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Stewart Brand goes nuclear

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

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  • Oct 23, 2009
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Legendary author of the Whole Earth Catalog has a new book

Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17A radio jingle asks the rhetorical question, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there,” which is an inside out joke on the reality altering nature of the decade. Stewart Brand became one of the icons of the era with his ground breaking book ‘The Whole Earth Catalog” which helped readers cope with the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of the times.

Now 70 years old, but as energetic as ever, [bio] Brand (left) has a new book that talks, among other things, about nuclear energy. Titled, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, a key element is Chapter 4 which addresses the role of nuclear energy in dealing with climate change.

Here’s how he launches into his subject

Stewart brand For the definitive word on how much to worry about climate change, environmentalists in America have taken to relying on James Hansen, NASA’s authoritative and outspoken climatologist. When Hansen declared in 2007 that we must not settle for leveling off carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm) but must take the level down from the current 387 ppm to 350 ppm or lower, the new environmentalist slogan became “350!”

Environmentalists take no notice of Hansen’s views on nuclear, however. As President Obama was taking office, Hansen wrote him an open letter suggesting new policy to deal with the climate crisis.

Coal plants are factories of death,” he wrote. “Coal is responsible for as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as the other fossil fuels combined.” Hansen proposed what America needed: a carbon tax “across all fossil fuels at their source”; the phasing out of all coal-fired plants; and “urgent R&D on 4th-generation nuclear power, with international cooperation.…”

Profound transformations

twins According to Stewart Brand, a lifelong environmentalist who sees everything in terms of solvable design problems, four profound transformations are under way on Earth right now. [Ted Talk: Video]

  • Climate change is real and is pushing us toward managing the planet as a whole.
  • Urbanization-half the world’s population now lives in cities, and 80% will by midcentury-is altering humanity’s land impact and wealth.
  • Biotechnology is becoming the world’s dominant engineering tool.
  • Nuclear energy is a solution to reducing carbon emissions.

Brand says these changes will require environmentalists to reverse some long held opinions and embrace tools that they have traditionally and profoundly distrusted. Good luck with that, but Brand is not deterred.

He says that a radical rethinking of traditional green mantras will be necessary to stop the catastrophic deterioration of the earth’s resources.

Whole Earth Discipline is what book publishers like to call “myth shattering” because it presents counterintuitive observations on why cities are actually greener than countryside, how nuclear power is the future of energy, and why genetic engineering is the key to crop and land management.

Brand says the environmental movement must figure out how to come to terms with fast-moving science and take up the tools and discipline of engineering. Brand was trained as an ecologist at Stanford University so he comes to this point of view with impeccable credentials. That doesn’t stop the critics.

Lovins weighs in

grist logoAs you might expect, some environmental groups disagree with Brand’s paradigm shift. A high profile response comes from Amory Lovins, an energy analyst who has over many years has criticized nuclear energy as being unsustainable.

In a long article in GRIST, which also attracted over 100 comments, Lovins argues against Brand’s visions. The heart of Lovins’ reply to Brand’s book is on the issue of the cost of nuclear power.

“Today, most dispassionate analysts think new nuclear power plants’ deepest flaw is their economics. They cost too much to build and incur too much financial risk. My writings show why nuclear expansion therefore can’t deliver on its claims: it would reduce and retard climate protection, because it saves between two and 20 times less carbon per dollar, 20 to 40 times slower, than investing in efficiency and micropower.”

I’ve had the opportunity to exchange emails with Brand on developing responses to the criticism laid out by Lovins. I specifically went after the issue of cost.

What I said is that small reactors offer an opportunity for early entry of nuclear energy on to the grid. Here’s what I wrote, which Brand included as a sidebar note in Chapter 4 of the online version of his nuclear book. See also his closing online chapter on recommended reading.

“Size does matter relative to cost. Small reactors come in at $2,500-$4,000 per KW, but at 125 MW cost approximately $300-500 million and can power a city the size of Greeley, Colorado (pop 90,000). They are affordable to utilities which cannot afford to bet the company on a $6 billion deal.

Any municipal utility which currently buys power from a coal fueled plant will want to get off that grid once carbon taxes and carbon-cap-and-trade show up. Small reactors provide the potential escape hatch for these utilities.”

Newsweek interview

Tugboard brandFor more information about Brand’s vision of nuclear energy, and his views on climate change, see an interesting interview with Brand at Newsweek magazine.

I was intrigued by a comment in the interview. Brand and his wife live on a tugboat, in a very small space. He’s live there for years. It just goes to show that a guy with very big ideas is very down to earth even if it is the whole earth.

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Idaho Samizdat is a blog about the political and economic aspects of nuclear energy and nonproliferation issues.  It covers the nuclear energy industry globally.  Additionally, the blog has regional coverage on uranium mining in the western U.S.  Link to original post

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