My friend and frequent collaborator, Brian Eno, read my piece about the encouraging rise in divestment from fossil fuels and took issue with my concerns regarding the safety of nuclear power. His argument is a good one—I, too, have read that nuclear is the only hope we currently have of meeting our energy needs while ending fossil fuel use. Wind and solar are great (and have become financially competitive), but obviously can’t work everywhere, and batteries and other forms of energy storage are still an issue. Brian reached out to his friend Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalogue, The Long Now Foundation) who has been an advocate for nuclear for a while now. I may still have concerns about nuclear and safety, but hear them out. —David Byrne
Thanks for more wonderful installments of RTBC. It’s a great service you’re doing here. I want to take slight issue with one thing you’ve said, however: about nuclear.
From being anti-nuclear for a long time I changed my stance and I am now pro-nuclear—at least as an intermediate technology until we really get renewables, and, as you say, BETTER BATTERIES, sorted out.
You might know the name George Monbiot. He’s our most famous and probably most clear-sighted environmentalist. He writes for the Guardian and I never miss his column. He was virulently anti-nuke for years—until Fukushima in fact. When that happened, he changed his mind. He said something like: Fukushima was the ultimate horror story in nuclear accidents—an ancient reactor built in a bad location, poorly maintained and a series of maintenance errors. It was the worst accident imaginable. And the result? Not a single fatality from the nuclear meltdown (it was the flooding that killed people) and many lessons learned. If this was the worst that can happen (he said), then I’m pro-nuclear.
He received a lot of hate mail as a result of his very courageous change of direction, but I think he was right. Historically there have been almost no fatalities from nuclear power generation compared to the incalculable damage wrought by fossil fuels.
His position, and mine, was that the only non-fossil way we have, as things stand, of meeting our energy needs realistically is with nuclear. That doesn’t mean we stop developing renewables—quite the opposite: nuclear just gives us a little more breathing space in which to do that.
All this was anticipated and well-argued in Stewart Brand’s excellent Whole Earth Discipline. There’s also a great film called Pandora’s Promise, by another ex-anti-nuker, in which the argument is well laid out. The film features several others who’ve changed their minds about this. It’s worth seeing.
Nuclear still has problems, but radiation danger doesn’t seem to be the main one. That place is held (in my opinion) by another problem: nuclear fuel is non-renewable. However, there are now new designs being pursued that recycle used fuel to extract more energy from it—which also solves the other problem: storage of still-hot spent rods.
And here’s a little story. I grew up within a few miles of Britain’s first, and largest, nuclear power plant. A childhood friend of mine went on to become head of security there. I asked him recently whether they’d ever had a nuclear incident. He told me that, yes, once all the alarms went off and everybody was mobilized to see what was happening. It turned out that one of the night workers there had brought in an old clock to repair (his nighttime hobby) but it had a luminous dial, using radium-based paint. The alarm system had picked up that radiation and set all the bells ringing! In 20 years, that was their only alarm.
I found this a very reassuring tale.
I sent your piece and my response to Stewart Brand, who replied:
My support for nuclear grows. Mainly, of late, from two arguments:
1) People doing serious sums of what it will take AT SCALE to really turn back greenhouse gases enough to level off climate change are saying now that it simply can’t be done without nuclear, a whole lot of nuclear.
2) An argument I haven’t seen before is that no other clean energy source can scale up as quickly as nuclear—IF the reactors are standardized. France and Sweden showed the way on this.
Michael Shellenberger, a long-time friend, has become the most informative (and enjoyable) source of emerging perspectives on nuclear. His organization does original research on the subject. You can get his excellent email notices signing up at EnvironmentalProgress.org.
A similar version of this story appeared on Reasons to be Cheerful on September 24, 2018.