Environmental Progress founder Shellenberger talks shift to nuclear energy advocacy

With administration officials, industry operatives and some environmentalists urging a regulatory path forward for nuclear energy, how are the dynamics of the conversation on nuclear shifting? During today's OnPoint, Michael Shellenberger, president and founder of Environmental Progress, explains his advocacy for nuclear energy and discusses the economic and environmental merits of nuclear compared with renewables and natural gas.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Michael Shellenberger, president and founder of Environmental Progress. Michael, thank you for coming back on the show.

Michael Shellenberger: Thanks for having me, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Michael, you have long been known for your work at the Breakthrough Institute, and you recently decided to launch a new organization, Environmental Progress, that has a bit of a different mission. What's unique about what you're doing, and how do you see Environmental Progress contributing to the overall conversation on energy and climate?

Michael Shellenberger: Well, Environmental Progress, our mission is really twofold. We're concerned both about lifting everybody out of poverty, and that means moving away from wood as the primary source of fuel for about 2 billion to 3 billion people in the world, and then the other is climate, and what concerns us on climate is that we've discovered that over the last 20 years that the percentage of electricity we get from clean energy has actually declined by 5 percent. And so our mission is really we want to lift everyone out of poverty. We recognize that a lot of people are going to end up using fossil fuels, and so all the more important for us in the rich world to protect and expand the amount of clean energy that we use.

Monica Trauzzi: So you are pro-nuclear energy, and your support for nuclear plays a big role in the organization. Describe your interaction, because there are lots of questions about this, your interaction with players in the nuclear industry and specifically the role you play in promoting nuclear on behalf of companies and some industry organizations.

Michael Shellenberger: So I've always valued my independence, and so we've never taken any money from energy companies, never actually -- the only time it was offered was from BrightSource, which made Ivanpah. But we really value our independence because it allows us to do analyses and come to our own conclusions, including sometimes critical ones, including of Ivanpah. So when we started Environmental Progress, I wanted to keep that commitment, and so right now we're just funded by one funder, Rachel and Roland Pritzker, the Pritzker Innovation Fund, which is also longtime funders of ours at Breakthrough. And so what that means is that sometimes we're on the same side as some of the utilities, sometimes we're on a different side. I mean, in California right now, we're really trying to get Pacific Gas & Electric to keep the last nuclear plant in California. If it closes, carbon emissions go up by the equivalent of adding 1.5 million cars to the road. So much more of a challenging relationship with that utility. I hope they do the right thing. We're actually going to have a march, a four-day march in June to urge the utility and the governor and others in the state to do the right thing.

In other states like Illinois, we waited, we sort of laid out some principles. And when I say we, I've been working really closely with climate scientist James Hansen, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and other pro-nuclear environmentalists to basically urge a framework where nuclear is treated equally. Right now, solar and wind get a lot of subsidies, they get state mandates, and I've been an advocate for solar and wind for 20 years. We would like to see nuclear treated fairly and have a level playing field so that it can compete.

More recently, legislation has been reformed so that it is much more narrowly targeted to plants in distress in Illinois, and that legislation we do support, at least the part of the legislation that's focused on clean power.

Monica Trauzzi: That was something that Exelon was pushing.

Michael Shellenberger: Yeah, so Exelon had an original bill. You know, we weren't sure about it. We endorsed some broad principles. We wrote one open letter about a month and a half ago. We came back with a new letter this week that said this part of the legislation should be supported. There's a lot of other parts of that legislation that don't have to do with clean power and we've not waited on.

Monica Trauzzi: So broadly speaking, I think it's fair to say that you advocate for nuclear. You've gone in this direction of political advocacy, and it leaves you open to questions about your objectivity and also open to questions about your relationship with the industry. Is it sort of worth that risk?

Michael Shellenberger: Yeah. I mean, I -- look, I mean, every time you do advocacy, you know, you're taking a position on something, and if you have a position on something, it means that, you know, it risks ... analysis. So this week we launched our website. We put up all the data that we've collected. It's all from publicly available data sources. And you know, when we -- if there's problems with it, you know, on Twitter, it's great because people kind of say this doesn't look right. We can look at it again. I issued a correction yesterday of some IPCC data, just wasn't charted right. So I feel really good about the analyses that we have up, and yeah, I mean, look, you know, corporations have a private interest. They're responsible for shareholder value. We're advocating for the public interest, for the environmental interest, and we need to keep -- we want to keep those two things separate. I will say, in fact, that I think some of the problems in Illinois have been that really the biggest and most influential of the environmental groups is taking money from companies that would benefit from the legislation, including natural gas and renewables companies. I think that is a problem, and I actually think it should be something that's discussed and made more public.

