A good friend shared a link to a blog titled Taking physics to new audiences: a realisation. It is a wonderful story about a particle physicist who has a twin sister who is a professional historian.
Following a conversation about nuclear energy, the physicist has avoided talking to her sister about what she does at work.
The last time we discussed science was when I was in my fourth year of my undergraduate physics course at Melbourne University. We ended up in a heated argument about nuclear power in which she refused to acknowledge or even discuss the possibility that it might not be evil incarnate destined to mutate our children into three-eyed monsters in the way that she supposed had happened in Chernobyl. I believe our conversation ended with her announcing she had no interest in science and that I knew nothing. Well, that was that.
This situation apparently lasted for about six years before the physicist decided to broach the subject again; this time, the conversation took a decidedly different turn and the historian sister displayed a dramatically different response. Here is the line that worked its wonders and opened a new topic of discussion for the accomplished women – the professional physicist and the professional historian.
I’m currently working on designing a high power proton accelerator to drive something called an Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor. It’s nuclear fission but without the nasty a) waste, b) proliferation risk, c) meltdowns and d) public perception issues. It uses Thorium instead of Uranium in the core & doesn’t produce plutonium. As a bonus, it could transmute the long lived nuclear waste of existing power plants.
The physicist, probably unconsciously, successfully implemented a communications strategy that would make Dr. Peter Sandman proud. She followed at least three of his five recommended steps towards outrage management and convinced her sister that her work really wasn’t “evil incarnate”. She acknowledged prior misbehavior, acknowledged current problems and did so with humility.
Unfortunately, her success may not have been a step forward for the beneficial use of nuclear energy to solve the pressing problem of producing large quantities of emission free power without polluting our common atmosphere.
Suzie – Unfortunately, your story of communications success makes my own self-appointed task of sharing the good news about nuclear fission just a little bit harder. I don’t agree that there is anything actually “nasty” about uranium. Plutonium, for all of the demonization it has received over the past 55 years, is actually a very valuable fission fuel material that contains 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil.
The volume of the world’s used nuclear fuel is quite tiny compared to the amount of emission free energy it has produced. The really good news is that it still contains about 95% of the initial potential energy. There are known ways to safely use a substantially larger portion of that energy before the material has to be isolated as “waste”.
I applaud the fact that people are working hard to make nuclear fission better and to find ways of converting what some think of as waste into energy, but the nuclear technology that we already have working today is FAR safer and environmentally friendly than all other competing products. Keeping “old” nuclear plants running is a much more important benefit than keeping old cars running to prevent new ones from being produced; a single large nuclear plant can produce about 8 billion kilowatt hours of zero carbon electricity every year. If one is shut down out of misplaced fear, no matter what replaces it, the world’s carbon footprint will increase.
In the past two years, dozens of useful nuclear plants have been forced off line in an irrational response to a massive natural disaster that destroyed three nuclear plants without causing a single injury due to radiation. As a direct result of the excess fear, the world’s fossil fuel industry has captured an increase in sales worth several tens of billions of dollars.
Keep up the good work in trying to share the excitement of solving problems, but please take a harder look at the reasons why self-sustained nuclear fission (the kind that does not need any expensive accelerators) has such a negative “public perception issue.”
Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights
My issue with the apparent success is that the historian will probably still fight the use of any nuclear fission technology that is not produced using particle accelerators and thorium. She will still feel justified in thinking of nuclear waste as a big issue and still worry about the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation with regard to existing commercial nuclear power plants. No matter how successful the physicist is in her research efforts, it is going to be a very long time before any significant quantities of power are produced using subcritical reactors supported by particle accelerators.
Changing topics completely, I recommend a visit to Canadian Energy Issues where Steve Aplin has once again explained why Ontario’s mostly nuclear supplied grid is so much cleaner than it would be if that power was produced by burning natural gas instead.