Lost in Bonkers: the Latest Episode in Pro-Nuclear Quackery


In the old country, where I come from, you call a rubbish article like this one by Professor Steven Hayward, “bollocks.”  And if it’s bollocks, then it needs a bollocking.  Contrary to popular belief, we Brits are not very polite.  So sorry about that, and here goes.

Firstly, the article is barely by Hayward at all.  Twelve of its 18 paragraphs were actually written by — and are attributed to — Hayward’s undeclared Breakthrough Institute crony; Twelve of its 18 paragraphs were actually written by — and are attributed to — Hayward’s undeclared Breakthrough Institute crony; its recently departed president, Michael Shellenberger (who–beware–now runs some outfit called Environmental Progress). 

The Breakthrough Institute should probably be classified as a hate group, given the ever-thickening vitriol they pour these days on the environmental movement in general and the anti-nuclear movement in particular.

Shellenberger majors in Trump-style bombast, his acolytes repeating every phrase he utters no matter its veracity.  In the Trump culture, “nothing-could-be-further-from-the-truth” and “the actual truth” have become synonymous.

Thus Hayward can quote this from Shellenberger: “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.”

Clearly, Shellenberger knows nothing at all about the genesis of the anti-nuclear movement in Germany nor why it is so politically powerful and effective (never mind how renewables remain on track there to almost entirely displace all nuclear power and fossil fuels — including in the transport sector — by 2050.)

As Angelika Claussen of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Germany, explained it at a recent UK conference, “when you ask ‘where are the anti-nuclear people, or the anti-coal people, or the pro-renewable energy people’, that’s us. We are all the same people.” 

The U.S. anti-nuclear movement supports Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal and Beyond Oil
Vol-23-no-2-cover-158x200campaigns among others, as well as the anti-fracking and anti-Keystone pipeline movements and has had to practically beg to get on the stage at national climate rallies.

Sadly, it is in fact the U.S. anti-fossil fuel crowd that, unlike in Europe, has been slow to bring the anti-nuclear movement under the climate change umbrella.  Not, as Shellenberger ridiculously suggests, the other way around.

So what else?

Shellenberger says: “Nuclear produces zero air or water pollution.”  Wrong again.  Operating nuclear power plants routinely release radioactive isotopes into the air and water.  A meta-analysis of numerous studies now clearly shows that childhood leukemia rises as much as 37% among children living close to nuclear plants that have never had an accident.

And let’s not forget the uranium needed to fuel nuclear plants.  Uranium mining, particularly the in situ method, uses vast quantities of water and leaves it polluted with heavy metals as well as radioactive isotopes.

About 85% of the radioactivity in the ore mined remains behind in crushed rock, called “tailings,” and is never used to make reactor fuel or electricity.  The tailings contaminate drinking water and blow in the air as radioactive dust.

That’s pollution.  And it has killed and sickened countless numbers of uranium miners and their families, in the U.S. and around the world, mostly low-income indigenous people of color.


Shellenberger claims nuclear energy “uses tiny quantities of natural resources.”

Not so.  In addition to the vast amount of water wasted and polluted by uranium mining, nuclear power plants also consume large quantities of water.  This is either lost as steam or discharged as hot— and radioactively contaminated  — water into oceans, lakes and rivers.

Last time we looked, not only did water qualify as a “natural resource,” it has now been identified as the biggest coming stress factor due to climate change, according to the World Bank, which I’m pretty sure is not an anti-nuclear group.

In fact, we are already seeing conflicts such as the one in Syria, provoked by climate-induced water shortages.  This observation was made by the Smithsonian Institution, which is also not an anti-nuclear group.

Continuing to advocate for large, baseload, water-consuming electricity producers such as nuclear and fossil fuel plants, runs contrary to what’s in the best interest of mitigating climate change.

Of course, the nuclear evangelicals do not limit themselves to skewering the anti-nuclear crowd.  They hate renewables as well and must be feeling particularly green as they watch solar and wind installation wildly outpacing nuclear worldwide.

Shellenberger says that “solar and wind require three to five times as much steel and concrete as nuclear plants,” for which the steelworkers in Germany, whose jobs have been revived by the wind energy industry, are eternally grateful.

The California-residing Shellenberger seems not to have noticed that the number one greenhouse gas problem in his state is caused by all the vehicles on the freeways.

Reviving much-needed U.S. industries to support the supply chain that the solar and wind industries stimulate is not going to destroy the planet.  And keeping California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open, as Shellenberger would like, won’t save it either.  It’s a classic Breakthrough red herring.

The Breakthrough Institute majors in factual avoidance, so Shellenberger and Hayward don’t mention that the U.S. installed zero GW of new nuclear in 2015 compared to 8.5 GW of new wind and 7.3 GW of new solar but just 5.94 GW of natural gas. These numbers were released not by anti-nuclear activists but by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  They indicate an upward trajectory for renewables, which is far more relevant than the current share of the market.

Furthermore, the White House reports that the U.S solar industry is adding jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy “and they pay better than average.”

UBS sees nuclear and coal duly going the way of the dinosaurs as well.  In a June 2015 report, also quoted in the 2015 World Nuclear Energy Status Report, UBS states:

“We believe solar will eventually replace nuclear and coal and [be] establish[ed] as the default technology of the future to generate and supply electricity.  An important driver is the realization that solar PV will increasingly be deployed without subsidy, unlike the technology cost curves for nuclear.”

The mantra about the intermittence of solar and wind making them unable to replace nuclear and coal is so old hat it’s in mothballs.

The shameless Shellenberger’s final venture into hyperbole is his allegation that because of early anti-nuclear PR, “Millions were convinced a nuclear meltdown was the same as a nuclear bomb.

Mr. Shellenberger, meet Dr. Wertelecki, who has academic credentials a mile long and has actually studied the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear power disaster on human beings, especially women pregnant at the time, their subsequent children and the third generation after that.

Wertelecki’s findings are shocking and sickening and the photos are here.  Take a look. Then tell me that a gift like that, which keeps on giving birth defects down generations, isn’t as bad as the legacy of Hiroshima?

Hayward coos at the end of his piece that his darling “Michael is one of the environmentalists who have been leading the charge for environmentalists to change their mind on nuclear power.”  

No “Steven”, he isn’t; an environmentalist, that is.  Unless, like “true,” “environmentalist” also means the opposite in Breakthroughland.

More articles by:

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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