Issue 432 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


Not long after reading Arnie Cooper’s interview with Stewart Brand [“Environmental Heretic,” September 2011], in which Brand promotes nuclear power as an antidote to global warming and genetic engineering as an antidote to hunger, I read three related quotes in Sierra magazine (Sept./Oct. 2011):

“People living in the vicinity of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility have radioactive urine.”

“Radioactive tritium has leaked from forty-eight of sixty-five U.S. nuclear power facilities, often into groundwater.”

“Weeds are rapidly becoming immune to herbicides, according to researchers at Iowa State University at Ames, thanks to the popularity of herbicide-resistant bio-engineered crops.”

Nuclear reactors produce power for less than forty years. Then they become radioactive waste, which needs to be stored for a long time. The half-life of uranium-235 is 703 million years. Private capital is not interested in nuclear power unless the government guarantees the investment. Nuclear power would not exist without huge government subsidies, most of which are hidden from public view. Brand says we need to “follow the science.” The Union of Concerned Scientists website ( is a good source for scientific and historical information on nuclear power.

A future powered by coal will be a disaster. A future powered by uranium will also be a disaster. We have the capability to design and build buildings that don’t require air conditioning and use a lot less fuel for heating. We have the ability to change our lifestyles. Using our intelligence to develop a sustainable-energy economy will be a lot more productive than groping after some non-existent technological free lunch.

Bruce von Alten Yreka, California

Stewart Brand’s views on nuclear power are terrifically shortsighted and ill informed. Like most born-again nuclear proponents, he never adequately addresses the waste and what to do with it. It’s nice that Brand and his Long Now Foundation friends went and visited Yucca Mountain and deemed it “safe.” It’s since been taken off the table because, as with all other places on planet earth, its geology isn’t completely stable or predictable.

If only they had made a tour of the most toxic site in the Western Hemisphere, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington, about a hundred miles upriver from Portland, Oregon. Since it was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, Hanford has evolved from producing plutonium and tritium for U.S. nuclear weapons to a Superfund cleanup site dealing with the radioactive and toxic wastes generated by those operations.

As much as 1.7 trillion gallons of contaminated wastes were dumped into unlined soil trenches at Hanford during its years of production. More than a third of the 177 underground storage tanks have leaked, resulting in more than a million gallons of liquid high-level nuclear waste contaminating groundwater near the Columbia River. Citizens in the region have been struggling for decades to get the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up this unimaginable mess. It’s a nightmare with a half-life of 24,000 years that can’t be buried. I invite Brand to come to the next Hanford hearing and regale all of us with his cheery version of nuclear power.

Laura Feldman Portland, Oregon

I found the interview with Stewart Brand quite eye-opening and filled with opinions that certainly challenged my own but were hard to digest (particularly his views on genetically modified food). It did make me question, however, how adequately informed those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists are, and how easy it is to jump on the bandwagon of ideology before we know all the facts.

Lynn Simonds Northampton, Massachusetts

Stewart Brand says that genetically-engineered — or GMO — crops are ecologically and nutritionally much better, plus they offer higher yields. Each of these assertions has repeatedly been proven wrong.

Genetically engineered crops only succeed in bringing higher profits to very large farming operations by making pesticides easier to apply. As pesticide use has increased, soil conditions have worsened, and yields of GMO crops are actually lower than organics. The harmful effects of eating GMOs are well documented in numerous animal studies. See Failure to Yield by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith.

The world’s leading biotech company, Monsanto, has undue influence on the political process for the regulation and approval of their own products in the U.S. They have quashed independent scientific studies of their products while falsifying their own animal studies. To this date no real scientific studies have even been performed on human beings.

Since the introduction of GMOs into our food supply in 1994, the rates of food allergies, Alzheimer’s, and gastrointestinal disorders have skyrocketed, pesticide-resistant “super weeds” and “super bugs” have become a major problem, and contamination of heirloom species of plants has become the norm. All of this is in line with predictions made by many of the FDA’s scientists who argued successfully against their approval for human consumption — until Monsanto’s own lawyer, Michael Taylor, was appointed head of policy at the FDA by President Bill Clinton and declared them safe.

Bob Klein New York, New York

Stewart Brand wants us to trust scientists, but he does not trust the opinion of NASA’s James Hansen on the relationship between powerful storms and climate change, nor the concerns of a chorus of geologists regarding the suitability of Yucca Mountain for nuclear-waste disposal, nor questions raised about genetic engineering by a raft of biologists, nor negative assessments of rain-forest regeneration from a whole slew of ecologists.

