Michael Shellenberger is visiting Australia this week. He has been a prominent environmentalist (of sorts) since he co-authored the 2004 essay, The Death of Environmentalism.
These days, as the President of the California-based ‘Environmental Progress’ lobby group, he is stridently pro-nuclear, hostile towards renewable energy and hostile towards the environment movement.
Shellenberger is “one of the world’s leading new-generation environmental thinkers” according to The Australian, and if the newspaper is any guide he is here to promote his message that wind and solar have failed, that they are doubling the cost of electricity, and that “all existing renewable technologies do is make the electricity system chaotic and provide greenwash for fossil fuels.”
Trawling through Environmental Progress literature, one of their recurring themes is the falsehood that “every time nuclear plants close they are replaced almost entirely by fossil fuels”.
South Korea, for example, plans to reduce reliance on coal and nuclear under recently-elected President Moon Jae-in, and to boost reliance on gas and renewables. But Shellenberger and Environmental Progress ignore those plans and concoct their own scare-story in which coal and gas replace nuclear power, electricity prices soar, thousands die from increased air pollution, and greenhouse emissions increase.
Fake scientists and radiation quackery
Environmental Progress’ UK director John Lindberg is described as an “expert on radiation” on the lobby group’s website. In fact, he has no scientific qualifications. Likewise, a South Korean article falsely claims that Shellenberger is a scientist and that article is reposted, without correction, on the Environmental Progress website.
Shellenberger says that at a recent talk in Berlin: “Many Germans simply could not believe how few people died and will die from the Chernobyl accident (under 200) and that nobody died or will die from the meltdowns at Fukushima. How could it be that everything we were told is not only wrong, but often the opposite of the truth?”
There’s a simple reason that Germans didn’t believe Shellenberger’s claims about Chernobyl and Fukushima ‒ they are false.
Shellenberger claims that “under 200” people have died and will die from the Chernobyl disaster, but in fact the lowest of the estimates of the Chernobyl cancer death toll is the World Health Organization’s estimate of “up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths” in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union. And of course there are higher estimates for the death toll across Europe.
Shellenberger claims that the Fukushima meltdowns “killed precisely no one” and that “nobody died or will die from the meltdowns at Fukushima”.
An Environmental Progress report has this to say about Fukushima: “[T]he science is unequivocal: nobody has gotten sick much less died from the radiation that escaped from three meltdowns followed by three hydrogen gas explosions. And there will be no increase in cancer rates.”
In support of those assertions, Environmental Progress cites a World Health Organization report that directly contradicts the lobby group’s claims.
The WHO report concluded that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).
Applying a linear-no threshold (LNT) risk factor to the estimated collective radiation dose from Fukushima fallout gives an estimated long-term cancer death toll of around 5,000 people.
Nuclear lobbyists are quick to point out that LNT may overestimate risks from low dose and low dose-rate exposure ‒ but LNT may also underestimate the risks according to expert bodies such as the US National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation.
Attacking environment groups
Shellenberger reduces the complexities of environmental opposition to nuclear power to the claim that in the 1960s, an “influential group of conservationists within Sierra Club feared that cheap, abundant electricity from nuclear would result in overpopulation and resource depletion” and therefore decided to campaign against nuclear power.
If such views had any currency in the 1960s, they certainly don’t now. Yet Environmental Progress asserts that Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (FOE) “oppose cheap and abundant energy” and Shellenberger asserts that “the FOE-Greenpeace agenda has never been to protect humankind but rather to punish us for our supposed transgressions.”
And Shellenberger suggests that such views are still current by asserting that the anti-nuclear movement has a “long history of Malthusian anti-humanism aimed at preventing “overpopulation” and “overconsumption” by keeping poor countries poor.”
In an ‘investigative piece‘ ‒ titled ‘Enemies of the Earth: Unmasking the Dirty War Against Clean Energy in South Korea by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Greenpeace’ ‒ Shellenberger lists three groups which he claims have accepted donations “from fossil fuel and renewable energy investors, as well as others who stand to benefit from killing nuclear plants”.
FOE and Greenpeace don’t feature among the three groups even though the ‘investigative piece’ is aimed squarely at them.
Undeterred by his failure to present any evidence of FOE and Greenpeace accepting fossil fuel funding (they don’t), Shellenberger asserts that the donors and board members of FOE and Greenpeace “are the ones who win the government contracts to build solar and wind farms, burn dirty “renewable” biomass, and import natural gas from the United States and Russia.”
Really? Where’s the evidence? There’s none in Shellenberger’s ‘investigative piece’.
In an article for a South Korean newspaper, Shellenberger states: “Should we be surprised that natural gas companies fund many of the anti-nuclear groups that spread misinformation about nuclear? The anti-nuclear group Friends of the Earth ‒ which has representatives in South Korea ‒ received its initial funding from a wealthy oil man …”
He fails to note that the donation was in 1969! And he fails to substantiate his false insinuation that FOE accepts funding from natural gas companies, or his false claim that natural gas companies fund “many of the anti-nuclear groups”.
