Why nuclear is an environmentalist’s story

IN spite of evidence, nuclear power remains pretty unpopular, only slightly more favoured than coal, says Michael Shellenberger.

The best available scientific research, he notes, including from the British medical journal The Lancet, finds that nuclear is already the safest way to make reliable electricity.

Shellenberger, president of research and policy organisation Environmental Progress, says fear of nuclear power is baseless.

This is the second part of Shellenberger’s presentation ‘Why Humans Need Nuclear Power’ during the XI International Forum Atomexpo 2019 held in Sochi, Russia in April.


Of the seven million deaths every year from air pollution, four million are from burning fossil fuels and the other three million from burning wood and dung. This means that the use of nuclear power has saved almost two million lives to date, according to research by James Hansen, an American adjunct professor directing the Programme on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Fear of nuclear power because of the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, is baseless, Shellenberger said.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation found there had been no deaths from radiation that escaped from Fukushima and yet 2,000 people will have died from a panicked over-evacuation of the area, he said.

“They were pulling people out of nursing homes and out of hospitals and just staying away for a long time. What we know is that the levels of radiation that escaped from that plant aren’t going to be high enough to cause any thyroid cancer increase, but enough fear that was inculcated to cause pretty significant psychological stress.”

Reports by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation show that the Chernobyl accident led to the deaths of 28 firefighters, another 15 from thyroid cancer up to 25 years later. To put these figures in perspective, Shellenberger said there were about 80 firefighter deaths in the USA last year, and the death rate predicted from thyroid cancer is about one per cent. Thyroid cancer, he added, is the easiest form of cancer to treat – by removing the thyroid gland and using the synthetic substitute levothyroxine.

The suggestion that Chernobyl led to birth defects, or that Fukushima led to mutant daisies, is erroneous, he said. “People have been born with birth defects for as long as we’ve been humans and there are always mutant daisies growing in the world. So, we misattribute various strange things to radiation,” he said.

Media reports of Fukushima turned video coverage of a building and a small amount of smoke from a hydrogen gas explosion into something dramatic, he said. Few people saw, however, footage in the Netherlands in 2013 of the fate of two mechanics stood on top of a wind turbine that had caught fire; they embraced before one of them jumped to his death and the other one was engulfed in flames. Few people realise that the death rate from wind energy is higher than the death rate from nuclear power, he said.

Fear of radiation still persists, he said, even though the vast majority of the radiation we are exposed to is from natural sources and in particular radon, which is the decayed gas from uranium, and radiology in hospitals, to which we “voluntarily expose ourselves”.

There is also radiation in soil and food, and cosmic radiation.

“If it’s radiation that scares us, then we should be scared to go into our basements. In fact when you look at the exposures, what you find is just living in a big city, breathing the air, or living with someone who smokes cigarettes is more dangerous than having been one of the people that cleaned up Chernobyl,” he said.

When doctors said their son needed to drink the radioactive liquid barium and receive an x-ray, Shellenberger and his wife “trusted complete strangers”. He said: “We didn’t go online to investigate the hospital; we hadn’t been to public hearings to talk about whether that was a safe hospital; we didn’t read the peer reviewed scientific journals; we had trust for that institution.” That trust is lacking for the nuclear industry. “You just want to change a steam generator, upgrade a turbine, and it’s a major public drama. Why?”


Like radiation, nuclear waste is often misrepresented as a problem, he said. “I used to think that nuclear waste was green and liquid because I got all of my information from The Simpsons, but now we know it’s solid, it’s metal,” he said.

“Nuclear waste is the only waste from energy production that is safely stored. I don’t agree with the nuclear industry on this point. Why in the world do we need to bury this? That’s a kind of psychological or spiritual effort to put the evil spirits back into the Earth where they belong.”

All of the nuclear waste in the USA “can fit on a single football field stacked 50 feet high”, he said. “As an environmentalist, this is what we were taught to want. We have gigantic islands of plastic waste floating in the ocean. We have seven million people getting killed every year by the waste products from fossil fuels and burning biomass in the atmosphere and we’re worried about some cans of the waste that no terrorist could do anything with.

“In the 20-25 years after they started producing very much electricity, what my fellow residents of California and Germany will do is ‘benevolently’ send them to poorer countries than ours, like ones in Africa or Asia; they’ll join the electronic waste stream with our flat-screen TVs and our i-Phones and many of those communities will do what they’ve always done with electronics waste – they’ll smash them open, they’ll pull out any materials that are valuable, including the copper, and then the heavy toxic metals will be pulverised into dust and inhaled,” he said.

The radioactivity of nuclear waste declines, but heavy toxic metals never decline in toxicity, he said, and there is 200-300 times more waste from solar power per unit of energy than there is from nuclear.

Humanise nuclear

The nuclear industry makes the mistake of portraying itself only in terms of technology and typically publishes photographs of nuclear facilities that exclude personnel. “Apparently the control rooms operate without human beings,” he said, while showing the audience a photograph of Mothers for Nuclear co-founder Heather Matteson working at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

“Diablo Canyon is the most beautiful nuclear power plant in the world,” he said, while showing a picture of a humpback whale breaching in the ocean in front of the plant. “The tidal pools around the plant are some of the most pristine on the West Coast. It’s a spectacular testament to the importance of nuclear energy.”

The original ‘mother’ of nuclear energy, Marie Curie, was the first person to win two Nobel prizes and the first woman to win one, Shellenberger said. “An incredible humanitarian and not just an incredible scientist, Curie said: ‘Nothing in life is to be feared, only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we might fear less.’ Did she know how much we would need to remember this almost a hundred years in the future?”

In 2016, Shellenberger and others established Nuclear Pride Fest, an annual peaceful pro-nuclear protest.

No one in the industry has done more than ROSATOM to showcase nuclear power’s environmental benefits, Shellenberger said, with its documentary series ‘Wild Edens’.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

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