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Shellenberger's nuclear nonsense: The myth of the peaceful atom

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Nuclear is "the safest way to make reliable electricity", according to Michael Shellenberger in his book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.1 It's a claim that could only be defended by trivializing the impacts of nuclear disasters and by ignoring the unique proliferation and security risks associated with nuclear power.

Shellenberger reduces the complexities of nuclear terrorism and security issues2 to a cartoonish singularity in Apocalypse Never, rejecting the idea that terrorists could steal spent fuel from a nuclear power plant and transport it to a reprocessing plant. He falsely claims that only antinuclear activists have attacked nuclear plants and ignores the history of nation-states launching military strikes on nuclear plants. He should ‒ but doesn't ‒ explore scenarios such as multiple simultaneous Chernobyl- or Fukushima-scale catastrophes at nuclear power plants attacked by warring nation-states.

It is on the topic of nuclear weapons that Shellenberger's dangerous ignorance is most evident. He "was always a bit unrestrained in his advocacy of nuclear power, and in speaking of nuclear weapons he surpasses himself" according to Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2018.3

Shellenberger asserts in Apocalypse Never that "we are further from global nuclear war now than at any other point in the last seventy-five years since the invention and use of the bomb." But as the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted in Jan. 2020, national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties; US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is "all but nonexistent"; and there are unresolved, worsening political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.4 Thus the Board concludes that the world "is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape" and "arms control boundaries that have helped prevent nuclear catastrophe for the last half century are being steadily dismantled". The Board warns that "civilization-ending nuclear war ‒ whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication ‒ is a genuine possibility."4

Shellenberger acknowledges the extraordinary destructive potential of nuclear weapons in Apocalypse Never, noting their potential to destroy "cities and perhaps even civilizations". But he nevertheless has nothing but nice things to say about them. He writes:5

"We need to correct our misunderstanding of nuclear energy. It was born from good intentions, not bad ones, nor from some mindless accident of science. Nuclear weapons were created to prevent war and end war, and that is all they have been used for and all they will ever be good for. "

Or as he put it in a 2018 article, nuclear weapons "make us peaceful".

His support for nuclear weapons stems partly from his belief in the power and infallibility of deterrence. As one dubious case study in support of that dubious argument, Shellenberger says that many feared nuclear war between India and Pakistan, but deterrence logic has prevented not only nuclear warfare but has for all practical purposes done away with the prospect of any "full scale war" between the two countries. Shellenberger cites one so-called "expert" who claims that nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan would be contained at the "tactical" level, while ignoring experts who have no such confidence.3

Shellenberger approvingly quotes Oppenheimer saying that "the atomic bomb is so terrible a weapon that war is now impossible." So nuclear weapons have put an end to warfare for all time … or at least, that would be the case if they were more widespread. Shellenberger said in an interview: "Smart guys … said 'this is going to end war', this is going to allow small countries to defend themselves against big countries. They're obviously right."

We needn't worry about North Korea because it will act like "other nuclear-armed nations", Shellenberger writes in Apocalypse Never, as will Iran if it acquires nuclear weapons. International support for the construction of nuclear power reactors in North Korea would ‒ somehow, magically ‒ curtail or end the country's nuclear weapons program, Shellenberger argued in 2017.6 The following year he argued that we "should be glad that North Korea acquired the bomb".5

Shellenberger doesn't explicitly promote the spread of nuclear weapons in Apocalypse Never, but he did so in 2018, promoting proliferation by "weak nations" such as North Korea and Iran and labeling anyone who disagrees as "hypocritical, short-sighted, and imperialistic".5 Only a balance of military power in the Middle East ‒ i.e. further nuclear weapons proliferation ‒ will end the decades-long Middle East nuclear crisis, Shellenberger claimed.5 And a nuclear-armed Germany would (somehow) stabilize NATO and the security of the Western World.5

Globally, nuclear deterrence between large nations has largely been responsible for a 95% decline in deaths from wars and conflicts since 1945, Shellenberger wrote in 2018, demonstrating a slim grasp of the difference between causation and correlation.7 He attributes that claim to an 'empirical' study which makes no such finding. The study found that when two states possess nuclear weapons, the odds of war drop ‒ but nuclear weapons and nuclear asymmetry are associated with higher likelihoods of crises, uses of force, and conflicts involving lower-levels of casualties.8

Gilinsky and Sokolski wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

"That the presence of nuclear weapons has reduced the frequency of war is an arguable proposition. But one only has to consider the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis to realize it comes at the price of gambling on nuclear war."3

Nuclear weapons "make us peaceful"5 and in any case the idea of humans doing away with them is "fanciful".1 "We can't get rid of them, even if we wanted to", Shellenberger writes in Apocalypse Never, ignoring any number of successful efforts to curb nuclear proliferation, and "trying to do so has contributed to decades of tension and conflict, culminating in the unnecessary and disastrous U.S. and British invasion of Iraq in 2003."

To deal with the "existential angst" of the existence of weapons that can destroy cities and perhaps even civilizations, Shellenberger writes in Apocalypse Never that "the continued existence of nuclear weapons should remind us to be happy to be alive" and to remember that we all die!

