Of climate change and nuclear power

- Nuclear power should play an essential role in our efforts to mitigate climate change, argues Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and longtime environmental activist.

Mr. Brand, a professed “eco-pragmatist,” makes the case for nuclear power in his latest book, “The Whole Earth Discipline,” where he draws on the work of several scientists, including Saul Griffith, the MIT-trained material scientist and inventor.

While acknowledging that nuclear power is not without its own environmental risks, Mr. Brand says his bigger concern is the damage caused by coal-burning power plants. To mitigate this damage, he argues we must cut our fossil fuel use to a fraction of today’s levels over the next 25 years.

Renewables, energy efficiency and conservation will play their parts in our future clean-energy portfolio, Mr.

Brand says, but given the 25-year time frame, technologies like wind, solar and biofuels cannot supply enough reliable, consistent electric power to take enough fossil fuel plants offline.

“The vileness of nuclear weapons easily smears over to nuclear energy, and there you have it,” Mr. Brand says in an e-mail message. “Emotion replaces thought and practicality.”

Not everyone agrees that it’s purely an emotional issue.

Amory Lovins, a physicist and the chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, wrote a polite, but detailed dissection of Brand’s position:

“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.”

Mr. Lovins says he favors expanding the use of renewables and decentralizing the power grid by developing more local sources of power generation.

Meanwhile, Jim Riccio, a Greenpeace spokesman, in a conversation with Green Inc., calls Mr. Brand’s arguments “nonsensical, especially concerning the abysmal economics of nuclear power.”

Mr. Riccio adds, “I don’t question his motives. But you get so desperate to solve climate change you begin clutching at nuclear straws.”

Greenpeace argues that energy efficiency will provide the biggest impact in the near term, followed by renewables. It also sees natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to be used while phasing out coal, oil — and nuclear power.

Still, the recent Kerry-Boxer climate-change bill recently introduced in the Senate would provide strong support for nuclear power in the nation’s energy mix.

And one of the United Nations working groups trying to prepare a global climate deal ahead of the international summit in Copenhagen in December is considering proposals to include nuclear power in the Clean Development Mechanism.

The Clean Development Mechanism is an element of the Kyoto protocol that allows developed countries to gain credits against their greenhouse gas reduction commitments by building emission reduction projects in developing countries.

Previously, nuclear power projects have not qualified for the program.

“I presume that nuclear power will qualify for carbon credits this time, the way it didn’t at Kyoto,” Mr. Brand says. “The salutary French experience with nuclear is geographically and politically close enough to Copenhagen to assure that, I trust.”

If this happens, Mr. Brand predicts many of his critics could become “reluctant tolerators.”



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