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Where is Nuclear Energy Going? A Debate

By Gar Smith
Wednesday July 27, 2011 - 02:30:00 PM
Mark Hertsgaard, Winona LaDuke and Stewart Brand at the Brower Center.
Gar Smith
Mark Hertsgaard, Winona LaDuke and Stewart Brand at the Brower Center.

Three Green Luminaries squared off at Berkeley’s David Brower Center on July 21 during a contentious debate over the future of nuclear energy. The so-called “Fix It or Nix It” debate pitted Native American activist (and two-time Green Party vice-presidential candidate) Winona LaDuke against Stewart Brand, legendary founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue and, more recently, a vocal advocate for nuclear energy. The debate was moderated by Mark Hertzgaard and co-sponsored by the Earth Island Institute and The Nation magazine. 

After an opening welcome by Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark, Hertsgaard introduced the speakers and plugged their respective books. Winona is the author of The Militarization of Indian Country and Stewart is the author of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. 

Hertsgaard began with an explanation that the event nearly had been cancelled as a “security threat.” A powerful but unnamed member of the environmental community had objected to offering a platform to Brand because of his pro-nuclear stance. There were threats of boycotting Earth Island Institute were it to sponsor the event. Fortunately, Hertsgaard concluded, Earth Island stood firm. Appropriately enough for the home of the Free Speech Movement, the Berkeley-based organization decided to go ahead with the event. The audience’s applause indicated that Earth Island’s directors had made the right decision. 

Hertsgaard kicked things off with the quote from Brand’s new book. It was an update of the classic line from Brand’s 1974 Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Whole Earth Discipline updates that to: “We are as gods and we HAVE to get good at it.” 

“We are terraforming the Earth,” Brand told the audience, “so we need to learn to do the terraforming well. And the tool for doing that is technology.” 

Brand mentioned how India and China — not the US — are really going to determine how the Earth develops and he pointed to China’s push to expand its energy production. While visibly cringing at China’s new coal plants, Brand expressed no qualms about China’s proposed nuclear expansion and believes it bolsters his case that the nuclear option is both reasonable and inevitable. 

Hertsgaard seconded Brand’s criticism of coal — noting that 13,000 in the US die from coal production each year — but he pointed out that China has recently announced that it hopes to reduce its energy consumption by a whopping 40-45% — simply by applying existing efficiency strategies. 

Brand shot back that even these savings would not be able to satisfy China’s growing needs. In China and around the world, people who “used to walk” now want motorbikes, cars, and airplanes. 

Brand dismissed anti-nuclear concerns as “techno-paranoia.” As an example, Brand quoted David Brower himself who once proclaimed: “All rechnology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.” 

Brand proceeded to describe new technology as a value-neutral process that was innocent of intent — simply a process of discovering “cool new ways to do things.” So “don’t over-interpret” technology, Brand warned. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were initially feared, Brand argued, but they have subsequently been shown to pose no threat to human health or the environment. Living systems have been swapping and recombining genes for millions of years, Brand said, so there was nothing new about human scientists resplicing genetic codes to design new species. Critics of GMOs were wrong to fear this new technology, Brand insisted, and they now must learn to accept GMOs. 

Brand seemed deaf and blind to the continuing critical clamor over GMOs negative impacts on health (including allergic reactions, sterility and organ failure) and the demonstrable environmental damage caused by the spread of lab-manufactured crops and herbicide-resistant “superweeds” that, once released, have become a spreading menace in many southwest regions of the US. 

Brand appears to inhabit a parallel Earth that is free of the specter of corporate control or haunted by the profit motive; where new technology arises spontaneously, pure and without intent. But on the Earth most of us are familiar with, modern research is largely driven by corporations acting in the pursuit of extending market control and increasing profitability. In Brand’s world of “pure science,” there is no need for a Precautionary Principle (which is just a re-write of Dave Brower’s warning about the presumed “innocence” of new technology). 

Winona LaDuke countered with a calm insistence on “intergenerational justice,” as informed by the Native American concept that today’s decisions must be guided by a concern for the impacts our choices will have on the next Seven Generations. (This may have been the earliest formulation of the “Precautionary Principle.”) Winona expressed dismay at a world in which “science is the new God” and offered her own spin on Brand’s line: “We are not as Gods,” she said, “We are as children.” Winona went on to draw the important distinction between intelligence and wisdom. Stewart, she cautioned, was wrong to depend on high-tech Western intelligence without respecting the cautionary approach that comes with wisdom. 

At this point, Hertsgaard raised the unavoidable issue of the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan. Had this caused Brand to reconsider his support of nuclear power? 

