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Nuclear Power is Safe, Sound …and Green

Since he first published the seminal Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, Stewart Brand has been a leading thinker about how to create an ecologically sustainable society. More recently, he has been encouraging environmentalists to rethink their opposition to geo-engineering, transgenic crops, and nuclear power.

For the definite word on how much to worry about climate change, environmentalists in American have taken to relying on James Hansen, NASA’s outspoken climatologist. When Hansen declared that we must not settle for leveling off carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm) but must take the level down from the current 387 ppm to 350 ppm or lower, the new environmentalist slogan became “350!”

Environmentalists take no notice of Hansen’s views on nuclear power, however. As President Obama was taking office, Hansen wrote him an open letter suggesting new policy to deal with the climate crisis. Hansen proposed what America needed: a carbon tax “across all fossil fuels at their source”; the phasing out of all coal-fired plants; and “urgent R&D on 4th generation nuclear power, with international cooperation.” He warned: “The danger is that the minority of vehement anti-nuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on. That is a prescription for disaster.”

Environmentalists have much less to fear from the current nuclear power industry than they think, and much more to gain from new and planned reactor designs than they realize. Hansen is right: Nukes are Green. Here’s how.

• Safe storage and less waste. Nuclear power inspires in most environmentalists one particularly deep aversion. They recoil from the idea of passing on to endless future generations the deadly poison of nuclear waste. The customary rant goes: “You have to guarantee that all the radioactivity in the waste will be totally contained for 10,000 years.” Why? “Because any amount of radioactivity hurts humans and other life forms.”

photo of a power plant, cooling towers steamingKoer Michiels One way or another, the world’s poor will get grid electricity. Where that
electricity comes from will determine what happens with the climate.

What humans? The assumption seems to be that future humans will be exactly as we are today, with our present concerns and present technologies. How about, say, 200 years from now? If we and our technology prosper, humanity by then will be unimaginably capable compared to now, with far more interesting things to worry about. If we crash back to the Stone Age, odd doses of radioactivity will be the least of our problems. Extrapolate to 2,000 years or 10,000 years. The problem doesn’t get worse over time – it vanishes over time.

• Small footprint. Gwyneth Cravens points out that “a nuclear plant producing 1,000 megawatts takes up a third of a square mile. A wind farm would have to cover over 200 square miles to obtain the same result, and a solar array over 50 square miles.” That’s just the landscape footprint.

More interesting to me is the comparison between coal waste and nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is miniscule in size – one Coke can’s worth per person-lifetime of electricity if it were all nuclear. Coal waste is massive – 68 tons of solid stuff and 77 tons of carbon per person-lifetime of strictly coal electricity. Nuclear waste goes into dry cask storage, where it is kept in a small area and monitored. By contrast, a 1-gigawatt coal plant burns 3 million tons of fuel a year and produces 7 million tons of CO2, all of which immediately goes into everyone’s atmosphere, where no one can control it. That’s not counting the fly ash and flue gas from coal – full of heavy metals including lead, arsenic, and mercury.

• Dependable baseload energy. Cities require grid power, and that means baseload. The world’s growing cities and the billions of people climbing the “energy ladder” out of poverty will demand a lot more baseload by mid-century. If climate is the major Green threat, and cities are a major Green boon, then nuclear power looks doubly Green.

Wind and solar, desirable as they are, aren’t part of the baseload because they are intermittent – productive only when the wind blows or the sun shines. If some form of massive energy storage is devised, then they can participate in baseload; without it, they remain supplemental, usually to natural gas-fired plants.

• Keep all options on the table. To footprint and baseload I add portfolio – the idea that climate change is so serious a matter that we have to do everything simultaneously to head it off as much as we can. In a 2004 paper, MIT professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala introduce the idea that seven “stabilization wedges” could use proven technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a tolerable level. Of all the wedges, I believe that energy efficiency and conservation should come first, last, and always. You get the most result with the least cost at the greatest speed. But energy efficiency, as crucial as it is, can’t replace all the coal-fired plants that have to be shut down, and it can’t generate power for the burgeoning energy demand in China, India, Africa, and Latin America. That takes us back to baseload and the choice between coal and nuclear. Tripling the world’s current nuclear capacity to 700 gigawatts a year over 50 years would reduce carbon emissions by 1 gigaton a year at the end of the period, for a total reduction of 25 gigatons over the 50 years. There’s nothing heroic about that rate of adding nuclear capacity. As the Socolow/Pacala paper noted, “The global pace of nuclear power plant construction from 1975 to 1990 would yield a wedge, if continued for 50 years.”

• Government role. An additional consideration, along with baseload, footprint, and portfolio, is the role of government. In recent years, environmentalists have largely given up on government, preferring to work with NGOs and with businesses. But infrastructure is one of the things we hire government to handle, especially energy infrastructure. Energy policy is a matter of such scale, scope, and speed that only a government can embrace it all. You can’t get decent grid power without decent government power.

Environmentalists talk about nuclear power exclusively in terms of what they see as the four great problems that condemn the technology – safety, cost, waste storage, and proliferation. Those four have no form of positive, only degrees of badness. By contrast, the considerations I begin with – baseload, footprint, and portfolio – are logics rather than problems. They are relative rather than absolute, which means they invite thinking in terms of trade-offs and risk balancing.

Holding all eight logics and problems in mind simultaneously nets out, for me, to a strong argument for expanding nuclear power. From that perspective, I see the four problems of safety, cost, waste handling, and weapons potential differently than I used to. I now think of the four problems the way an engineer does, as design problems. Define them, frame them in a way that is solvable, solve the damn things, and once you’ve got a solution, act on it.

Five out of six people live in the developing world – about 5.7 billion in 2010. One way or another, the world’s poor will get grid electricity. Where that electricity comes from will determine what happens with the climate.

This op-ed is adapted by permission from a longer essay in Brand’s most recent book, Whole Earth Discipline (Viking, 2009).


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I don’t think pulling together and selling what other people are doing and information that publicly available in book form makes a person an expert in anything other than putting a book together. I enjoyed the whole earth catalog as much as anyone, but all he did was bring information together. I’m sure they can use some help from a nuclear expert like him in Japan right now so why doesn’t he move over there and help the poor Japanese workers at the plant who are going to die from radiation poisoning. He’s problably not going to risk his life, just run his mouth.

By Rick on Sat, March 19, 2011 at 3:06 am

Eerily, I read this debate for the first time on March 10, 2011, just one day before an 8.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Japan, causing the collapse and explosion of several of its nuclear reactors. Thousands of citizens living near the reactors were ordered to evacuate. Many died anyway; the official death toll for the quake, the ensuing tsunami and nuclear disasters is now well into five figures. Footage of the explosions is now available on many major news websites, as well as YouTube.

I don’t think Brand’s arguments properly addressed the possibilities of unforeseen events like this one.

By GDiFonzo on Sat, March 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm

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