Thanks everyone! I have to go but I'll be back answering questions later tonight!


My bio: Hey Reddit!

You may recognize me from my [TED talk that hit the front page of reddit yesterday]


If not -- then possibly

*The 2013 Documentary Pandora's Promise

*My Essay, "Death of Environmentalism"

*Appearing on the Colbert Report (

*Debating Ralph Nader on CNN "Crossfire"

Why I'm doing this: Only nuclear power can lift all humans out of poverty and save the world from dangerous levels of climate change, and yet's it's in precipitous decline due to decades of anti-nuclear fear mongering.

Proof: (Yeah, sorry, no "Harambe for Nuclear" Rwanda t-shirt today.)

Comments: 160 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

Bassive15 karma

Was there a single "aHA!" moment when you realized we needed nuclear, or was it a more gradual realization? What did it?

MichaelShellenberger14 karma

Multiple a ha moments — in fact, I keep having them.

Stewart Brand and Michael Lind pressed on me privately to rethink nuclear.

In 2007 we wrote we might need to consider nuclear.

We included nuclear innovation as one of many things needed for climate in 2009.

But the more I learned about energy and its role in human development the more I understood why reliable and cheap electricity was key and in that department there's only two low-carbon options: hydro and nuclear.

juggilinjnuggala12 karma

What's the biggest misconception about nuclear energy?

MichaelShellenberger19 karma

That it's a literally one of the safest things humans do. It's not just the safest way to make reliable power. It's just one of the safest things in general that we do.

Robot_Warrior2 karma

I'm not sure if you are still answering questions, but if so: would you expand on this? Specifically, what's the plan to deal with radioactive waste, including eventual decommissioning of the facility?

Aren't there literal tons of this stuff sitting around now with no disposal option in sight?

TimmahOnReddit4 karma

Waste is something of a misnomer too. The used fuel from nuclear power plants has only consumed about 6% of the energy in the fuel. We can use that in more efficient advanced reactors (like Transatomic Power's design) or reprocess it and use it in conventional plants like France does. That also reduces the amount of time we have to "keep and eye on it" while it decays to background levels.

But ultimately, we have way bigger problems than the nuclear waste. If you took all of the fuel waste from ALL the nuclear plants EVER, you would fill a football field about 6-10 feet high. It's very manageable.

Nuclear is one of the only power source that fully accounts for its life cycle (at least in the US). Decommissioning costs are raised during the operation as part of the money they make. They don't pollute the environment during operation either. Unlike fossil plants that are polluting (anytime a byproduct goes somewhere you don't want it, IE exhaust stacks), nuclear is kept isolated and accounted for throughout its life cycle.

Robot_Warrior-9 karma

They don't pollute the environment during operation either.


MichaelShellenberger2 karma

Fukushima is in operation?

What do you think the radiation from Fukushima is harming?

dshelton_088 karma

Thanks for doing this Michael, I’m not science literate so it’s difficult to find the line between fear-mongering and real science especially in the nuclear discussion.

That leads to my question, as a progressive concerned with climate change I'm in a minority that believes nuclear offers the best way forward. So it can be jarring to see progressive like Harvey Wasserman write that nuclear power facilities do contribute to climate change by 1) dumping water (either H20 used for cooling or by steam generated in the towers) that has been “irradiated” back into the environment above the temperature of the “natural environment” 2) Power plants emit Carbon-14 and finally 3) various forms of nuclear waste Wasserman lists.

Do you have a response to these claims?

(his article here:

MichaelShellenberger10 karma

Yes, we address directly all of the most commonly repeated myths about nuclear energy on our web site, and continue to update it in response to queries.

We also provide graphs from reputable sources like IPCC and Lancet that you can download or screenshot to upload as comments on social media.

