How Fear of Nuclear Hurts the Environment
Michael Shellenberger - Have you heard the news? We are in a clean-energy revolution! Where I live in Berkeley, California, it seems like every day I see a new roof with new solar panels going up, electric car in the driveway. Germany sometimes gets half its power from solar, and India is committed to building ten times more solar than we have in California by the year 2022.
I mean, even nuclear seems to be making a comeback. Bill Gates is in China working with engineers. There are 40 different companies that are working together to try to race to build the first reactor that runs on waste, that can't melt down, and that is cheaper than coal.
So, you might start to ask: "Is this whole global-warming problem going to be a lot easier to solve than anybody imagined?" That was the question we wanted to know, and so my colleagues and I decided to take a deep dive into the data. We were a little skeptical of some parts of the clean-energy-revolution story, but what we found really surprised us.
The first thing is that clean energy has been increasing. This is electricity from clean-energy sources over the last 20 years. But when you look at the percentage of global electricity from clean-energy sources, it's actually been in decline, from 36% to 31%, and if you care about climate change, you have to go in the opposite direction to 100% of our electricity from clean-energy sources as quickly as possible.
You might wonder: "C'mon, how much could 5% of global electricity be?" Well, it turns out to be quite a bit. It's the equivalent of 60 nuclear power plants the size of Diablo Canyon, California's last nuclear power plant, or 900 solar farms the size of Topaz, which is one of the biggest solar farms in the world and certainly our biggest in California.
A big part of this is that fossil fuels are increasing faster than clean energy, and that's understandable: there are just a lot of poor countries that are still using wood, dung, and charcoal as their main source of energy, and they need modern fuels. But there is something else going on, which is that one of those clean-energy sources in particular has actually been on the decline in absolute terms, not just relatively, and that's nuclear.
You can see its generation has decline 7% of the last 10 years. Now, solar and wind have been making huge strides, so you hear a lot of talk about how it doesn't really matter, because solar and wind are going to make up the difference. But the data say something different. When you combine all the electricity from solar and wind, it barely makes up half of the decline from nuclear.
Let's take a closer look in the United States. Over the last couple of years, really 2013-2014, we prematurely retired four nuclear power plants. They were almost entirely replaced with fossil fuels, and so the consequence was that we wiped out almost as much clean energy electricity that we get from solar. And it's not unique to us. People think of California as a clean-energy and climate leader, but when we looked at the data, what we found was that California reduced emission more slowly than the national average between 2000 and 2015.
What about Germany? They are doing a lot of clean energy. But when you look at the data, German emissions have actually been going up since 2009, and there's really not anybody who's going to tell you that they are going to meet their climate commitments in 2020. The reason isn't hard to understand. Solar and wind provide power about 10-20% percent of the time, which means that when the sun's not shining and the wind's not blowing, you still need power for your hospitals, your homes, your cities, your factories. And while batteries have made some really cool improvement lately, the truth is that they are just never going to be as efficient as the electrical grid. Every time you put electricity in a battery or take it out, you lose about 20 to 40% of the power.
That's why when in California we tried to deal with all the solar we've brought online (we get about 10% of our electricity from solar), when the sun goes down and people come home from work and turn on their air conditioners and their TV sets and every other appliance in the house, we need a lot of natural-gas back-up. So, what we've been doing is stuffing a lot of natural gas into the side of a mountain, and that worked pretty well for a while, but then late last year it sprung a leak. This is Aliso Canyon, and so much methane gas was released, it was the equivalent of putting half a million cars on the road. It basically blew through all our climate commitments for the year.
Well, what about India? Sometimes you really have to go places to get the right data. So, we travelled to India a few months ago, we met with all the top officials: solar, nuclear, the rest. And what they told is that we are actually having more serious problems that Germany and California. We don't have back-up, we don't have all the natural gas. And that's just the start of it. We say we want to get to 100 GW by 2022, but last year we did just five, and they year before that we did five.
So, let's just take a closer look at nuclear. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has looked at the carbon content of all these different fuels, and nuclear comes out really low. It's actually lower even than solar. And nuclear obviously provides a lot of power, 24/7, during a single year a plant can provide power 92% of the time. And what's interesting is that when you look at different countries that have deployed different kinds of energy, there are only a few that have done so with a pace that is consistent with the climate crisis. So, nuclear seems like a pretty good option, but there's this big problem with it that all of you, I'm sure, are aware of, which is that people really don't like it.
There was a study done of people around the world, not just the United States or Europe, about a year and a half ago, and what they found is that nuclear is actually one of the least popular forms of energy. Even oil is more popular than nuclear. While nuclear edges out coal, the thing is, people don't really fear coal in the same way that they fear nuclear, which really operates on our conscious.
What is it that we fear? Well, it's really three things. There's the safety of the plants themselves, the fears that they are going to melt down and cause damage. There's the waste from them. And then there's the association with weapons. And I think, understandably, engineers look at those concerns, and they want to look for technological fixes. That's why Bill Gates is in China developing advanced reactors, that's why 40 different entrepreneurs are working on this problem. And I myself have been very excited about it. We did a report: How to Make Nuclear Cheap. In particular the thorium reactor shows a lot of promise.
