Nuclear Winner

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.



Shakedown Artists

Earthquake expert Michael K. Lindell explains why the Japanese are better than the rest of us at preparing for earthquakes -- and what we can learn from them.

The images of March 11's earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan -- landscapes awash in flaming debris, cars piled up in parking lots like toys, industrial facilities exploding amid dense black smoke -- are staggering. But what's actually most amazing is that things aren't worse; the death toll, while horrific, is orders of magnitude less than the far less geophysically impressive earthquake in Haiti last year. FP spoke with Michael K. Lindell, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M University and a leading expert in the field of earthquake response -- who, as it happened, was at a meeting of the U.S. government's multi-agency earthquake planning group when we called. He explained why the Japanese are better than everyone else at planning for earthquakes, how real estate developers are hurting the United States' ability to withstand similar tremors, and why earthquake experts are more interested in what's in local building codes than what's on CNN right now.

Foreign Policy: So you're at a gathering of earthquake experts who just happen to be meeting on the day of the largest earthquake in recorded Japanese history.

Michael K. Lindell: Right.

FP: What's the conversation like?

ML: For people who do earthquakes and other hazards for a living, the occurrence of any one event isn't really news. It's news in the sense that it was that magnitude in that place, but we knew sooner or later it was going to happen. One of the things we're trying to do is push the focus away from response and recovery to mitigation and preparedness.

FP: What separates a terrible earthquake from a bad one? What are the factors that matter here?

ML: Being in a bad location makes a lot of difference -- if you're on a fault line that's been locked up for a long time, as we've seen in Japan today and in Chile last year. So, given that you're in a bad location, what do you do about it? That really makes the difference between a Haiti and a Chile. Because the earthquake in Haiti had about between five and 10 times the economic impact and about 500 times the casualties as the earthquake in Chile, even though the one in Chile was orders of magnitude more intense.

A number of things made the difference. The first is that you've got maps. They know where the faults are; they know where the problem areas are: not just on the faults, but on bad soils that are prone to liquefaction -- basically, it just turns to quicksand. And once you've got the maps, you've also got the building codes, the risk information getting out to people -- how do you build buildings so you avoid collapses? So you have steel-reinforced structures, rather than just masonry, bricks. Once a building starts shaking side to side, unreinforced masonry is terrible.

Even if you put that kind of stuff in the codes, you can always make a building cheaper by not putting in the steel reinforcing. So what you need to do is make sure the local jurisdiction has effective building inspections. And not everybody wants to have strong building codes -- it's cheaper to build if the building codes are weak. That means you can sell houses cheaper; you can get more people to buy your houses. In Texas, just before an increase in the building code requirements that was imposed by the Texas Department of Insurance, there was a big run on building permits -- because all of the builders wanted to lock in their permit applications under the old, less stringent codes, which would keep their costs down. It's like, why are you in a hurry to kill your customers? But obviously, they don't see it that way.

FP: How does Japan rate in this regard?

ML: They are in better shape than we [Americans] are in terms of how their buildings are constructed. We have variation in the United States -- our best by far for building codes is California. Japan had the kind of preparedness for the tsunami that they needed. The reports we've gotten so far are that, given the distance from the earthquake epicenter and the quality of the construction, that there was not a lot of earthquake damage in Tokyo and the other major cities.

The Japanese have been working on this for a long time. They put money into detection systems. There are a number of different kinds of earthquake waves that spread out from the epicenter: There's a primary wave that arrives very quickly, a secondary wave that arrives a little bit later. Some of the instrumentation can detect the primary wave and use that as a basis for doing things like stopping elevators at floors instead of between floors, warning hospitals to tell the doctors to take the scalpels out of people's chests before the arrival of the secondary wave. There are some of these warning systems that, unless you're right on top of the epicenter, there's enough time between the arrival of the primary and secondary waves to give people some warning, especially for some of these critical operations: surgical operations, electrical power systems, some kinds of chemical facilities that can shut down their facilities so that if there is any kind of rupture of the pipes, they can automatically turn valves to isolate different parts of the system.