Monica Trauzzi: So you really see nuclear energy as a key ingredient to solving climate change. Existing nuclear, though, is rapidly losing strength in the marketplace. Market dynamics are favoring natural gas, renewables. What would be needed to spur a shift in the market to start driving towards nuclear?

Michael Shellenberger: So first of all, I think we know the electricity markets are not exactly free markets. Most of the time, it's a natural monopoly. And so I don't think the market is shifting towards renewables. You have to remember there's 30 states in the country that have renewable portfolio standards that mandate that utilities produce a certain amount of their power from solar and wind. Well, those mandates exclude nuclear, even though it's the largest source of clean, low-carbon power that we have. So I think that's just unfair. It's a kind of policy discrimination. At the federal level, the DOE, the Department of Energy, in their most recent analysis of 2013 subsidies, found that solar gets 140 times more in subsidies than nuclear, and wind gets 17 times more than nuclear. So I just kind of go, look, I've been -- I'm a big advocate for Cape Wind. We had challenges getting it built, a longtime advocate for solar. I was a huge advocate for the clean energy stimulus in the Obama package. Would like to see those clean energies grow, and I just think that we need to treat all sources of clean energy equally.

What we would like to see, and we're not there yet, is we'd like to see 100 percent clean energy standard, both federally or in the states, where it's a level playing field, all sources of clean energy can compete equally. That should be the goal, and I would like to start to move the rest of the environmental community to join us and to stop discriminating against our largest source of clean power.

Monica Trauzzi: So you think that if nuclear is sort of given that even playing field, that it could beat out renewables?

Michael Shellenberger: I don't know, actually. I mean, and if it doesn't, I'm OK with that too. I mean, maybe it's just going to turn out that solar's so cheap and batteries are so cheap that we just don't have grids anymore. I mean, I don't think we're there yet. I mean, you have to remember the electric grid is necessarily efficient. You have to match demand with supply at any given time, and every time you put electricity into batteries and take it out, there's a huge energy penalty, around 20 percent. So it's hard to see that being the case, but if it is, that's great. I am technology agnostic for clean energy sources. I want to favor clean energy sources over fossil fuels. That's the only way that we're going to ever deal with climate.

Monica Trauzzi: Right, and on new nuclear, you sort of -- you have cost issues, you have timing issues. Do you see a path towards making it cost-competitive, certainly against renewables and natural gas?

Michael Shellenberger: Yeah. I mean, look, right now we're at risk of losing 13 nuclear plants in the next two years. if we lose all 13 of those plants, that's more than five times the -- that's about five times the amount of solar that we produced in 2014, so that's a huge amount of electricity, of clean electricity that we lose. Between now and 2030, we could lose half of the nuclear fleet in the United States. That would wipe out 43 percent of the emissions reductions that we need to get under the EPA Clean Power Plan. So if you care about emissions, you've got to keep these nuclear plants online and, look, I'm not -- I don't want to favor them anything more than we are other forms of clean energy. I just think we should stop discriminating against our largest form of clean energy and treat it equally.

Monica Trauzzi: How do you believe the dynamic of the discussion on waste is going to change once Harry Reid leaves the Senate?

Michael Shellenberger: That's a really interesting question. My own view on waste is that I think that whoever -- I think that the waste should go where somebody wants it, so I think no one should force a state to take the waste. I think Yucca's fine, personally. When I look at those reports, I talk to geologists, I think it's fine, but I just think, look, we're Americans, we like our freedom. I just think, you know, it should go to a state that competes for it and wants it. Maybe that'll be New Mexico. There is waste legislation that's bipartisan that would allow states to compete for it. I think we should pass that legislation. But you know, honestly, you know, I don't even think that it's that important of an issue to have a central repository. I think it'd be better, but honestly, we can do dry cast storage onsite. It's got to be monitored. It's not very much of it. You know, when I look at energy production, the waste that comes out of a nuclear plant is far and away, like, the most manageable and controllable of that waste. When you produce fossil fuels, much of the waste goes up into the environment as pollution. And so what you get is you get a small amount of highly concentrated waste that you have to store and watch until we have advanced nuclear plants that can actually reuse it as fuel.

Monica Trauzzi: And it remains controversial.

Michael Shellenberger: Yeah, of course.

Monica Trauzzi: We'll leave it at that. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Michael Shellenberger: Thanks, Monica. Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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