Fordiman9 karma

Mike's got a baked response, I'm sure, but I thought this would be an interesting question to look into the numbers for.

dumping water (either H20 used for cooling or by steam generated in the towers) that has been “irradiated”

Cooling water is physically isolated from, but thermally connected to the core by a secondary loop. That's the entire point of the thing. It prevents the coolant water from being anywhere near where it can acquire radioactive material or become activated by neutron irradiation.

back into the environment above the temperature of the “natural environment”

A 1 GW power plant nominally rejects 2 GW of heat. World nuclear power generation capacity is ~333 GWe, meaning about 666 GWt is released to the environment from nuclear power. World fuel consumption of all types amounts to roughly 17,000 TW. Earth's thermal equilibrium shift (that is, climate change) is, at present, around 300,000 GW. So probably not nuclear's fault. So while "using energy" could be a small contributor to climate change, "using nuclear energy" is not, at present, a significant part of that. Meanwhile, every GW of coal you replace with nuclear has about the same heat profile - but no carbon additions.

Power plants emit Carbon-14

Earth makes about 6.6 kg/year of ¹⁴C annually all on it's own, and the world has about 635 kg of the stuff in the atmosphere, and more in all carbon-bearing material.

All the world's reactors put together, extrapolating this paper should presently emit about 0.71 kg of ¹⁴C annually (in addition to 6.4 kg of stable carbon) in the form of CO₂ and CH₄ and other hydrocarbons - generated in primary coolant, via offgas systems.

So... reactor-generated ¹⁴C is not likely a big contributor - especially compared to, say, the billions of tonnes emitted annually by coal plants, or the recent methane leak in California - those both contain significant C-14, too.

various forms of nuclear waste Wasserman lists.

Spent nuclear fuel's heat profile is, necessarily, lower than the heat profile of a running reactor (otherwise, it'd still be in the reactor, getting cooled and making electricity). So it's less significant than claim 2.

dshelton_082 karma

Thanks to you both. This is really helpful.

The left/progressive anti-nuclear faction tends to be hyperbolic it seems (not that the right isn't). If you had the time Fordiman, I'd love to see you tear apart the rest of Wasserman's article (and the countless others people like him make, but there's only so many hours in a day)

acaptaintx3 karma

Curious on your opinion here, I think a lot of pro-nuclear voters are confused by the left. Here we have a solution that exceeds energy demands without the negative externalities of fossil fuels, but they won't support it. Is there something besides fear that's keeping them from embracing it?? It makes their stance on climate change seem hollow.

MichaelShellenberger7 karma

Yes. The Left was pro-nuclear until the late sixties. I wrote about this here:

Few people realize that up until the early-seventies, environmentalists including the Sierra Club itself was pro-nuclear. “Nuclear energy is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal,” said famed nature photographer and Sierra Club Director, Ansel Adams.

Nuclear’s environmental benefits are the same today as they were back then. Nuclear power plants produce zero air or water pollution, aside from those that produce hot, clean water, which has very minor impacts. It uses tiny quantities of natural resources. Solar and wind require three to five times as much steel and concrete as nuclear plants.

Because of its high energy density, uranium’s mining impacts are miniscule compared to coal, oil and natural gas. Few material inputs mean very small amounts of waste outputs. And, as conservationists from California to Germany have learned, trying to replace nuclear with solar and wind requires 100 to 700 times more land.

How then did environmentalists come to view nuclear as bad for the environment?

Starting in the mid-sixties, a handful of Sierra Club activists feared rising migration into California would destroy the state’s scenic character. They decided to attack all sources of cheap, reliable power, not just nuclear, in order to slow economic growth.

“If a doubling of the state’s population in the next 20 years is to be encouraged by providing the power resources for this growth,” wrote David Brower, who was Executive Director of the Sierra Club, “the state’s scenic character will be destroyed. More power plants create more industry, that in turn invites greater population density.”

A Sierra Club activist named Martin Litton, a pilot and nature photographer for Sunset magazine, led the campaign to oppose Diablo Canyon, a nuclear site Pacific Gas and Electric proposed to build on the central Californian coast in 1965. Sierra Club member “Martin Litton hated people,” wrote a historian about the how the environmental movement turned against nuclear. “He favored a drastic reduction in population to halt encroachment on park land.”

