Chosun Interview: Giving up nuclear energy is unrealistic

[A former anti-nuclear activist has become pro-nuclear –Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress]

-        Nuclear energy is the cheapest and most efficient energy source.

-        Solely depending on renewables for electricity generation is a mirage.

-        Fossil fuel electricity production is required to complement renewables, hence more pollutants in the air

-        South Korea is a nuclear energy leader.

-        Nuclear power is the most eco-friendly energy source if its safety can be improved. South Korea should not abandon its world-class technology.

-        Shellenberger advises the South Korean government to avoid making hasty decisions about energy.

Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of Environmental Progress, is one of the few pro-nuclear environmentalists. In his contributions to and interviews with major media outlets such as the New York Times and CNN, he argued that “nuclear power is a green energy source that leaves the least amount of waste while creating the largest amount of energy.” A 14-minute video, “How fear of nuclear power is hurting the environment,” in which he appeared, got over 1 million views.

He came to South Korea on July 5th at his expense to deliver a letter addressed to President Moon Jae-in. Then, what made him do so?

Michael Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress, visited “People’s Transition Committee,” and delivered the letter co-signed by 30 American experts. In the letter, they urged the new administration to reconsider a nuclear energy phase-out policy, saying that “South Korea is a valuable supplier of cheap and abundant (nuclear) energy.” / Picture courtesy of Michael Shellenberger

What brought you to Korea?

“My wife is Korean American. I was invited by the Korea Nuclear Energy Agency in April to look around Gyeongju and Uljin in Gyoengsangbuk-do and interview local citizens. Their faces were full of fear and concern. Then I heard the news that the new government decided to halt the construction of new nuclear reactors and shut down all nuclear plants in the country by 2060. A week before coming to Korea, I began to meet and call 30 energy experts and climatologists day and night. I flew to Korea in a hurry to deliver their concern to the president.

Can you elaborate on what the concern is about?

“There is a consensus among experts that nuclear power generation is the best way to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. It helps slow down climate change. As French nuclear company Areva and US-based Westinghouse went through financial difficulties, there are only a small number of countries left with an ability to run reactors and produce nuclear energy. Against this backdrop, South Korea, which is more capable of supplying cheap and quality nuclear power than any other countries, announced a plan to abandon nuclear. South Korea’s withdrawal from the nuclear industry will leave only China and Russia in the nuclear reactor export market. Deeply concerned, Western free nations including the US have been observing the situation.”

It’s unusual for an environmentalist to support nuclear energy.

“When I first became an environmentalist, I also had a bias that nuclear is dangerous and bad.” What changed my mind was a study into climate change. After 10 years of study, I realized that relying on renewables for electricity is a mirage. Since renewables’ energy density is low, fossil fuels should be used to complement renewables and as a result, more pollutants can be emitted. The Fukushima disaster in 2011 put my faith in nuclear power to the test. After meeting residents of Fukushima, I reached a conclusion that if safety can be enhanced, nuclear energy is still the most environmentally friendly and efficient energy source.”

The new South Korean administration plans to replace nuclear with natural gas and renewable energy sources.

“Giving up nuclear energy is an unrealistic plan. You don’t get rid of your car because your neighbor (Japan) had a car accident. Last year, solar and wind accounted for 1% and 0.35% of South Korea’s total electricity supply, respectively. Replacing nuclear with natural gas would require $23 billion as up-front investment in new plants and $10 billion per year to pay for gas imports. When it comes to the environment, a total shutdown would be equivalent to adding 27 million cars to the road (as more fossil fuels should be burned).”

-        Why did you urge intellectuals to play more active a role?

“When I watched Pandora, a Korean movie about a nuclear disaster, on Netflix, I was extremely surprised. (President Moon Jae-in also watched the movie last December) The movie was based on a biased understanding of nuclear power. The new South Korean administration says it will increase natural gas imports to replace nuclear energy. But you can’t risk your nation’s fate by entirely depending on imports. To create informed public opinion, the South Korean government should lead the effort to break the propaganda that “nuclear is evil.” During my stay in Korea, I interviewed 20 citizens. I will work hard on social media so that the Korean government can reconsider its nuclear-free policy. Energy plans should be farsighted. The South Korean government should take time and formulate detailed plans.”