What’s next for nuclear power?

March 24, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

The disaster at Fukushima is raising antinuclear sentiment around the world. But can society afford to live without this carbon-free energy source? Six experts weigh in.

The human suffering in the Japanese disaster is obviously the overwhelming fact in the situation. Longer term, its effects will shape people’s well-being less severely but more widely. As the rubble clears, a bit of positive news emerging is that the incident’s impact on the global economy will be slight. Historic as the catastrophe was, most forecasters expect it to slow growth only 0.1% to 0.2% this year. The far more significant effect will be how the world responds to the disaster, which will influence our lives for years to come.

Most profoundly affected will be nuclear power, and the danger is that the world’s response to the events at Fukushima may not be rational. As The Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out in this special package of articles, we humans don’t deal well with risk. We underestimate the chances of catastrophic events until they happen; then, because the world is so connected, the setbacks are much harder to handle. NRG Energy (NRG) chief David Crane, one of six experts interviewed here, notes that America hasn’t approved a new nuclear plant in more than 30 years. That’s a legacy of Three Mile Island, a “minor accident” (in the view of Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold, also heard from here) in which no one died. Coal power, through mining deaths and emissions, has been far more harmful, but less dramatically so. Hundreds of new coal plants have been built over the past 30 years.

A settled assessment of Fukushima will take months or even years. An emerging consensus, by no means unanimous, suggests that nuclear power will move ahead; the world needs more energy and fewer greenhouse gases. Because billions of people rising out of poverty will be consuming more energy, and because the ways in which we produce that energy will carry consequences for the planet’s future, the stakes in understanding Fukushima properly are extraordinarily high. The voices in the following pages can help. –Geoff Colvin

Stewart Brand

“What the U.S. does or doesn’t do in the wake of Japan is important but not the main event.”

Those of a certain age may remember Stewart Brand as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, the counterculture bible that first appeared in 1968. It’s the only catalogue ever to win the National Book Award. Brand is also co-founder of the consultancy GBN and the author of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, in which he outlines his support for nuclear power as a vital weapon in the war against climate change. Fortune’s David Whitford asked him what he’s thinking now.

My thoughts are only partially complete. I’m paying close attention. One thing we know is that a 9.0 earthquake did not harm the nuclear reactors in Japan. What did get them was the tsunami that was just a bit higher than what they had prepared for. I’m impressed that so far they’ve not had really significant releases of radioactive stuff. And I’m really impressed with the reporting on the crisis. When you compare how the media have handled this calamity with what happened in ’86 at Chernobyl and before that at Three Mile Island, there’s a lot less panic and a lot more detailed, knowledgeable public instruction going on.

I think that is very good news, particularly because people in the U.S. and parts of Europe are starting to change their minds about nuclear. Before, it was, “Should we just shut these damn things down?” Now, I think, it’s more in the mode of, “Should we go ahead with a nuclear renaissance, and if so, what kind of details need to be focused on?”

In Fukushima, we’re looking at a 40-year-old boiling-water reactor whose cooling capability, it turns out, was not as redundant as it needed to be. Newer reactor designs, like the Westinghouse AP1000, have passive cooling systems. They don’t need extra power; nobody has to do anything.

We should learn from Japan. What new training do we want to provide for plant operators? What new equipment and systems have to be installed? What new requirements should the NRC enforce? If the discussion is technical rather than theological, I think nuclear will go forward.

We’ve already come a long way. There have been no more Three Mile Islands because the industry paid close attention to what happened there. For the same reason, there will be no more Fukushimas. But, you know, probably in China or India or somewhere, there’ll be some other nuclear event, and it will be a big, serious problem that everybody will look at with either horror or close attention or both. Basically, high concentrations of energy — whether it’s in gasoline or natural gas going through pipes underneath your neighborhood — are dangerous stuff. Nuclear is more in Black Swan territory, where you have infrequent but big events. Other sources of energy fall into the routine-death domain, both for civilians and workers, so you’re always seeing cost-benefit analyses.

The sad thing for me is that in the U.S. we’re more concerned about these damn nuclear plants than about what happened in Japan with this absolutely horrifying tsunami and earthquake. I think that nuclear is a significant part of their problems, but it is far from the worst problem.

My perspective is mainly global. What the U.S. does or doesn’t do in the wake of Japan is important but not the main event. The main event is in the developing world, where billions of people are getting out of poverty and moving to cities, and they want electricity. They’re either going to get that electricity from coal or they’re going to get it from nuclear. My personal preference for the atmosphere is that it not be coal.

So I was glad to read that even after what’s happened in Japan, China and India remain committed to nuclear power. We used to think, Well, one more major nuclear accident and that’s it for the nuclear industry. Everybody said that. Now we’ve had one more major nuclear accident, and from what I can see so far, to our surprise, that’s not it for the nuclear industry. It looks as if this will be seen as a cautionary story. Meanwhile the big calamity — the earthquake-and tsunami-scale calamity that is climate change — is still overshadowing everybody and everything.

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