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Stewart Brand is an author, pioneering environmentalist, and former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, which he published from 1968 through 1998. In the early 1960s he served as an[…]

“Environmentalists grasp at straws a little with wind and solar,” says Stewart Brand. As the U.S. backs construction of new nuclear plants, the godfather of the green movement explains why it’s the right move for the planet.

Question: Why do you advocate embracing nuclear power?

Stewart Brand: The main argument now, the main green argument for nuclear power is the climate one.  This is basically zero carbon source of base load electricity which is what you need to run cities and so on and the world is now half cities and is heading toward 80% urban people.  So, we're going to want a lot of that kind of electricity and it either comes from coal, or from nuclear.  And the coal based, which is hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere is tremendously deleterious in terms of climate, plus all the other stuff that come out of there, mercury and so on.  Whereas, the waste from nuclear is very limited in size and in scale, it's heavy, but you put it into these dry casks storage containers out back of the parking lot of the reactor sites and there's not very much of it, and it doesn't add up very quickly, you're getting a lot of juice out of it.  And then it's relatively easy to either put in the ground.  I think the best site for it is New Mexico in what's called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that's already been dealing with nuclear waste for 10 years; or leave it where it is for 50-100 years while we think about whether we want to reprocess it, the way the French do, or completely burn it in a fourth generation faster reactors that are very comfortable treating that waste as fuel.

Question: How can nuclear reactors be kept safe from terrorist attack?

Stewart Brand: I think the U.S. has done more harm to itself by worrying about terrorism than terrorists ever did.  And so, we bend everything to think in terms of, "Oh my gosh, what would be a terrible terrorist do with this?"  It's been quite a long time now since there's been that kind of attack.  It would take an exceptionally stupid terrorist to try to do something harmful with what goes on with nuclear power.  One, the sites are isolated and incredibly well guarded, the stuff in the way it's transported is very, very safe and they run **** images and videos of trains running into the containers and no bad thing happening and so on.  One environmentalist said to me, "Well, you know, you can get a shape charge and blow a hole in that container and then get at that spent fuel."  And then you have to say, "Okay, and then what?"  No bad thing has happened yet, it just has a hole in it.  Do you want to go deal with it?  It's too hot, it will hurt you.  And you're off in the bush somewhere.  It's just that it's science fiction to try to imagine tricky ways that terrorists might do bad things with nuclear as it is used in nuclear power.  You can find lots more scary things to do as real terrorists really do with many other parts of the infrastructure, the electrical grid, and various gases, like chlorine gas and so on, natural gases are moved around in compressed form.  These are much more vulnerable. 

But I think the question of what would terrorists do with nuclear power stuff is one of the ways we try to persuade ourselves not to take this seriously and an environmentalist are always looking for something.  Oh it's too expensive, and therefore we can't do it, even though wind is incredibly expensive, but that doesn't stop us from doing it.  And it's fine, I hope to see lots of wind.  Or, oh gosh, there's a problem with the nuclear waste, therefore we can't do it.  And it's a very prejudiced, I think, ideological set of arguments that emerge, but I wound up in this book I just finished having to go through every single one of the objections and say, well, let's look at it realistically, pragmatically, you know, ideology aside for a minute.  How does it play out in those terms and I'm persuaded, I used to be against nuclear power, kind of in a knee-jerk mode.  As I look through all of the details of the alternatives with coal, how nuclear actually works, the prospects of the next generation reactors that are coming along, it looks to me like, in terms of climate, and in terms of everything else, nuclear is a good thing to expand.  It's obviously going to be just part of what we do about energy and it still doesn't add up, so we are looking at serious climate problems, frankly, no matter what we do.  And that's another issue that I'm trying to get environmentalists off, this kind of Al Gore, “Don't worry, we'll all get jobs and we'll all do a few of the right things and wave our hands really fast and the climate problem will go away."  I just don't see it happening that way.

Question: How do you assess the future of wind and solar technology?

Stewart Brand: I think that environmentalists kind of grasp at straws a little bit with wind and with solar.  They're absolutely right about efficiency and cutting back on the excessive and stupid use of energy has a long way to go.  For example, the Chinese, we are saying, "Well, you know, they are now emitting more greenhouse gases than the US."  Well, per whole country, but per capita they emit 1/6 of the greenhouse gases we use.  We have a long way to come down to where they are.  And they are probably really going to go up a bit from where they are just because they're getting out of poverty.

So those things are right and good, I think what we're just realizing is the size of the footprint, as it's called, of both wind and solar.  A typical 1 GW nuclear plant is maybe a third of a square mile, and a 1 GW solar power plant is about 25 square miles of bulldozed desert.  And as a protector of desert, I don't like that trade off very much.  It’s something we're discovering in California now is the various solar projects are going forward and they've put dibbies on 1,000 square miles in southern California.  They want to basically does it flat and click the solar farms on it.

So, I'm all for solar on rooftops and for new solar technology that can put it on streets and paint and anywhere that you can somehow turn sunlight into electricity, I think that's great, but to imagine that there's no hard trade-offs is an illusion.  And that's going to keep happening.  We've been here before.  Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when, again in California, we had a lot of hydroelectric dams coming in and the Sierra Club said, "This is unacceptable," and nuclear power was just coming on and for a few years there the Sierra Club said nuclear power is better than dams.  But they changed their minds about that, but actually I think they were right the first time.

Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen