An environmental apocalypse of our own making
The more I learn about nuclear, the more I become convinced it’s the key to solving our energy woes. And Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never1 may have pushed me over the edge.
Cover of Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never Photo credit: Amazon
Why are environmentalists so strongly opposed to nuclear energy? Nuclear is abundant, clean, and energy dense. Yet so-called environmentalists (or, perhaps more appropriately, environmental alarmists) keep pushing for solar and wind, which are proven to be inefficient and terrible for the environment in their own ways.
The dangers of environmental alarmism
Apocalypse Never is not a book about climate change denialism. Shellenberger believes in climate change and also believes humans play a role.
But he argues climate change is not the same as climate catastrophe, and environmental alarmism does more harm than good.
Shellenberger’s case has merit when you look into some details of environmental alarmism.
For one, enviornmental alarmists don’t look at how we can adapt to climate change. They instead repeat the narrative that it’s too late and that climate change can’t be stopped. While climate change may unstoppable, it’s not necessarily catastrophic. And if it’s inevitable, then we should learn to live with the coming changes, which is far more productive than waving our hands in the air and declaring the end. Humans are adaptive and resilient. The sooner we start changing with the times, the better.
Another aspect to consider is the hypocrisy of developed nations pushing developing nations to “leapfrog” straight to renewable energy while bypassing fossil fuels. Never mind the fact that sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind are expensive and not as efficient as fossil fuels.
Rather than focus on holding back the developing nations, those already developed should consider how to responsibly help them progress. Developed nations should lean into alternative fuels where it makes sense, while helping developing nations improve their infrastructure with fossil fuels and then accelerate into alternative fuels. Restricting developing nations from improving their own infrastructure hurts the citizens of those nations. It’s easy for the developed nations to push this agenda when they themselves are not affected by the policies they promote.
The public narrative suggests that fans of renewable energy see the agents of fossil fuels as their enemy. But Shellenberger raises the possibility that these two industries instead have a shared enemy in nuclear energy.
Shellenberger shows example after example of environmental groups and individual advocates (such as Sierra Club and Al Gore) accepting money from fossil fuel companies, which feels like a stark contradiction to their ideology.
But, when you look for the similarities between fossil fuel companies and renewable energy companies, you find a shared hatred of nuclear energy.
Shellenberger then asks the logical question: “[H]ow long, exactly, have oil and gas interests been funding environmental groups to shut down nuclear plants?”
If nuclear is as good as advertised, then how much need would there be for other forms of energy?
Much of the opposition to nuclear energy is simply out of line.
Some point to Chernobyl as a warning. But Chernobyl was more an issue of Soviet neglect than an issue of nuclear power2.
But what about Fukushima? Turns out neglect was an issue there as well3:
The tsunami countermeasures taken when Fukushima Daiichi was designed and sited in the 1960s were considered acceptable in relation to the scientific knowledge then, with low recorded run-up heights for that particular coastline. But some 18 years before the 2011 disaster, new scientific knowledge had emerged about the likelihood of a large earthquake and resulting major tsunami of some 15.7 metres at the Daiichi site. However, this had not yet led to any major action by either the plant operator, Tepco, or government regulators, notably the Nuclear & Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). Discussion was ongoing, but action minimal.
This negligence rhymes a bit with the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, which we now know was made worse by faulty levees neglected despite warnings they were inadequate for a major storm.
In each of these cases, humans could have done more to lessen the damage of these disasters. But many choose to scapegoat the disasters themselves rather than look at what we could have done better. Such negligence will only be perpetuated by the narrative that it’s too late and that there’s nothing we can do about our impending doom.
Shellnberger argues that ideology is to blame and calls environmental alarmism the new secular religion.
Many have already accepted our climate apocalypse, so they look only for validation while rejecting the idea of improving our situation. Religious zealots often quote their religious tomes when referencing modern events as proof of the coming Armageddon. Environmental alarmists do much the same, except they quote choice books of science.
When you’ve accepted an outcome, you default to validating it, rather than remaining open to the possibility you may be wrong. So the enviromental alarmists reject any data contradicting their gloomy predictions.
How green is renewable energy really?
When you scratch beneath the surface, you start to see issues with the renewable energy narrative:
- How green are electric vehicles (EVs) if they’re getting electricity from fossil fuels4?
- How are the materials used for EVs, solar panels, and windmills mined, manufactured, and installed? (Most likely with the aid of fossil fuels and at great damage to their enviornments5.)
- How can we say energy sources such as solar and wind are environmentally friendly when they’re far less energy dense than fossil fuels and require much more land surface area6? (Also, windmills are loud and disrupt bird habitats.)
- How can we call solar and wind green when recycling solar panels and windmills is an absolute nightmare? (We don’t have the ability or capacity to recycle these parts, so they create more waste when they’re retired7.)
To be clear, these points do not suggest that fossil fuels are a net zero fuel source. But they do suggest that “green” energy may not be too much better in comparison when considering the whole picture.
Why nuclear is the answer
As the Office of Nuclear Energy points outs8, there are three reasons nuclear energy is the way to go:
- Nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source.
- Nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source. (It’s energy dense.)
- Nuclear energy produces minimal waste.
Other forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind likely have a place in the world’s future energy portfolio. But they don’t deserve to be the star of the show. That honor belongs to nuclear.
But even if we universally agreed to adopt more nuclear energy, we can’t just flick a switch and make it happen.
Bringing a new nuclear facility online takes years, sometimes nearly a decade9. So we can’t solve our energy woes in the 2020s.
But you know the old saying: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.
The delayed payoff is no reason to abandon building new nuclear plants. Investing in nuclear is an investment in our energy future.
In the meantime, we should continue relying on fossil fuels to keep the world moving until we can hand the torch to nuclear.
‘Why electric cars are only as clean as their power source’ from The Guardian ↩︎
‘Will mining the resources needed for clean energy cause problems for the environment?' on MIT’s Climate Portal ↩︎
‘Not so green: Renewable energy’s land use problem’ on Life: Powered ↩︎
‘How long does it take to build a nuclear reactor?' by Hannah Ritchie ↩︎