Environmentalist icon turned nuclear-power booster Stewart Brand tells Foreign Policy why, even after the Fukushima disaster, he thinks nuclear is the energy of the future.
In 2005, Stewart Brand, then four decades into his career as a countercultural gadfly, environmental thinker, and futurist, published an attention-grabbing essay in MIT Technology Review called "Environmental Heresies." Brand argued that in order to achieve the aims of ecological sustainability that he had advocated in the Whole Earth Catalog, the hippie omnium gatherum and Boomer cultural touchstone Brand began publishing in 1968, environmentalists would have to rethink a number of their core beliefs — including the movement’s historic aversion to nuclear power.
In his subsequent book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, and numerous speeches, Brand has become one of nuclear energy’s most vocal advocates in the United States. He spoke with Foreign Policy‘s Charles Homans about why Japan’s Fukushima disaster hasn’t changed that.
Foreign Policy: Japan’s Fukushima power plant, after coming terrifyingly close to a meltdown, is still not out of the woods. Governments, including in the United States, are taking a hard look at their own plants. But you’re as bullish on nuclear as you ever were.
Stewart Brand: That’s correct.
FP: Why is that?
SB: What hasn’t changed is climate vulnerability and growing economic needs, especially in the developing world for clean, base-load electricity. And we’re learning some important new stuff on levels of safety under exceptional duress, which is what happened in Japan. I expect there will be a fair amount of review of safety procedures, equipment, training, and whatnot. And this will be an experience in the industry that everybody will be learning from, much as Three Mile Island was and to some extent Chernobyl was.
The main event, the century-size problem we’re looking at, is climate change. But frankly, if climate were not an issue by now, I would still be saying we need to go nuclear because it is the alternative to coal — and coal is all by itself such very large-scale, long-term bad news. Billions of people are getting out of poverty in the developing world. For that to go forward, one of the needs and demands they all have is for more electricity. So on those grounds alone I think there is a reason to proceed with nuclear.
FP: Why go nuclear? Why not go with wind farms, or solar, or hydropower?
SB: Hydropower is good. Hydropower is pretty maxed out, but obviously China is still building a lot more dams so those will go forward. Wind power is pretty good. It uses up a lot terrain and so far it is still an inconstant source. Solar, solar thermal, is looking good compared to photovoltaic, which is terrific on roofs and for very local usage like that. The major large-scale use of solar that looks promising right now is solar thermal in places like North Africa where you have a mineral desert where you really don’t care if a lot of it is covered with mirrors.
But people have been expecting a Moore’s Law for solar, and self-accelerating technologies do not apply so far in energy technology. Solar panels get better, but really, really slowly. Likewise, wind basically got better by getting bigger. Nuclear was unusual in that it was a real step-function change in energy efficiency, similar to moving from burning wood to run civilization to burning coal, and later oil. It took a lot of engineering nuance to get them to really work, but once you did that, you didn’t look back. Nuclear is that category of jump. We keep looking for more of those jumps, but they’re all incremental.
I think one of the main reasons why nuclear will keep going forward is because there will be a lot of emphasis on new reactor designs: both the stuff we already know about that is way better than the old reactors — those being used in Japan — and new, small, modular reactors that are safer for various reasons. One of the things that the new focus on safety will give us is reasons to upgrade old reactors and to be sure that new reactors have built-in levels of safety that we now know is even more important than we thought.
FP: The incident in Japan has been a crash course in all the things that we worry about with nuclear power. Are those things that you weigh in your calculus when you’re looking at this? And, why don’t those weigh heavier than some of these other factors?
SB: Well I think it’s a crash course for everybody. It sort of reminds me of the energy crisis in ’73 when basically civilization as a whole suddenly was forced to look at an X-ray of its own metabolism in terms of our energy uses: where it was coming from, where the vulnerabilities were, how effective cost changes were, things like that. This time I’m noticing in the public media, compared to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, there’s a lot more sophistication: taking technical details seriously, people paying attention to dosage of radiation and realizing that not all radiation is instantly lethal, which I think was the view that was held by many for a long time. Also, people are catching on that one of the advantages, I suppose, of radiation as a hazardous [substance] is that it’s really easy to measure and really easy to measure accurately.
FP: So our response to this has been more rational than our response to the nuclear disasters in the ’70s and ’80s.
SB: I think so. I think we’re further along. People are catching on that electricity is of the essence and they don’t want the lights to go out. And nuclear has been a part of it long enough, with a good enough safety record in most cases, that it’s not new and frightening. And climate has forced us to look at the whole portfolio of both dirty energy sources and clean energy sources, and environmentalists are catching on that wind is not free. It’s not only a very intermittent, but a rather thin source of energy, so you use up a lot of landscape to get a gigawatt of electricity. The same goes for solar. And they’re all more expensive than coal. So the idea of "Don’t worry, nuclear can solve all our problems," went away, but it’s still part of the portfolio solution.
FP: You mentioned the cost — this is one of the more persuasive arguments that has been made against nuclear, that it’s not economical. We’re looking at, in the United States, trillions of dollars of loan guarantees that are going to projects that haven’t been proven, and you have investment houses saying you shouldn’t be expecting them to pay this back.
SB: The thing to do is to compare the loan-guarantee records of how this plays out with the solar — and some wind — companies that operate on loan guarantees versus the nuclear guys that work on loan guarantees. And I think those economics will change once small modular reactors come online – there are about 10 different models of these coming out from some very longstanding and reputable suppliers like Babcock & Wilcox, Westinghouse, and Toshiba. Those things don’t have that huge sticker shock of the initial capital cost; it’s still pretty big, but if you can get 25 to 200 megawatts at a time instead of having to step right up to 1.25 gigawatts per reactor, you’re looking at a much more acceptable, entry-level cost. And I think especially in the developing world, where they need often a more distributable power source because they’re trying to get electricity to the rural areas as well as to the cities, these modular reactors look like a pretty good approach. Steven Chu had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying we need to press ahead with these small modular reactors. And it looks to me like that’s going forward.
FP: The last time that we had a couple of major nuclear disasters it sidelined the industry in the United States for a better part of a generation. Are you worried that it’s going to happen this time?
SB: I don’t expect that, and the reason is the demands we’re making on ourselves in terms of greenhouse gases. They’re still there. Nothing else has stepped up as a source of large amounts of cleaner electricity, unless fusion does.
I think also that [what] we’re getting from Japan is some perspective. There was a dam that failed in the Fukushima area and 1,800 homes were apparently damaged or destroyed, washed away. But you don’t hear much discussion like, "Well, should we not build any more dams?" Is hydroelectric power now in great danger as a potential source of electricity? No. Likewise, there have been petrochemical refinery fires and explosions with horrendous footage and loss of life, as well as major industrial loss. And we’re not talking about shutting down refineries because a really severe earthquake can harm them.
FP: Why is that? Why is nuclear so much more terrifying than those things to most people?
SB: I think that a lot of people still think that a nuclear reactor is a bomb just dying to go off. It’s sort of understandable — it’s the same word. The difference of concentration between 90 percent uranium in weapons grade and 4 or 5 percent uranium in fuel grade, I don’t think that’s gotten out. But the fact that they even think of bombs is part of the legacy that this stuff was used first, in anger, by us, as weapons. Over 2,000 nuclear bombs were set off by various nations in tests over the past half-century. We’ve stopped doing that, by and large — the last few in this century were North Korea, and hopefully those will be the last forever. And we’re using the material in the warheads for nuclear fuel. Half of our nuclear electricity comes from recycled warheads. It’s kind of cool.