GOP embraces liberal environmentalism skeptic Shellenberger with radical plan for nuclear energy – Set to testify on Capitol Hill
by Josh Siegel
Michael Shellenberger, a self-described liberal Democrat who is critical of mainstream environmentalism, is betting on nuclear energy as the dominant fuel of the future.
Shellenberger’s views and his status as a critic of climate change “alarmists” are being embraced by House Republicans, who invited him to testify as their witness at a hearing Tuesday afternoon held by a special climate committee.
He pushes ideas that go beyond what other pro-nuclear advocates and Republican supporters propose, envisioning a smaller role, if any at all, for other zero-emission energy sources such as renewables and for technologies to eliminate pollution from fossil fuel plants such as carbon capture.
“Conventional wisdom is we need a mix of nuclear and renewables,” Shellenberger told the Washington Examiner. “There is no technical or economic reason for that.”
Shellenberger has drawn attention in recent weeks for his new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, in which he seeks to apologize for his role in perpetuating a “climate scare.”
His vision for the future of nuclear energy is unconventional.
He opposes developing smaller advanced reactors that utilities, private companies, and even the Trump administration are counting on to help make nuclear an economically competitive component of a low-carbon energy future.
Instead, Shellenberger is advocating for the federal government to encourage building traditional large, light-water plants similar to the first wave built in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. He says the government should identify a “national champion company” to compete with the state-owned monopolies in Russia and China to sell U.S. nuclear plants abroad.
The Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia is the only large nuclear power plant under construction in the U.S. It has suffered years of cost overruns and delays.
“If you really care about climate change, you should be demanding a massive scale-up of nuclear power,” Shellenberger said. “There are serious questions about why we subsidize a nuclear industry that has no intention of building large, light-water reactors we need to compete with China and Russia.”
Shellenberger added he is not “necessarily opposed” to nationalizing the U.S. nuclear industry in order to force the build-out of large plants.
“You get energy dominance when you align everything behind nuclear energy dominance,” Shellenberger said.
Crusade against climate ‘alarmists’
In his book, Shellenberger declares that the conversation about climate change has “spiraled out of control.” He questions climate scientists who worry about “tipping point scenarios” of global warming damages, which he says are no more likely than other “potentially catastrophic scenarios, including an asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, or an unusually deadly influenza virus.”
Shellenberger casts himself as a “rational environmentalist” who nonetheless cares about combating climate change.
In the short term, he says, the U.S. should export natural gas to developing countries that rely on coal.
But long term, he says, only nuclear can substitute for fossil fuels sufficiently to meet growing levels “of energy consumption required for universal human prosperity.”
Critics question nuclear as single solution
Some of his former colleagues who support nuclear power say Shellenberger’s ideas are too prescriptive.
“Nuclear is an essential technology for reducing emissions and does receive too much opposition, but powering the planet is a big job, and you wouldn’t want to put all your eggs in any technology basket, especially when fossil fuels are still growing all over the world,” said Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center that supports developing clean energy technologies to address climate change.
Shellenberger is a co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute and previously worked there with Trembath. Shellenberger left the group in 2015 to found Environmental Progress, an organization that primarily promotes nuclear power.
Jessica Lovering, another former Breakthrough colleague who studies nuclear economics at Carnegie Mellon, worries Shellenberger’s focus on a strong role for the government in spurring nuclear power is damaging.
She notes that there is an emerging consensus, even among some once-skeptical Democrats and environmental groups, that nuclear will be necessary in any future zero-emissions scenario.
“One of the reasons people don’t like nuclear is it’s seen as hierarchical, pushed by big government and associations of the military-industrial complex,” Lovering said. “We don’t have an authoritarian, top-down system in the electricity sector, and I don’t think any of us want that.”
Trembath said, “Logically, you could do a massive, government-run build-out of nuclear power plants, but no one is asking for that.”
He said that in order to do it, the government would need to nationalize the electricity sector, which has become deregulated and decentralized since the nuclear heyday.
“There is no appetite for that on the Left or Right,” Trembath said. “There is no reason to think it’s going to happen.”
Nuclear is currently the world’s largest source of zero-carbon electricity, but wind and solar are growing faster, aided by falling costs that have helped it compete with natural gas, a fossil fuel and the dominant power source in the U.S., replacing dirtier coal.
Most economic models and analysts envision a future low-carbon grid that combines nuclear, which runs around the clock, with renewables such as wind and solar, intermittent power sources that depend on the sun and the wind, in addition to battery storage and other technologies like carbon capture for fossil fuel plants and hydrogen.
“It’s easier, faster, and cheaper to do it with a mix of technologies,” Lovering said.
Downplaying the role of renewables
Shellenberger opposes renewables, arguing that wind and solar make electricity more expensive because they are “unreliable,” requiring backup with battery storage along with transmission lines to deliver the power across the country. He says renewables involve extensive land and mining to be built, a process that he says harms wildlife.
“Renewables make electricity expensive everywhere they’ve been deployed in scale,” Shellenberger said.
Trembath and Lovering say Shellenberger is overstating the challenges of renewables. Wind and solar plants cost little to operate once built and produce electricity more cheaply than natural gas and coal in many parts of the world.
“It’s a sort of an illogical extension of legitimate criticism and challenges facing wind and solar,” Trembath said. “I don’t think wind and solar are going to provide a majority, let alone the entirety, of U.S. electricity anytime soon, but no technology generates a majority of our electricity now.”
Shellenberger contends that could change with nuclear power, if only developers and policymakers focused more on building large, light-water reactors, which he considers more economical and efficient.
Large vs. small nuclear
He argues that there is “no market” for smaller reactors, which have never been deployed but are being spurred by bipartisan majorities in Congress and the Trump administration betting on them ultimately being cheaper and safer.
While the smaller reactors have lower capital costs, they produce less electricity than a traditional reactor, meaning they don’t enjoy the same economy of scale.
Supporters of small reactors note the Development Finance Corporation recently lifted its ban on funding nuclear projects overseas with the purpose of helping a plethora of U.S.-based startup companies developing small reactors compete with state-backed competitors.
“The export demand in most emerging and frontier markets will be for small, flexible, and lower-cost options,” said Todd Moss, executive director of the Energy for Growth Hub, who noted some African countries are actively considering small nuclear reactors but not large ones.
Backers also expect small reactors to be more versatile, with their size enabling them to be used in remote areas that are vulnerable to power outages and in industrial processes requiring high heat.
“Demonstrating American-made advanced nuclear reactors must run alongside a continued commitment to large light water,” said Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a conservative group that favors nuclear and carbon capture, another technology favored by both parties that Shellenberger argues is too expensive and not scalable.
Shellenberger says the U.S. should stick with what’s worked before.
“The breakout of small reactors is wishful thinking, and even if you did want one, the Russians and Chinese are much better positioned to sell you one,” Shellenberger said. “Why not just build nuclear plants?”