I see no studies emerging from the community of scientists that give reason for complacency. What has changed is the degree of our desperation. We ought to keep that in the fore of our thoughts and heed the words of Margaret Mead, quoted in the same issue: “It may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good.”

I would be much more willing to accept the high-tech fixes Brand advocates if humanity were willing to ask itself questions like “Is this enough?” and “Have we come too far?” — the types of questions I had hoped would spring from the Long Now Project.

Henry Bruse Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin

On every environmental topic raised by interviewer Arnie Cooper, Stewart Brand gives answers that let us continue with our planet-consuming lifestyle. According to Brand, technological fixes are just around the corner: don’t fret about overconsumption, because biofuels, genetic engineering, and nuclear power will save us. Brand spins opinions as scientific facts, such as that a new generation of clean nuclear power plants could consume radioactive waste — a good and tried idea, but where is the successful prototype? Or that genetically engineered Bt corn is a success, but not a word about super bugs that have developed resistance to the corn. I had hoped that an interview in The Sun would cast more light.

Philippe de Rougemont Les Thioleyres

Arnie Cooper failed to confront Stewart Brand on the nuclear fuel cycle. Brand’s comments reflect concern only for the final disposal of nuclear waste; he avoids addressing the mining, processing, transportation, storage, and use of nuclear fuel, all of which contribute to causing cancer, especially in children. Childhood leukemia is more prevalent within thirty miles of operating nuclear power plants.

I agree with Brand that we will need to experiment with climate engineering. With 7 billion people on the planet, we do not have the capacity to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in enough time to avoid a catastrophe. But poisoning the earth with more radiation is — as attorney Albert K. Bates puts it — “burning children to make electricity.”

Mark R. Jacobson Minneapolis, Minnesota

I found your interview with Stewart Brand unsettling, specifically with regard to his views on nuclear power. His flippant remarks and simplistic solutions to a complex and unforgiving technology cause one to question his affiliations to an industry that is desperately struggling to regain its foothold in our energy future. Nuclear power has caused catastrophic loss because it cannot be contained. It is the most subsidized, yet most expensive, form of energy today. Issues of waste storage, fuel supply (we have only 4 percent of the world’s uranium), continual radiation, proliferation, and terrorist threats have loomed over us for more than fifty years. Far from being a clean technology, it will be remembered as the dirtiest hoax ever propagated. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and others will be its monument.

Bill Hamilton Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly were both seminal in my developing consciousness about environmentalism, so I was pretty shaken up by the interview with him.

I would understand Brand’s enthusiasm for the proliferation of nuclear power plants if they were being built by environmentalists, but unfortunately they are being built by companies driven by the bottom line, which means they are not taking the time to do things right. Even if the plants are built perfectly, maintained perfectly, and run perfectly, unexpected things happen: the earth shakes, bombs fall, and the consequences are not trivial or short-lived.

What happened to the concept of learning directly from nature, advanced in Co-Evolution Quarterly and encouraged by the tools of the Whole Earth Catalog? Environmentalism, as I learned about it from these rich resources, had to do with conservation and balance, recognizing systems and interconnectedness. Taking a step back when a horrifying disaster happens at a nuclear power plant as a result of a natural phenomenon seems like a reasonable response for an environmentalist. I was shocked at Brand’s reaction.

Nancy J. Buron Leicester, Massachusetts

As a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, I am disturbed by Stewart Brand’s take on genetically engineered crops. Those of us who live in the midst of GMO crops know that he is woefully out of touch, his information old and outdated.

We are experiencing the short-term side effects on a daily basis. All I have to do is look out my window to see the variety of weeds that have developed Roundup resistance in a few short years, even though the crop-dusters have doused those fields several times this summer with chemicals that non-GMO plants do fine without. Local bee colonies are dying at an ever-increasing rate. At least one neighbor lost hers immediately after it was sprayed by a crop-duster covering a GMO field.

Brand is confusing no-till agriculture and GMO technology. I can assure you that GMO fields are tilled just as often, as deeply, and as destructively as ever. Soil erosion is increasing, not dropping off, as was promised (and hoped for, certainly). Microbial soil populations are failing because of the continued chemical assault — and soil fertility is directly dependent on those microbes.

GMO crops are associated with long-term fundamental changes in soil and plants that are quite similar to the overuse of antibiotics in humans and other animals. How long will it take Monsanto and Farm Bureau to figure out that they soon will have no tools to fight pests with? And how much damage will they have done in the meantime?

