The Atomic Show #061 – Allison MacFarlane, Atomic Agnostic

Dr. Allison MacFarlane is an Associate Professor of Environment Science and Policy at George Mason University. She is also a self proclaimed nuclear agnostic who is not sure that nuclear power can grow much.

About a month ago a friend sent me a link to an interesting panel discussion that was held at MIT on March 1, 2007 titled The Future of Nuclear Energy.

Dr. MacFarlane was one of the participants on that panel. Her comments during that video intrigued me since she expressed some comfort with the record of currently operating nuclear plants and their importance in the world economy, but she also expressed strong reservations about the idea that there would be any kind of strong resurgence of the technology anytime soon.

I thought it would be fun to talk with her and ask her some of the questions that I would have liked to ask if I had been able to attend the session in person (and if there were no bouncers to take me out once I had worn out my welcome.) (Remind me someday to tell you about the time that I was kicked out of a nuclear industry gathering for asking too many hard questions of the invited NRC representative.)

Anyway, Dr. MacFarlane and I talked about energy economics, long term used material concepts, weapons proliferation, global climate change, carbon sequestration (she thinks it is completely within our current state of technology to consider storing the material for a few thousand years), and the importance of planning for future generations.

At the end, I do not think either one of us really learned much from the other, but my hope is that you listeners can take something of value from the conversation and make your own choices about the future viability of new nuclear power plants.

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13 Responses to “The Atomic Show #061 – Allison MacFarlane, Atomic Agnostic”

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  1. Tell me if I’m way off base here, but it seems as though you were almost “bouncing your message” off Dr. MacFarlane for feedback instead of tailoring the discussion and the language used in the discussion to what she wanted to talk about (i.e., “let’s talk about what you think about my ideas” instead of “let’s talk about what you think about nuclear power”).

    In particular, the differences between being a policy analyst or activist and placing bets on who will gain or lose market share based on current conditions (or other speculated conditions, like a carbon tax) was not made clear. She is under the impression that being pro-nuclear means thinking that nuclear power will gain market share–not simply thinking it’s a good idea and working to change policy so that it gets a fair shake.

  2. Rod Adams says:

    Stuart:

    You are probably not far off. Part of my mission as a blogger and podcaster is to change the lens through which people view the potential of atomic energy.

    If everyone discusses the topic under the assumptions of “nuclear plants are huge”, “nuclear power plants cost more than conventional power plants”, “nuclear waste disposal is not solved, but carbon sequestration is easy”, “recycling nuclear by-products means that separated plutonium is available”, etc. then the discussion takes one tone.

    However, if more people recognize that those ideas are assumptions, not facts about how fission works, then the discussions can be changed. When an agnostic says – I do not like the idea of a huge plant near my home, I can suggest that we build small, unobtrusive plants. If someone says – I do not like nuclear because it makes my electricity bill go up, I can show them how it is much cheaper than even the existing power sources. If a potential investor in a nuclear project says – I do not like the uncertainty of the waste issue, I can show them quotes from the NRC saying that the current methods of handling the waste are safe and acceptable for at least 100 years, plenty long enough to keep the investment safe.

  3. Udo Stenzel says:

    This woman calls herself an Agnostic?! I don’t want to meet a full-blown Anti then. I mean, beginning with that “I’m not against nuclear plants, but…” double speak, continuing with a flawed economic reasoning and demonstrated resistance to facts, to the firing of the full battery of anti-nuclear pseudoarguments, including but not limited to claiming even the French emit CO2 to enrich their uranium, and finishing with equating nuclear power with nuclear weapons, where is there any place left for an opinion that is not fixed and could still be changed by reasoning?

    When you told her that natural gas has become expensive and she responded not be acknowledging her error, but by claiming that nuclear power is still expensive (in German she’d have just yelled “Trotzdem!”) and changing the topic, it was clear that this discussion leads nowhere. Glad to see how quickly she got into the defensive; in the end, only that proliferation argument was left, and even that is wrong. Nice to see that you came out ahead of this stupid dialogue, Rod.