Not at all. Brand responded by running down the statistics. Sure, there were three multiple reactor meltdowns and a spent fuel pool blown to smithereens in an explosion but, while 20,000 were killed by the tsunami, “no one died as a result of nuclear power.” Brand then recalled the e. coli outbreak that killed scores and sickened thousands in Europe. “But you didn’t hear anyone demanding that organic farms should be shut down!” 

“I don’t believe all these things are equal,” Winona replied. She mentioned the dark history of Monsanto, Dow, and Agent Orange. “I don’t have amnesia,” she said, adding that “some people are living in an Oil Bubble.” 

While Stewart contended that GMOs could save Africa and the rest of the world from starvation, Winona warned against GMOs and monocultures. “Remember the Irish potato famine,” she scolded. A sustainable biosphere requires biodiversity – many crops working in supportive harmony, not a world dominated by the spawn of corporate-owned patented seeds. A prime example of supporting biodiversity is the Native American garden staple known as the Three Sisters — corn, squash and beans grown together in a mutual tangle than improves the vitality of all three foods. 

“Technology isn’t going to save us,” Winona continued, “We have to learn to be responsible.” Winona compared GMOs to “sexual predators” that can stalk stalks, cross-pollinate, and destroy natural and organic crops. “Food is more than a commodity,” she emphasized, “It’s a relative!” A question that haunts Winona, who comes from a native rice-growing culture, is: “How do you stop people from shopping and start them growing?” 

Brand returned to his praise for the promise of new nuclear technologies — including Integral Fast Reactors that, he claimed, could turn a liability into a resource by burning the world’s stockpiles of toxic radioactive spent fuel to create electricity. 

The first question raised during the 15-minute Q&A related to the waste issue. 

“Decommisioning all 104 US reactors could cost between $50-$100 billion. We only have $24 billion in a Nuclear Waste Fund but this can only be spent on underground storage (and this is no longer available.) With the US $14 trillion in debt, how can we cover the costs of closing existing reactors, let alone building new ones?” 

Brand sidestepped the question of cost and focused instead on the problem of storage. There was a simple solution to the dilemma, Brand suggested. US reactor wastes could simply be stored in the stable salt foundation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site at the Los Alamos Nuclear Labs in New Mexico (Yes, the same facility recently threatened by a massive wildfire.) 

“Stewart,” another audience member began, “I want to thank you for your many years of service. I learned about the Gaia Theory from you. But I have to say: I think you are fundamentally wrong here. Climate change is not the only issue. Even before climate became an issue, species were going extinct. How can we allow the biosphere to lose 50% of its species?” 

In response, Brand offered a strange defense. “Mother Nature is a real mother!” he began. “She’s tough.” If one species goes extinct, he argued, there are lots of others that will step in to fill the niches. “We lost the American chestnut and the passenger pigeon,” Brand noted, but “we can use GMO technology to bring back the lost trees and pigeons!” With genetic engineering, he contended, it would be possible to tap archived seed vaults to recreate the chestnut and, by splicing store-housed genes from extinct bird tissue, we could transform a close relative into a reborn version – an exact replica – of the long-gone passenger pigeon. This suggestion triggered an audible cringe among many in the audience. 

As the last speaker reached the microphone, Brand suddenly leaned forward to shield his eye against the light and piped up in delight: “Peter!?” 

Actor-author Peter Coyote returned the greeting. But then he quickly launched into the best critique of the evening. Admitting that he was still trying to recover from Brand’s vision of genetic scientists reincarnating the passenger pigeon, he offered the evening’s final revision of Stewart’s Godly Motto. “To my mind we are not as gods. We are more like idiot savants,” Coyote said. 

Picking up on Winona’s observation, Coyote lamented that, while “President Obama has a very intelligent Science Advisor, the president does not have a Wisdom Advisor.” Coyote said he found Brand’s “absence of doubt” about the inherently positive impacts of technology bordered on the “sociopathic.” 

Coyote asked Brand why he was willing to risk the magnificence of the biosphere by producing “a toxic poison with a half-life of 20,000 years for the sake of sustaining this Western culture.” Instead of trying to invent new technologies to feed the exponentially growing consumption of industrial society, Coyote asked why was Brand not working to change the current culture to one that is sustainable? 

Brand had the last word. “Remember voluntary simplicity?” He asked. “That was good for about six months. Voluntarily simplicity doesn’t work when most of the world is stuck in involuntary simplicity.” 

The entire recorded conversation can be heard on KALW. Check the station for broadcast times. 

Gar Smith is the author of Nuclear Roulette, recently published by the International Forum on Globalization. The extensively researched and highly praised 94-page mini-book offers detailed critiques of every pro-nuclear argument and provides a persuasive case for adopting renewable energy solutions. The report is available from for $16 (and $3 postage).