Michael Shellenberger joins Brian Anderson to discuss America’s nuclear industry, China’s deal with Saudi Arabia to produce uranium “yellowcake” from uranium ore, and Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Michael Shellenberger. You can follow him on Twitter @shellenbergermd. Michael has had a long career as a writer and policy advisor, focusing primarily on environmental issues. He's the founder and president of environmental progress, and he has an impressive and much-discussed new book that came out this summer. It's called, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Michael, thanks for joining us.
Mike Shellenberger: Thanks for having me, Brian.
Brian Anderson: First, I wanted to mention that we published a short profile of you and some of your colleagues, all the way back in our Winter 2013 issue. It was a piece called the Rise of the Nuclear Greens. A lot has changed since 2013, obviously. Back then, we were just a couple of years removed from the Fukushima disaster in Japan, but you were one of the few people. Certainly one of the only ones who were broadly in the environmental camp, who were calling for a recommitment to nuclear power here in the United States. Now, we've published a number of pieces since then, by Jim Meigs and others, on advances in nuclear technology that might make nuclear power more feasible going forward. I wonder if you could give our listeners, how you see the current state of nuclear power in the United States and what has changed over the last decade?
Mike Shellenberger: Sure. I think it's important to start with just, first a recognition that nuclear energy is a totally radical technology, it's a very dangerous technology. And let me say also, that it's the safest way to make electricity, so it's a paradoxical technology. It's our most destructive weapon, but it's also clearly had an impact on making nations more peaceful. That's not a controversial view, that's a mainstream view that deterrence has had this incredible impact. But it's shocking and in some ways terrible that the human primate animal was tamed through this really powerful weapon. And I say all that because I actually think the focus on what kind of reactor design it is, and whether the coolant is water, or chemicals, or sodium, or fluoride. And beryllium, it's irrelevant to the broader issue. People raced to, I think the technological fixes and in fact, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb thought he could denature uranium in ways that would split off the civilian from the military.
Mike Shellenberger: And that's not possible for the basic physical reasons. So for me, I am an outlier both as an environmentalist who's pro-nuclear, but also as a pro-nuclear environmentalist who thinks that experience matters more than design. That we have over 60 years of experience with a particular kind of design and that we should stick with it, that we're making it better. That incremental change is better, that radical change is bad. That radical change makes nuclear more expensive and in fact, that it's opponents of the technology that have tried to make nuclear change. And its nuclear nerds, the STEM types who tend to control these research programs and have a disproportionate set of power in the nuclear industry. That have gone along with these technical technological changes, that have made nuclear expensive, and difficult, and complicated, and frustrating for basically everybody involved in it.
Brian Anderson: And that's generally why we're stuck in your view? Why there hasn't been much advance in terms of... In fact, there's been none in the United States in terms of building new nuclear power generators. And in fact, we're going in the other direction, right? We're shutting many of them down, including here in New York where Indian Point is scheduled to be a decommissioned just outside the city.
Mike Shellenberger: Yeah. Here you have the source of energy that is undeniably superior on every social and environmental metric, it requires almost no land. On a piece of land the size of a college campus, you can generate electricity for three to five million people. There's no other energy source that allows you to do that. There's basically, they don't even rip up the ground anymore to mine the uranium, they can just run hot water underground to get it. The waste byproducts are entirely stored at the site of production, which has long been the ecological and environmental dream of any kind of production. That you don't discharge your waste in the environment, only nuclear does that.
Mike Shellenberger: It requires sophistication, it requires technological capabilities. It requires discipline, it requires care. It demands more from people than a coal plant or even a natural gas plant, which is pretty complex now. It's obviously the highest, most superior form of energy, just at a straight engineering, environmental standpoint. Zero air and water pollution. Zero, because I don't count the warm water that comes out of nuclear plants as pollution. In fact, it's cleaner usually than the water that goes in. So, it's obviously the best environmentally. So why doesn't everybody love it?
Mike Shellenberger: Well, in the book, I document two things that I can't entirely separate or weight differently, but one of them is Malthusianism, which is an anti-human, anti-progress dystopian. It's where the dismal in the dismal economics comes from, we all know what that is. We all have to do with less and be poorer, basically, the Malthusian tradition. But the other one is anti-weapons, and the anti-weapons problem or the problem or the solution, depending on the point of view because it's paradoxical, is so radical. I think people don't really appreciate what this technology is until North Korea gets it. And then North Korea gets it and people go, "Oh, that's what it's about."
Mike Shellenberger: It's about a radical change to human relations and the best scholars of this in the book, one of the characters actually in the book is my friend, Richard Rhodes. Who won the Pulitzer prize for the making the atomic bomb, has some very interesting thoughts about death, and apocalypse, and nuclear, as you might imagine. And he says too, very clearly, this radically alters human relations and so much so that, what are the technology do people not want to talk about the main function of it? In people that like nuclear, they can't stand it when I talk about what nuclear really is, that its primary function is as a weapon. And that its primary function of the weapon is never to be detonated, to be used by not being used. It demands something of human consciousness that no other weapon has ever demanded of us.
Mike Shellenberger: Gunpowder made big demands and gunpowder changed the world, it allowed for the rise of nation states. Nuclear is doing something else, and so people go, Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island. I look at those accidents now, especially having written on them and research for so long and I go, "Yeah, the reason you think those were significant accidents is because you were projecting onto them fears of the bomb because when you look at the accidents, so few people are affected by radiation. And radiation turns out to have such a smaller impact than air pollution." And so this desire to change nuclear to make it something that it's not, I have a lot of people that tell me that we should just change the name of it. That if we change the name of it, it would solve all the problems with it. It's a kind of immaturity, I think.
Mike Shellenberger: And so what I try to do in Apocalypse Never, which by the way, was a book about nuclear before it became a book about the environment. I changed the focus in part because nuclear is just too intense of a focus for people. But what it's trying to say is we need to grow up and recognize that we, like it or not, are burdened with this technology. And they can make it go away, you can't ban the bomb for reasons we've understood since 1945. So anyway, that's my... It's a different view than most people have, but I felt like I wanted to get it out there, and I just find that a lot of the discussions about design very facile. And-
Brian Anderson: You wrote a very interesting piece for us a couple of weeks ago, that's related to what you were just talking about. The piece was called, Why the War on Nuclear Threatens Us All, although this one looked more at the global situation, talking about the China-Saudi deal to develop nuclear energy. Could you talk a little bit about that piece, that agreement between China and the Saudis? and what China, Russia, and other countries are doing today when it comes to nuclear technology?
Mike Shellenberger: So to understand this, you have to go to the fact that the world has an agreement in place, which is called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And what it says, it's basically built on a bunch of lies, but one of them is that the countries with nuclear weapons are going to get rid of them. There's no progress being made on that front and there wasn't even under Obama. Partisans blame Trump, but really there was no progress being made. Or I should say, progress is the wrong word, but there was no movement in that direction. But it does say that everybody has the right to have nuclear power plants and to enrich the uranium for their power plants.
Mike Shellenberger: But that process of enrichment allows, you can enrich it more and make weapons. And so that's what Iran is about, and there's been some disagreement on right and left about what the best way to fulfill the promise that we have to Iran, which is that they have the right to enrich. So now, Saudi Arabia says, "We want to enrich and have nuclear plants as well." And then in a separate context, not at the same time, Saudi Arabia's new chief Sheik says that if Iran gets the bomb, so will we. In some ways it's a banal comment, it sounds so dramatic. From the perspective of international relations, it's a very banal comment because well, of course Saudi Arabia would want to have a nuclear weapon. That's what deterrence is and that would not be surprising. It would be surprising if he said he didn't want a weapon, right?