Nuclear power/weapons connections

Shellenberger says he stands by his 2018 articles which acknowledge strong nuclear power/weapons connections and promote nuclear weapons proliferation.9 But in fact, he was done a complete U-turn regarding power/weapons connections and there has been no acknowledgement let alone explanation. Having argued pre-2018 that "nuclear energy prevents the spread of nuclear weapons"10 and that there is an "inverse relationship between energy and weapons"11, Shellenberger acknowledged in 2018 that "having a weapons option is often the most important factor in a state pursuing peaceful nuclear energy"12 and that "at least 20 nations sought nuclear power at least in part to give themselves the option of creating a nuclear weapon".13

Gaining "weapons latency appears to be the difference-maker" as to whether or not countries pursue nuclear power, Shellenberger argued in 2018, whereas "nations that lack a need for weapons latency often decide not to build nuclear power plants".13 The weapons latency of nuclear power is not a "bug" but rather it is an "epochal, peace-making feature" that should be promoted.13 Nuclear power "will continue to spread around the world, largely with national security as a motivation," he claimed in 2018.13

But before 2018 had even ended, Shellenberger was at war with himself, arguing that unremarkable IPCC comments regarding the links between nuclear power and weapons were "unsubstantiated fear-mongering".7 And he said last year that one of the reasons people oppose nuclear power is that "they associate it with the bomb, which is wrong, they are two separate technologies."14

In 2018, Shellenberger said that "in seeking to deny the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the nuclear community today finds itself in the increasingly untenable position of having to deny these real world connections ‒ of motivations and means ‒ between the two.13

Now Shellenberger himself is in the untenable position of denying real-world connections that he has written about at some length.

He claims in Apocalypse Never that "antinuclear groups continue to deceive and frighten the public about nuclear energy" and they "do so with an eye to triggering fears of nuclear apocalypse." In fact, many nuclear critics have long understood the connections between nuclear power and weapons and have long understood that battles against nuclear power and weapons are two sides of the same coin.

Shellenberger is swept away with the idea that the latent weapons potential of a nuclear power program has "deterrence-related" benefits. Gilinsky and Sokolski wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:3

"[Shellenberger] asserts that a nuclear power program itself provides a significant level of "deterrence-related" benefits ‒ "a bomb isn't even required." He says that when he thought of this, he almost fell off his chair. Why, he wondered, was this fact "not being promoted as one of nuclear power's many benefits?" One reason is that it's a ridiculous proposal based on half-baked ideas."

The latent weapons potential of civil nuclear programs clearly enthuses some would-be aggressors, as demonstrated by national military attacks on nuclear facilities in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria and elsewhere ‒ attacks designed primarily to prevent adversaries acquiring nuclear weapons. Shellenberger asked in a 2018 article whether latency could "also be a threat to peace?", noting Israeli and US threats to take pre-emptive action against Iran.13 He doesn't offer an answer or explore the issue further.

Attacking nuclear critics

Shellenberger is a "bit unrestrained" in his advocacy of nuclear power, as Gilinsky and Sokolski put it, and still less restrained in his promotion of nuclear weapons.3 There's no restraint whatsoever in Shellenberger's bizarre attacks on opponents of nuclear power. In Apocalypse Never, he argues that "some activists who were originally focused on nuclear weapons disarmament began displacing their anxieties on nuclear reactors instead", and helpfully he offers a definition of the psychological concept of displacement as well as an analogy: "If the boss yells at us, we kick the dog because talking back to the boss is too dangerous."

Antinuclear groups "continue to deceive and frighten the public about nuclear energy" and they "do so with an eye to triggering fears of nuclear apocalypse", according to Apocalypse Never.

"Mixing up reactors and bombs" is the "go-to strategy for Malthusian environmentalists", according to Apocalypse Never. And once again bending reality beyond breaking point:

"Nuclear energy not only meant infinite fertilizer, freshwater, and food but also zero pollution and a radically reduced environmental footprint. Nuclear energy thus created a serious problem for Malthusians and anyone else who wanted to argue that energy, fertilizer, and food were scarce. And so some Malthusians argued that the problem with nuclear was that it produced too much cheap and abundant energy."

Anti-nuclear climate alarmists are on the warpath attacking "nuclear energy, which offers effectively infinite cheap energy, which they rightly view as a threat to their efforts to control food and energy production."15 Likewise, he claims that there is no energy scarcity with nuclear, which is a problem for climate alarmists who want "to take control of big sectors of the economy".16

In another variation of the argument, power-grabbing 'elites' are at work: "Climate alarmism isn't just about money. It's also about power. Elites have used climate alarmism to justify efforts to control food and energy policies in their home nations and around the world for more than three decades."17

Anti-nuclear climate-alarmist elites want to control food and energy production and other 'big sectors of the economy' in their home nations and around the world?



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

2. See section 8 in joint submission to Victorian nuclear inquiry:

3. Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski, 20 Sept 2018, 'Nuclear power's weapons link: Cause to limit, not boost exports',


5. Michael Shellenberger, 6 Aug 2018, 'Who Are We To Deny Weak Nations The Nuclear Weapons They Need For Self-Defense?',

See also: Michael Shellenberger, 29 Aug 2018, 'For Nations Seeking Nuclear Energy, The Option To Build A Weapon Remains A Feature Not A Bug',

6. 1 June 2017, 'US-Korea Letter',

7. Michael Shellenberger, 8 Oct 2018, 'Attacking Nuclear As Dangerous, New IPCC Climate Change Report Promotes Land-Intensive Renewables',


9. Nick O'Malley interview with Michael Shellenberger, 7 July 2020,

10. Michael Shellenberger, 30 Oct 2017, 'Saving Power in Danger: Michael Shellenberger Keynote Address to IAEA',

11. 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',

12. Michael Shellenberger, 28 Aug 2018, 'How Nations Go Nuclear: An Interview With M.I.T.'s Vipin Narang',

13. Michael Shellenberger, 29 Aug 2018, 'For Nations Seeking Nuclear Energy, The Option To Build A Weapon Remains A Feature Not A Bug',


15. Shellenberger email to Environment Progress elist, 22 July 2020

16. Sky TV interview,

17. Michael Shellenberger, 21 July 2020, 'Climate-change hysteria costs lives ‒ but activists want to keep panic alive',