It’s time to rethink nukes

If climate change is the greatest threat facing mankind, what are the odds of the big environmental groups rethinking their longstanding opposition to nuclear power?

They appear to be slim. Here’s what Environmental Defense says on its website:

Serious questions of safety, security, waste and proliferation surround the issue of nuclear power. Until these questions are resolved satisfactorily, Environmental Defense cannot support an expansion of nuclear generating capacity.

And this comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council website:

New nuclear power plants are unlikely to provide a significant fraction of future U.S. needs for low-carbon energy. NRDC favors more practical, economical and environmentally sustainable approaches to reducing both U.S. and global carbon emissions, focusing on the widest possible implementation of end-use energy-efficiency improvements, and on policies to accelerate commercialization of clean, flexible, renewable energy technologies.

Supporters of nuclear energy—including those who strongly support climate regulation to curb emissions of global warming pollutans—say that doesn’t make sense.

“They (environmentalists) love to hate the biggest thing that can move the needle with respect to climate change,” says David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy. NRG is a member, with NRDC and EDF, of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big companies and environmental groups that back a cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gases.

Crane spoke last week during a lively discussion of nukes led by my colleague David Whitford at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment. I wish we’d invited an EDF or NRDC representative onto the panel, but the focus was money, not safety, security or waste. David began the conversation by inviting everyone to “consider the evidence and think anew about something about which many of us had made up our minds.”

Good idea. Many years ago, I covered protests again the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire for a left-wing publication. My sympathies were with the protestors. Now I’m firmly undecided, and determined to learn more. Given the threat of climate change and the safety record of nuclear plants in the U.S. since Three Mile Island—especially compared the alternative of mining and burning coal—it seems like the right time to rethink nukes.

Here’s what the directors of the national energy laboratories said last year in a report called A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy:

Today, nuclear energy provides 16 percent of the world’s electricity and offers unique benefits. It is the only existing technology with capability for major expansion that can simultaneously provide stability for base-load electricity, security through reliable fuel supply, and environmental stewardship by avoiding emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Furthermore, it has proven reliability (greater than 90 percent capacity factor), exemplary safety, and operational economy through improved performance.

One of the signatories to the report was Steven Chu, now the energy secretary.

Here are some things I heard during the panel:

As thing stand now, we are unlikely to see the so-called nuclear renaissance that was talked about just a couple of years ago. The global economic slump is the reason why. Lenders are more risk-averse than ever, and few businesses need more capital and pose more risk than new nukes. Demand for electricity is slowing because of the recession. And natural gas prices are down, making it easier to meet new demand for electricity by building natural gas plants.

The U.S. government has set aside about $18 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear plants. That will underwrite perhaps three plants, our experts said. “I’m convinced that there will be three nuclear power plants built in the U.S. in the next 10 says,” said Kevin Book, a partner at ClearView Energy Partners, a research and consulting firm.

Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. The utility industry wants to build more—there are 24 applications for new nukes pending at the NRC, all of two to be located near to existing sites, where local support for nuclear energy is strong. No new plant has been approved since the 1980s. By contrast, there are 45 plants now under construction outside of the U.S., most in China, India and Korea, according to Book.

Like beauty, “clean” energy is in the eye of the beholder. Notice how the NRDC statement above says the group would prefer clean and renewable energy to nuclear. Well, Alan Hanson, an executive with Areva, the big French nuclear power company, says that the nuclear waste issue is closer to being solved than, say, the solar waste issue.

France, where more than 80% of the electricity comes from nuclear power, uses a safe and sophisticated system to recycle spent nuclear fuel, Hanson says. (You wouldn’t expect him to say anything else, but still…) Nuclear waste can be stored on the sites of plants “for the next 500 years in we want,” he said—plenty to time to ease the transition to a renewable, low-carbon energy economy.

By contrast, he says, burning coal creates not on CO2 but mercury and other pollutants. And many solar photovoltaic panels are made of cadmium, among other things, for which there’s no recycling plant. “I don’t know of any part of the electricity generating world that treats its waste as well as the nuclear industry does,” Hanson said.

The politics of nuclear are complicated. Chu, who’s probably the smartest guy in the Obama cabinet, supports nuclear energy but Carol Browner, who’s an experienced Washington power player (no pun intended) is said to be a strong opponent. Liberal Democrats on Capital Hill—Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid—also oppose nuclear power. Given a choice between nuclear and coal as a source of baseload power, they’re likely to favor coal.

Crane said: “Right now the dominant wing of the Democratic Party knows they need to accommodate the coal wing of the Democratic Party in order to get energy and environmental policy passed.” That leaves nuclear out of the deal-making.

resident Obama hasn’t said much about nuclear. It may well be that technology breakthroughs in solar, geothermal, wind or battery storage will mean that we don’t need nuclear energy as a source of low-carbon power. But until those breakthroughs come along, shouldn’t we keep the nuclear option open?

“I’m a slut for change”

That’s how author and sustainability guru Paul Hawken responded when I asked him during FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green why a small-is-beautiful guy agreed to work for huge companies like Wal-Mart and Ford. And I like to think that’s why nearly 300 business executives, NGO leaders, activists and government types came to our conference on business and the environment earlier this week. They were a diverse and occasionally disputatious group, which is exactly what we want: We had speakers from Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as Big Oil , the nuclear industry and American Electric Power, the nation’s No. 1 emitter of global warming pollution. But while there was disagreement over what path to take, there was broad consensus that business needs to find ways to become more sustainable.

