Stewart Brand and the Nuclear Renaissance that Should Not Be

Stewart Brand

By Lisa Rumiel

Note: Again, the author would like to thank Linda Richards for her helpful comments and suggestions in preparing this article.

It is time to stop claiming that a nuclear renaissance is the solution to the current environmental crisis.  I’m talking to you, Stewart Brand.  A sort of Nostradamus of technological and environmental thought, Brand is one of the most prominent environmentalists-turned-nuclear power proponents in the United States.  He is an incredibly influential public intellectual and the founder of the Long Now Foundation, an organization that celebrates stuff like this and promotes thinking along these lines.  He even invited Frank Gavin to give an inspiring lecture on the important things historians have to contribute to pressing policy discussions, which, to this historian, is pretty cool.  None of these things sits comfortably with the praise he continues to lavish upon nuclear energy technology.

As the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident has been unfolding, I’ve been waiting to hear his reactions, which he finally shared in an interview with Foreign Policy Magazine on March 22, 2011.  The interviewer gets straight to the point in his first question:

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.

Brand sees the current nuclear crisis in Japan as a diversion from what he calls “the main event” – global warming.  The standard line among nuclear energy proponents from as far back as the 1990s is that nuclear offers a cleaner-carbon free alternative to the coal fired electrical generating stations, which significantly contribute to the green house gas emissions that are causing the current trend in global warming.  I do not take issue with arguments about the need to wean ourselves off coal; I agree with them.  But Brand goes way past talking about nuclear as an intermediary (or temporary) solution to meeting global energy demands when he says, “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.”  Never mind that Brand’s statement is incredibly obtuse given the severity of the nuclear accident happening in Japan at the moment.  (There are upwards of 150,000 people currently evacuated from the 30km radius surrounding the plants, people who are unlikely to return anytime in the near future – or ever – because of the high-level of radioactive contamination.)  Put out of your mind that Amory Lovins’ recent piece for Huffpost Green lays to rest arguments about nuclear power being even remotely economical, highlighting such tidbits of information as the following: of the “66 nuclear units worldwide officially listed as ‘under construction’ at the end of 2010, 12 had been so listed for over 20 years, 45 had no official startup date, [and] half were late,” while new U.S. reactors plans advertised after 2005 were 100% subsidized and completely incapable of raising private capital. (Actually, we should think about these things.)

Nuclear is not, nor has it ever been the sleek and clean technology its proponents claim it is.  From uranium mining, to milling, transportation of nuclear materials, nuclear weapons testing, experimentation, waste production, and storage, it has done plenty of damage to the environment and to human health since the atom was first put into the service of the American military during World War II.  Just a couple months prior to the earth quake and tsunami knocking out power to the Fukushima nuclear reactors, a ship carrying 770,000 pounds of uranium concentrate from the Cameco Refinery in Saskatchewan encountered severe weather conditions while on route to China, which resulted in several drums of Yellowcake being damaged and dumped into the vessel’s hold.  While Cameco reports the recovery of all uranium filled containers, the ship, which was only built in 2007, continues to sit idle in the Vancouver harbour.

In his 2006 book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Brand explains that his eureka moment happened while he was on a tour of the proposed site for the long-term disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain.  Congress has since withdrawn funding for the site (after upwards of 6 billion dollars had already been spent on it), amidst intense political conflict and because scientists like Allison Macfarlane have raised serious concerns about its suitability for storing high-level waste.  Even if the site had not been scrapped (and, who knows, it may even be resurrected), Yucca Mountain was never going to solve the American nuclear waste problem anyway.  There are currently 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel from American nuclear power reactors spread across the country and an environmental impact statement for the Yucca site projected that there would be 119,000 metric tons by the year 2035, an estimate that did not include reactors that were closed for safety reasons or those newer/safer reactors that are intended to reduce the country’s reliance on carbon emitting coal-fired power plants.  Yucca Mountain was only ever meant to hold 70,000 metric tons of this waste. The loss of cooling power to the Fukushima spent fuel pond highlights the insecurity of this waste in the U.S., which packs its fuel ponds well beyond capacity.  The Vermont Yankee Reactor holds 690 tons of spent fuel compared to Fukushima’s 60 to 83 tons and neither is “equipped with backup water-circulation systems or backup generators for the water-circulation system they do have.” This is the norm across the U.S. and Canada.

