Why I changed my mind about nuclear power | Michael Shellenberger | TEDxBerlinJun 03, 2021
Translator: Morgane Quilfen Critic: Peter van de Ven Like many children born in the early 70s, I was lucky enough to be raised by hippies. One of my childhood heroes was Stewart Brand. Stewart is not only one of the original hippies, he is also one of the first modern environmentalists of the 1960s and 1970s. As a child, one of my favorite memories is playing cooperative games that Stewart designed as an antidote to the Vietnam War. . I belong to a long line of Christian pacifists known as Mennonites, and every August we would go as children to remember the US government's atomic bombing of Japan by lighting candles and sending them off in boats to Bittersweet Park.
When I graduated from high school, during college, I brought many delegations to Central America to conduct diplomacy, seek peace, and also to support local farmer cooperatives in Guatemala, Central America, and Nicaragua. And over time, as I've traveled the world, been through many small communities on all different continents, I've come to appreciate that the young people I interview don't want to be stuck in town, they don't want to spend their whole lives cutting and carrying firewood, they want to go to the city in search of opportunities - most of them do - for education, for work. And what I've realized is that this process of urbanization, of moving to the city, is actually very positive for nature.
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Allow the natural environment to return. It allows Central African mountain gorillas, for example, an important endangered species, to have the habitat they need to survive and thrive. And of course, in that process, you have to be vertical. So even places like Hong Kong, you see, can preserve their natural environment around the city, but it takes a huge amount of energy to go up. So the great challenge of our time is how to get abundant electricity and reliable
powerwithout destroying the climate? I started out as an anti-
nuclearactivist and quickly became involved in advocating for renewable energy.
So, at the beginning of this century, I helped start a labor and environmental alliance called the Apollo Alliance, and we pushed for a lot of investment in clean energy: solar, wind, electric cars, and the investment idea was picked up by President Obama. And during his time in office, he invested about $150 billion to make solar, wind and electric cars much cheaper than they used to be. And that was having a lot of success, but we were starting to see some challenges, some of which you're familiar with: Solar and wind generate electricity 10-30% of the time, so we're dependent on the weather for solar and wind.
There were other issues that we noticed. Sometimes these sources of electricity generate too much
power, and you hear a lot of hype about batteries, but we really don't have enough storage, even in California, where we have a lot of investment, a lot of Silicon Valley guys putting money into storage technology battery. We were trying to figure out, how do you manage all that renewable energy? And while we were wrestling with this problem, around 2005, Stewart Brand came out and said we should rethink
nuclearpower. And this was like a shock to the system. I mean, to me and all my friends, Stewart was one of the first big proponents of solar anywhere.
In the late '60s and early '70s, he advised the governor of California, but he said, "Look, we've been trying to do solar for a long time," and at the time, less than 0.5% of our electricity , Worldwide. , comes from solar power, about 2% from wind, and most comes from nuclear and hydropower. And he said, "Look, despite what you may think, according to the intergovernmental panel on climate change, nuclear power actually produces four times less carbon emissions than solar power." In fact, that's why they recommended in their most recent report that achieving deep cuts in emissions will require more intensive use of renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage.
Let's take a closer look at Germany. Germany gets most of its electricity and of course all of its transportation fuels from fossil fuels. Just the power sector alone, last year Germany got 40% of its electricity from coal, got 12% from natural gas, 13% from nuclear power, 12% from wind power and about 6% from solar energy. So to go from 18% wind and solar to 100%, you actually have to go further. If you're replacing the entire transportation sector with electric cars, you're looking at something more like 150%. Germany has done a lot to invest in renewables and innovate in solar and wind power, but it's still quite a steep road.
That's before we even get to the question of storage. Well, let's take a look at what happened last year. Last year, Germany installed 4% more solar panels, but generated 3% less electricity from solar power. Even in meetings with energy experts, I ask people if they can guess why this is the case, and you'd be surprised how many energy experts have no idea. It just wasn't very sunny last year in Germany. (laughs) Well, that probably meant it was windier though, right? Because if it's not as sunny, maybe there's a bit more wind, and those two things can balance each other out.