  4. Rod Adams says:

    Udo:

    Thank you for your vote on the outcome.

    My idea in talking to people of the “agnostic” persuasion is to help the listeners frame their own thoughts. With any luck, they will think that my reasoning is more logically supported and better for the future of the planet.

  5. Hans Gougar says:

    Hi Rod,

    What a provocative show! (Well, yours usually are but this one was great for getting the blood boiling:) If one was susceptible to conspiracy theories, one would strongly suspect that Professor MacFarlane’s research at George Mason was funded by “Big Coal” if there is such an entity.

    Upon further reflection, however, I resigned myself to the fact that We (advocates for the atom) have a ways to go before there is anything more than begrudging acceptance among most academics that nuclear power isn’t killing anyone (yet). Although the kneejerk negative response to nuclear is not as strong among the younger generation, it is sadly still quite healthy among many otherwise educated professionals who are in a position to influence opinions. I was particularly astounded at Dr. MacFarlane’s wholesale acceptance of the still conceptual technology of carbon sequestration as “the way to go” while being equally firm in her belief that nuclear can never be competitive without government subsidy (although it has been for may years now). Even my 10-year-old son gets the point of the adage “An ounce of prevention….

    It is a curious feature of the modern mind that one can believe dogmatically in the power of one technical fix (pumping millions of tons of toxic gas into the earth, ‘knowing’ somehow that it will cheaply go and stay there) yet be fashionably skeptical about another (recycling a few hundred tons of ceramic pellets can ‘never’ be done economically or safely).

    Fortunately it doesn’t take as many people like yourself to point out the flaws in the logic and underlying assumptions of these tired old anti-nuke arguments. Well done Chief!

  6. Rod Adams says:

    Hans:

    Glad you liked the show; sorry about the boiling blood. I hope it cooled down before an automatic relief valve hit a set point. (For those of you who have never operated a steam plant – that was a joke.)

    We nukes definitely have a long way to go in engaging with our educated colleagues, even those who have specialized in nominally technical fields like geology. (Aside: I had a very interesting discussion a couple of days ago with another geologist who made an off-hand comment that peaked my interest. I was talking about my pro-nuclear activities, and the gentleman said to me, “you know, even though I am a geologist, I have always been impressed by nuclear power.”

    As i thought more about that comment, I started to wonder – does the geology community try to teach people to be against nuclear power?

    I can think of a sinister, but logical economic reason for that profession to lean into the anti-crowd since most of the professional positions in the field are related to finding and exploiting underground natural resources like coal, oil and natural gas. Hmmm.

    I was also intrigued by Dr. MacFarlane’s continued insistence that her evaluation of uranium resources led her to believe that there was no need whatsoever to recycle. As a geologist, she should have a pretty good grasp of the ultimate limits of the resource. (I support recycling for a number of reasons myself, but near term resource limits are not part of my concern.)

  7. Brian Hall says:

    In response to Dr. MacFarlane’s complaints about nuclear power:

    1) what to do with the used nuclear fuel / waste

    2) reprocessing is dangerous / proliferation / bombs

    3) uranium mining / fuel production causes CO2 emissions

    you should have responded with two words: DUPIC process

    Burns up the UNF _without_ reprocessing. Build a CANDU plant on your nuclear site next to your PWR and the used fuel never leaves the site. IMHO, DUPIC is THE technical solution to nuclear waste and reducing the cost of the nuclear cycle (avoids those pesky disposal fees).

    I wonder if a CANDU plant could be built on a barge? Float around to the various plants and offer to burn up their used fuel! Hmmm, maybe I should go off and file a quick patent application…

    Rod, I know you’d prefer to use the spent fuel for other things, but it seems to me some people will never accept nuclear power unless we can make the “waste” literally “go away”. DUPIC will do that. We should give it all the publicity we can if we really want a nuclear renaissance in this country.

    If you can, please forward this to her, I’d be interested in her response.

  8. I don’t think Dr. MacFarlane is a lost cause; thus, I don’t think we have to pick a fight with her. I really don’t think we’re that far apart on the issues; this is a sharp contrast with people who are illiterate or anti-intellectual.

