Stewart Brand and the Nuclear Renaissance that Should Not Be

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

by Lisa Rumiel

Note: Again, the author would like to thank Linda Richards for her helpful comments and suggestions in preparing this article.

It is time to stop claiming that a nuclear renaissance is the solution to the current environmental crisis. I’m talking to you, Stewart Brand. A sort of Nostradamus of technological and environmental thought, Brand is one of the most prominent environmentalists-turned-nuclear power proponents in the United States. He is an incredibly influential public intellectual and the founder of the Long Now Foundation, an organization that celebrates stuff like this and promotes thinking along these lines. He even invited Frank Gavin to give an inspiring lectureon the important things historians have to contribute to pressing policy discussions, which, to this historian, is pretty cool. None of these things sits comfortably with the praise he continues to lavish upon nuclear energy technology.

As the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident has been unfolding, I’ve been waiting to hear his reactions, which he finally shared in an interview with Foreign Policy Magazine on March 22, 2011. The interviewer gets straight to the point in his first question:

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.

Brand sees the current nuclear crisis in Japan as a diversion from what he calls “the main event” – global warming. The standard line among nuclear energy proponents from as far back as the 1990s is that nuclear offers a cleaner-carbon free alternative to the coal fired electrical generating stations, which significantly contribute to the green house gas emissions that are causing the current trend in global warming. I do not take issue with arguments about the need to wean ourselves off coal; I agree with them. But Brand goes way past talking about nuclear as an intermediary (or temporary) solution to meeting global energy demands when he says, “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.” Never mind that Brand’s statement is incredibly obtuse given the severity of the nuclear accident happening in Japan at the moment. (There are upwards of 150,000 people currently evacuated from the 30km radius surrounding the plants, people who are unlikely to return anytime in the near future – or ever – because of the high-level of radioactive contamination.) Put out of your mind that Amory Lovins’ recent piece for Huffpost Green lays to rest arguments about nuclear power being even remotely economical, highlighting such tidbits of information as the following: of the “66 nuclear units worldwide officially listed as ‘under construction’ at the end of 2010, 12 had been so listed for over 20 years, 45 had no official startup date, [and] half were late,” while new U.S. reactors plans advertised after 2005 were 100% subsidized and completely incapable of raising private capital. (Actually, we should think about these things.)

Nuclear is not, nor has it ever been the sleek and clean technology its proponents claim it is. From uranium mining, to milling, transportation of nuclear materials, nuclear weapons testing, experimentation, waste production, and storage, it has done plenty of damage to the environment and to human health since the atom was first put into the service of the American military during World War II. Just a couple months prior to the earth quake and tsunami knocking out power to the Fukushima nuclear reactors, a ship carrying 770,000 pounds of uranium concentrate from the Cameco Refinery in Saskatchewan encountered severe weather conditions while on route to China, which resulted in several drums of Yellowcake being damaged and dumped into the vessel’s hold. While Cameco reports the recovery of all uranium filled containers, the ship, which was only built in 2007, continues to sit idle in the Vancouver harbour.

In his 2006 book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Brand explains that his eureka moment happened while he was on a tour of the proposed site for the long-term disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain. Congress has since withdrawn funding for the site (after upwards of 6 billion dollars had already been spent on it), amidst intense political conflict and because scientists like Allison Macfarlane have raised serious concerns about its suitability for storing high-level waste. Even if the site had not been scrapped (and, who knows, it may even be resurrected), Yucca Mountain was never going to solve the American nuclear waste problem anyway. There are currently 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel from American nuclear power reactors spread across the country and an environmental impact statement for the Yucca site projected that there would be 119,000 metric tons by the year 2035, an estimate that did not include reactors that were closed for safety reasons or those newer/safer reactors that are intended to reduce the country’s reliance on carbon emitting coal-fired power plants. Yucca Mountain was only ever meant to hold 70,000 metric tons of this waste. The loss of cooling power to the Fukushima spent fuel pond highlights the insecurity of this waste in the U.S., which packs its fuel ponds well beyond capacity. The Vermont Yankee Reactor holds 690 tons of spent fuel compared to Fukushima’s 60 to 83 tons and neither is “equipped with backup water-circulation systems or backup generators for the water-circulation system they do have.” This is the norm across the U.S. and Canada.

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