Indeed, Germany installed 11% more wind turbines in 2016, but got 2% less electricity from the wind. Same story, only there wasn't much wind last year. So you might think, "We just have to do a lot more solar and wind power so that in years when there's not a lot of sunlight and wind, there's more electricity from those power sources." So Germany's plan is to increase by 50% the amount of electricity it gets from solar power. That would take it from 40 gigawatts to around 60 gigawatts in 2030. But if you have a year like 2016, that means you'll only get about 9% of your total electricity from solar, and this is, really, the most solar country. biggest in the world.
Germany is truly the powerhouse of renewable electricity. So the obvious answer is: "We'll put it all on batteries." We hear a lot about batteries, you'd think we just have a lot of storage. Our staff looked at the numbers in California and found that we have 23 minutes of electricity storage for the California grid. But getting those 23 minutes requires using every battery in every car and truck in the state, which, as you might imagine, isn't very practical if you're trying to get somewhere. And Germany may be a bit different, but not much different from that. Most people are aware that to make this transition to renewable energy, Germany has spent a lot more on electricity, and you can see that electricity prices in Germany increased by 50% in the last 10 years.
Today, German electricity is about 2 times more expensive than electricity in France. You might think, "Look, that's a small price to pay for dealing with climate change," and I'd be okay with that. Spending a little more money on energy, especially for those of us in the rich world, is a decent thing to do to avoid some of the catastrophic possibilities of global warming. But what's interesting is that when you look and compare France and Germany in terms of their electricity, France gets 93% of its electricity from clean energy sources, mainly hydroelectric and nuclear; Germany gets only 46%, like about half.
And here's the really shocking thing: German carbon emissions have actually been going up since 2009. They've gone up in the last two years, and they may go up this year as well. And German carbon emissions have been going down since the 1990s, but most of it is due to the fact that after reunification, Germany pulled the plug on all those inefficient coal plants in East Germany. Most of that reduction is due to that alone. And let's take a look at last year. One of the things that can really reduce emissions quickly is switching from coal to natural gas because natural gas has about half the carbon intensity of coal, and that would have resulted in a pretty significant reduction in German carbon emissions last year. last year, except for the fact that Germany switched off nuclear power, and when it did, it meant that emissions actually ended up rising again.
Now, there are some questions about what about the future? So if we just do more solar and wind, won't it all work itself out? One of the biggest challenges to this has come from someone here in Germany who is not a pro-nuclear person at all, he is an economist and energy analyst named Leon Hirth, and what he finds is that this problem that I described previously, where sometimes you have too much wind in certain parts of the day or of the year, or too much solar power and it's not clear what to do with it, that reduces the economic value of wind and solar power.
So wind actually drops 40% in value once it gets to 30% of your electricity, and solar, even more dramatically, actually drops in half when it gets to just 15 %. However, one of the things they hear is that we can do a sunroof very quickly. Solar power is fast, just put it up in a day and it's already installed; whereas it takes 10 or 5 years, depending on where you are, to build a nuclear plant. And so it makes sense that you think, if we make solar wind, you can go much faster. But this was actually studied in a major paper for Science magazine last year.
One of the authors was James Hansen, the famous climate scientist, and what they found is that even when you combine solar and wind power, you get far less clean electricity than when you combine nuclear power. And that applies to both Germany and the United States. So what they did was compare the top ten years of deployment of those two technologies, wind solar versus nuclear. And it's a pretty stark comparison. I can imagine what you're thinking because that's what I was thinking, I was like, "Well, it seems like now I have to really reconsider my attitudes towards nuclear power, but what about Chernobyl?
