Japan’s unfolding nuclear disaster has reignited safety fears about the controversial power source and threatens to short-circuit a nuclear power renaissance in the United States.
But an architect of the environmental movement, Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, nevertheless continues to champion nuclear as a way to reduce carbon emissions in the face of global warming.
“Am I still in favor of nuclear?” Brand asked during a telephone interview this week from his Sausalito office, an old fishing boat. “Absolutely.”
Other energy experts say the calamity at the Fukushima Daiichi complex exposes the limits of even the most carefully crafted nuclear power backup plans. “For me, the events in Japan reinforce what we already knew," said Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "We are awash in lower-cost, lower-risk alternatives to nuclear power.”
Since Brand stunned his supporters by embracing nuclear power a few years ago, he and Cavanagh have debated the subject. Each has found fuel for his argument in Japan’s impending nuclear catastrophe.
“I think people will find as this plays out that there’s way less to be concerned about than what one might have feared,” Brand said.
“The human toll of the earthquake and tsunami already is, of course, unspeakably grave, even before account is taken of the nuclear plant impacts, and the urgent priority now is and must be to minimize additional damage,” Cavanagh said. “For me, the overriding question is the lowest cost way of ensuring reliable and affordable electricity supplies, and the U.S. story has been that nuclear can’t win when competitive procurement is the order of the day.”
Cavanagh prefers renewable energy, natural gas and clean coal.
Thomas McKone, a University of California, Berkeley environmental health sciences professor, earned a doctorate in nuclear engineering during the 1970s, when nuclear was a dirty word in Berkeley. He calls himself a nuclear-power agnostic. He worries about nuclear proliferation and radioactive nuclear waste disposal but sees global warming as a greater threat.
“I’m more concerned about the potential health effects and disease burden of climate change – forest fires and shortages of water,” he said. “What’s interesting about what’s happening in Japan is it may end up taking nuclear energy off the table.”
And not, he said, because of the evidence but because of people’s fears and the resulting politics.
As scientists calculating the odds, McKone and Brand minimized potential casualties from a worst-case scenario in Japan.
“To put it in perspective,” McKone said, “the number of people who would die even if there’s a major meltdown is not going to be very big relative to the number who died from the tsunami.”