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Greenpeace’s Dirty War on Clean Energy, Part I: South Korean Version

Michael Shellenberger's picture

Michael Shellenberger is an award-winning author and environmental policy expert. For a quarter-century he has advocated solutions to lift all people out of poverty while lessening...

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  • Jul 31, 2017

Greenpeace’s new executive directors: Jennifer Morgan and Bunny McDiarmid

Last fall, a South Korean filmmaker released the trailer for a feature-length disaster movie that opens with a nuclear power plant exploding and ends with the hero crying for his mother.

The film is called “Pandora” — a reference to the Greek myth about the woman created by Zeus to punish humans — and its slick special effects are equal to anything made by Hollywood.

After the power plant explodes, “Pandora” flashes manically back and forth between graphic scenes of workers suffering radiation poisoning, a hapless president overwhelmed by shadowy forces, and nostalgic reveries about the good old days, when Korea’s small southern towns were dominated by farming, fishing and tourism.

Scene of panic from anti-nuclear disaster flick “Pandora”

(Masochists can watch a subtitled version of “Pandora” on Netflix.)

Over five million Koreans, nearly one-fifth of the voting population, viewed “Pandora,” whose release was timed perfectly to influence the nation’s presidential elections. On May 9, voters elected Moon Jae-in, an anti-nuclear candidate, as president.

After it was accused of secretly financing the film, Greenpeace insisted it had merely funded the screenings, street protests and lawsuits.

“I did not make the movie to promote fear,” Pandora’s director told the audience at a Greenpeace screening in Seoul.

A mother at a Greenpeace-sponsored “Pandora” screening

But Greenpeace also boasted, “There were a lot of mothers who came to watch the movie [holding] their children’s hands,” which was no doubt reassuring for the youngsters as they watched the on-screen hero’s father die a blood-spattered death.

Greenpeace — which generates nearly $400 million in annual revenues from sources it refuses to disclose — has been funneling millions of dollars to offices across East Asia, including in Seoul, since the 2011 Fukushima accident.

Now President Moon is creating a “citizens’ jury” that will spend 90 days deliberating over whether to permanently halt construction on two new nuclear reactors that are 30 percent completed.

In response, Greenpeace is ratcheting up the pressure. Earlier this month, the organization’s new Executive Director and her entourage swept across South Korea, producing yet another wave of frenzied anti-nuclear news coverage.

If Greenpeace gets its way, air pollution will worsen and electricity prices will rise, forcing youth unemployment, already over 10 percent, even higher.

And, in the meantime, Russia and China will become the only two nations competing to build new nuclear plants globally — something that could be catastrophic for non-proliferation and climate mitigation efforts alike.

Weapons of Mass Hysteria

As South Korea started barreling toward nuclear phase-out, I made a last-minute trip there to push back against Greenpeace’s campaign of mass hysteria.

Within hours of arriving in Seoul I delivered to a representative of President Moon an open letter signed by climate scientist James Hansen, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes, and dozens of other climate and environmental experts, warning of the impacts of a nuclear phase-out.

My visit was covered by dozens of media outlets and I landed on the front page of the nation’s largest newspaper, which also published a long interview with me, an op-ed about why I changed my mind about nuclear, and an unsigned editorial endorsing our open letter.

The author on the front page of South Korea’s largest newspaper

I have more than a passing interest in South Korea. My wife is Korean-American and I have, over the years, come to deeply respect the difficult climb out of poverty made by her parents and other Koreans of their generation.

And during the first half of this year I wrote a series of articles (part I, II, III) about why South Korea’s nuclear power program is a model for the world and — with Richard Rhodes — why nuclear energy is critical to peace on the Korean peninsula.

Over the last few years, South Korea’s state-owned nuclear company KEPCO has justly earned an international reputation for being the Southwest or Ryanair of nuclear power plant builders.

KEPCO’s intense focus on reducing costs through standardization and efficient supply chains allowed it to beat far-larger rivals, including the Japanese-owned and US-based Westinghouse, France’s Areva, and Russia’s Rosatom to win the contract to build a new nuclear plant in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) that will come online next year.

The author’s wife and father-in-law

Now, with the financial failures of Areva and Westinghouse, KEPCO is the only Western nuclear firm capable of competing with Rosatom, which is seeking to finance, build, own and operate nuclear plants in foreign nations.

But nations are highly unlikely to buy nuclear plants from a nation that is phasing them out domestically.

And solar and wind are simply not alternatives to nuclear in South Korea or anywhere else. In 2016, solar and wind provided one percent and 0.35 percent of South Korea’s electricity, respectively.

For South Korea to replace all of its nuclear plants with solar, it would need to build 4,400 solar farms the size of South Korea’s largest solar farm, SinAn, which would cover an area five times larger than Seoul.

To do the same with wind would cover an area 15 times larger than Seoul, according to calculations by EP Fellow Kylie Feger. But even a modest expansion of wind is unlikely: rural South Koreans opposed to the industrialization of the countryside have blocked proposed wind farms.