So, when the climate scientist James Hansen asked if I wanted to go to China with him and look at the Chinese advanced nuclear program, I jumped at the chance. We were there with MIT and UC Berkeley engineers. And I had in my mind that the Chinese would be able to do with nuclear what they have done with so many other things. Just start to crank out small nuclear reactors on assembly lines, shoot them up like iPhones or MacBooks and send them around the world. I would get one at my home in Berkeley. But what I found was somewhat different. The presentations were all very exciting and very promising. They have multiple reactors that they are working on. The time came for the thorium reactor, and a bunch of us were really excited. They went through the whole presentation, they got to the timeline, and they said: "We are going to have a thorium molten salt reactor, ready for sale to the world, by 2040". And I was like "What?". Looked at my colleagues and I said: "Excuse me, can you guys speed that up a little bit? Because we are in a little bit of a climate crisis right now. And your cities are really polluted, by the way". And they responded: "I'm not sure what you've heard about our thorium program, but we don't have a third of our budget, and your department of energy hasn't been particularly forthcoming with all that data you guys have on testing reactors". And I said "I've got an idea. You know how you have 10 years where you are demonstrating that reactor? Let's just skip that part and just go right to commercializing it. That will save money and time". And the engineer just looked at me and said: "Let me ask you a question. Would you buy a car that had never been demonstrated before?"
So, what about the other reactors? There's a reactor that coming online now, they are trying to sell it. It's a high temperature gas reactor. It can't melt down. But it's really big and bulky, that's part of the safety, and nobody thinks it's ever going to get cheaper than the reactors that we already have. The ones that use waste as fuel are real cool ideas, but the truth is that we actually don't know how to do that yet. There is some risk that you will actually make more waste. And most people think that if you are including that waste part of the process, it's just going to make the machine a whole lot more expensive, it's just going to add in another complicated step.
And the truth is that there are real questions about how much of that are we are going to do. I mean, we went to India and asked about the nuclear program. The government said before Paris, the climate talks, that they were going to something like 30 new nuclear plants. But when we got there and we interviewed people, and we even looked at the internal documents, they are now saying that they are going to do about five.
In most of the world, especially the rich world, they're not talking about building new reactors. They're actually talking about taking reactors down before their lifetimes are over. Germany is actually pressuring its neighbors to do that. I mentioned the United States. We could lose half of our reactors over the next 15 years, which would wipe out 40% of the emissions reductions we are supposed to get under the clean power plant. And, of course, in Japan, they took all of the nuclear plants offline. They replaced them with coal, natural gas, oil burning. And they're only expected to bring back online about a third to two-thirds.
So, when we went through the numbers and just added that up. How much nuclear do we see China and India bringing online in the next 15 years. How much do we see being at risk of being taken offline. This was the most startling finding. What we found is that the world is actually at risk of losing four times more clean energy than we lost over the last ten years. In other words, we are not in a clean-energy revolution. We are in a clean-energy crisis.
It's understandable that engineers would look for a technical fix to the fears that people have of nuclear. But when you consider that these are big challenges to do and they are going to take a long time to solve, there's this other issue, which is that are those technical fixes really going to solve people's fears.
Let's take safety. Despite what people think, it's hard to figure out how to make nuclear power much safer. Every medical journal that looks at it (this is the British medical Journal Lancet, one of the most respected journals in the world) finds that nuclear is the safest way to make reliable power. Everybody is scared of the accidents. You go look at the accident data: Fukushima, Chernobyl. The World Health Organization finds the same thing: the vast majority of harm is caused by people panicking, and they are panicking, because they are afraid.
In other words, the harm that's caused isn't actually caused by the machines or the radiation. It's caused by our fears. And what about the waste? Everybody worries about the waste. Well, the interesting thing about the waste is how little of it there is. This is just from one plant. If you take all the nuclear waste that we have made in the United States, put it on a football field, stacked it up, it would reach only 20 feet high. And people say it's poisoning people, it's doing something. It's not, it's just sitting there being monitored, there's not very much of it.
By contrast, the waste that we don't control from energy production, we call it pollution, and it kills 7 million people a year, and it's threatening very serious levels of global warming. The truth is, even if we get good at using that waste as fuel, there's also going to be some fuel left over, and there's always going to be some people who think it's a big problem for reasons that maybe don't have as much to do with the actual waste as we think.
What about the weapons? Well, we can't find any examples of countries that have nuclear power and then, oh, decide to go get a nuclear weapon. In fact, it works the opposite. What we find is that the only way we know how to get rid of large amounts of nuclear weapons is by using the plutonium in our nuclear warheads as fuel in our nuclear power plants. And so, if you are wanting to get the world rid of nuclear weapons, then we are going to need a lot more nuclear power.
As I was leaving China, the engineer that brought Bill Gates there kind of pulled me aside and he said: "You know, Michael, I appreciate your interest in all the different nuclear supply technologies, but there's this more basic issue, which is that there just not enough global demand. We can crank out these things on assembly lines, we do know how to make things cheap, but there's just not enough people that want them. So, let's do solar, wind, efficiency, and conservation, let's accelerate the advanced nuclear programs. I think we should triple the amount of money we are spending on them. But I just think the most important thing, if we are going to overcome the climate crisis, is to keep in mind that the cause of the clean-energy crisis isn't from within our machines, it's from within ourselves. Thank you very much.