The fate of high-level nuclear waste produced throughout the Cold War nuclear arms race is even more precarious.  The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which finally opened in 1999 after twenty years of study and debate over the location of a nuclear waste repository in the bedded salt formation located beneath Carlsbad, New Mexico, does not even begin to attend to the millions of metric tons of waste that have accumulated since nuclear weapons production began during World War II.  The site is only permitted to store transuranic wastes, which are low level wastes affixed to things such as clothing, tools, equipment, or soils, and none of the high-level plutonium waste that continues to await plans for long term storage at places like the Hanford Reservation.  Hanford was the heart and soul of the American nuclear weapons complex and is known as one of the most polluted places on earth.  The industrial town of Chelyabinsk, located 40 miles south of the secret Soviet nuclear weapons complex at Mayak, holds the title of most polluted place.  For 40 years, these complexes produced plutonium for each nation’s respective nuclear weapons program.  In the name of national security, Department of Energy nuclear weapons production facilities were not subject to the same environmental and safety regulations as commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S.  In fact, while Americans criticized the Russians for the shoddy workmanship and safety design built into the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, it was revealed that Department of Energy reactors lacked the same containment vessel American nuclear proponents praised so highly in the international media!

Public concern over what Hanford was doing to the local environment and human health reached an apex in the early 1980s.  When the manager of the Hanford facility released 19,000 pages of previously secret documents in response to a Freedom of Information request, the fears of local residents were confirmed. And, then some.  Documents revealed that Hanford’s “single-loop” cooling system had released “thousands of curies of radiation into the Columbia River on a daily basis,” while the facility’s practice of burying high-level plutonium waste resulted in as much as 1 million gallons of waste still travelling through the groundwater today.  One of the most shocking revelations was the 1949 “Green Run,” a scientific experiment involving the deliberate release of several thousand curies of Iodine-131 in an attempt to determine whether the U.S. would be able to detect the level of plutonium production at Mayak.  Poor weather conditions on the day of the test resulted in the contamination of local crops and the surrounding communities, from as far away as 125 miles in Spokane, but no one was notified of the potential for harm.  Just so you can grasp the significance of these radioactive releases, which were the norm at DOE facilities, it is said that the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, which gripped the nation in fear, involved the release of 14 curies.  During the 10 years after the DOE committed itself to cleaning up the site in 1989, there was an average of $1 billion per year spent on clean-up and estimates in recent years are as high as $2 billion per year.  Governmental regulation of waste disposal and radioactive contamination at Mayak was even more cavalier, characterized by millions of gallons of liquid waste being dumped into the Techa River, the consequences of which necessitated the resettlement of local populations, a catastrophic explosion at a storage facility in 1957 (releasing 20 million curies of radiation), leading to the further evacuation of 10,000 people, and the deaths of unknown numbers of people.

The population of the regions surrounding Hanford and Mayak with Indigenous people and ethnic minorities means these groups were forced to bear the largest burden to their health, environment, way of life, and livelihood as a result of the nuclear arms race.  There are three Native American tribes – the Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce Tribes – that count Hanford as part of their homeland and they continue to retain fishing, hunting, and gathering rights over the region.  Mexican farm labourers have also been historically concentrated around Hanford, while the Tatar and Bashkir minorities are over-represented in the Chelyabinsk Oblast.  Scholars and Indigenous rights activists call this trend nuclear colonialism.  Examples to support this characterization abound, internationally.  For example, American, Canadian, Australian, and African uranium mines – many of them abandoned and left to contaminate local populations – are disproportionately located on Indigenous lands, yet in few of these areas do Indigenous people exert authority over decision making or receive a fair portion of the profits from resource extraction and related activities.  Dené men at Port Radium, the first Canadian uranium mine operated by the Eldorado Mining Company in the 1930s, were hired to carry “cloth sacks” of uranium ore to the shipping port.  The heavy death toll among these men resulted in the nearby town of Déline being renamed “village of widows” by the locals.  In the U.S., uranium mines are located on the lands of the Navajo, Hopi, Laguna Pueblo, Zia Pueblo, Spokane, Northern Arapaho, Lakota, Acoma, and Jemez Indians.  When Navajo uranium miners began getting sick and dying in the early 1960s as a result of harmful exposures to radiation on the job, the Supreme Court continually denied their claims for compensation from the government until the U.S. Congress finally passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990.  The nuclear burden that American Indians were expected to bear had the potential to increase significantly, when in 1987, the U.S. Department of Energy created an Office for the Nuclear Waste Negotiator and American Indian tribes were exclusively targeted for storing high level nuclear waste.  Criticized as a clear example of environmental racism by many, the office aggressively courted American Indian tribes, offering lucrative grants (sometimes in the range of millions of dollars) to store nuclear waste in removable containers on their reserves until 1994, when Congress withdrew funding from the project because of the office’s complete failure to establish even one dump on Indian land.

