Interview with Michael Shellenberger Founder and President, Environmental Progress, USA

atw 11/2017 | DAtF-Notes

November 2017

Michael Shellenberger
Michael Shellenberger

“Everyone now knows Germany won’t make its 2020 climate target because of its nuclear phase-out”

You have a long personal record of activism in environmental and particularly climate policy. Given that nuclear power is not the beauty queen of clean energy options and thus often left out of consideration, what caused you to start advocating for nuclear power to keep up and possibly expand capacities?

Like most people in Germany, I was raised to be anti-nuclear. As a child I thought nuclear plants and nuclear bombs were basically the same thing. When I was in my twenties I helped stop a radioactive waste dump from being built in California. I only started to question my prior beliefs while doing energy policy analysis to address climate change. We couldn’t see any way that intermittent forms of energy like solar and wind could power the world without keeping billions of people in poverty and destroying the natural environment. Around the same time, one of my childhood idols, Stewart Brand, one of America’s most famous and respected environmentalists, came out and said we needed nuclear energy to solve climate change. Perhaps the biggest turning point was Fukushima. I went back and read the United Nations reports on Chernobyl, and then interviewed scientists, and learned that radiation wasn’t what I had been led to believe. I then joined Stewart and climate scientist James Hansen in advocating for nuclear. 

Despite the decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany there is still a lot of knowledge on operation of NPPs and advanced nuclear safety technologies available in Germany. Do you think there is a place for the German nuclear industry in the global quest for clean power?

The German nuclear industry is still one of the best in the world, thanks to the brilliance of German engineering, and your strong craft culture. I haven’t given up on Germany and I don’t think anyone else should either. But for Germany to compete internationally for nuclear business it’s going to have to stop shutting down its nuclear plants. Without a domestic future for nuclear, international business options decrease rapidly and permanently. South Korea is staring down this very same problem right now: if Korean technology and experts are not to be trusted at home, who should be expected to pay for them abroad? 

The German federal government and more strongly some state governments are increasingly pressuring neighboring countries to shut down existing NPPs and also have been opposing new build projects. What do you think of such a policy of exporting nuclear phase-out?

I think it’s grossly irresponsible and unethical. Already Germany is gaining a reputation as a climate outlaw for its nuclear phase-out. German emissions have risen two years in a row and will probably rise again this year. German efforts to phase out nuclear are resulting in more deadly air pollution and potentially catastrophic climate change.  If France, Sweden, Belgium, and Switzerland follow Germany’s bad example they can expect not just rising energy costs but also sharp and immediate spikes in carbon emissions. 

Everyone now knows Germany won’t make its 2020 climate target because of its nuclear phase-out. Germany’s reputation is about to worsen significantly when it hosts United Nations climate talks in November in Bonn. I’ll be there with climate scientist James Hansen to give a talk, as will other pro-nuclear environmentalists.