Here are some of my takeaways from the event. One caveat—the quotes below were taken down on the run and may not be word-for-word perfect but they are close.

Bill Clinton doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Where do you find the former president these days? Occasionally, mucking around in the waste of cities like Lima, Mexico City and Lagos. “Whenever I think of an urban landfill, I see it not just as an eyesore and a contributor to global warming but a source of great wealth,” Clinton said, during the closing plenary. His Clinton Global Initiative on climate change, he explained, is training scavengers in Lima to be recycling workers, given them a salary and health care and encouraging them to become part of a “new industry in glass and metals.”

Clinton’s speech was a state-of-the-union style laundry list, long on details/solutions. He got all charged up about energy efficiency (hard to do) as he talked about retrofitting the Empire State Building, described extensive efforts to get cities to curb their carbon emissions and explained how he is helping to  make college campuses more efficient. “The most important thing you can do if you are not a member of the U.S. Congress,” he told the crowd, “is to show that the change we are all seeking is good economics.” He had a couple of odd ideas, suggesting that the states of Nevada and Arizona or maybe a Caribbean nation become “energy independent” to show the world that it’s possible. Clinton looked good, by the way—he wore a pair of Texas cowboy boots and hustled out of the hotel after his speech and a photo session to squeeze in a round of golf.

Some big problems, corporate America can’t solve. Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, Jeff Hollender of Seventh Generation, Bill Valentine of HOK (big architecture firm) and Carl Bass of Autodesk (design company) joined me for a panel called Re-Imagining Consumption. The question put before them was simple but important: How can companies grow their revenues and profits while shrinking their environmental footprint? I thought we’d get into a conversation about cradle-to-cradle products that companies sell, or new business models like ZipCar. But we veered into a discussion of overconsumption after someone mentioned he oft-cited fact that Americans make up roughly 5% of the world’s population and consume 25% of its resources. That’s obviously a problem, and since companies are invented to solve problems, I ask them if there is a business opportunity there. They couldn’t see one although Bill Valentine said HOK often asks its clients whether they really need a new building, Carl Bass said  Autodesk is incorporating sustainability questions into its software, and Fisk and Jeff both talking about “greening” their products and packaging.  The truth us, it’s hard to imagine even progressive companies (except for recycling firms) coming up with products, services or new business models around buying less stuff. This tough job is probably best left to parents or religious leaders.

Environmentalists should reconsider nuclear power. I’m told there was a long and animated dinner conversation one night during which two leading thinkers of the sustainability movement—Janine Benyus of biomimicry fame and Ray Anderson of Interface–peppered Alan Hanson, an executive from Areva, the big French nuclear power company, with probing questions about nuclear power. I was pleased to hear that because I’ve thought for some time that environmentalists need to rethink their almost-religious opposition to nuclear power. (I’m going to write about this in more detail next week.)

If the problem of climate change threatens the very existence of human life on this planet (and it does), shouldn’t we reconsider nukes? Of course we should. We’re going to need baseload power and while a combination of efficiency, renewables and battery storage might get us where we need to go under a best-case scenario, I don’t want to bet the planet’s future on a best-case scenario. It’s likely we’ll face a choice between nuclear and so-called cleaner coal. I’m not sure where I come down on that.

During a panel on nuclear power (read David Whitford’s account here) that focused on its costs, I learned that Steven Chu, the energy secretary, is an advocate for nuclear while Carol Browner, the climate czar, is an opponent. President Obama has punted on the issue—he hasn’t said much of anything, at least according to our panelists. While Browner’s the more powerful figure in D.C., Chu is a brilliant and impressive guy, not to mention the only cabinet member with a Nobel Prize. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when they and Obama get together to talk about nukes.

I’m still not convinced about green jobs. Van Jones, the White House green jobs czar, spoke at Brainstorm Green and he managed to be both inspiring and utterly charming. But he couldn’t come up with a clear-cut definition of a green job. That’s not surprising. Consider the farmer who grows corn for popcorn. He’s a mere farmer. His buddy up the road who grows corn for ethanol? Green job, I presume.

Clinton, too, has hopped on the green jobs bandwagon: “I’ve always believed that work is the best social program,” he said. “Saving the planet from the threat of climate change will create more jobs, more ideas, more interdependence than anything else we can do.”

Hmm. Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund said the best economic studies about the impact of a cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gases project that the long-term impact on GDP will be very, very slight. But if GHG regulation has even a slight negative effect on GDP, how can it create more jobs?

It’s time to stop feeling guilty about business travel. Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California—a spectacular place overlooking the Pacific. We had some fabulous meals—prepared by organic chefs—and I got up early to run (a little) each day. At night, I opened the door to my hotel room and fell asleep to the sounds of the waves and an ocean breeze.

As it happens, we were at ground zero for the crisis in business travel. Next door was a St. Regisl where AIG held a meeting last fall that made national news and led to the cancellations of hundreds of business meetings. Luxury hotels and their working-class employees are suffering. What’s good about that?

More important, there was value in getting 300 people together in a relaxing place for a couple of days to talk about things that matter. We learned. We met new people. We built relationships. We showcased leading thinkers and doers, perhaps inspiring others. Maybe a startup that needed money raised some. We may live in an always-connected, everything-linked world, but you can’t do those things very well on email or over the phone or in a video conference.