Readers Respond: Michael Shellenberger and Apocalypse Never

Amory Lovins, David Lowry, Kert Davies take issue with a well-known contrarian's takes on nuclear power, Obama-era policy.

by | Jul 31, 2020

Since we published Amy Westervelt’s July 16, 2020 review of the book Apocalypse Never, by Michael Shellenberger, accompanied by the unedited transcript of their interview, readers have been writing in to rebut some of his claims.

Here are three of these responses, edited lightly for length and clarity.

On nuclear requiring little land and emitting no CO2

From Dr. David Lowry, senior international research fellow, Institute for Resource and Security Studies:

I just read the transcript of the interview with extreme eco-moderniser, Michael Shellenberger, in Drilled News.

He asserts he is an unashamed advocate of nuclear, but it is evident from his own words in the interview, he does not comprehend some basics about nuclear power.

Two examples: He asserts the land footprint of nuclear is small. Well, it does depend what you compare it with. By any normal evaluation nuclear power plants, and their associated on-site radioactive waste storage facilities, are very big industrial facilities.

But that is not the only space you need for nuclear power. Uranium mines in the U.S. southwest have despoiled hundreds of square miles of the sacred lands of Indigenous Amerindians. Shellenberger seems to completely overlook this massive land abuse, which still suffers from barely any radioactive remediation. The newly-published [by the non-profit Nuclear Free Future Foundation – Ed.] Uranium Atlas, for which I did some research, gives full data

Second, Shellenberger just assumes nuclear is low-carbon. But proper life cycle studies — such as a very detailed [2009 study by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University in the journal Energy & Environmental Science – Ed.]* * — show its use is 10 to 18 times an emitter of carbon compared to the equivalent generation of power via renewables.*

He seems to cherry pick his sources to reinforce his arguments. That is poor scholarship.

In a newly-completed chapter of the forthcoming book “100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything,” titled “Evaluation of Nuclear Power as a Proposed Solution to Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Energy Security,” Dr. Jacobson argues cogently, “There is no such thing as a zero- or close-to-zero emission nuclear power plant. Even existing plants emit due to the continuous mining and refining of uranium needed for the plant. However, all plants also emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh…[O]verall emissions from new nuclear are 78 to178g of CO2/kWH, not close to 0.”

Shellenberger’s choice of the ex-Extinction Rebellion PR person, Zion Lights, to head up his campaign for many more nuclear plants being built in the U.K. is bizarre, but welcome. She writes with all the gushing naivete of a recent convert. Her two recent pro nuclear cheerleading pieces, placed in the U.K. media, were so full of factual errors and absurd interpretation of data, that they will have convinced nobody, but gained more opponents of nuclear.

On the economics and climate implications of nuclear

From Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute:

You and Michael Shellenberger both omitted nuclear power’s economics and its climate implications. Please see [a 2019 essay by Lovins in Forbes – Ed.]


In fact, building new reactors, or operating most existing ones, makes climate change worse compared with spending the same money on more-climate-effective ways to deliver the same energy services. Those who state as fact that rejecting (more precisely, declining to bail out) nuclear energy would make carbon reduction much harder are in good company, but are mistaken.

To check that claim, we must compare nuclear power with other potential climate solutions. What criteria should we use? Here I’ll use only two — cost and speed — because if nuclear power has no business case or takes too long, we need not address its other merits or drawbacks.

Most analysts ignore common-sense comparisons of both cost and speed. The result is akin to arguing that since people are hungry, hunger is urgent, and caviar and rice are both food, therefore both are vital to reducing hunger. Since in reality money and time are both limited, our priorities in feeding people or in providing energy services must be informed by relative cost and speed. Lower cost saves more carbon per dollar. Faster deployment saves more carbon per year. We need both.

The bedrock economic principle of “opportunity cost” means you can’t spend the same money on two different things at the same time. Each purchase foregoes others. Buying nuclear power displaces buying some mixture of fossil-fueled generation, renewable generation, and efficient use. Nuclear owners strive to beat coal and gas while their allies often disparage or suppress renewables. Yet most US nuclear plants are uneconomic just to run, so many are closing. To keep milking those old assets instead, their powerful owners seek and often get multi-billion-dollar bailouts from malleable state legislatures for about a tenth of the nuclear fleet so far, postponing the economic reckoning by shooting the market messenger.

Such replacement of market choices with political logrolling distorts prices, crowds out competitors, slows innovation, reduces transparency, rewards undue influence, introduces bias, picks winners, invites corruption, and even threatens to destroy the competitive regional power markets where renewables and efficiency win.


On the New Apollo Alliance

From Kert Davies, founder and director, Climate Investigations Center, and former Research Director, Greenpeace:

That whole section of the book about briefing Obama’s team, the sequence of events seems really out of whack. He is rewriting his Story of Self as “I created the New Apollo project, then we briefed Obama’s team, then Obama did what we advised with the stimulus,” and that stimulus was the original Green New Deal.

Here’s what really happened: He was booted from Apollo Alliance pretty quickly, like within a year or so, so he wasn’t briefing anyone in 2007 as “Apollo Alliance.” Maybe as Breakthrough, but that was a totally different thing.

And Obama’s stimulus package was never designed to solve climate change. It was formed in response to the Great Recession, period. An analysis done by ICF consulting for Greenpeace showed none of it was earmarked as a climate initiative, it was economic stimulus first.

Shellenberger’s claim in the book that enviros hated the Apollo Alliance is also false. There were twenty or so environmental groups, including Greenpeace, that endorsed the effort (with some caveats, on nuclear for instance).

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.