    Remember also that she’s a middle-aged woman who was successful in academia, and was a women’s studies professor, so she had to fight sexism every step of the way and is familiar with old white guys (or even young white guys) telling her she doesn’t know anything, and almost certainly resents it, VERY understandably. Maybe Lisa could talk to her, but I’d focus on students.

  9. Gary says:

    Great show. Dr. MacFarlane claimed to be just about facts. But she agreed with Rod on most of the basic engineering type ‘facts’. You both differed phislophically, however. In other words she had very different opinions to Rod’s. Her opinions seem contradictory to me. I would love to hear her response to pointing out the contradiction:

    1. Nuclear ‘waste’ is a problem because we have a responsibility to future generations. This responsibility still persists even to generations thousands of years into the future. This she all claims.

    2. She also asserts that we have an urgent responsibility to solve major energy problems we are facing in the immediate future.

    3. She has no reservations about the idea of nuclear power 30+ years into the future. She just doesn’t think this is important because our energy problems are pressing now and in the much sooner future.

    But, if these are all true, then isn’t it valid reasoning to then conclude that we have a responsibility to advocate nuclear power to provide for the energy needs of those living 30+ years into the future. At 28 years old, I hope that I will be among those around in 30 years.

    Why does the immediate future only matter with when it comes to solving energy needs of those alive today, when the lives of those living 100s of years into the future is such a concern when it comes to the ‘waste’ issue. She offers a short-sighted view of very real and scary energy crises, but a long-term view of an assumed theoretical potential ‘waste’ problem.

    Wouldn’t it also make sense to take a long term view of the energy needs and crises of future generations? Why are we more worried about them having nuclear bombs or large supplies of used fuel than we are of them being in a dark cold cave without the luxury of cheap and abundant energy.

    I often get into these long discussions with those who do not advocate nuclear power. After debating for hours I realize that my basic belief that it is good for the human race to advance and grow is not shared by the other party. They often have an unstated philosophy where the human race decreasing and using less energy is the morally superior outcome. This is often at the core of these debates but those who oppose the growth and advancement of the human race are not going to say it outright.

    Human advancement = greater available energy supplies used responsibly = smarter energy = higher energy densities. I cannot escape this simple relationship. Nuclear power is the next logical step in higher energy densities.

  10. Rob says:

    Do you support the use of nuclear power? Here is a poll that just started. Anyone can vote on it. http://www.apopularitycontest.com/display_poll.php?ID=5709

  11. Ruth Weiner says:

    My first blog!!

    Please, whoever reads this, write your Senator to choose Dr. Gail Marcus for the Democratic vacancy on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a position that requires Senate confirmation. Rumor has it that Sen. Reid is pushing Allison MacFarlane for that position. If you would like a copy of Gail Marcus’s resume and publications list, send me an email.

    Also, I share with Rod the distinction of having been threatened with expulsion from public venue because of my views on nukes: a cashier at Wild Oats in Albuquerque threatened to “have me removed” because I wasn’t a WIPP opponent.

  12. Rod Adams says:

    Ruth:

    Welcome to the Atomic Show. I second your concern – for anyone who has any doubts about how Allison MacFarlane would approach a position as a member of the NRC, please listen again to this show.

    Rod Adams

  13. Hi Rod, I enjoyed listening to the show. It was definitely clear that Allison was not as fully engaged in the interview as your usual guests. Her responses were short and did not seem intended to lead to further discussion on topics. There was also a bit of “talking past each other” on some of the topics that is a bit regrettable now that she is under consideration as NRC chairman. But I now share much more of the concern you’ve expressed about how she would act in that role. I am also concerned about the “demonization” of fissile materials that I often hear from the “non-proliferation” crowd that would leave our world poorer and more conflict-ridden rather than peaceful. Fossil fuel use leads to wars. Fission can mitigate that. But too many see only the dark side of fission rather than its potential.

    PS Also very good to hear you expound the virtues of the Brayton cycle–I agree!

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