How Fear of Nuclear Power is Hurting Our Ability to Generate Clean Energy

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May 22, 2017 | Originally published by Date Line: May 22 on

Michael Shellenberger, global thinker on energy, technology and the environment, presents a Ted Talk about the fear of nuclear impeding the world”s ability to produce clean energy.

“We”re not in a clean energy revolution; we”re in a clean energy crisis,” says climate policy expert Michael Shellenberger. His surprising solution: nuclear. In this passionate talk, he explains why it”s time to overcome longstanding fears of the technology, and why he and other environmentalists believe it”s past time to embrace nuclear as a viable and desirable source of clean power.

Have you heard the news? We”re in a clean energy revolution. And where I live in Berkeley, California, it seems like every day I see a new roof with new solar panels going up, electric car in the driveway. Germany sometimes gets half its power from solar, and India is now committed to building 10 times more solar than we have in California, by the year 2022.

Even nuclear seems to be making a comeback. Bill Gates is in China working with engineers, there”s 40 different companies that are working together to try to race to build the first reactor that runs on waste, that can”t melt down and is cheaper than coal. And so you might start to ask: Is this whole global warming problem going to be a lot easier to solve than anybody imagined? That was the question we wanted to know, so my colleagues and I decided to take a deep dive into the data. We were a little skeptical of some parts of the clean energy revolution story, but what we found really surprised us.

The first thing is that clean energy has been increasing. This is electricity from clean energy sources over the last 20 years. But when you look at the percentage of global electricity from clean energy sources, it”s actually been in decline from 36 percent to 31 percent. And if you care about climate change, you”ve got to go in the opposite direction to 100 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources, as quickly as possible. Now, you might wonder, “Come on, how much could five percentage points of global electricity be?” Well, it turns out to be quite a bit. It”s the equivalent of 60 nuclear plants the size of Diablo Canyon, California”s last nuclear plant, or 900 solar farms the size of Topaz, which is one of the biggest solar farms in the world, and certainly our biggest in California. A big part of this is simply that fossil fuels are increasing faster than clean energy. And that”s understandable. There”s just a lot of poor countries that are still using wood and dung and charcoal as their main source of energy, and they need modern fuels.

But there”s something else going on, which is that one of those clean energy sources in particular has actually been on the decline in absolute terms, not just relatively. And that”s nuclear. You can see its generation has declined seven percent over the last 10 years. Now, solar and wind have been making huge strides, so you hear a lot of talk about how it doesn”t really matter, because solar and wind is going to make up the difference. But the data says something different. When you combine all the electricity from solar and wind, you see it actually barely makes up half of the decline from nuclear. Let”s take a closer look in the United States.

Over the last couple of years — really 2013, 2014 — we prematurely retired four nuclear power plants. They were almost entirely replaced with fossil fuels, and so the consequence was that we wiped out almost as much clean energy electricity that we get from solar. And it”s not unique to us. People think of California as a clean energy and climate leader, but when we looked at the data, what we found is that, in fact, California reduced emissions more slowly than the national average, between 2000 and 2015.