But anti-nuclear activists had a problem: their anti-growth message was deeply unpopular with the Californian people. And so they quickly changed their strategy. They worked hard instead to scare the public by preying on their ignorance.

Doris Sloan, an anti-nuclear activist in northern California said, “If you’re trying to get people aroused about what is going on ... you use the most emotional issue you can find.” This included publicizing images of victims of Hiroshima and photos of babies born with birth defects. Millions were convinced a nuclear meltdown was the same as a nuclear bomb.

Not Martin Litton. When asked if he worried about nuclear accidents he replied, “No, I really didn’t care because there are too many people anyway.” Why then all of the fear-mongering? “I think that playing dirty if you have a noble end,” he explained, “is fine.”

But the fear-mongering worked on a young and idealistic Amory Lovins, the renewable energy advocate, who began his career crusading against nuclear weapons. Lovins’ basic framework of transitioning from nuclear to renewables was promoted by David Brower and Friends of the Earth and eventually embraced by Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the German government, Al Gore, and a whole generation of environmentalists.

The highest priority of the environmental movement was now to phase out nuclear, not fossil fuels. “It is above all the sophisticated use of coal, chiefly at modest scale, that needs development,” Lovins wrote in 1976. Around the same time Sierra Club’s Executive Director, Michael McCloskey, referred to coal as a “bridge fuel” away from nuclear and to renewables.

Nothing much has changed. In flat contradiction of their stated views that climate change represents an imminent cata- strophic threat, anti-nuclear environmentalists from Germany to Illinois to California bless the burning of fossil fuels if it means they can force the closure of a nuclear power plant.

greg_barton2 karma

Being a nuclear supporter from the left I can tell you what it is: cultural momentum. The anti-nuclear movement on the left has deep cultural connections to the fight against nuclear weapons. That bled over to opposition to nuclear power plants. It's basically the old guard on the left who will never support nuclear anything because they see it as inherently evil.

MarkPawelek1 karma

Hi Greg,

The left did not turn against nuclear power until after the Soviet empire's collapse. I can confirm that every far left group is now opposed to nuclear power but before 1990 they were far more often in support of it.

gordonmcdowell8 karma

As someone who's become very interested in advanced reactors, I still agree we should be keeping safe operating reactors up-and-running and be building out AP1000s.

The AP1000 seems to have safety systems which could be easily described to the public. Maybe there's even a narrative there about its development people might find engaging.

Why is it that "Pandora's Promise" and "Thorium: the far side of nuclear power" can offer up very compelling narratives around advanced reactors, and the industry can't cobble together anything to promote PWR?

It is like they're depending on pro-nuclear TED Talks (such as yours) for people to see the value of their product.

It is a billion dollar industry. What is their problem?

MichaelShellenberger12 karma

The idealistic nuclear visionaries of the fifties and sixties didn't know how to deal with the anti-nuclear zealots of the seventies and eighties, who didn't hesitate to lie and attack them personally. The response from the industry was to retreat into a kind of defensive crouch.

As usual, positive change is coming from younger folks who got concerned about global warming, figured out nuclear was the most important technology for addressing it, and became nuclear engineers.

chucktehengineer6 karma

What do you think the future of small modular reactors (SMRs) is in the United States?

MichaelShellenberger4 karma

I think the future of all nuclear everywhere depends centrally on the ability of the pro-nuclear environmental movement to help societies appreciate nuclear's transcendent moral purpose. I think NuScale, the main SMR company in the US, has a really cool and promising design, but it like all other nuclear designs, cannot succeed without higher public and thus market demand for nuclear.

InterimBob6 karma

Hey Michael, it's been noted that one of the biggest problems with environmentalism is that a billion people don't have access to electricity, and they can't afford to take the route of expensive renewables. Given the security and proliferation concerns, do you think nuclear can help bring electricity to developing and poor countries?

MichaelShellenberger9 karma

I believe that the biggest environmental problem in the world is continued dependence on wood and dung by two to three billion people. This is a moral issue, since high amounts of energy consumption are required to free humans from drudgery, mafia rule and oppression. But it's also critical to saving forests and endangered species.

