During the weekend in Knoxville, TN, I met some marvelous people who were friendly, energetic, personable, excited by life, and ready to learn how they could take small steps to make the world a better place.
As reported on Saturday morning, I dressed in blue jeans and a high visibility tee shirt sporting an atomic symbol, wore my Atomic Power to the People button and attended a gathering of environmental activists, community organizers, students and attorneys. It was the sort of meeting where many nukes assume they are not welcome and would feel out of place.
As I suspected, the people who attended the Appalachian Public Interest Environmental Law (APIEL – pronounced “appeal”) conference last weekend were sincerely interested in creating a cleaner, more just, and more prosperous world for all of us using public information campaigns, activism, independent media and the court system.
Many of them, however, knew little or nothing about the capabilities of atomic energy as a useful and powerful tool for achieving their goals. Some of them were actively promoting efforts to put the tool as far away from the reach of their fellow humans as possible; most of those people were apparently expressing beliefs that had been accumulated during a lifetime of exposure to purposeful propaganda designed to spread misinformation resulting in fear, uncertainty and doubt.
As people who have attended meetings in which I was a participant might understand, I was not shy about challenging those who were spreading or repeating misinformation about atomic energy. I also seized the opportunity to tell people why I was so enthusiastic about the technology and to testify about how my personal experiences as a submarine engineer officer gave me a rare perspective on the amazing characteristics of machines heated by atomic fission.
Several of the attendees, a couple of whom had a long track record with both APIEL and large, well-established environmental organizations, sought me out during breaks to thank me for attending and sharing what I know. One of them quietly told me that he had always thought his club was out to lunch on nuclear energy, but that it did so much other good work that he kept participating. He encouraged me to keep charging, telling me that I was young enough and energetic enough to make a difference, while he was getting too old and tired.
On a number of issues, I was able to claim common ground with the presenters. There were people who were concerned about the health effects of coal ash and the lack of effective regulations requiring safe disposal. I met Rhiannon Fionn, an independent journalist and film maker who has been producing a film called Coal Ash Chronicles. Her work highlights the large number of vulnerable storage ponds around the US, especially in the southeast, includes interviews with people whose property and health has been affected by coal ash and showed stark images of effects of both routine dumping and accidental, but massive discharges.
There were other people who were concerned about the large amount of activity in pipeline construction and refurbishment/repurposing associated with both increased oil and gas production and in shifts of producing areas away from traditional production basins. One speaker spent a considerable portion of his talk on the effects of the massive compressor stations required to keep gas moving long distances, reminding the audience that materials do not flow by themselves.
Climate change was a major topic; several presenters spoke about organized efforts to reduce coal consumption and permanently close coal-fired power stations while others pointed out that replacing coal burning with natural gas burning did not do much to reduce the total greenhouse gas burden on the planet if even a small portion of the extracted and transported methane escaped into the atmosphere without being burned first.
They agreed that natural gas was less polluting but were concerned about the implications of corporations and investors putting billions of dollars into new infrastructure that would required lengthy periods of operation to pay back the investments.
At strategic points in the middle of several presentations or during the established Q&A period, I suggested that emission-free nuclear was a powerful and well-proven tool for emissions reductions. The responses to my comments often amounted to “we can do it all with energy efficiency and renewables.”
I caused some consternation when I pointed out that a substantial portion of the “renewables” category of energy production statistics came from burning wood and refuse. There were a number of people who expressed surprise when they found out that a significant portion of Germany’s renewable energy production comes from imported wood pellets created by harvesting southeastern US forests.
One presenter quoted Benjamin Sovacool’s numbers for nuclear energy’s life cycle CO2 emissions, saying that his study reported that nuclear produced six times as much CO2 per unit of output energy as wind. I asked him why he accepted the IPCC as a credible source of information when it came to their warnings about climate change but not their recommendations for solutions and not their representative numbers [p.979] for emissions from various sources.
One young lady who said she was in her final year of college and had spent the summer interning with Mary Olson at NIRS gave a presentation claiming that the waste heat from nuclear reactors was thermal pollution that was directly contributing to global warming. I pointed out that the sun provides about 10,000 times as much heat energy to the earth as the total heat released by all of our energy production; she said she was not a scientist. She also said that we couldn’t do anything to affect the sun’s heat but we could avoid the warming caused by nuclear reactor waste heat. I did not do too much further arguing at that point.
A highlight of the weekend was the Tennessee premier of a documentary titled Blood on the Mountain. Mari-Lynn Evans, the film’s director and a West Virginia native, attended the screening and participated in the post screening panel discussion. During the post screening party at a local pub, I had a delightful conversation with a friend of hers who helps by taking photos and driving to various screenings while Mari-Lynn is involved in logistical and other discussions. She had a lot of tales to tell about what they had seen and the people they’ve met on the road. (We each shared grandchildren photos and agreed that our grandchildren were some of the world’s smartest and cutest kids.)
On Sunday Mary Olson, a NIRS activist, spoke about the health effects of radiation, noting that regulators around the world agreed that there was no safe dose of radiation. I asked her if she was familiar with James Hansen’s peer reviewed paper calculating that nuclear energy had saved 1.8 million lives already and could save far more in the future. She responded by stating that she has a great deal of respect for his work as a climate scientist, but they said that he was completely unqualified in the area of energy policy. She referred me to a piece published on the NIRS web site that refuted Hansen’s work. This commentary from Sovacool, Parenteau, Ramana, Valentine, Jacobson, Delucchi, Diesendorf appears to be the document she was referencing.
The conference was an experience I’d like to repeat. Perhaps I can even make a presentation during next year’s APIEL conference. If you have information about similar events near you, please let me know.