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Shellenberger's nuclear nonsense: economics, waste, radiation, disasters

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Michael Shellenberger claims that his book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All1 is based on the 'best-available science'. But the book's many claims about nuclear issues are based on selective use of expert views, or attributed to anonymous 'experts' or even 'friends', or based on nothing at all.


"Nuclear has long been one of the cheapest ways to make electricity in the world," Shellenberger states in Apocalypse Never. In fact, it is now one of the most expensive. The latest Lazard report on levelized costs of energy shows that nuclear power is considerably more expensive than renewables:2


US$ / MWh



Wind power


Solar PV utility scale


Solar thermal with storage




Renewables coupled with storage are cheaper than nuclear. Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation provides these estimates in a recent report3 (with the Lazard figure included for comparison):


Low and high estimates (2020) A$/MWh

Nuclear ‒ SMR (CSIRO)


Nuclear ‒ Lazard (US$118‒192)


Wind + 2 hrs battery storage


Wind + 6 hrs pumped hydro storage


Solar PV + 2 hrs battery storage


Solar PV + 6 hrs pumped hydro storage


The "best-available science" refutes claims that nuclear power is expensive, Shellenberger claims in Apocalypse Never. If so, the best-available scientists need to update their best-available science to include the recent pattern of disastrous cost overruns. As the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute (which Shellenberger co-founded) noted: "Reactors under construction around the world, from Georgia and South Carolina to Britain and France, have struggled with crippling cost overruns and construction delays."4

In recent years, the Breakthrough Institute and other pro-nuclear lobby groups have bemoaned nuclear power's "rapidly accelerating crisis", a "crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West", "the crisis that the nuclear industry is presently facing in developed countries", and noted that "the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies".5,6 Ted Nordhaus from the Breakthrough Institute wonders what if anything can be salvaged from "the ashes of today's dying industry".7

Bizarrely, Shellenberger gives a reasonable snapshot of the current status of nuclear power in Apocalypse Never, followed by this caveat: "While all of the above is technically accurate, I carefully excluded key facts in order to be misleading …"

Here's a sample of his technically accurate snapshot:1

"Every effort to make nuclear plants safer makes them more expensive, according to experts, and higher subsidies from governments are required to make them cost-effective. Those soaring subsidies, combined with the financial cost of accidents like Fukushima, estimated to be between 35 trillion yen and 81 trillion yen ($315 billion to $728 billion) by one private Japanese think tank, make nuclear one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity.

"Meanwhile, from Finland and France to Britain and the United States, nuclear plants are way behind schedule and far over budget. Two new nuclear reactors at Britain's Hinkley Point C were estimated to cost $26 billion but will now cost as much as $29 billion. Expansion of a nuclear plant near Augusta, Georgia, which was supposed to take four years and cost $14 billion for two new reactors, is now expected to take ten years and cost as much as $27.5 billion. All of this makes nuclear too slow and expensive to address climate change, many experts say.

"Nuclear has what energy experts call a "negative learning curve," meaning we get worse at building it the more we do it. Most technologies have a positive learning curve. Take solar panels and wind turbines, for instance. Their costs declined 75 percent and 25 percent, respectively, since 2011. The more we make of them, the better we get at it and the cheaper they become. …

"Today, the developed world is abandoning nuclear. Germany is almost done phasing it out. France has reduced nuclear from 80 percent to 71 percent of its electricity and is committed to reduce it to 50 percent. In the United States, nuclear could decline from 20 percent to 10 percent of its electricity by 2030. Belgium, Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan are all phasing out their nuclear plants."

Shellenberger persists with his belief that nuclear power is cheap and indulges in evidence-free streams of consciousness such as this in Apocalypse Never:

"Only nuclear, not solar and wind, can provide abundant, reliable, and inexpensive heat. Thus, only nuclear can affordably create the hydrogen gas and electricity that will provide services such as heating, cooking, and transportation, which are currently provided by fossil fuels. And only nuclear can accommodate the rising energy consumption that will be driven by the need for things like fertilizer production, fish farming, and factory farming ‒ all of which are highly beneficial to both people and the natural environment."

Promoting his own work to prolong the lifespan of aging power reactors, Shellenberger writes in Apocalypse Never: "Few things make one feel more immortal than saving the life of a nuclear plant. Maybe that's because nuclear energy itself could be said to be immortal. One thousand years from now, future humans might still be producing nuclear power from the same locations they do so today."