Poor nations where people still use wood and dung usually decide to build dams or burn coal, since they are simpler than nuclear.

But some big and important nations whose people still rely on wood and dung, like South Africa and India, could do a lot of nuclear in a way that would develop their own scientific and technical capacity and provide a cheap and reliable form of clean power for decades to come.

magiteker5 karma

So, how about those thorium salt reactors? They coming online anytime soon?

MichaelShellenberger7 karma

In my TED talk I discussed why I think there's a lot of wishful thinking about them, and I say that as a fan.

AWilliamsNU5 karma

Hey Michael- good to see you doing this AMA. I organize on climate justice issues alongside youth (fossil fuel divestment, etc.). In my experience with millennial organizers there isn't the same fervent opposition to nuclear energy that you see from the older environmental movement, but there is a distrust of top-down solutions that lock in corporate actors. I see nuclear as essential to achieving the emissions reductions we need, but I understand and share this concern.

How do you communicate with folks who hold this sentiment, and how can nuclear be implemented as a solution with community buy-in? Do you see a role for more active government in building out nuclear capacity, or is this going to require reliance on the private sector? Thanks!

MichaelShellenberger5 karma

Thanks for asking! I think saving and building nuclear plants should be the highest priority for climate justice activists. They are zero-pollution and high-wage. They require the involvement of the whole society.

All energy decisions involve government and markets, democracy and capital, whether solar or nuclear. Because solar requires 150 times more land than nuclear, it often provokes much more local resistance than nuclear. There are very few things that can be imposed top down these days, certainly not a nuclear plant.

greg_barton5 karma

What has been your most shocking discovery in your investigation of the California Public Utilities Commission and it's role in the shutdown of San Onofre and possible shutdown of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants?

MichaelShellenberger12 karma

That Governor Jerry Brown was almost certainly behind it. I haven't met a single person who thinks that the President of the PUC would have — on his own — dictated San Onofre settlement terms to Southern California Edison without Brown having approved it and perhaps put him up to it in advance. Brown gets involved in all sorts of far smaller contracts. Inconceivable that Peevey would have kept him out of the loop.

What that means is that Brown has personally and through his people killed more nuclear power plants than any other individual in the world. Had Brown and his guys not killed nuclear plants — some built, some well-along in their planning — California would be 77 percent clean power today instead of 58.

pedersen184 karma

Hi Michael,

IEA reports nuclear investment in new nuclear plants at just over $20 billion. Nearly 3/4 of this came from China. Compared to other generating fuels, this is tiny. As an advocate for nuclear, this concerns me. Any thoughts?

MichaelShellenberger7 karma

Yes, this is the same crisis I addressed in my TED talk.

Nuclear's decline is the main event when it comes to climate mitigation, and it's a huge event in terms of clean air generally.

The only reason we're not hearing more about it is that there's a tacit conspiracy of silence.

Anti-nuclear groups want to pretend like it's not a big deal to climate action.

The nuclear industry wants to whistle past the graveyard.

nucl_klaus4 karma

20 years from now, which country will have built the most new nuclear energy?

Which country will have shut down the most existing nuclear facilities?

MichaelShellenberger6 karma

China will almost certainly have built the most new ones.

The US is on track to lose half of its nuclear plants, so it could be us.

However, I reject the idea that the future is written. There were a lot of good reasons to believe that the future would inevitably be nuclear, but the concerted efforts by a small group of people have put the technology in an existential crisis.

Lurking-My-Life-Away4 karma

Thanks for this AMA Michael!

I am currently am engineer at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Your documentary Pandora's Promise had a short clip of the Remote Handling bay here at WIPP. It was interesting to see my workplace in a pro-nuclear documentary.

I have a degree in nuclear engineering so I am aware of the science and safety behind the technology. My question is this: given the economic costs associated with reprocessing nuclear fuel (France spends billions per year for reprocessing), would you rather see the fuel recycling technologies be developed to possibly make reprocessing cheaper or see the fuel placed into a permanent repository like WIPP?

