Donald Hoffman is one of the few entrepreneurs in the nuclear industry. His company, Excel Services, has been a profitable professional services provider to the nuclear industry for more than 25 years. Don is a leader who is willing to take calculated risks and also willing to recycle his profits back into his industry. Most people who have attended a nuclear industry or professional association gathering during the past 20 years will have hear Don speak. They may very well have a utility bag in their collection with a prominent Excel Services logo.
Don was recently elected as the Vice President and President-Elect of the American Nuclear Society. I voted for him, because he has demonstrated the combination of technical expertise, business acumen, and vision that the Society deserves in its leaders.
Don recently made some waves at a breakfast briefing of some politicians in Tampa when he pointed out that drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was not as safe or as clean as its marketers claim. He told the audience about the way that gas drilling projects are undertaken with little research, long range planning, or environmental impact analysis. He contrasted that virtually free pass to pollute with the extensive effort required to simply obtain permission to start building a new nuclear power plant.
Don’s speech offended some of the politicians who attended the breakfast meeting.
“There’s a huge amount of natural gas in this country and with fracking, we know how to get it out of the ground,” former Talbot County Republican Party Chairman Kate Boland said. “It creates jobs. North Dakota and Pennsylvania have low unemployment rates because of energy production. I’m not against nuclear energy at all, but it’s not helpful to talk down natural gas.”
(Pennsylvania’s unemployment in July was 7.9%; Maryland’s was 7.0%; North Dakota’s was 3.0%.)
Alternate delegate Jamie Falcon agreed with Boland’s analysis.
“It seemed like his talk should have been more comprehensive. You should be promoting your energy source, not knocking the other ones,” Falcon said.
Hoffman clarified his comments after hearing from Boland and delegate Greg Fox, a Howard County Council member and BGE employee, who both disagreed with his stance. He said while natural gas is flush in areas like Pennsylvania, and he’s supportive of other forms of energy, nuclear energy permits a larger and faster output than natural gas or other alternatives.
More nuclear industry leaders should be telling the truth about the mythology surrounding natural gas. It is cheap, but that is largely because it is not worth much unless someone has built the pipeline network required to distribute it. It is really difficult (aka expensive) to store and transport. In North Dakota, the valuable product of the drilling and extraction related employment is oil; the associated gas produced is actually burned off in a process called “flaring” because there are no paying customers who want it.
If I had been in Don’s shoes, if someone challenged my criticism of natural gas development risks and pointed to the low unemployment in North Dakota, I would have fired back. Fracking related development in North Dakota has a much larger effect on its unemployment rate than it would have on a state like Maryland.
There are not very many people who are willing to live in North Dakota. The total state population is less than 700,000 people spread out over a land area of 69,000 square miles. Maryland’s population is 3,500,000 people spread over a land area of just 9,000 square miles. I loved living in Maryland; I cannot even imagine what it would be like to live in North Dakota.
Here is a story about an oil and gas boom town in Wyoming. Most nukes I know will recognize the contrast between this and the much more pleasant towns where we ply our trade. We need some more vocal leaders like Don Hoffman to speak up, even if that action offends some others who either sell fossil fuel or who sell their services – including political services – to people who sell coal, oil and natural gas.