I watched the Clean Energy speech that President Obama gave to students, faculty and assembled dignitaries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Friday, October 23, 2009. Though some of my friends and colleagues in community of pro-nuclear writers were a bit disappointed, I found some reasons to be encouraged. I might be grasping at straws, but when you are watching for early signs of a change in momentum from a very large and ponderous object like the federal government of the United States, you have to watch carefully.
First, one must consider the context of the speech. It was given at a premier research institution that has a very long history of capturing enormous sums of federal dollars doing basic research on a number of important national objectives including a significant participation in weapons and defense programs. It is not surprising that recent achievements in producing both interesting technology and in capturing federal funds to support research would be acknowledged and celebrated. It is also not surprising that the President would talk a bit about future research opportunities that may pay off sometime in the future. After all, that is what the majority of that audience does for a career – produce cutting edge research that may or may not have practical uses.
However, there were some subtle passages in his speech that indicated changes in the level of support and acknowledgement that he is willing to give to using (as opposed to researching) nuclear energy as a tool to actually solve a very real, near term challenge in providing clean, reliable energy. Here are two that are worth thinking about:
Everybody in America should have a stake — (applause) — everybody in America should have a stake in legislation that can transform our energy system into one that’s far more efficient, far cleaner, and provide energy independence for America — making the best use of resources we have in abundance, everything from figuring out how to use the fossil fuels that inevitably we are going to be using for several decades, things like coal and oil and natural gas; figuring out how we use those as cleanly and efficiently as possible; creating safe nuclear power; sustainable — sustainably grown biofuels; and then the energy that we can harness from wind and the waves and the sun.
. . .
Because of what we know we are capable of achieving when called upon to achieve it. This is the nation that harnessed electricity and the energy contained in the atom, that developed the steamboat and the modern solar cell. This is the nation that pushed westward and looked skyward. We have always sought out new frontiers and this generation is no different.
The first thing that I noticed when I watched and listen to the speech was that safe nuclear power was mentioned early on the list of “resources that we have in abundance”, second only to fossil fuels. That is appropriate; nuclear power is already far more important to our national electricity production system than any weather dependent alternative. I consider that mention a significant promotion; in many previous speeches on the topic of clean energy or future energy, nuclear energy has been reluctantly mentioned at the bottom of a list of options or not even mentioned at all.
I am also encouraged by the way the President described atomic energy as “safe nuclear power; sustainable”. It did not sound to me like he thought there was much doubt in that statement or that there was any cutting edge research required to make it a reality. Instead, it is simply something that needs to be done. It falls into the category of something we know how to do.
The second passage was also encouraging. One of the memes that has recently been cycled around political circles associated with energy legislation is that nuclear power is an American development. Some Senators, notably Lamar Alexander, have been talking about how disappointing it would be if the world held a Nuclear Renaissance and America chose not to participate. My analysis is that the decision to include the words “This is the nation that harnessed electricity and the energy contained in the atom” is an acknowledgement and agreement with that idea. It offers hope that the efforts to shape a good energy/climate bill in the Senate will be more successful and lead to a much stronger and cleaner energy production system than those in the House of Representatives.
(Note: For those in the international audience, I fully recognize that America was only able to develop nuclear power with the help of a lot of people who did not natively speak English and were recent immigrants. I even acknowledge that we were not actually the first to build nuclear power plants, but it must be admitted that once we started, we had a great influence on the expansion of the technology and its rapid assent. Besides, we are talking about an important political development that will have a major impact on the world’s consumption of fossil fuel if America can stop beating down its nuclear energy capabilities.)
It is important to get this kind of change happening at the very top, especially since the President has the ability to inspire the Progressives. Nuclear energy is not a partisan issue; it is good for both business and labor. It is good for people who like both cheap energy and those who like clean energy and care deeply about the impact that humans have on the climate and the rest of the environment. Here is a quote about the speech from Joe Romm, a partisan Democrat who has been very reluctant to support nuclear energy and who cut his teeth in energy issues while working for Amory Lovins, the quintessential denier of the value of atomic energy.
As always, if you want to hear the best progressive messaging on energy and climate — if you want to know the best phrases and framing — look no further than the master messenger in the Oval Office. This time, Obama spoke at my alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
With the kind of language that President Obama is now using, and the kind of progressive endorsement that language is receiving, nuclear energy is regaining its stature as a vital tool in the energy production system of the United States. With that acknowledgement, it is now up to the nuclear technologists (not the cutting edge research scientists) to effectively implement the next generation to meet human needs for reliable, clean, cheap energy. We are not quite back to the political encouragement that we had in the 1940s-1960s, but we know a lot more about the technology and have a much greater chance for sustainable success.