On Sept 2, 2020, OurEnergyPolicy hosted a webinar with Michael Shellenberger, founder and President of Environmental Progress, about his book Apocalypse Never and his views on how the energy sector can best meet modern challenges. Shellenberger, a long-time environmental activist, said he wrote his book because he was concerned that the conversation about climate change and the environment has become exaggerated and inaccurate. In his view, climate change is a real problem that should, and is being addressed. However, exaggerating its severity leads to negative outcomes, such as people opposing the best and most obvious solutions and imposing restrictions on developing countries that make it harder for people to improve their quality of life. Shellenberger said exaggerating climate impacts also has negative mental health consequences—in January, one out of five British children told pollsters they were having nightmares about climate change.
Shellenberger said a reason he is a proponent of nuclear power is that it has a far smaller land-use impact than other zero-carbon technologies. Energy density determines environmental impact, he said. Although common thinking is that wind and solar power are better for the environment, they require dramatically more land (300-400 times as much for wind power) than a nuclear plant. Shellenberger states that the energy density benefits of nuclear are such that, were we to meet our energy needs 100% by nuclear power (which, like wind and solar power, emits zero carbon emissions), humankind’s land footprint for energy would go to almost zero.
Waste from nuclear power, Shellenberger said, is not an issue but is actually the environmental solution to all other waste problems. Solar panels and wind turbines eventually go to landfills, and they are not likely to ever be recycled because buying materials fresh will always be cheaper. Shellenberger points out that the waste products of nuclear power (the used fuel rods) are not landfilled but are stored on the site of production and not externalized into the natural environment. The waste volume for nuclear is in orders of magnitude smaller than for wind and solar; all of the nuclear waste that the United States has ever generated could go on a single football field stacked 66 feet high.
Shellenberger gives more detail on these and other points in his book.