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Stewart Brand is Rethinking Nuclear

By Lisa Chacón

Monday night Stewart Brand spoke at UC Berkeley on “Rethinking Green.”

He went through the requisite slides on climate, population and energy – but with a few twists. He was involved in the Pentagon-sponsored Abrupt Climate Change report in 2003, “we’re still learning about how weird it can get and how fast it can get weird,” he said as he showed a global minefield of positive feedback loops that could rapidly increase CO2 in the atmosphere. “At what point will the pH of the oceans become too acidic for the phytoplankton to continue sequestering CO2? When will the methane gigaburp out of the permafrost? When will the rainforests wilt and stop storing carbon? We have no idea!” Brand asserts that each one of these events will come as a nasty surprise and will push the urgency around climate response to a new level, forcing us to reconsider technologies that we may not currently favor, such as nuclear power and geo-engineering.

He argued that nuclear power issues are merely design problems – around cost, safety, waste storage and weapons proliferation. To make his case about the safety of nuclear waste transport, he showed a series of crash test videos – waste containers being driven into a cement wall at 120 miles per hour on the back of an eighteen-wheeler, dropped from 50 feet onto a solid concrete block, and burning for ninety minutes in jet fuel at 2000F – all of them surviving without ruptures or leaks.

He claimed that the amount of waste that one American would generate over a lifetime powered solely by nuclear would be the size of a coke can (a very heavy coke can). He believes that waste can be safely stored for two to three decades in Carlsbad’s WIPP or Yucca Mountain, which could buy us some time. He mostly blames Amory Lovins for destroying the potential for nuclear on the basis of cost, but asserted that if the real costs of coal were accounted for, and if carbon caps or taxes were implemented, they would actually be comparable.

Asked about the “black swan” for nuclear, he answered that Chernobyl wasn’t so bad – a lot of radiation released, but only 56 deaths. Brand noted that half a million cancer deaths were predicted after the incident, but recently the UN had found that only four thousand might die a little earlier of cancer, given that one-half to one-third of us will die of cancer at some point anyway.

Brand’s basic message was that coal is far more terrifying than nuclear, because if we don’t stop burning coal immediately, we are cooked for sure. That may be so, but nuclear is far more terrifying than solar, wind and hydro, so isn’t that the comparison we should be making rather than nuclear vs. coal? His final slide showed a nuclear power plant against a blue sky with the sound of a bird chirping. I’m skeptical, but he definitely made me question some of the assumptions underlying my anti-nuclear position.

Ever the iconoclast, Stewart Brand has thrown down the gauntlet within the environmental network by asking us to “rethink green” – and preferably before things start getting weirder, faster.

Brand's new book, Whole Earth Discipline, is scheduled for release in October.

Read more in the Worldchanging archives:
Stewart Brand and Liferaft Earth
Stewart Brand's Clock Update
Chernobyl Day
Geoengineering: A Worldchanging Retrospective
Nuclear Power and Climate Change: Is Our Choice Glow or Cook?
Nuclear Energy: Not a Climate Change Solution?

Lisa Chacón is an international sustainability and innovation consultant, currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Ugh. Not Brand again!

So, how much does he reckon it will cost, and how fast will they be up?

The nuclear industry has a *horrid* record for not delivering on time and on budget - worse even than IT. Do we trust their spokesperson this time?

Compare the declining costs for wind and solar which predictably follow the usual curve for tech products... Decades of a proven track record of improving performance and reducing costs.

Not to mention Lovins' preferred method: efficiency.

Nuclear energy is a non-starter.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 18 Mar 09

I thought the article "Nuclear Caribou," from the latest Orion, provided some great reasons for why nuclear should not be considered a "renewable" resource.


Posted by: Sarah on 18 Mar 09

Anyone who attempts to trivialise Chernobyl is off the scientific role-call... and is just a lying politician, like all the others.

As an anecdotal aside, I once saw this documentary... about this girl from the area around Chernobyl who had to go and work in a country because her little brother was sick. She wound up being trafficked to Turkey and forced into prostitution - eventually she escaped, and returned home to find that her little brother had a tumour the size of a football in his stomach.

So she wound up going back to Turkey, back into prostitution to provide the money to take care of him.

Sure this story is a compounding of a number of different evils... but a tumour the size of a football? Please - don't try and make out that nuclear leaks are like any other kind of accident.

Oh, and for those in doubt, nukes are not safe:


France :

Germany :,1518,576550,00.html

Posted by: Nick Taylor on 18 Mar 09

Stewart is always interesting, but that doesn't make him always right. Coal may be more dangerous than nuclear (tho the mistakes last longer with nuclear), but there are never only two choices. Nuclear fails on economics as well as safety -- after 60 years of subsidies -- and has its pants beaten off by efficiency; look at benefit/$ and there's no comparison.

Stewart and his old Whole Earth bud Peter Warshall debated this at Bioneers a couple of years ago. Well worth it if you can find a recording. (Peter took Stewart down, imho.)

Posted by: Gil Friend on 18 Mar 09

In case anyone is interested, our hypothetical soda-can of spent nuclear material (assuming a uranium fuel cycle that yields about 1% Pt, 97% U, and the rest a heavy metal grab-bag) would weigh about 15 pounds.
I don't like to see people making light of Chernobyl, but I'm very encouraged to see more people talking about the potential environmental benefits of nuclear power. Friedman presents a similar position in Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Nuclear science and technology have come a long way since we got collectively spooked in the 1970s.
If Brand wants to downplay the relevance of Chernobyl to the US nuclear industry, rather than brushing-off the loss of life, he ought to focus on the fact that the meltdown resulted from a fundamental design difference between US and Soviet reactors. The Chernobyl reactor used graphite control rods (which are flamable under the wrong conditions), while US reactors use materials like hafnium and boron. In contract, the most infamous nuclear accident in US history, Three Mile Island, resulted in no immediate deaths and exposed people in the surrounding area to only about 1 millrem of additional radiation (that's about one-sixth the radiation dose of a typical chest x-ray, or about 1% of the radiation a person naturally encounters in a year).

Posted by: E.R. Dunhill on 19 Mar 09

I blogged about Brand a while back and the one thing which stuck out was that he is practical.

I am all for wind and solar however, it has not been proven to be a suitable alternative to base load power. You do need a suitable base load power and nuclear provides that.

And a discussion on climate change by Schelling is useful.


Posted by: Suhit Anantula on 19 Mar 09

If Stewart Brand were really to rethink nuclear, he would be against it. He has been in favor of it all along. Sadly, there is nothing new here, and his arguments are all based on convenient fictions that fall apart on closer examination. 56 deaths from Chernobyl? A coke can? Yucca Mountain? Has anyone seen "Thank You For Not Smoking?"

Posted by: Peaksurfer on 24 Mar 09

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