The generational divide around nuclear power within the environmental movement got wider last week when environmental leaders from two different generations clashed on CNN’s Crossfire.
Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger, president of Oakland-based environmental think tank, Breakthrough Institute, debated legendary consumer and environmental advocate Ralph Nader on November 7.
“I respect Ralph Nader and have always admired him, especially his work in the 1960s for workplace safety, food safety, and car safety,” said Shellenberger in his opening statement. But Shellenberger quickly made it clear that he felt times had changed but the environmental movement hadn’t.
“When you look at what’s happening the world, this is not the early ‘70s anymore,” Shellenberger said. “Back then, nobody was very worried about global warming.”
Nader repeatedly raised safety concerns about nuclear, saying, “I don’t like to play Russian roulette with the American people.” Nader pointed to the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, as reason to close down today’s nuclear power stations. A nuclear accident could contaminate an area “half the size of Pennsylvania,” Nader said.
Responded Shellenberger: “This fear mongering which you have been doing for 40 years has been effective at halting nuclear to 20 percent of our electricity. That 20 percent saved 1.8 million lives and could have saved millions more,” Shellenberger added, citing a 2013 study by former NASA scientist James Hansen.
When Crossfire host Brian Schweitzer, former Governor of Montana, pressed Shellenberger about the claims made by nuclear boosters that there would be a meltdown, Shellenberger, 42, said, “I was eight years old when Three Mile Island happened,” adding, “I shouldn’t be held responsible for whatever claims were being made when I was a baby.”
The debate was a microcosm of a larger debate that’s been happening around the pro-nuclear documentary film Pandora’s Promise, which aired shortly after the Crossfire debate.
Shellenberger referenced an open letter that Hansen and three other prominent climate scientists had sent earlier in the week to environmental leaders, calling on them to reverse their opposition to nuclear energy. “You should consider yourself a recipient of that letter, too,” Shellenberger said while smiling to Nader.
Nader argued that nuclear was unnecessary. “The whole point is that we don’t need nuclear energy,” said Nader. And later, “Start with efficiency and put aside everything else. We are very wasteful.” It was a point Nader came back to throughout the night.
Shellenberger noted that solar provided one-tenth of one percent of America’s electricity last year. “Ralph’s been saying the same thing about solar energy and energy efficiency since the 1970s.” Shellenberger noted that the economy has become more energy efficient even as it has demanded more energy.
After Nader mentioned conservation and efficiency as obviating the need for nuclear, Shellenberger argued back, “What are you going to do, Ralph? Tell the 1.3 billion who burn wood and dung that they need to become more energy efficient? They need base load, grid electricity. And it’s either going to come from fossil fuels or nuclear.”
The comment underscored the generational divide. Nader came of age in a period of US hegemony and Cold War jitters; Shellenberger came of age in a time concerned about rapid energy growth and global warming.
Energy consumption is expected to “triple or quadruple by the end of the century,” said Shellenberger. To address the twin challenge of rising energy demand and global warming, we will need enormous amounts of zero-carbon energy, not less, and that requires nuclear.
Watch the full debate at the Crossfire blog.