“A lump of uranium, or about a Coke can of uranium, can provide me with all the power I need for my entire life,” said Michael Shellenberger, the best-selling author of Apocalypse Never during a NIASA fireside chat that premiered at the Digital Energy Festival.
In 2019, 5.5GW of new nuclear capacity was brought online. This is a sharp decrease from 2018 when 11.2GW was connected to the grid – the highest capacity addition since 1989, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Tracking Clean Energy Progress.
IEA’s report states that an average of 15GW of new nuclear capacity is required annually between 2020 and 2040 to reach the Sustainable Development Scenario level.
To gauge the global nuclear energy market and its role in the development of a green energy future, we spoke to Michael Shellenberger.
Shellenberger is an environmental policy writer, co-founder of Breakthrough Institute, founder of Environmental Progress and the best-selling author of Apocalypse Never, a book dedicated to the importance of Nuclear Science & Technology Applications for the development of any country.
Would you say that it is extreme for someone to say that the planet is facing an immediate apocalypse situation? And why would somebody say that?
I think it’s insensitive to the real apocalyptic, catastrophic problems that poor people face. For example, you still have millions of South Africans that don’t have reliable electricity, reliable water or indoor sanitation. Sub-Saharan Africa has huge challenges in terms of building basic infrastructure. So for me to see, rich people in Europe and the United States suggest that we all have to stop economic growth in order to address climate change. It’s really counterproductive. I think it’s very insensitive to the aspirations of the 2 billion people on earth that still don’t have their basic material comforts.
At the same time, the good news is that we do have better ways of making electricity and providing food and energy than we had in the past. We have abundant natural gas, which produces one half the carbon emissions of coal, and we have nuclear, which is our most important source of energy.
The dream has always been for South Africa to build nuclear power plants that could then provide electricity for much of sub-Saharan Africa. That dream is still a possibility, but I think it requires having a positive vision of the future where both people and the natural environment benefit from this extraordinary source of energy.
Southern Africa has incredible wildlife, if you want to protect those areas, you can’t build huge solar and wind farms because industrial solar and wind projects take three to 400 times more land than nuclear power plants take. In order to achieve these two goals of both lifting everybody out of poverty, and protecting the natural environment, South Africa really needs to build out its nuclear power plants.
Environmental groups tend to be evangelists of renewable energy. Do you believe there is a problem with environmentalism? How would you analyse that?
The first thing to remember is that for most of human history we relied on renewable energy. Renewable energy includes wood, dung, waterwheels and windmills. That’s what we used before we industrialised, so before the industrial revolution in Europe, which occurred in the late 1700s in Britain, and then the rest of Europe and the United States afterwards, we used renewables and we made the transition to fossil fuels. Everybody agrees that we could not have had the Industrial Revolution without fossil fuels. It required a concentrated source of energy to provide abundant and cheap and reliable energy that renewables couldn’t provide.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the political left – what we call progressive – went from being pro progress and in favour of development to a backlash against development. This happened in wealthy countries, mostly in Europe and the United States, much less in developing countries. Though you can certainly find it in wealthy neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, in Cape Town. It’s a romantic idea, and the idea is that we’ll all go back to this earlier form of living.
For most people, it’s not very well thought out. It’s like, you go to the grocery store, and you see a product labelled all-natural, and you think it’s better. So that’s what renewables are for most people. But for other people, I’m afraid that there’s a darker motivation for it. So the part of the renewables agenda is an extension of the colonial agenda, which is basically to keep countries poor or to make countries poor.
Can the power and energy industry play a key role in mitigating climate change?
I think the way to think about energy and the environment is as a series of energy transitions. The transitions from lower forms of energy to higher forms of energy is a form of both human progress and environmental progress.
What do I mean by that? If you’re using wood as your primary source of energy, then anything is better, including coal. So it’s better to burn coal than wood. But if you’re using coal, it’s better to burn petroleum or natural gas. And then if you’re using petroleum or natural gas, it’s better to use uranium, which of course is fissions rather than burned to release energy. So this is also the progress of higher energy densities.
So if I hold a lump of wood and a lump of coal in my hands; a lump of wood can cook a pot of beans for a couple of hours for a small farmer in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s it, a lump of coal that has twice as much energy could heat your house. But a lump of uranium or about a Coke can of uranium could provide me with all the power I need for my entire life. And so energy density – the amount of energy from a quantity of fuel – is the thing that determines environmental impact. ESI
Watch the full conversation as Shellenberger talks further about the role of nuclear in mitigating climate change.