FP: So it becomes an issue of being able to move information quickly.

ML: Right, that's a big part of it. Anything that's a hazardous operation, you can act in time to keep something really bad from happening -- so if you've got the bullet trains moving 150 to 200 miles an hour, you can bring those to a stop until the tracks can be checked. You can shut down industrial operations. And giving people enough forewarning that they can get themselves to a safe location, like standing in a doorway. That's another question we ask: What did the death toll end up being? What was the epidemiology of those deaths? Were there certain types of locations? Were there certain types of people who were more likely to be dead or injured than others?

FP: How widely do those patterns vary from country to country, in the quake in Japan versus the quake in Haiti or Chile?

ML: I think it has more to do with the structures that people are in rather than the behavior of people. During the Kobe earthquake, there were a lot of people who were killed who were living in very traditional Japanese-style houses that had heavy tile roofs. The roofs collapsed, and that killed a number of people. They also found out some of their elevated freeways were not as well designed as they thought. It was sort of like what happened with the Loma Prieta earthquake in Oakland -- the people on the lower freeway were crushed because the pillars collapsed; the upper deck fell on the lower deck, and people were just flattened.

FP: Are there countries that have done a better job of learning these lessons than others?

ML: The Japanese are probably the best in the world, though the state of California is pretty close to where the Japanese are. When a building collapses, they have organized community groups, their emergency response organizations that are equipped to do search and rescue. They're among the world's leaders. An earthquake of this magnitude, if it had been in any country other than Japan, I think we'd be seeing casualty estimates that would be multiples of what they are now.

FP: Why has Japan done so much better than everyone else?

ML: A couple things. One is the frequency. In 1923, there was an earthquake in Tokyo that pretty much leveled the city, very much like San Francisco's 1906 earthquake, and a huge fire. Most of the building structures were wood, very lightly built, and very combustible. They had very limited firefighting capacity. So they learned from events like that. And of course they've got earthquake hazards, volcano hazards, tsunami hazards -- they're all related to each other -- because they're close to a subduction zone. But they don't have tornadoes; they don't really have typhoons. In the United States, there are many more hazards, so our hazard preparedness is spread out across many more kinds of hazards, and that leads to a fragmentation. And Japan is roughly the size of California.

FP: So you have a relatively small country that faces variations on one type of natural disaster.

ML: Right. It's easier to focus.

FP: Do systems of governance matter?

ML: A unitary versus a federal system makes a difference. In a unitary system like Japan, that's one reason they're better prepared -- once the national government says, we're going to do this, it's a much more direct path to funding the agencies to do it, getting the implementation done. Here in the United States, obviously, it's very different. Because of climatic differences, we don't have a national building code, or land use regulations. And between land use and building construction practices, that makes a huge difference.

If you want to make a building earthquake-proof, the engineers can do it. It's just the cost. So then the question becomes, what is the local benefit-cost balance on adding this or that feature to buildings or land-use practices? All of those are local decisions, and the federal government has limited control over those decisions. Local politicians, developers, and most citizens want their communities to grow. So there's this local growth machine that tends to expand into hazard-prone areas: building on slopes that are prone to landslides, building on flood plains, trying to build cheaper, just enough to get by rather than enough to withstand the impact of a hazard. And when you get that kind of construction, building the wrong kinds of structures in the wrong places, when you get a disaster, who's called upon to support the disaster recovery? It isn't local government, because it's usually overwhelmed. It's the federal government.

So the federal government ends up paying for the mistakes of local government. It's kind of a pathological system; it's masquerading as a free market system or local control, but it's massively subsidized by the taxpayers. Ideally, people who live in risky structures or risky places should pay for the privilege of doing so. The people who are living in low-disaster areas are subsidizing people in the high-disaster areas, but they don't realize it.