What about Fukushima? What What about all the nuclear waste? Those are really reasonable questions to ask. And in fact, when I was trying to ask them, there were other people who were starting to change their
minds. One of those who impressed me the most and was very influential is a British newspaper columnist named George Monbiot. George Monbiot wrote a column, shortly after Fukushima, where he reviews the scientific research on radiation, and what he wrote was: "The anti-nuclear movement that I once belonged to has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. "Sometimes I write some pretty harsh stuff, but this was a pretty strong decision and he was talking to a number of scientists who have actually studied big crashes.
One of them is Jerry Thomas of Imperial College London. Jerry started something called the Chernobyl tissue bank because of his concern about the accident (fully independent professor of pathology at Imperial College) and I asked him, I said, "I'd like to introduce this, but I'm not a radiation scientist." ". So can I steal your slides? I'll put your picture in them if you let me." The first thing he points out, he says that most of the ionizing radiation, that's the potentially harmful radiation that comes from a nuclear accident, most of it is natural. And I was like, "Well, that sounds good.
You know, I like natural foods, natural radiation sounds good. The hot springs, you know." And she said, "No, actually natural ionizing radiation is just as harmful, potentially, as man-made radiation." So that's sort of the first thing. What's amazing about this is that the The total amount of ionizing radiation we are exposed to, not just from Chernobyl and Fukushima, but from all the atomic bomb tests in the 1960s and 1970s, totals only 0.3% of our exposures. The radiation we are exposed to comes only from the ground, from the atmosphere, or from the buildings around us. Let's look at the big one.
This is Chernobyl. This is the event that really freaked me out about nuclear power and led me to being a anti-nuclear activist. The United Nations has done these extensive exhaustive studies. They have hundreds of scientists around the world doing this research, so the chance of someone tampering with the data or maybe trying to cover something up is pretty low in e It's setting, just because there are so many different credible scientists at different universities around the world doing the research. So this is really, I think it was a pivotal moment for me. Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident we've ever had, and I think some people say it's the worst we could ever have.
I don't need to make such a strong statement, butthey literally had a nuclear reactor with no containment dome, and it was on fire, it was just raining radiation all around everyone. It really was a terrible accident. And when they start counting bodies, what they get is 28 deaths from acute radiation syndrome, 15 deaths in the last 25 years from thyroid cancer, which as horrible as it sounds, is actually the best cancer you can get because hardly anyone die for him. It's really treatable, you can take thyroxine, which is a synthetic substitute, have an operation. In fact, most of the people who died were people living in remote rural areas, unable to receive the medical treatment they needed.
And if you take the 16,000 people who got thyroid cancer in Chernobyl, they estimate that 160 of them will die of thyroid cancer, and it's not like they're dying right now, they're going to die of it in old age, and that's not to say that okay, but it's to put it in some kind of context. There is no scientific evidence of thyroid cancer outside of those three main countries: Belarus, Ukraine, Russia. No effect on fertility, malformations, infant mortality, no conclusion or no data on adverse pregnancy outcomes, no evidence of genetic effects. And I think the latter is the most striking: there is no evidence of any increase in cancer, even in the cohort of people who put out the fire and cleaned up afterwards.
And I saw some people surprised by this finding, so I put the link to the website there. Don't take my word for it, I think you should go read it because, for me, just reading about Chernobyl was a big part of changing my
mindabout nuclear power. What about Fukushima? This was the second worst nuclear disaster in history. There was much less radiation release than Chernobyl, so we found no deaths from radiation exposure from Fukushima, which is amazing. 1,500 people died being taken from nursing homes, being taken from hospitals. It was crazy, it was panic. The Japanese government shouldn't have done that, they violated all the standards of how to deal with a disaster like that.
You're supposed to shelter in place. In fact, by taking people out of their homes and moving them outside during that accident, they actually exposed them to more radiation. Of course you have to put that in comparison to the other things that were going on, like 15 to 20 thousand people dying instantly from drowning, immobilized under many different technologies, by the way, being killed by that tsunami. It is unlikely that there will be an increase in thyroid cancer, and the big problem, of course, is just the stress and fear of having been contaminated when the evidence suggests that is not the case at all.