Annie Grieshop Melbourne, Iowa
Stewart Brand responds:

Applause to The Sun for encouraging detailed debate on nuclear power and transgenic crops. Similar debates are occurring all over the Web, to the benefit of all. I’m finding that most critical comments on these subjects tend to be U.S.-centric, but climate change is a global issue. Billions of people in the developing world are getting out of poverty at last. That is wonderful for them and great environmental news in terms of rapidly dropping birthrates and reduced impact on rural natural systems, but it also increases energy use and demand for better food. Poor people’s wanting food and electricity is not “consumerism”; those are basic human needs.

If that burgeoning demand for electricity keeps being met by coal, as it is in China and India, our planet will be cooked. Energy sources with low greenhouse emissions are needed on a massive scale. If the growing demand for food is not met by higher productivity, better nutrition, and pure ingenuity using the best agricultural techniques in the world (including organic), we will have a hemispheric division into an overfed north and a desperately hungry south. Fortunately tropical crops still have enormous potential for genetic improvement through “precision breeding” and other genetic-engineering techniques.

The health effects of GMOs have been exhaustively studied. In 2004 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported: “The question of the safety of genetically modified foods has been reviewed by the International Council of Science, which based its opinion on fifty authoritative independent scientific assessments from around the world. . . . To date, no verifiable untoward toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of foods derived from genetically modified foods have been discovered anywhere in the world.”

I agree with Bob Klein that Monsanto has “quashed independent scientific study of their products,” and I think it’s deplorable. Fortunately that company is getting increasing competition from Pioneer Hi-Bred, which is more customer and research friendly. There are indeed some “super bugs” and “super weeds” that come along when farmers rely excessively on a single pesticide (such as in Bt corn and Bt cotton) or a single herbicide such as glyphosate (which became extremely cheap when Monsanto’s Roundup went out of patent in 2000). The customary workaround of a more diverse approach provides the solution. The clever weeds and bugs are not an environmental issue beyond the croplands and roadsides because their new skills are useless to them in the woods, where they are like a boxer in a gunfight.

The question of nuclear waste is what reversed my position on nuclear power. The things I feared turned out to be trivial. I had not realized how tiny the volume of waste is nor how many ways there are to deal with it: leave it in dry cask storage (where most of it is now) for a century or so; reprocess it like the French; use it as fuel in next-generation reactors; bury it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico (where nuclear waste has been deposited for twelve years in a deep, water-free salt formation); or drop it down bore holes three miles deep into basement rock almost anywhere.

Bruce van Alten’s statement “The half-life of uranium-235 is 703 million years” sounds frightening, but bear in mind that the more radioactive an isotope is, the shorter its half-life. Thus uranium fuel rods can be carried around by hand. It’s the isotopes that develop with fission that can really hurt you. Right after the Fukushima disaster the main concern was Iodine-131, which has a half-life of eight days. It can concentrate in the thyroid glands of children and cause cancer. Nine children died that way after Chernobyl. Fortunately it’s easily treated with potassium iodide (not provided to the Chernobyl kids), and this was done in Japan.

Radioactivity can be measured at such low levels that it can cause unnecessary panic. There is a misguided notion that “if it can be measured, it should be feared.” I don’t doubt that “people living in the vicinity of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility have radioactive urine.” So do you and I. Bananas have measurable radioactivity (eating one exposes you to a tenth of a microsievert). Most of us experience 3 millisieverts a year of background radiation, and an equivalent amount from medical treatments. Airline crews get 9 millisieverts a year. Residents of Ramsar, India, experience a background radiation of 260 millisieverts a year with no detectable health effects. A median lethal dose (where half of those exposed die) is 5,000 millisieverts — if it’s experienced all at once; the same dosage accumulated over years is far less harmful. Most levels around Fukushima were in the 1 to 10 millisieverts a year range, with a few hot spots up to 133 and 289 millisieverts a year. The main abiding source of the radioactivity is caesium-137, which has a half-life of thirty years, so it will take a while to fade. The health hazards from air pollution in downtown Tokyo, however, are greater than those of living in the Fukushima exclusion zone, with its radioactivity of 10 to 100 microsieverts a year. People will move back sooner than expected, and they will be right to do so.

After doing the research for my book Whole Earth Discipline, I was able to put links to all my sources online (at,) so anyone can view them and draw their own conclusions.

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