On November 22, 2011, I spoke to the student ANS chapter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. It was a fairly compact, but enthusiastic gathering of bright individuals who have recently decided to make a career in nuclear technology. Some are interested in nuclear medicine, some in the materials used in nuclear reactors, and some in mastering nuclear power reactor technology.
They live in a state with a number of employers with nuclear divisions, including Huntington Industries, Inc. (the current owner and operator of the Newport News Naval Shipyard), Dominion, Areva, and Babcock & Wilcox (where I have a day job). Their school only recently began offering degrees in nuclear engineering; the program is only 4-5 years old.
Despite the fact that the VCU campus had started emptying out in earnest on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the gathered students were ready and willing to listen carefully to a talk titled “Atomic Advocacy.” Many of them had been in their programs for several years, and most had made their decisions at a time when the words “Nuclear Renaissance” were spoken so frequently in the industry that they helped a lot of students win BS bingo games at conferences where the featured speakers were leaders in the nuclear industry.
During the eight months since the Great North East Japan earthquake and tsunami destroyed a nuclear power station in the Fukushima province, they have read and seen a lot of negative stories in the press that inspired than a little uncertainty about their future prospects. They expressed little doubt about their ability to find work, but several of them indicated that they were wondering if they would be assisting in the construction of lots of new plants or helping to gracefully retire the existing fleet.
I recognized that there was fertile ground for the talk I had been practicing; I planned to share how life experiences and supplementary information discovered in books, libraries and on-line have led me to become a passionate, pro-nuclear advocate. It seemed like a golden opportunity for me to “preach to the choir.”
Aside: People sometimes tell me not to waste my time “preaching to the choir” of people who already favor nuclear energy. I think they are wrong. Powerful evangelists work hard on their choirs, so do leaders of successful movements. The fired-up preachers with a mission and a message spend a lot of their time focusing teaching and inspiring people who can then go out and propagate the message. Movements need plenty of well-informed and encouraged messengers. I strongly believe that the world could use a pro-nuclear activist movement right about now. End Aside.
My talk focused on a few key points. I showed photos of nuclear power applications that have informed and inspired me, including SSBN 632 (a zero emission vehicle that was my home for 40 months), the NR-1 (a 400 ton nuclear powered, deep diving research submarine), the nuclear powered research complex at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the NS Savannah (a beautiful nuclear powered concept ship), and two of the most attractive nuclear power stations in the US – the Diablo Canyon site on the California coast and the Lake Anna site in central Virginia (which is located within 90 minutes of Richmond.)
Then I explained the reasons why I believe that nuclear fission is superior to fossil fuel combustion in terms of safety, energy density, and waste production. (That last one turned out to be an interesting topic during the question and answer period.)
I showed the following graph from the Energy Perspectives pages of charts and graphs available on the site of the US Energy Information Agency, the statistics gathering arm of the Department of Energy.
I pointed out the significant consumption reductions in both oil and natural gas during the period from about 1980-1995 and then talked about the overall effect of those reductions in demand on the prices of both commodities. I did not include the following graph in my talk, but I will include it the next time I give a similar talk. It illustrates my point pretty well. Notice how the price of natural gas was essentially flat for almost 15 years and how that period corresponds to the period of reduced consumption on the above graph – with a bit of a time lag.
I reminded the students that selling less product at lower prices never makes any business happy. I pointed out what I believe was a primary source of pain for the hydrocarbon industry – the growth in nuclear power plant electricity production, combined with losses in markets like submarines and aircraft carriers that used to burn a substantial amount of oil. Nuclear electricity production in the US grew from zero in 1957 to approximately 800 billion kilowatt hours per year before 2000. I pointed out how oil supplied 17% of the US electricity market as late as 1978, with a total consumption of almost 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. Now has about 1-2% of the market.
The theory I shared with the students is that the rapid rise of nuclear energy and the resulting effect on the fossil fuel industry’s sales and pricing power led to an alliance between those powerful industry groups and the idealistic people who think that sufficient energy for modern societies can come from the wind and sun. I pointed out how much advertising the fossil fuel industry purchases and how much of that advertising is aimed at trying to convince us all that they are investing heavily in every form of energy they can think of. Then I asked when the last time any of those ads even mentioned the word “nuclear.”
We talked about the massive publicity push to convince people that the US has recently discovered a massive, 100-year supply of natural gas. I walked through the numbers to show that the gas industry is lying – the Potential Gas Committee report from 2010 stated that the TOTAL future natural gas resource bas in the US – including proven, probable, possible and speculative categories – was just 2170 trillion cubic feet (TCF).
When you divide that number by the current consumption rate of 24 TCF per year, the last burp will be gone in just 90.4 years, which does not round up to 100, but instead rounds down to 90 – without any increases to supply electricity from retired coal plants, to supply the vehicles that T. Boone Pickens thinks should be burning gas, to replace politically vulnerable nuclear plants like Indian Point, Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim, or to export to other countries in the form of LNG to take advantage of the higher prices available outside of the US.
I concluded my talk with a couple of photos of a primary inspiration for my passion about sharing atomic information – my nearly two-year old granddaughter. I told the students how my great grandmother lived to be 101 and how my grandmother lived to be 97. Ninety years seems like a very short period of time in which to consume a methane resource that required tens of millions of years for natural forces to produce. The prospects for a nation that has completed depleted its valuable natural gas resources are frightening, especially if that predictable tragedy happens while my already living granddaughter is still living.
The Q&A lasted for about 45 minutes. I hope that some of the students that were there visit and add some thoughts to this post. If that happens, I will know that my preaching worked.