Brian Anderson: Right.
Mike Shellenberger: So the dispute is basically that the United States, under the pressure of the Congress, under pressure from anti-nuclear, I think phobics. Phobic anti-nuclear people, mostly Democrats, Ed Markey is the worst actor in the Senate, Democrat from Massachusetts. But also Marco Rubio has been behaving badly and frankly, so have other Republicans. They've said, "Well, we're not going to help Saudi Arabia get nuclear power." Well, what everybody said, if we don't help them, then they're going to just go work with the Chinese and Russians and that's what they've done. So now they're going to work with the Chinese and I just think it all stems from this underlying confusion about what this technology is. And how to think about it because there's a idea with nuclear that's been, it's always been about control, which has always been the United States needs to control it.
Mike Shellenberger: And we tried to keep it from the British, it only pissed them off, by the way. Tried to keep it from the French, really pissed off de Gaulle. Tried to keep it from everybody, it never works, French help Israel get it. And that's not the right way to think about it. On the other hand, people will say, "Oh Michael, you just want everybody to get the bomb." I don't actually, I don't think that's necessary. I don't think Portugal needs a nuclear weapon, that's ridiculous. I don't even think Spain does, but France has one and maybe Germany should have one, too. Maybe Japan, maybe South Korea, but there's some sense in which it's not like... We have to stop acting like Zeus and punishing everybody for wanting to have the fire that we have.
Mike Shellenberger: And think of it in more a sophisticated way to say, in the ways I think that international relations scholars have for 75 years, which is to say, it's going to spread. But many countries will just have what we call latency, which is they'll just have nuclear plants and enrichment, and that's okay. And that we should be working with those countries for Pete's sake, because if we don't work with them, I point out that the line between soft and hard power runs directly through nuclear energy. Because on the soft power side you have the nuclear plants, which are these $10 or $20 billion projects. And on the hard power side, you obviously have the capability of a weapon, that runs through the technology. So of course the United States, it's in our highest national security interest to work with Saudi Arabia on its nuclear.
Mike Shellenberger: This seems so obvious, I don't even need to say anything about it. I was on a podcast by the way, with Dan Crenshaw, the Congressman from Texas. He's famous because he's got a patch on his eye. At one point he's interrupting me and he goes... I said, "This is a national security problem." And he goes, and he just dead pans, "Well, that much is clear." It feels like everybody's in a state of suspended animation, it's hard to get the White House worried enough. It's hard to get Republicans, I'm only finally now starting to talk to some Republicans who have been the stewards of this technology. But I think people don't understand, I'm more nuclear energy alarmist than I am a climate alarmist. I think that my alarmism on nuclear energy is warranted, I think alarmism on climate change is not.
Brian Anderson: Well, that's a good transition to your book, which has the striking title of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. It's out, as I mentioned at the top of the broadcast, from Harper Collins, that's the publisher. It came out a few weeks ago, really, and we'll link to it in the description of this episode. But I'd like you to talk a bit about what inspired you to write the book and what are some of the other themes that you cover in it, apart from nuclear power?
Mike Shellenberger: So Apocalypse Never is really, you could say there are three parts. There's a straight debunking of environmental myths and I just wanted to hit the big ones. Climate change, not that change is a myth, I don't... Let me back up. The big environmental myths that climate change, for example, is apocalyptic. That's the myth I'm debunking, but I go through the big issues, climate, deforestation, plastic waste, meat consumption, species extinction. And then it looks at, in the middle of the book, how do humans save nature in the real world, rather than in the fantasies of organics and renewables and low energy living. And so I look at, I make the case for urbanization, industrialization, fuel substitution, rising up the energy ladder from wood and dung to coal, to natural gas, to uranium.