If people still have any doubts about the relationship between the expansion of nuclear technology, the exploitation of Indigenous populations, and the decimation of natural environments, they need only look to the American nuclear weapons testing program, both at home and abroad.  Rather than protect the Marshall Islands – as the U.S. agreed to do when the United Nations decided to designate the area a trust territory after World War II, they used it as a testing ground for nuclear weapons, performing 66 atmospheric tests between 1946 and 1958.  This included the well-known 1954 Bravo test of the hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, which made the island uninhabitable for all future generations.  The winds carried the fallout from Bravo to the Rongelap Atoll, more than 100 miles away and the Rongelap people suffered acute radiation sickness.  The U.S. government did not evacuate people from the Island until two days later and, despite evidence that it was still contaminated by radiation in 1957, the U.S. government resettled the people, assuring them that all health concerns were eliminated – only to have to relocate them again in the 1980s.

Brand concludes the Foreign Policy interview by reflecting on the relationship between nuclear weapons production and nuclear power generation, highlighting that we recycle fuel from nuclear warheads to use in nuclear reactors.  “It’s kind of cool,” he says.  Okay, but the connections run much deeper than this.  We cannot disconnect the histories of nuclear waste production from commercial nuclear reactors and waste production from nuclear weapons. The former technology was given birth to as a result of the latter and continuing to tout the possibilities of nuclear power to solve the world’s energy and environmental problems without attending to the mind boggling nuclear waste problem caused by both peaceful and wartime nuclear products is reckless and it’s wrong.

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One thought on “Stewart Brand and the Nuclear Renaissance that Should Not Be

  1. Garry Tanner

    You waste your time on issues mostly having to do with military applications and nuclear waste problems. We are not talking about military uses and the old and new waste is consumed by the fourth generation nuclear power plants as an integral part of the process.
    Of course renewable energy and energy efficiency are the safest energy sources on the horizon, and they should be ramped up as fast as possible. But no serious crunching of the numbers shows the worlds’ energy needs can be satisfied in time without nuclear in the mix. So I advocate that we build as much nuclear capacity as is called for in the coming decades. Then hooked up to the same wagon, sun and nuclear save us from catastrophe harnessed side by side. This way we get as much safe solar/wind energy as we have the space and manufacturing capacity for.
    You say that nuclear engineers and regulators have a history too entangled in threats of harm and disaster to trust them with still more risk. In part you arrive at this conclusion by citing Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl. It should be pointed out that the alarmist radioactivity readings at these sites are over stated. The most current readings do not threaten anyone outside the immediate confines of the plants. There are no substantiated symptoms or deaths caused by radiation nearby. People are moving back into the Chernobyl Region. Nuclear power generation is potentially dangerous, but far less dangerous than oil, coal, and gas refining and burning are. Any centralized power station-type plant with complex technology is risky and potentially dangerous. A new generation of nuclear engineers are applying their most creative ideas to solving the safety and conservation challenges.
    Sustainability has been an admirable goal since the 1970s. This alternative lifestyle, now lived by the most dedicated environmentalists, should be advanced by itself at its rather leisurely pace. But it should be decoupled from energy reform because it dulls the sythe which must be cutting the grip of carbon-based energy sources. Although there should be more people living sustainably, in fact very few people do live this way. Too many people are too tightly wedded to the consumerist lifestyle in America for it too end any time soon.
    Leftist environmentalists have another item on their agenda that they usually keep hidden beneath the surface. This is their dedication to the complete downfall of big oil. As sworn enemies the two antagonists–the socialist left and the Cowboy Oil Men–will only be satisfied when they see the utter ruination of the other. When the dust settles on this fight with no winner, the vast middle of unaffiliated humanity will be the real losers.
    I say let the oil men have their wealth and power. Let them move their investments from oil, coal, and gas to nuclear. Let them be heros while they role their hundred dollar bill cigars.

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