MichaelShellenberger5 karma

I'm really really meh on waste. I think it's fine being kept where it is, and monitored. Or moved. Whatever causes the least fuss. Reprocessing isn't needed for now, and adds to the cost.

Lurking-My-Life-Away1 karma

Waste Control Specialist in west Texas have applied for an NRC license for 100 years of above ground storage. Do you think it is wise to move the waste to one central location where it can be monitored and secured or would you feel more safe about the waste leaving it where it currently sits?

MichaelShellenberger6 karma

Honestly I'm fine where it is. I can see the benefits to a larger repository, but it's been outrageous to delay new nuclear plants because of some paranoid aversion to storing waste on site.

Knight12ify4 karma

Yes Michael, how do you address the biggest misconception about nuclear energy: that it will not turn us into the X-Men?

MichaelShellenberger3 karma

Give it time, give it time.

Msshadow4 karma

What steps do you think need to be taken to grow support for nuclear energy in the United States? What message would soften the heart of someone like Bernie Sanders?

MichaelShellenberger4 karma

We need to grow the pro-nuclear movement by focusing on organizing young people and nerds.

It's a waste of time to try to change the mind of people like Bernie.

PureWhey3 karma

What's the most common infuriating question/comment you get?

MichaelShellenberger4 karma

Ha. Well, genuine questions never make me mad unless they ask something that I explicitly addressed in my talk, which is remarkably common.

archibaldcrane3 karma

Pretend you are the US electricity sector God-Emperor. In this almighty position, what role do variable renewable sources (wind and solar) play in the Shellenberger grid mix?

MichaelShellenberger9 karma

I wouldn't determined it in advance.

Our shared goal should be 100 percent clean power as soon as possible (timing is always constrained by cost-containment, in real world policies).

We need a framework that prioritizes clean energy, not a particular kind, even nuclear, in my view.

alsaad3 karma

MichaelShellenberger8 karma

There are literally hundreds of scenarios of 100 percent renewables going back to the early 1800s. It was then that John Etzler proposed powering the US with 100% renewables. Henry David Thoreau was horrified at what it would do to the environment. The land use impact would be far, far greater than fossil fuels.

pedersen183 karma

  1. If you had the ear of Secretary Moniz, what would you recommend to him in regards to the nuclear industry?

  2. Are you optimistic about nuclear being added/grandfathered into any RFS mandates in states? If so, which ones?


MichaelShellenberger6 karma

I would ask him to publicly address the fact that nuclear energy is in a crisis and that dramatic steps are needed to save it, starting with a wake-up call to everyone in the nuclear community and intensified public engagement on the issue, from the President of the United States to the Secretary General of the United Nations.

I am optimistic long-term about getting nuclear added, but in the short-term the goal is simply for nuclear to survive the next few years. After we save existing nuclear we need to step up our efforts to add nuclear to RPSs.

Tnargkiller3 karma

Is there a way to do nuclear power with no water cooling, or at least not on a major body of water?

MichaelShellenberger4 karma

Yes, there are new designs, and UK mostly uses carbon dioxide gas.

But the water impact is very low in my view.

acaptaintx2 karma

What role did the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 have in suppressing the development of nuclear power as a viable option in America?

MichaelShellenberger2 karma

I'm not aware that it played any role but maybe I'm uninformed. Do you think it did?

fiddie2 karma

Who are the best scientists that can communicate the issues and point towards likely solutions. Is there a barometer of progress (maybe the CIPK) by which to judge results?

