Environmental activist Michael Shellenberger extols the benefits of nuclear plants while exploring reasons for the general public’s suspicion of this emissions-free source of energy.
Shellenberger, the founder and president of Environmental Progress, has been an avid defender of nuclear energy in recent times, even when it separates him from other prominent figures in the environmentalist movement. The unique climate change activist just concluded a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination to be California’s next governor, where he made the reduction of carbon emissions a major campaign theme.
Shellenberger once again pointed to the ecological benefits and safety that come with embracing nuclear energy in a Forbes op-ed published Monday, but he also explored the answer to a very convoluted question: Why are people so fearful of nuclear energy to begin with?
“Study after study in top scientific journals find that nuclear power plants are far and away the safest way to make reliable electricity,” he said, pointing out that most Americans were mesmerized with nuclear energy’s potential in the 1950s. “Why then are we so afraid of them?”
The immediate answers, he said, are the reactions that followed the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima nuclear accidents. However, Shellenberger pointed out these accidents — while frightening — proved the safety of nuclear energy rather than its danger.
“Nobody died from radiation at Three Mile Island or Fukushima, and fewer than 50 died from Chernobyl in the 30 years since the accident,” he wrote, explaining that the longstanding fear stems from “how governments responded to [the accidents]. Instead of encouraging the public to stay calm and carry on, governments freaked out, and evacuated hundreds of thousands of people.”
Shellenberger’s claims do not come without merit. Deaths by nuclear energy are far and away surpassed by more mainstream energy sources, such as a coal, petroleum and natural gas, according to a 2007 study by Professors Anil Markandya and Paul Wilkinson.
Government reaction and a years-long campaign by environmentalists to scare the public ultimately drove nuclear energy out of public favor, according to Shellenberger.
“The Sierra Club and other environmentalists hated nuclear because it held out the promise of universal prosperity,” he wrote.
The future of nuclear energy has come into question in recent years. The U.S. has evolved rapidly as the proliferation of natural gas plants have turned the fossil fuel into a cheap and clean alternative to other energy sources. Additionally, the emergence of renewable technology has slowly — but steadily — carved a pathway for renewable energy.
These changes have been mostly to the detriment of coal and nuclear. Numerous plants have shuttered across the country as coal and nuclear facilities have been rendered uneconomical. The Trump administration in May announced a historic move to rescue failing coal and nuclear plants through federal government intervention. The plan, if implemented, will mandate purchases of electricity from at-risk plants through rarely used emergency powers for two years.