Given the intermittency of solar and wind, and South Korea’s land scarcity, replacing the nation’s nuclear plants would require a significant increase in coal and/or natural gas, which would increase air pollution in Seoul and prevent South Korea from meeting its Paris climate commitments.

Indeed, President Moon has already called for importing Russian gas through a new pipeline he hopes to build through North Korea.

Greenpeace Greenwashes Dirty Energy

Over the last half decade or so it has become increasingly difficult for so-called environmentalists to advocate replacing nuclear plants while also campaigning for action on climate change.

A big part of the reason is because Environmental Progress has loudly and repeatedly pointed out that closing nuclear plants in the name of climate change is not just hypocrisy but rather greenwashing of the worst order.

In response, the leaders of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund have felt obligated — “bullied by you,” an insider told me recently — to state publicly (albeit grudgingly) that they support keeping nuclear plants operating if the alternative is burning more fossil fuels.

One of the holdouts has been Greenpeace, an organization as comfortable greenwashing fossil fuels as it is destroying a sacred World Heritage site, losing millions of dollars of member donations betting in currency markets, and turning a blind eye to the chronic sexual harassment of its employees.

The selection of Jennifer Morgan as Executive Director suggests that Greenpeace International knows it has a growing credibility problem. But upon taking the reins of power, Morgan has only doubled down on Greenpeace’s dirty war.

In response, James Hansen and other scientists and environmentalists have today sent another letter to President Moon, this time alerting him Morgan’s disinformation campaign.

On July 12, 2017, Korea’s KBS News reported that Morgan, made this astonishing claim:

Nuclear power plants are not the solution to climate change. To make fuels for nuclear power plants, we have to go through the whole process of uranium mining, transporting, and disposing. Considering this fact, there will be a lot of carbon emissions.

The above statement is outrageously wrong and Morgan — a former senior climate negotiator for World Resources Institute, a think tank — surely knows it.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nuclear energy produces four times less carbon pollution per unit of energy than solar farms, 3.4 times less than solar roofs, three times less than geothermal, and half as much as hydroelectric dams.

And the IPCC stresses the need for an expansion of nuclear to deal with climate change. In its 2014 report, the IPCC concluded, “No single mitigation option in the energy supply sector will be sufficient.” “Achieving deep cuts [in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions] will require more intensive use of low-GHG technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS.”

Since 2014, the consensus that nuclear must play a large role in climate mitigation has only grown stronger. A major study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the main proposal for 100 percent renewables contained “errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.”

Second, Greenpeace’s Morgan told the Korean Herald that Apple, Google and Facebook have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their electricity from renewables.

In reality, Google has said it will consider obtaining some of its electricity from nuclear energy, and in 2011, two top Google engineers published a startlingly honest account about the company’s failed renewable energy effort:

In 2011, the company decided that [Google’s renewable energy program] RE<C was not on track to meet its target and shut down the initiative. The two of us, who worked as engineers on the internal RE<C projects, were then forced to reexamine our assumptions.

The two Google engineers concluded, “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.” They called instead for a climate program where the “bulk of resources” is dedicated “to proven technologies” including nuclear.

Third, Greenpeace’s Senior Climate & Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia in Seoul, Daul Jang, claimed, “Nuclear and coal are clearly two of the most unsafe and polluting energy resources.”

That statement is demonstrably false. According to every major scientific finding over the last 40 years, including those of a comprehensive study published in the British medical journal Lancet, nuclear is the safest way to make reliable electricity because it produces nearly zero air pollution.

And according to a 2013 study by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen, nuclear energy prevented 1.8 million deaths from air pollution because it acted as a substitute for coal.

How to Beat Goliath

“Pandora,” like Greenpeace’s misinformation campaign, is nothing more than a string of lies.

The filmmaker insisted “Pandora” cost just $500,000 to make — a preposterous claim. The film, which earned over $32 million, more likely cost well over ten million, considering its roster of A-list Korean actors, and frighteningly realistic scenes of explosions, helicopters dumping water on fires, and thousands of extras scurrying into subway stations.

Of course, such an amount is peanuts to an organization like Greenpeace International and natural gas interests who spend tens of millions annually on television advertisements around the world.

Even my most jaded friends are shocked when I tell them that Greenpeace International’s annual budget is nearly $400 million, that EDF’s is $140 million, and that NRDC’s and Sierra Club’s are well over $100 million, and that the organizations have hundreds of millions of  dollars in their bank and stock accounts.

Where is their money coming from? Ostensibly from the same “ordinary citizens” Morgan claims are driving South Korea’s “energy breakthrough.”

Out of curiosity, I asked one of the EP Summer Fellows Daphne Wilson to do some cursory googling of these “ordinary citizens” starting with the board members and donors of NRDC, EDF and Sierra Club.

She discovered that somewhere between one-third to one-half of them are employed by, invested in, or somehow directly connected to oil and gas or renewable energy companies.

While this may not be a total surprise — Sierra Club famously took $26 million from natural gas interests for many years and only repudiated it after a few of its members took the story to the media — Wilson also discovered clear conflicts of interests: many board members of NRDC and EDF stand to benefit directly from closing nuclear plants and replacing them with fossil fuels and, perhaps, some solar and wind.