Mike Shellenberger: I talk about why renewables are bad for the environment, not good for it because they're so inefficient. They require 300 to 400 times more land, they don't produce enough energy to support an industrial civilization, go through that whole middle part. And then the third part of the book, last third asks why, if environmental problems are real but manageable, why did we come to see them... And in many cases improving, by the way. Why did we come to see them as the end of the world? Why do we project apocalyptic fantasies on climate change and not on to say cancer? Or there's not a movement of school children saying that we're all going to die in 12 years from cancer, even though a fair number of us will die of cancer. You don't see it projected on to other problems, so why on climate change?
Mike Shellenberger: And I look at money, power, and religion, and it makes the case for, I think it fairly can be called lukewarm... I think climate change is real, I don't think it's the biggest problem in the world. I don't even think it's our biggest environmental problem. I think that the biggest environmental problems are the same ones they've always been, which is that we don't want pollution in our air and water. We want to leave more of the earth to species, that means we want to grow more food on less land and leave more of the earth to nature. I defend a kind of conservation in the book, although I recognize that it's been an extension of the colonial project in places like Africa. And that that's not okay and that needs to change in part by helping African nations industrialize. So I don't know if that's a thumbnail enough for you, Brian.
Brian Anderson: Yeah.
Mike Shellenberger: I'll stop there.
Brian Anderson: It's a good overview and you mentioned a Malthusianism earlier, your book seems directly counter to that spirit. It's almost old fashioned progressive in the spirit in a way, or optimistic about the future. I wonder what the reception has been like? Certainly, you've always been associated with environmental causes, but there has to be some pushback from some of the greens to your argument?
Mike Shellenberger: Yeah. The first set of responses was the blurbs, which I'm much more proud of than almost anything else because the book is blurbed by liberals and conservatives. In fact, a very good socialist ecologist liked the book. The book is completely consistent with a pre-1970 maybe socialism, a big-stateism, and there's nothing particularly inconsistent about it. It does defend markets, my book defense markets, and the importance of price and an almost Hayekian way, in saying the price signal and on scarce resources. In fact, there's a subtle criticism of some of the overemphasis on markets too, but it felt like I got a nice span of support for the book.
Mike Shellenberger: But the book was basically just ignored and not reviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and most other mainstream publications. I had a very nice review of it in the Wall Street Journal, but mostly it was just greeted with horror and repudiation by the increasingly radical left media. I will say I see it having an impact in ways that are very hard to tell for people that are not really in the space, but just in the ways that people are writing, the ways that reporters write articles. The greater sensitivity to some of the claims they've made, I keep documenting gross errors in the New York Times, by the way, and in other publications. I just did basically one big one this week is I just documented how everybody repeated this idea that somehow California's ancient redwoods, which have been around for 2000 years, would somehow have burned up in climate-induced fires in California. Basically, that's what the national media reported.
Mike Shellenberger: It was terrible misinformation and of course, as soon as I heard it, I knew it was wrong because I know that ancient redwoods, that they need fire and that fire spreads in newspapers. So anyway, I'm digressing a bit. But I guess in terms of the reception, I'm disappointed that the left didn't even want to argue with it for the most part. That really, the only argument I think from the left of the book was in national review, and it was by my former colleagues. And I'm not even sure it was coming from the left so that, I think tells you something. But a much more obviously supportive reaction from the right, which has been gratifying. Obviously, I wish that the world were not as polarized as it is because I think there's a lot of stuff in the book. And frankly, the progressives who have read it have told their friends and even written that other progressives ought to read it and take it seriously.
Brian Anderson: Well, I hope that happens. Thanks very much, Michael. Don't forget to check out Michael Shellenberger's piece for City Journal which we published a couple of weeks ago, Why the War on Nuclear Threatens Us All. And especially, check out his book Apocalypse Never, which you can find on Amazon. You can follow Mike on Twitter @shellenbergermd, and make sure you follow City Journal too, on Twitter @cityjournal. And on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, as I always say, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. So thanks for listening and thanks again, Michael Shellenberger, for joining us today.
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