But lobbying for subsidies to keep aging nuclear power plants operating is a tactic born in desperation. Shellenberger himself was desperate in 2017 following Westinghouse's bankruptcy filing: "I'm freaked out, honestly. If we were building nuclear plants, I wouldn't be so worried. But if nuclear is dying, I'm alarmed," he said.8

The Breakthrough Institute noted in a 2018 article that "moving from crisis to crisis, with mounting political and economic risk, is not a model for a sustainable industry" and bailouts such as that sought by FirstEnergy in the US amount to "policymakers and industry taking climate goals hostage to compensate for their failure to keep nuclear viable in the long run."4

FirstEnergy is now at the center of a corruption scandal concerning the nuclear bailout in Ohio, which gutted the state's renewables and energy efficiency laws while bailing out several coal and nuclear plants.9 Shakiba Fadaie and M.V. Ramana wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:10

"The enormous lobbying effort that won the subsidies used dark money–backed organizations that spent millions of dollars to sway voters and politicians. But it didn't stop with the bill being signed into law ‒ the lobbying also thwarted the ability of citizens to put the proposal to a democratic vote through a referendum, including by funding television advertisements that falsely claimed that China was "intertwining themselves financially in our energy infrastructure" and threatening "national security," implying that not going through with the nuclear bailout would somehow lead to Chinese control of Ohio's power grid. As confronting climate change gets in the way of corporate profits, such dirty battles are sure to emerge more often."

Lobbying for bailouts to keep aging reactors operating is a desperate tactic to save an industry with near-zero growth prospects. The number of reactor construction starts is nothing more than a trickle (an annual average of 4.3 from 2014‒19), the global reactor fleet is aging and the average age has passed 30. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) anticipates the closure of more than one-third of global nuclear power capacity from 2018‒2030 and the closure of 82% from 2018‒2050.11 The nuclear / renewables comparison could hardly be more striking: a record 201 gigawatts growth of renewable power generating capacity in 201912 compared to a loss of 4.5 gigawatts of nuclear capacity.13

Nuclear waste

Shellenberger claims in Apocalypse Never that nuclear waste "is the best and safest kind of waste produced from electricity production. It has never hurt anyone and there is no reason to think it ever will."

Inexplicably, he ignores radioactive streams across the nuclear fuel cycle apart from spent nuclear fuel. He asserts that "one of the best features of nuclear waste is that there is so little of it", which ignores, among other things, hundreds of millions of tonnes of radioactive tailings waste at uranium mines.

He falsely claims that nuclear is "the only form of electricity that internalizes its waste product" ‒ an odd argument even for spent nuclear fuel given that responsibility for managing it will be imposed on future generations for thousands of years to come.

"If an airplane crashed into the canisters of used fuel, the plane would explode and the cement-sealed steel canisters would likely remain intact," Shellenberger states without any evidence, and without any mention of the vulnerabilities of spent fuel stored in pools and the potential release of catastrophic amounts of long-lived radioactivity following accidents or acts of malice.14 A 2017 article in Science Magazine warns that an irradiated (spent) nuclear fuel pool fire at a nuclear power station would be far more damaging than the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission analysis acknowledges, and the Commission's inaction has left many US citizens and the economy vulnerable to undue risk from a fire caused by an earthquake or an act of terrorism.15

Spent fuel ‒ and high-level nuclear waste arising from reprocessing ‒ is destined for deep geological disposal. But Shellenberger is silent about the Feb. 2014 chemical explosion that closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico for three years.16 WIPP is the world's only operating deep geological repository, accepting long-lived intermediate-level military waste. An alarming slide in safety and regulatory standards emerged soon after the WIPP repository opened in 1999. A US Department of Energy report blamed the explosion and radiation release on the operator and regulator of WIPP, noting their "failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard ... compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture."17

There are serious discussions about the risks associated with nuclear waste18-20 ‒ but Shellenberger's book isn't among them. On nuclear waste, as with so many other topics, he offers pop-psychology: "When I talk to people who fear the waste, they often can't articulate why they believe it is dangerous, but it appears to emanate from a conscious or unconscious fear of nuclear weapons."1

Radiation and health

Shellenberger falsely claims that the linear no-threshold model is based on "disproven methodology". The mainstream scientific understanding is that there is no threshold below which exposure to ionizing radiation is harmless. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states that "the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates."21

Scientists are less confident about the linear part of the linear no-threshold model, but nevertheless there is heavy-hitting scientific support ‒ for example the 2006 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) of the US National Academy of Sciences states that "the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and ... the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans."22 The BEIR Committee also notes that a linear risk model may underestimate or overestimate true risks: "The committee recognizes that its risk estimates become more uncertain when applied to very low doses. Departures from a linear model at low doses, however, could either increase or decrease the risk per unit dose."

