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Brand vs. Lovins On Nuclear Power

This article is more than 11 years old.
Stewart Brand
Stewart Brand

In today's first hour, Whole Earth guru Stewart Brand and energy expert Amory Lovins debated whether the U.S. should build more nuclear power plants in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Brand's new book, "Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto," takes on a number of what he calls environmental "pieties," including opposition to nuclear power. He says nuclear is now "green" — and that we can't afford to oppose it any longer on the old grounds, given the urgent need to address climate change.

Lovins has recently argued against Brand's view, in a posting at Grist.org, and he layed out his case for us on the air today.

It all mirrors a debate in Washington about whether more nuclear power should be a serious component of a new energy-climate bill.

You can listen to the exchange here:


And here's a transcript:

TOM ASHBROOK: Amory Lovins, you’ve pushed back fairly hard and quite publicly on Stewart Brand’s embrace here of nuclear power. Why?
AMORY LOVINS: Although Stewart and I share a great sense of urgency about climate change, I think the more urgent you think that problem is, the more important it is to invest judiciously to get the most solution per dollar and the most solution per year. And nuclear flunks both those tests. It gives about two to twenty times less carbon savings per dollar and about twenty to forty times less carbon savings per year than if you brought instead the things that are walloping it in the market, namely micropower and energy efficiency.
TOM ASHBROOK: What is micropower?
AMORY LOVINS: Micropower has two parts. One is renewables other than big hydro. So it’s sun, wind, geothermal, small hydro, and so on. And the other part is co-generating electricity and useful heat together in factories or buildings, which saves at least half of the fuel money in carbon.
TOM ASHBROOK: So your core argument is not the nuclear waste argument, but a cost-effectiveness argument around nuclear?
AMORY LOVINS: Correct. Nuclear is about the most expensive and slowest thing you can build. And I don’t think it’s true you need to build everything. You can’t afford to build everything. You need to choose the best buys for your goal, just as in assembling a financial portfolio you don’t stuff it full of one of everything on the market. You figure out the diversified set of assets that will best meet your investment objectives. If you buy something really expensive and risky, that actually makes your portfolio perform worse because you didn't get to buy stuff that would have performed better.
TOM ASHBROOK: Stewart Brand, what about the argument? You’re arguing a big push in nuclear. Amory Lovins says it’s not the most cost-effective way forward and it really matters what we pull the trigger on here.
STEWART BRAND: I was surprised that in Amory’s good and thorough response to the chapter [on nuclear energy], which I’m glad to see is out there, and it’s downloadable from Rocky Mountain Institute. One of the things, Amory, you didn’t address in that was [nuclear] microreactors, and I’m delighted you’re talking about micropower because it looks like the new generation of those small reactors down around 100 to 125 megawatts coming from half a dozen manufacturers are right in there. And [they] could do co-generation and local adaptivity and all the things you’d like to see distributed micropower do.
AMORY LOVINS: It might have been a good idea to look at 50 years ago, but it’s way too late. Actually, I did describe it... I wrote a special paper on this called “New Nuclear Reactor, Same Old Story” last spring, because I got really curious about these arguments and dug into them. There are two basic issues, that again are economic, that I get to before the other attributes. I think the Gen 4 reactor types are broadly comparable to today’s reactors in waste production. They might in some respects be safer. They’re generally as proliferative or more proliferative. But their economics are not sufficiently better to make any difference, for two reasons. One is that of course what makes a reactor work is that you have a very concentrated source of heat and also of radioactivity, and the physical devices you need to harness the heat and manage the heat and radioactivity do not scale down very well. It’s just a matter of physical scaling laws. Secondly…
STEWART BRAND: Wait, wait, wait. Isn’t that the case also with solar thermal? They’re using the same thing. They’re using smaller steam turbines.
AMORY LOVINS: To some degree, it’s true of the steam turbine, except that there you don’t have a concentrated source and you don’t need shielding. And the mirrors—or troughs or whatever – are very well suited to scaling down and to mass production. The more serious problem, though, is one of timing. The things you’re competing with, or the things that all nuclear fails to compete with by large margins, are already getting their economies from mass production. They’re things like photovoltaics and wind turbines. And they are decades further along in getting their scale economies. And then by the time you’ve got some kind of new reactor that’s usually been on the books for forty or fifty years to be actually licensed, financed, built, tested – and then you’ve scaled up production of it – you’d be more decades behind, at least one or two, the things that are already several times cheaper. In fact, if you were to take today’s nuclear plants and make the nuclear part free, the other roughly two-thirds of the investment would still be grossly uncompetitive with efficiency and micropower.

Brand and Lovins also took up the issue of nuclear safety, after one of the show's callers raised the issue. Here's the exchange on that:

TOM ASHBROOK: Stewart Brand, what about the safety issue when it comes to nuclear?
STEWART BRAND: It’s been very good...[t]he people around nuclear reactors, they’re polled every so often: “What do you think about nuclear, nuclear reactors, would you like to have another nuclear reactor at the plant nearby?” It’s the most positive support the industry gets, people who are closest to the industry out in the landscape. So, at least all the data from that shows it’s not so big an issue…
TOM ASHBROOK: Amory Lovins, the safety aspect of nuclear?
AMORY LOVINS: …I think we need to remember that, although there are many honest and conscientious people in this industry that know they’re dealing with serious matters, organizations are fallible, just as individuals are, and they often do things that the individuals in them would not do by themselves. Historically, whenever you get a period like we’ve been in the last eight years, where there’s a very pro-nuclear administration and that sends all the signals against dissent and rocking the boat, this turns out to be bad for the nuclear industry. Because bad things end up happening that wouldn’t have if we had been more alert. And you get capture of the regulatory apparatus by the industry being regulated and so on. So I think the issues of human fallibility remain serious in this industry. I just don’t tend to treat those first, because if the technology is unnecessary, uneconomic and actually reduces and retards climate protection, I stop there. I don’t go on to whether it’s proliferative or unsafe or whether we know what to do with the waste.
STEWART BRAND: Amory, question, what do you make of the rather pro-nuclear stance of the current administration?
AMORY LOVINS: I think there are differing views within the administration. And I think the differences between our views are mirrored there and that our discussion will be helpful in informing those internal debates. I think also a lot of the pressure comes from members of Congress more than members of the administration.
STEWART BRAND: The Democrats there, the powerful ones, are sounding more pro-nuclear every day with the climate bill.

You can listen to the whole show here.

This program aired on October 21, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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