Energizing pro-nuclear activists to do battle

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.

About Rod Adams

22 Responses to “Energizing pro-nuclear activists to do battle”

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  1. Rod. You are so correct. Preaching to the choir is important. There’s another important aspect, also.

    You were talking to a student ANS chapter, so you could make the reasonable assumption that they know something about nuclear. I often talk to groups (rotaries, schools) where many people are pro-nuclear, but not all that knowledgeable. Some are concerned with the waste (don’t they reprocess in France or something? why don’t we?) and some think that the effect of radiation on humans is scary and spooky.

    I told a group that radiation effects were very well known, which is why a person undergoing radiation therapy can receive a dose which would otherwise be completely lethal. There were a bunch of “ahas”. People know this, but they don’t put it together with the scare stories. I mentioned health physics in this regard. A man come up to me afterwards and say he had no idea why his cancer therapy had included a physicist somehow. It had puzzled him, and he was glad for the explanation.

    In other words, I consider educating pro-nuclear people to be very important. They need answers about what is bothering them, and they need to be able to give answers to the opponents.

    Though some will call it “preaching to the choir.”

  2. Scott Day says:

    Rod, thank you and your group for doing this. The future of nuclear is really in your hands, I do what I can on the fringes as a non-nuclear trained person with a scientific mind but it only goes so far. We have to come up with a viable solution to base load generation that specifically the “unreliables” (to steal your term) seem fine with ignoring. I worked in solar for a time and I swear the mentality is just to build as much capacity as possible to get the government ‘reimbursement’ for lack of better word. There is no forward looking, or even concern for what base load requirements we have now nor for how that base load requirement curve just keeps going up.

    The thing with nuclear that has kept me energized since fighting battles in grade school (yes my father was in the conventional power production business but even he said nuclear was the solution so I took on that challenge at a young age) was that I knew and know, it is the right answer. I keep waiting for the day and I may or may not live to see it but when we are finally just “making power” and that phrase = nuclear power, then I can have my “told ya’ so moment.”

    Not enough thanks can be pushed your way. Keep up the good fight, and I will try to pull the folks on the fence in from my side. December 28th I go to Tokyo, I will be meeting with families and I will try to do my part to dispel all the FUD they have been fed. I will also try to make it to Fukushima and will share that with you if it works out.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Scott – thank you for the kind words. Thank you also for fighting the good fight alongside me. It is vitally important for us to spread the word and share the knowledge that just might change our future.

      • Atomikrabbit says:

        If there were such a thing as the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Communicator of the Year Award, to be presented every year on this auspicious date, I would nominate Rod as its first recipient.

        What do ya say NEI? Get this rolling!

  3. If you ever have an opportuninty to record such a presentation (a get-people-enthused one) I would love to see.

  4. DV82XL says:

    This is so important. What the pronuclear effort needs more than anything else is boots on the ground, and the only group that can supply that is our younger supporters. Energizing them by helping them realize that they have a major role to play and that they are not alone is on of the best ways to push the movement forwards.

  5. Pete51 says:

    It seems to me, the people we really need to convince are the CEOs and board members of the various electric utilities and power sellers that might want to build new plants. These people first and foremost are going to look at the cost of new generation, in terms of $ per kw of capacity and $ per kwh of actual generation. A new AP1000 comes in around $6300 per kilowatt of capacity. A new combined cycle natural gas plant is a fraction of that.

    If nuclear can get its construction costs down, the rest is an easy sell. But as long as the US nuclear industry competes against plenty of cheap and clean natural gas (that’s what the ads say), it is going to be an uphill battle. A few years ago, plans for new nuclear plants were well on the way in Maryland, Texas and elsewhere. Today, not so much. We will get the Vogtle and VC Summer COLs in the next few months (hopefully!), and probably the completions of Bellefonte and Watts Bar-2 for TVA, but after that, the prospects appear to be dwindling.

    Sorry to throw cold water on the pep rally, so to speak, but as I wrote above, once the cost problem is fixed, the rest should be an easy sell. Passively safe plants such as the AP1000, ESBWR and the various new SMRs in development, if properly explained, can reduce much of the public’s apprehensions about safety.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Pete – we know how to reduce the cost of manufacturing and building things. We do it by practicing those tasks and getting better by doing. Part of the effort has to include reducing the time required to perform all tasks – including the task of getting permission to build.

      The nuclear industry has way too many engineers who think that the way to reduce cost is to redesign things. It also has way too many opponents who understand those rules of economic production better than most nukes.

      • Robert Margolis says:

        The Koreans have continually built cheaper and faster this same way: stick to a design and keep incrementally improving it. The design they used was the “expensive” System 80 of Palo Verde.

        New designs are important, but often higher production of current technology can win the day as well. Thanks for bringing these messages to the VCU students Rod.

    • Jason Kobos says:

      Eventually some college students will become the CEO’s of the large utilities. The CEO’s of tomorrow are just as important as the CEO’s of today.

    • John says:

      The only way to change the minds of these Cross is through natural attrition. These old fogies need to die off, because no magic combination of words is going to change their minds.

  6. Reese says:

    I haven’t finished your article yet. But this quote I loved and wanted to immediately comment: “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.”

    I bet a lot of that 1-2% is Hawaii and Alaska, plus maybe Puerto Rico and Guam. Aren’t those place ideal for your your business and others (like NuScale)?

    • Joel Riddle says:

      Reese, as of the last time I looked, Hawaii has a law prohibiting the building of nuclear power plants, but yes, a passively safe (against even earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, etc.) SMR would seem to fit the electricity needs of remote locations like Hawaii rather fantastically in comparison to other options.

      • George Carty says:

        Were the politicians in Hawaii who passed that nuclear prohibition (or the protest groups which encouraged them to do so) funded by Big Oil to protect their market there?

        • Joel Riddle says:

          Who knows. My unreferenced guess would be that fears of oceanic natural threats (like tsunamis) and maybe volcanic threats probably made banning nuclear a relatively easy sell whenever that decision was made, thus the need for robust, passive safety.

  7. Rick Maltese says:

    Rod. Time well spent. When I want to get motivated I keep thinking about a better quality of life for everyone. It is the many benefits that abundant, cheap and clean energy can do for all people on the planet. The opportunity for prosperity, reduced pollution, reduced climate change, more affluence and the reduction of the world’s population growth that keep me energized. If only I did not have to worry about surviving I’d be a more active advocate.

  8. Daniel Daroy says:

    Rod – Thanks for coming by and sharing your experiences with us. I found it quite interesting that you know Theodore Rockwell quite well. I read his book, Creating the New World, around the same time I took my first nuclear class, Reactor Theory (neutronics). The combination of the two are what converted me to nuclear power; just a few months prior to that class I finished my Sr. Design project on producing ethanol from biomass.

    Our lack of ability to pursuade the public is our industry’s Achiles heel. There needs to be some type of mass marketing campaign much like Big Oil or Big Tobacco without all the questionable ethics. I hope you can come back again in the future. Your enthusiasm is insipring.

  9. Rick Maltese says:

    Not sure if it comes with age, meaning myself, but DV82XL made a comment that the young people can make a strong impact. I think that their role can be more defined. They are more effective at reaching each other. But us older folks can help in the packaging of nuclear energy
    1. as a climate change savior (CO2 reduction replacing coal) China had only 2 nuclear plants go live this year. only 2 per cent of their energy currently comes from Nuclear a) save animals – land, air and sea creatures
    b) AOSIS – prevent Island States from disappearing
    c) improve the quality of life in general

    2. as a way to economic prosperity or recovery
    can enable industry>
    can enable jobs>affluence>population reduction