Shellenberger's group Environmental Progress described its former UK director John Lindberg as an "expert on radiation" when in fact he has no relevant qualifications and is a member of the pseudo-scientific organization 'Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information' which is at war with the linear no-threshold model and promotes fringe claims regarding alleged health benefits from exposure to ionizing radiation.23 Lindberg has moved on to the World Nuclear Association, while at the time of writing a video of Shellenberger is featured on the 'Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information' website!23

In Apocalypse Never, Shellenberger relies exclusively on the 'expertise' of Gerry Thomas in support of his claims about radiation and health, and the death tolls from the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. But Thomas is prone to misleading and irrational statements as discussed by Assoc. Prof. Mark Diesendorf in Nuclear Monitor last year.24

Chernobyl and Fukushima

There is passing acknowledgement in Apocalypse Never of the World Health Organization's (WHO) estimate of 4,000 deaths amongst those people most heavily exposed to ionizing radiation following the Chernobyl disaster. But Shellenberger rejects the estimate on the grounds that the linear no-threshold model is "disproven". He acknowledged around 200 deaths from Chernobyl radiation exposure in a radio interview, attributing that estimate to the WHO and the IAEA.25 But in fact UN agencies including the WHO and the IAEA were involved in 2005 study which estimated up to 4,000 long-term cancer deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, and in a follow-up study in 2006 the WHO estimated an additional 5,000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.26 Estimates of the Europe-wide death toll are in the tens of thousands.27

Nobody will die from radiation exposure from the Fukushima disaster, Shellenberger asserts in Apocalypse Never. In fact, the WHO released a report in 2013 which 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 leukemia 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%).28 About 5,000 people will die from cancer as a result of radiation exposure from Fukushima fallout according to radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie, basing his calculation on UNSCEAR dose estimates and a linear-no-threshold-derived risk estimate for fatal cancers (10% per Sievert).29

Nuclear power's worldwide "known total death toll is just over one hundred", Shellenberger writes in Apocalypse Never, a figure which obviously cannot be squared with scientific estimates of the death tolls from Chernobyl, Fukushima and other nuclear disasters.

Fukushima evacuation

Shellenberger complains in Apocalypse Never about the "over-evacuation of Fukushima prefecture" following the 3/11 nuclear disaster and the "1,600 (unnecessary) evacuation deaths". Elsewhere, has asserts that the Fukushima evacuation was "entirely unnecessary and indeed counterproductive" and it was the outcome of "fear-mongering".30 Evacuations were not ordered on the basis of fear-mongering; they were ordered on the basis of multiple fires, hydrogen explosions and presumed meltdowns, and a high degree of uncertainty about the state of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Shellenberger claims that UNSCEAR concluded in 2013 that the vast majority of the Fukushima evacuation zone was safe, nearly all residents could have returned long ago, and most should never have left.31 But the UNSCEAR report didn't conclude that the vast majority of the Fukushima evacuation zone is safe or that nearly all residents could have returned long ago, and it didn't state that most evacuees should never have left.32 The report states:

"The actions taken to protect the public significantly reduced the radiation exposures that could have been received. This was particularly the case for settlements within the 20-km evacuation zone and the deliberate evacuation zones, where the protective measures reduced the potential exposures in the first year by up to a factor of 10."

A 2017 Shellenberger article berates the Japanese government for failing to follow "normal protocols" by ordering Fukushima residents to evacuate instead of sheltering in place.31 He cites a 2015 IAEA report33 in support of that argument. Misrepresenting his sources is one of Shellenberger's bad habits. Nowhere in the IAEA report is there a proscription against evacuation in response to nuclear accidents. No IAEA report states that sheltering in place should be the "normal protocol" in the event of a nuclear accident ‒ the appropriate response depends entirely on the circumstances.

A 2011 IAEA report points to the impracticality of sheltering in place as a long-term response to elevated radiation levels following nuclear accidents:34

"Lesson 12: The use of long term sheltering is not an effective approach and has been abandoned and concepts of 'deliberate evacuation' and 'evacuation-prepared area' were introduced for effective long term countermeasures using guidelines of the ICRP [International Commission on Radiological Protection] and IAEA."

The limit for public radiation exposure in Fukushima fallout zones has been lifted from 1 millisievert/year to 20 mSv/yr. Shellenberger clearly believes that the limit should be raised but he doesn't offer a specific proposal. And he doesn't have to grapple with the trade-offs because he doesn't accept the mainstream scientific understanding of the health risks associated with low-level radiation exposure. Australian public health expert Assoc. Prof. Tilman Ruff gives an indication of the risks associated with the 20 mSv limit:

"To provide a perspective on these risks, for a child born in Fukushima in 2011 who was exposed to a total of 100 mSv of additional radiation in its first five years of life, a level tolerated by current Japanese policy, the additional lifetime risk of cancer would be on the order of one in thirty, probably with a similar additional risk of premature cardiovascular death."35

Radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie notes that the issue of evacuation raises an "acute planning dilemma": "if evacuations are carried out (even with good planning) then illnesses and deaths will undoubtedly occur. But if they are not carried out, even more people could die."36


1. Michael Shellenberger, 2020, 'Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All',

2. Lazard, Nov. 2019, 'Lazard's Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis ‒ Version 13.0',

3. CSIRO, 2020, 'GenCost 2019-20 ',

4. Jameson McBride, 10 Apr 2018, 'How Not to Save Nuclear: Emergency Bailouts Aren't Climate Policy',

5. Nuclear Monitor #839, 8 March 2017, 'Is nuclear power in crisis, or is it merely the END?',

6. Nuclear Monitor #839, 'Nuclear lobbyists argue about how to solve the nuclear power crisis',

7. Ted Nordhaus, 27 March 2017, 'The End of the Nuclear Industry as We Know It',

8. Rob Nikolewski, 9 April 2017, 'The bankruptcy shaking nuclear energy to the core',

9. Leah C. Stokes, 22 July 2020, 'An FBI investigation shows Ohio's abysmal energy law was fueled by corruption',

10. Shakiba Fadaie and M. V. Ramana, 21 April 2020, 'A dirty battle for a nuclear bailout in Ohio',

11. International Atomic Energy Agency, 2018, 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2018 Edition',

12. REN21, 'Renewables 2020 Global Status Report',

13. IAEA, 26 June 2020, 'IAEA Releases 2019 Data on Nuclear Power Plants Operating Experience',

14. Robert Alvarez, 9 August 2017, 'Pushing the storage horse with a nuclear waste cart: the spent fuel pool problem',

15. Edwin Lyman, Michael Schoeppner, Frank von Hippel, 26 May 2017, 'Nuclear safety regulation in the post-Fukushima era', Vol. 356, Issue 6340, pp. 808-809,

See also:

16. Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015, 'One deep underground dump, one dud',

17. US Dept of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, April 2014, 'Accident Investigation Report: Phase 1: Radiological Release Event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on February 14, 2014',

18. World Nuclear Waste Report 2019 – Focus Europe,

19. Robert Alvarez, Hideyuki Ban, Charles Laponche, Miles Goldstick, Pete Roche and Bertrand Thuillier, Jan 2019, 'Report - The Global Crisis of Nuclear Waste',

20. Prof. Andrew Blowers, 24 April 2019, 'Nuclear Wastelands', Nuclear Monitor #874‒875,

21. UNSCEAR, 2011, 'Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Ionising Radiation 2010',

22. Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) of the US National Academy of Sciences, 2006, 'Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2',


24. Mark Diesendorf, 19 Nov 2019, 'Misleading claims about nuclear energy',

25. Nick O'Malley (Sydney Morning Herald) interview with Michael Shellenberger, 7 July 2020,

26. World Health Organization, 2006, 'World Health Organization report explains the health impacts of the world's worst-ever civil nuclear accident',

27. Nuclear Monitor #821, 6 April 2016, ''Pro-nuclear environmentalists and the Chernobyl death toll'',

28. World Health Organization, 28 Feb 2013, 'Global report on Fukushima nuclear accident details health risks',

29. Ian Fairlie, 2015, 'Summing the Health Effects of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster',

30. Michael Shellenberger, 16 Oct 2017, 'Enemies of the Earth: Unmasking the Dirty War Against Clean Energy in South Korea by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Greenpeace',

31. Michael Shellenberger, Mark Nelson, Madi Czerwinski, Michael Light, John Lindberg, and Minshu Deng / Environmental Progress, Aug 2017, 'The High Cost of Fear: Understanding the Costs and Causes of South Korea's Proposed Nuclear Energy Phase-Out',

Direct download:

32. UNSCEAR, 2014, "Sources, Effects and Risks of Ionizing Radiation. UNSCEAR 2013 Report. Volume I. Report to the General Assembly Scientific Annex A: Levels and Effects of Radiation Exposure Due to the Nuclear Accident After the 2011 Great East-Japan Earthquake and Tsunami",

33. International Atomic Energy Agency, 2015, The Fukushima Daiichi Accident: Report by the Director General,

34. IAEA (Division of Nuclear Installation Safety and Department of Nuclear Safety and Security), 2011, 'Mission Report: The Great East Japan Earthquake Expert Mission. IAEA International Fact Finding Expert Mission of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi NPP Accident Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami',

35. Tilman Ruff, 2013, 'A Public Health Perspective on the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster', Asian Perspective 37, p.523–549,

36. Ian Fairlie, 11 March 2018, 'Fleeing from Fukushima: a nuclear evacuation reality check',