Shellenberger’s ‘investigative piece‘ falsely claims that FOE keeps its donors secret, and in support of that falsehood he cites an article that doesn’t even mention FOE. Environmental Progress falsely claims that FOE has hundreds of millions of dollars in its bank and stock accounts.
Shellenberger claims that the “greatest coup” of FOE and Greenpeace in South Korea was an “Hollywood-style anti-nuclear disaster movie” which was released last year and has been watched by millions, mostly on Netflix. But FOE and Greenpeace had nothing to do with the production of the movie!
In light of all the above falsehoods, it seems a bit rich for Shellenberger to accuse anti-nuclear groups of being “flagrantly dishonest”. For good measure, he accuses anti-nuclear groups of being “corrupt” ‒ without a shred of evidence.
Environmental Progress has an annual budget of US$1.5 million, Shellenberger claims, and he asks how Environmental Progress “can possibly succeed against the anti-nuclear Goliath with 500 times the resources.” An anti-nuclear Goliath with 500 times their budget of US$1.5 million, or US$750 million in annual expenditure on anti-nuclear campaigns?
Shellenberger claims that Greenpeace has annual income of US$400 million to finance its work in 55 nations ‒ but he doesn’t note that only a small fraction of that funding is directed to anti-nuclear campaigns.
FOE’s worldwide budget is US$12 million according to Environmental Progress ‒ but only a small fraction is directed to anti-nuclear campaigns.
A future for pro-nuclear environmentalism?
The nuclear power industry is having one of its worst ever years. Environmental Progress is warning about nuclear power’s “rapidly accelerating crisis” and other pro-nuclear lobbyists have noted that “the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies“.
The biggest disaster for the nuclear industry this year has been the bankruptcy filing of Westinghouse and the decision to abandon two partially-built reactors in the US after at least A$11.5 billion was spent on the project. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:
- there has been a sharp down-turn in China’s nuclear program in the past two years;
- Swiss voters supported a nuclear phase-out referendum;
- South Korea’s new government will halt plans to build new nuclear power plants;
- Taiwan’s Cabinet has reiterated the government’s resolve to phase out nuclear power by 2025;
- Japan’s industry has been decimated by the Fukushima disaster;
- India’s nuclear industry keeps promising the world and delivering very little;
- France’s nuclear industry is in its “worst situation ever” according to a former EDF director and it faces crippling debts;
- the UK’s nuclear power program faces “something of a crisis” according to an industry lobbyist (the estimated cost of the only two reactors under construction is A$40.4 billion ‒ and cost estimates have risen five-fold);
- all of Germany’s reactors will be closed by the end of 2022 and all of Belgium’s will be closed by the end of 2025;
- and last but not least, a High Court judgement in South Africa in April ruled that much of the country’s nuclear new-build program is without legal foundation, and there is little likelihood that the program will be revived given that it is shrouded in corruption scandals.
Industries tied to nuclear power are struggling. “It has never been a worse time for uranium miners”, said Alexander Molyneux from Paladin Energy in October 2016.
He should know ‒ Perth-based Paladin was put into administration in July this year. Here in Australia, BHP produces uranium as a by-product of its giant copper mine at Olympic Dam in SA; Heathgate Resources operates the small Four Mile mine in SA; and Rio Tinto has finished mining uranium at Ranger in the NT and is processing remaining stockpiles before getting to work on a half-billion dollar rehabilitation.
Prices for uranium conversion (converting uranium to uranium hexafluoride) have been in freefall in recent years and the price for uranium hexafluoride has been in freefall. The price for uranium enrichment (increasing the ratio of uranium-235 to uranium-238) was at an all-time low last year and has fallen further this year.
The only nuclear industry that is booming is nuclear decommissioning ‒ the World Nuclear Association anticipates US$111 billion (A$145 billion) worth of decommissioning projects to 2035.
How much longer will the nuclear lobbyists keep flogging the dead nuclear horse? Perhaps not too much longer. It’s worth keeping in mind that nuclear lobbyists ‒ especially the self-styled ‘pro-nuclear environmentalists’ ‒ are few in number. David Roberts summed up the situation in 2013, when Robert Stone’s ‘Pandora’s Promise‘ propaganda film was launched:
“There is no budding environmentalist movement for nukes. Ever since I started paying attention to “nuclear renaissance” stories about a decade ago, there’s always been this credulous, excitable bit about how enviros are starting to come around. The roster of enviros in this purportedly burgeoning movement: Stewart Brand, the Breakthrough Boys, and “Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore,” who has been a paid shill for industry for decades (it sounds like the Pandora folks were wise enough to leave him out). More recently George Monbiot and Mark Lynas have been added to the list.
“This handful of converts is always cited with the implication that it’s the leading edge of a vast shift, and yet … it’s always the same handful. … In the movie, Shellenberger says, “I have a sense that this is a beautiful thing … the beginning of a movement.” I fear he has once again mistaken the contents of his navel for the zeitgeist.”