They did an interesting study. They brought a group of schoolchildren from Paris to Fukushima, and they were carrying dosimeters, that's what we call the old Geiger counters now. And what they find is that these children, when they go through the security systems, the radiation increases. When they boarded the plane to fly to Tokyo, the radiation increased. They would go to the French embassy, the radiation would increase. Iwaki did not understand - Iwaki is a city - did not understand the plume, the radioactive plume. Tomioka did, and it's still a bit of a problem compared to just going through the security system.
So let's take a look at some of the basics to put this in context. If you live in a big city like London, Berlin or New York, you will increase your mortality risk by 2.8%, just from air pollution. If you live with someone who smokes cigarettes, 1.7%. But if you were someone who cleaned up Chernobyl, you were exposed to 250 millisieverts of radiation, 1%. 100 millisieverts, 0.4%. It's just because there wasn't as much radiation as people think. The atomic bomb tests in the 1960s exposed people to... there are so many different measures of radiation. You can see much more radiation exposure during the atomic bomb test than Chernobyl or Fukushima.
I think the key here is that I'm from the state of Colorado in the United States, we have an annual exposure, just because there's a lot of granite around us, about 9 millisieverts a year. That's what you'd get if you were the 6 million people living around Chernobyl today. And yet, of course, no one knows. Here's this really basic science, it's right there on the website. But when you go into a survey, in most countries, it was conducted in Russia, only 8% of the population surveyed accurately predicted the Chernobyl death toll, and 0% accurately predicted the Chernobyl death toll. Fukushima.
Meanwhile, ahead of us are 7 million deaths a year from air pollution, and the evidence that particulates do harm has only grown stronger over the years. That's why every major medical journal that looks at this, this is the British Medical Journal Lancet, finds that nuclear power is already the safest way to produce electricity. And it leads to this really uncomfortable conclusion, which was recently reached by climate scientist James Hansen, which is that nuclear power has actually saved 1.8 million lives. It's not something you hear a lot about. So what about the waste? This is the waste from a nuclear plant in the United States.
The thing about nuclear waste is that it is the only waste from electricity production that is safely contained anywhere. All other waste goes into the environment, from coal, to gas. And then there is an equally uncomfortable conclusion: solar panels, there are no plans to recycle solar panels outside the EU. Which means that all of us in California will simply join the waste stream. We calculate how much toxic waste, because the panels contain heavy metals, lead, chromium and cadmium, how much toxic waste from solar energy is there? To get an idea, look at how many more materials are required for each different power source, and when you calculate all the panels it will require to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear power, solar power actually produces 300 times more waste. than nuclear, it contained very little and all of it contained toxic heavy metals.
What about the weapons? If I thought there was any chance that more nuclear power would increase the chance of nuclear war, I would be against it. I have always been a pacifist. I still am. Diplomacy is almost always the right solution. People say, "What about North Korea?" Korea proves the point. To get nuclear right now, it's been like that for 50 years, you have to agree to not get a weapon, that's the deal. South Korea wanted nuclear power, they agreed not to get a weapon, they don't have a weapon. North Korea wanted nuclear power, I think they should have gotten it, we didn't allow them to have it for a variety of reasons, they got a bomb.
Now they are testing missiles that can hit Japan. Soon they will be able to reach California. So if nuclear power led to nukes, there is no evidence of it, not just in Korea but nowhere. So where does that leave us? I think that leaves us with some uncomfortable ideas. If Germany had not shut down its nuclear plants, its emissions would be 43% lower than they are today. And I think if you're concerned about climate change, at least it's something you have to wrestle with, especially in light of some of these facts about the harms and benefits of different energy sources.
And I'll end with a quote from someone else who
changedhis mind, and someone else who was a huge childhood hero to me, and that's Sting. "If you're going to tackle global warming, nuclear power is the only way you can create massive amounts of energy." Thank you so much. I appreciate you all listening. (Applause)
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