima disaster escalated due to terror. When enough amount of cooling water should have been injected into the reactor to cool it down, then Japanese Prime Minister and Tokyo Electric Power Company overturned the decision. Meanwhile, venting radioactive vapor was delayed. Because local people had to be evacuated. But delayed venting led to a hydro explosion. This happened because they prioritized evacuation when they really had to take proper measures. The mortality rate went up due to chaos created while evacuating hospital patients and elderly people.

The Fukushima disaster was a horrifying accident. But nothing in the world is perfectly safe. It’s a myth. Hoping for something like this is a childish idea. Scientific evidence says the number of deaths caused by nuclear power is overwhelmingly small. The collapse of Banqiao dam in China killed 171,000 people. Perfect safety is not required for construction and auto industries. Demanding it to the nuclear sector only is not reasonable. Terror should not end with terror. We should be able to find what we can learn from it and strengthen transparency and accountability.”

How is the nuclear power industry in the U.S.?

“The Trump administration is doing a comprehensive review on the industry. It’s looking for ways to improve the reactors’ efficiency and ease their financial burden. A sense of crisis played a big role here. For the 30 years while the U.S. was not building new nuclear reactors, China and Russia strengthened their competitiveness. There will be an intensive discussion how to respond to this.

Many nuclear reactors in the U.S. are on the brink of closing due to their lack of price competitiveness compared to natural gas. The nuclear leadership has been idle and inactive. Government subsidies also is part of the problem. For example, in America, last year, renewables received 114 times more in subsidies than nuclear. More people have been calling for an adjustment to subsidies for a fair competition. If this continues, half of U.S. nuclear plants should be closed by 2030. Our organization has been committed to informing state governments of the situation and gaining the acceptance of local people, and finally stopped two reactors from closing in New York and Illinois.”

Are there a lot of movements among U.S.-based environmental groups supporting nuclear reactors?

“Not sure there are a lot, but they do exist. Carol Browner, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who used to be a representative anti-nuclear activist, became pro-nuclear. Richard Rhodes, a historian and Pulitzer Prize winner and James Hansen, a climate scientist, also share the view.”

Do you have anything to say about the South Korean government’s nuclear energy policy?

“Let’s think this way. If the government says Hyundai cars are not safe, no one would buy Hyundai cars. If it fears and gives up nuclear reactors, no one would buy nuclear reactors from South Korea. Giving up nuclear reactors means giving up huge economic profits. In order to tackle climate change and improve air quality, and given its land scarcity, the South Korean government needs to reconsider the plan to shut down nuclear plants.