What’s next for nuclear power: Michael Brune

March 24, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

“We have to stop making the problem worse.”

Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club, the country’s largest (more than 1 million members) environmental group. As other environmentalists reaffirmed their support for nuclear power in the face of global warming (see Stewart Brand), Brune and the Sierra Club held firm. Fortune’s Whitford asked him how he views recent events in Japan. He argues it’s the kind of generational event, akin to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, that could negatively affect attitudes toward nuclear power for decades to come.

The situation at Fukushima is still developing, so we don’t yet know how bad it is, but certainly it’s quite frightening. Over the past few years those of us who have been critical of nuclear power have been perhaps a little bit lonelier than we were 20, 25 years ago. But the reality is that the industry hasn’t changed all that much, and the risks that were inherent in nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s, as we’re seeing, are still very present today.

This one definitely caught us by surprise. We weren’t predicting a large earthquake to strike the northeastern coast of Japan followed by a tsunami and failure of backup equipment. But we’ve known for a long time that the consequences of partial or full meltdowns are high, and that it’s almost impossible to design backup systems that eliminate human error or eliminate the impact of natural tragedies. What do we do with the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California, for instance, which is designed to withstand an earthquake of only 7.5? There are a lot of plants like this one in the United States that aren’t fully equipped to deal with a range of catastrophic events.

I’d say that there are a couple of different rational responses to a crisis like this. One, we should look at the country’s most vulnerable, riskiest plants and set them on a rapid timeline for being decommissioned. We probably can’t shut down the entire nuclear fleet in the short term. It’s providing about 20% of our electricity.

Two, we have to stop making the problem worse. We shouldn’t be throwing good money after bad and using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the construction of new nuclear plants. Instead, we should be deepening our commitment to an aggressive transition toward cleaner energy resources, like solar and wind, that don’t cause catastrophic meltdowns, don’t cause massive spills on our coastlines, and don’t contribute to global warming. Clean energy can also create more jobs and make our energy supply much more safe and secure.

To be clear, we see the phaseout of our coal-fired fleet, not our nuclear fleet, as the most important thing we can do to protect public health. Last month we celebrated the defeat of the 150th proposed coal plant in the United States. So how can we be simultaneously opposed to coal and nuclear and keep the lights on and the economy humming?

We are encouraged by the aggressive expansion of solar and wind. Iowa is now about 20% wind. Portugal has gone to 45% solar and wind in just the past five years. Plans are under way for offshore wind projects that can meet 25% of America’s electricity needs. As we phase out of coal and more slowly phase out of nuclear power, increasingly renewables can fill in the gap.

Just looking at the past year, we’ve had a major disaster at the Massey coal mine in West Virginia. We’ve had the BP gulf spill, increased concerns about the environmental impact of drilling for natural gas, and now the nuclear crisis in Japan. They’re all perfect examples of the costs of our dependence on dirty energy.

If you polled most Americans — and for that matter, politicians — I bet you would get a strong majority that think that our economy will transition to clean energy sometime during this century. So the question is, What are we waiting for? Why not go all in now and make that transition happen as quickly and as smoothly as possible?

What’s next for nuclear power? Six experts weigh in: