by Michael Shellenberger
In 2013, I was featured in a documentary film about environmentalists who had changed their minds and become pro-nuclear. The film, "Pandora's Promise," was made by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Robert Stone and aired at Sundance Film Festival.
I appeared on "The Colbert Report" and debated Ralph Nader on CNN's "Crossfire," and the issue of nuclear for the climate finally broke into the mainstream media.
The film's release was greatly helped when, one week earlier, four of the world's leading climate scientists, including Environmental Progress Senior Science Advisor, James Hansen, published an open letter urging the leaders of anti-nuclear environmental groups NRDC, EDF, Sierra Club and others to reconsider their stance.
It was an extraordinary moment for nuclear energy. For 50 years the technology had long been derided as unsafe and bad for the environment. Finally, advocates of the technology had a chance to present the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that nuclear is, in fact, our safest energy source precisely because it emits no deadly pollution into the environment.
And, we noted, even in those exceedingly rare instances when a small amount of particulate escapes from a nuclear reactor when one overheats and melts, the public is left almost entirely unscathed.
It was a moment, in short, for those people who believe they are sensitive to scientific evidence — and indeed, had been attacking climate skeptics as "deniers" — to reconsider their views.
And yet nothing of the sort occurred. In fact, it was those who were most viciously attacking "deniers" who denied the science of nuclear safety and started attacking us.
At CNN, Ralph Cavanagh of NRDC — a group that put in place the regime whereby renewables in 2016 received 94 times more in federal subsidies than nuclear — audaciously claimed that nuclear is uneconomical.
Mike Brune, the head of the Sierra Club — an organization that is on the record accepting tens of millions of dollars from fossil fuel and renewable energy investors and corporations with an interest in shutting down nuclear plants — falsely accused "Pandora's Promise" of being associated with the nuclear industry.
The worst attack came from a blogger at the environmental web site, Grist. The writer, David Roberts, had became popular among hyper-partisans for attacking Republicans and conservatives as "global warming deniers."
Within a few sentences, Roberts claimed that nuclear is more subsidized than renewables; that unreliable sources of energy like solar and wind are more reliable than nuclear; and that nuclear isn't really clean energy. In every instance the opposite was true.
But where climate denial is career suicide for any working journalist, nuclear science denial is a way to get ahead. A couple of years later Roberts landed a job at the liberal on-line publication Vox where he continues to promote the idea that solar and wind power is reliable and nuclear energy isn't needed to address climate change.
Then something strange happened: Grist started publishing articles increasingly sympathetic to nuclear energy.
In 2015 a Grist writer compared nuclear energy to a character from the Coen Brothers cult classic, "The Big Lebowski." Suzanne Jacobs wrote, "And nuclear would be Walter, a fear-inducing loose cannon who puts everyone on edge but is ultimately the guy you’d want by your side when shit hits the fan."
In 2016, a different Grist writer, Heather Smith, published a flattering interview about a nuclear engineering professor at UC-Berkeley under the headline, "This young engineer wants to convince you that nuclear energy is just what the climate needs."
And now, Grist has published its longest, most positive, and most scientifically accurate piece on nuclear energy to date headlined, "It's Time to Go Nuclear Against Climate Change". The author, Eric Holthaus, a meterologist and former writer for the on-line magazine Slate.
Holthaus quotes me and describes EP's work over the last two years saving nuclear plants. Most remarkably, Holthaus criticizes anti-nuclear environmentalists:
But resistance by mainstream environmental organizations has helped stymie that progress. And the most ardent supporter of climate change legislation in last year’s presidential election, Bernie Sanders, ran on an anti-nuclear platform. (In December, Shellenberger announced he is running for California governor as an explicitly pro-environment, pro-nuclear independent.)
"If we were smart," Holthaus adds, "we’d see nuclear power for what it is: A good bet to save the world."
I'll admit that when I first read the article this morning I had a reaction perhaps typical of a Generation Xer: "Well, finally." But gradually it dawned on me just how significant of an article it was simply for where it was published.
We've come a long way since 2013. I frequently credit Stewart Brand for starting the pro-nuclear environmental movement with his famous 2005 essay.
Now, the Grist article makes me appreciate all the more the filmmaker Robert Stone, as well as the film's backers who made "Pandora's Promise" possible: Jim Swartz, Barrett Walker, Steve Kirsch, Rachel Pritzker, Roland Pritzker, Frank Batten, Ray Rothrock, Ross Koningstein, and Paul Allen.
Several of them are EP donors, and while we recognize them on our web site, I realize now that I haven't done enough to recognize their contribution — or Robert's — publicly.
When "Pandora's Promise" was released, the attacks on the film were pretty hard for all of us to take. We half-believingly told ourselves that such attacks were just part of the process of people changing their minds.
Happily, now we have what Stewart calls "existence proof" that not only people, but also institutions, can change.
Such is the power of a genuine movement.