MichaelShellenberger3 karma

James Hansen is the stand-out pro-nuclear scientist.

caBALLERo142 karma

How is your organization funded? Does it receive support from the nuclear industry? (not that this means you aren't right, I'm just interested to know)

MichaelShellenberger9 karma

Entirely by individuals. We don't take money from any energy companies of any kind. We list our donors here:

PhilCheezSteaks2 karma

Michael, a question about economics. I used to be a democrat and am a newly identified libertarian. As of now, I am under the impression that the biggest threat to climate progress is the government itself. They are trying to solve a technical problem with the biases and feelings of the general populace. Part of that is nuclear and climate illiteracy. I am a rare breed, given that the traditional environmental movement is associated with the left. Here is what I think should happen. Nobody in the energy industry should get subsidies, because that warps true market costs. Cap and trade ends up turning into a bogus "green credit" market. Here, people that consume fossil fuels, like Apple, can claim they are powered by 100% clean energy. I would be fine letting energy be solved just by a free-market, because nuclear would win out. It uses the least amount of resources for the most amount of energy. The only government interference should be Citizen's Climate Lobby's carbon fee and dividend, as put forth by James Hansen. Wouldn't you say this would be the most fair for all energy parties? Competition and innovation and capitalism might be our best bet.

MichaelShellenberger7 karma

I agree that a lot of energy subsidies and mandates are making things worse. Wind has been getting subsidized 23 years. Solar roofs get about 2/3 their cost subsidized by taxpayers and ratepayers.

All this subsidized solar and wind is killing nuclear plants in Illinois and California, and so we end up paying higher electricity rates and taxes to make our air dirtier.

I'd like to see 100 percent clean power as the standard everywhere, allowing for clean energy sources to compete fairly. If that can't happen, then nuclear should at least be included in the support we give to other sources of clean energy, otherwise we'll be effectively killing off our largest and most important source of clean power.

slama661 karma

and so we end up paying higher electricity rates and taxes to make our air dirtier.

I am confused by this. In what ways do solar and wind power make the air dirtier?

MichaelShellenberger2 karma

Because solar and wind don't substitute for nuclear and instead must be paired with fossil fuels, mostly natural gas.

fiddie2 karma

Is Ecomodernism going to have an impact on government policy or even the environmental movement?

MichaelShellenberger4 karma

Already is!

Consumer4511 karma

How can nuke power compete with the free fall in PV solar prices? It seems to me that a project started now is doomed to require subsidies to compete with PV cost/kWh in 10 years when it is completed.

Nuke is not doing this.

My philosophical stance on nuke power on Earth is that it is the biggest middle finger we can give god or nature. The magnetosphere, and many other portions of the natural system that supports life on earth worked really hard to keep us away from alpha and gamma particles, we're all meh, fuck it.

But here we are, so my practical stance is:

Navy: sure cost is not a factor, they need it and do it safely, because cost is not a factor.

Space: ok, we need it, getting it up there is sketchy. Totally pro nuke power in space is fissile materials are mined in space.

Civilian nuke power: it is no longer financially viable. For-profit companies skimp on safety as much as possible to maximize investor returns. There is a huge national security problem with meltdown ready plants dotting our country. The centralized nature of these plants(or any type of huge central plant) makes disruption very easy, again bad for nat sec. Distributed renewable power generation would make our civilization way more bulletproof. It's been over half a century, what's the plan (using existing technology) for the waste again? Please calculate the total cost of ownership for a nuke plant, including just 500 years of waste storage. Good luck, you will be the first person to do this, ever.

Edit: clarity, TCO

MichaelShellenberger3 karma

The actual cost of solar panels and wind turbines have declined, but as they become a larger percentage of our electricity, their value declines. That's because they produce so much power when demand is relatively low, and don't produce enough power when demand is relatively high. That means they require very large quantities of back-up power, since the grid must have the same amount of power being produced as is being consumed at any given time.

Intermittent power has to be backed up by an equivalent capacity of dispatchable power, and that usually means fast-ramping gas plants that can rapidly adjust to chaotic surges and slumps of wind and solar power. As wind and solar capacity swells without displacing conventional capacity, the grid enters a spiral of persistent and rising overcapacity that lowers prices even further as more gigawatts fight for market share.

As wind and solar capacity climbs the returns of usable power diminish because of increasing curtailment during surges that the grid can’t absorb. More and more intermittent capacity has to be pushed onto the grid to get less and less additional renewable electricity. The dynamic of soaring overcapacity and falling prices is the inevitable result of the fundamental inability of intermittent wind and solar generators to efficiently match supply to demand.