And deception is by no means unique to Morgan and Greenpeace.

Even as they write blog posts claiming to oppose replacing nuclear plants with fossil fuels, the Sierra Club, NRDC and EDF are all supporting the replacement of Indian Point in New York, Diablo Canyon in California, and nuclear plants in Ohio, with natural gas.

Behind the veil of using renewables to harmonize with nature lies something darker, namely the anti-nuclear movement’s long history of Malthusian anti-humanism aimed at preventing “overpopulation” and “overconsumption” by keeping poor countries poor.

And there is the reality that — in the name of protecting the environment — closing nuclear plants in every case, from Germany and Vermont to California and Japan, directly and instantly harms the environment by drastically increasing air pollution and promoting the expansion of mining and development for energy production.

Since I started Environmental Progress a year and a half ago, friends ask me how  — with a budget of under $1.5 million — we can possibly succeed against the anti-nuclear Goliath with 500 times the resources.

The question answers itself. Anti-nuclear groups are corrupt, lumbering and flagrantly dishonest — and the truth is the stone in our slingshot.

In two trips to South Korea over the last four months, I have interviewed over two dozen ordinary citizens. Most admitted they knew little about energy, and were worried that their fellow citizens would make big decisions about their country’s future without expert help. All were eager to learn more.

No fancy economic or environmental modeling is required to show that phasing out nuclear will increase electricity costs, unemployment rates, pollution and premature deaths.

Replacing nuclear with natural gas will cost a minimum of $11 billion per year — more, if South Korea attempts a significant deployment of renewables — and a large body of economic scholarship finds that any increase in electricity prices in South Korea will result in slower economic growth.[1][2]

Those kinds of facts matter to young Korean job-seekers, 80 percent of whom admitted they have to skip meals for budgetary reasons.

In the end, what’s needed is atomic humanism — a reaffirmation of nuclear energy’s transcendent moral purpose — and a grassroots, civil society effort to rescue humankind’s most important environmental technology from the anti-humanists.

The author with Kenyans and Indonesians training in South Korea to become nuclear safety regulators in their home countries

Atomic humanists have 90 days to work with pro-nuclear allies in South Korea and demonstrate our concern and commitment to universal human values, including hope — the thing that is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box after she unleashes the evils of the world upon the human race.

Atomic humanists will likely never have the resources of Greenpeace and other anti-humanists. But we don’t need them. We have something far more important on our side: the truth.

Please consider a donation to support our work in South Korea.

[1] Oh, W., & Lee, K. 2004. Causal relationship between energy consumption and GDP revisited: the case of Korea 1970–1999. Energy economics, 26(1), 51-59.

[2] Yoo, S. H. 2005. Electricity consumption and economic growth: evidence from Korea. Energy Policy, 33(12), 1627-1632.

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Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Jul 31, 2017

All of us should know that Greenpeace is far from being green and far from being honest.
Usually their writings are vague and well camouflaged making it difficult to pinpoint direct falsehood.
In one case I should think you can see that Greenpeace’s Credibility is a Myth.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Aug 4, 2017

Behind the veil of using renewables to harmonize with nature lies something darker, namely the anti-nuclear movement’s long history of Malthusian anti-humanism aimed at preventing “overpopulation” and “overconsumption” by keeping poor countries poor.

How very politically incorrect of you to mention that, Michael. Such matters are not to be aired in public!

It’s hard to know how deeply the roots of Greenpeace, and of the anti-nuclear movement in general, are sunk into that dark soil. There are definitely those within the movement who think in those terms. I would know, having nearly been one of them.

I was once fairly radical in my feelings about modern culture. I loved nature, was repelled by the materialism and greed that had infected Western civilization, and distressed by what population growth had already done to the world even 50 years ago. “Was once”, hell; I still feel much that way. But I’m not stupid.

I always saw nuclear power as a path to cleaner air and a smaller human footprint on nature. It shocked me to learn that some key environmental leaders saw it the same way. And fought it for precisely that reason.

They weren’t worried that nuclear power was unsafe; they were worried that it would deliver on its promise. The last thing they felt humanity needed was safe clean energy. They favored coal, because it was so dirty. They figured that air quality would get so bad that the mounting deaths and unbreathable air would serve to turn people against the evil of industrial civilization. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, we got the Clean Air Act and the EPA. Oh curses! Foiled again!

Those to whom that seems absurdly far fetched would do well to study the history and doctrines of revolutionary movements. Revolutionaries are not reformers. Reform is the enemy of revolution. The first people that violent revolutionaries target for assassination within the regime they aim to topple are the competent and reform minded. The aim is to make the current system dysfunctional and repressive. It needs to be reduced to its nadir before it can be overthrown and rebuilt.

I’m not saying, by the way, that all or even very many Greenpeace activists or anti-nuclear campaigners are revolutionaries. Most have bought into a story line that they have heard, and sincerely believe. But revolutionaries were present at the birth of the movements. They had a great deal of influence in constructing the story lines that followers have bought into.

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