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.