One of the most tweeted sessions at the 2016 Nuclear Energy Assembly consisted of a panel of people from outside the industry that told the crowd they were doing important, exciting, society-saving work. The panel moderator, Entergy’s Bill Mohl, was visibly surprised by the enthusiasm for nuclear technology shown by Rachel Pritzker, Ben Heard and Matt Bennett.
After the introductions and opening remarks from the moderator, Matt Bennett of Third Way quickly established the tone for the session.
As I’ve done with a couple of other panel discussions from NEA 2016, I’ve included an embed of the entire discussion and will follow with some highlights and color commentary.
Each of the panelists shared a conversion story about how they moved from being opposed to nuclear energy to being not only mild in favor of the technology, but aggressive, active supporters investing time, money and even their career progression into sharing what they have learned about the technology.
Rachel Pritzker was raised by “hippy environmentalists who met on a commune.” One of her first memories was grabbing the wrong leg wearing corduroy bell bottoms at an antinuclear rally because from her level as a small child, all of the legs looked the same.
As she looked at the scale of the challenge associated with addressing climate change along with providing the power that could lift people out of poverty, she realized that limiting the menu of options to the popular and acceptable ones of efficiency and renewable energy turned the problem from really hard to impossible.
Ben Heard’s awakening came while he was working as a sustainability consultant. He learned, through the experience of planning a carbon neutral “car park” how painfully difficult it was to implement a system that made a tiny difference in emissions. He recognized that the real mission needed to be replacing facilities like the Latrobe Valley lignite power station. That requires a technology that could produce power on the same scale and with the same predictability.
Matt’s journey to thinking differently about nuclear energy involved a trip to Chernobyl with Vice President Al Gore when he worked in the White House in the 1990s. He told the crowd that “going to Chernobyl made me profoundly pronuclear.” That story demonstrates that Bennet is a critical thinker who pays attention to what he sees and figures out more than what he hears from the people around him.
Aside: As much as I appreciate the amazing progress that Rachel, Ben and Matt have made in recent years, I remain a tiny bit jealous of nuclear advocates with a conversion story. I don’t have one. I’ve been a fan of nuclear technology since I was eight years old. Before that, I didn’t know what nuclear energy was and had no opinions on the topic. Oh well, it’s a cross I must bear.End Aside.
For people who are interested in nuclear advocacy, Rachel emphasized the importance of having something new to say, being able to engage in an issue whose benefits cut across both party and ideological barriers and being able to express a future vision of hope and improved prosperity.
Ben described Australia as perhaps the most — maybe the second most (after New Zealand) — antinuclear country in the world, having formally passed a law that outlaws the use of nuclear power. He then described how that position has changed during the past five years, to the point where a Leftist government decided to invest $6 million to study how it could become more involved in the global nuclear industry.
Ben’s primary point was to emphasize the fact that it is wrong to assume that attitudes and positions cannot change. Public opinion is easier to influence than the weather or laws based on physics, thermodynamics or chemistry.
Ben also described the importance of the South Australian program to accept used nuclear fuel and explained his disappointment that breeder reactors and their associated recycling capabilities are not farther along. Because the technology has not yet been fully demonstrated in an integral system — thanks to Senator John Kerry and President Bill Clinton with their 1994 move to halt the Integral Fast Reactor program — the Royal Commission could not find sufficient evidence that the technology would be an affordable investment for South Australia.
Recycling used fuel into new fuel may not be the most economic choice — at least at our current stage of technology development and process refinement — but it is a lot more exciting and satisfying than burying the material in deep holes in the ground.
During a discussion about how the issue of climate change provides an opening to discuss the importance of nuclear energy with people who are on the left side of the political spectrum, Rachel made an observation about the value of nuclear as a way for people on the right to accurately point out that they have been supporting beneficial technologies all along.
This segment reminded me of one of my dream near term outcomes of discussions like this one — it would be very cool if people on the left and right, Democrat and Republican would start racing each other on the issue of which one could be more supportive of advances in nuclear technology and actions to keep the existing power plants from premature closures.
Final note: I hope all of the people who have enjoyed seeing high quality, timely videos of important sessions from the NEA take the time to say thank you to the Nuclear Energy Institute. There have been staff members who have been suggesting similar actions for several years, but organizers have been understandably cautious about the potential impact on attendance.
For me, the session videos have been extraordinarily informative. They reinforce the feeling that I need to make the effort to attend similar events in person as often as possible. However, we all lead busy lives, have budgetary constraints and often have schedule or health conflicts that cannot be overcome. Recorded and accessible videos of key sessions after the fact is a valuable knowledge management tool for the industry.
Live streaming that enables some live interaction via tools like Twitter is also a great tool for those who have access at the moment the sessions occur.