Nuclear energy in Virginia – Public Square debate hosted by Richmond Times-Dispatch
The Richmond-Times Dispatch hosted a debate on November 15, 2011 titled Public Square: The debate over nuclear energy in Va.. Since I recently moved to Virginia specifically because of nuclear energy, I figured that attending the debate was a good way to invest my time.
Aside: . I am one of several hundred people who has a recently created job in Virginia to help design, license, and build the B&W mPowerTM small modular reactor system. End Aside.
The debate was a well ordered affair worth of the title of a public discussion. The moderator established clear rules and time limits. The four invited participants were civil, polite and followed the rules that were established so that people had a real opportunity to hear from several different points of view.
The invited speakers included Dr. Sama Bilbao y Leon (the head of the recently established nuclear engineering program at Virginia Commonwealth University), Jerry Rosenthal (a man who owns a farm near the North Anna power station and has been a long time antinuclear activist in the local area), Eugene Grecheck (vice president for nuclear development, Dominion Virginia Power and recently the lead for the effort to restore the plant to service after the August 23 earthquake in Mineral, VA) and Louis Zeller (science director for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League).
Sama (I’ve known Dr. Bilbao y Leon for about 18 years, so we are on a first name basis) gave a brief talk about the importance of electricity in terms of human quality of life, pointing out the relationship between electricity consumption and per capita income around the world. Louis Zeller claimed that the experiences from Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl should convince the world that nuclear energy is too dangerous to use.
Eugene Grecheck discussed the importance of nuclear energy in Dominion’s generation mix and also Virginia’s current status as second only to California as a net electricity importer from its neighboring states. Jerry Rosenthal completed the initial presentations with a passionate diatribe about all of the alternatives to nuclear that should be developed instead (including natural gas) and claimed that Dominion has refused to release information about the expected cost of North Anna Unit 3. Like Zeller, he claimed that accidents at Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl proved that nuclear energy was too dangerous to continue using.
The meeting was well attended with a crowd of somewhere close to 100 people. Before the discussion, the moderator asked for a show of hands to determine how many were pro-nuclear, how many were opponents, and how many were undecided. Not surprisingly for Richmond, VA, the headquarters city of Dominion, the overwhelming majority of the crowd was in favor of nuclear energy. Less than two handfulls of people raised their hands claiming to be opponents and only one or two claimed to be undecided.
During the question and answer session, it was apparent that Kirk Sorensen’s influence is growing – the first question was a long lecture on how the uranium lobby has suppressed thorium technology, followed with a direct question asking Eugene Grecheck if Dominion would invest in thorium research and development. Grecheck responded by saying that Dominion is following all energy technology research with interest; what he did not say is that electric utility companies that are rate regulated monopolies do not have the flexibility to invest in long term R&D.
I got my hand up quickly enough to be the third questioner. I asked Mr. Zeller and Mr. Rosenthal why I am supposed to be so worried about the effects of an accident like Fukushima where no one was even hurt by the radiation that was released despite all of the damage caused when the tsunami attacked the plant.
Mr. Rosenthal responded. He claimed that radiation damage accumulates and that most of the radioactive material was blown out to the Pacific Ocean. Then he claimed that the accident is not over and that the plants are still releasing radiation so the total effects are not yet known. He had no response when I told him that all of the units were now cold and well under control.
After the meeting, I had a chance to speak with Rosenthal. I asked him the following question. “Would you rather have been a resident of Fukushima or San Bruno?” He looked confused for a minute and then said “Oh yeah.” Then he said “But that doesn’t matter. I own a farm near North Anna. If the plant has an accident, no one would ever buy my land. It would be worthless.” I asked him how that effect compared to the fact that 8 people were killed and 50 homes were completely destroyed when a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, yet he said during his talk that he favored natural gas as a replacement for nuclear energy.
His response to that was that he supported natural gas “just as a bridge technology.” I was not quick enough to tell him that he was supporting a dangerous “bridge to nowhere” whose use further enriches some of the wealthiest people in the world. Instead, I mentioned that we only have only a 94-year supply of natural gas at current usage rates. He told me that gas is much cheaper than nuclear, while I responded that history shows that today’s low prices will not remain low if natural gas suppliers (and their bankers) have their way by encouraging demand to increase faster than the supply.
I’m not sure I made any headway with Rosenthal and there was no one listening to the conversation. However, it was kind of fun to watch his response.
Update: (Nov 16, 2011 at 5:22 pm) Just in case Mr. Rosenthal reads this, I need to correct something I said during our conversation. I stated that the Cove Pont LNG terminal was owned by Williams, while he said it was a Dominion property. I was wrong; Dominion purchased the facility from Williams in 2002. End Update.
The meeting was recorded and should be available in edited form on the web within the next week. I will share the link once it is posted.
One more thing – my drive to Richmond last night was practice for another trip next Tuesday. I have been invited to speak to the VCU student chapter of the American Nuclear Society. I am looking forward to the trip and the interaction with excited young nuclear professionals.
I mean no offense to Kirk Sorensen, and he does deserve a great deal of credit for helping get the MSR/Thorium story out to a much wider audience, but I think the potential future benefits of the technology are what has been influencing people a lot moreso than Kirk himself. I am pretty sure I have heard Kirk himself say that too.
In my opinion Kirk’s advocacy has been very important. He got a new narrative into wide circulation: the discovery of long-lost knowledge with the potential to change the world, knowledge that was buried long ago because the technology and its main proponent (A. Weinberg) became inconvenient to powerful interests.
This story roughly fits the narrative of the rise of good, death at the hands of dark forces followed by a resurrection leading to the potential salvation of mankind.
Using narratives roughly following universal, age-old archetypes is a very powerful way to sell a message.
I believe his message resonates well and as a result he got many people to think differently about nuclear power. He got people to realize that what Al Gore said was wrong: nuclear power DOES NOT come in only one size (BIG). It can come in small sizes and in different forms that can radically affect safety, sustainability and cost (for the better); and, because of this it IS possible to engage a vision of energy abundance for the world with a new generation of nuclear technologies.
I believe this quote here from Mr. Rosenthal is at the root of current opposition to nuclear power,
I think that in our relatively (compared to the rest of the world) wealthy society, the baby boomers have become more risk adverse in terms of their long-term investments and they see a nuclear accident as a threat to their financial security approaching retirement. I’m not saying it’s rational, just that it’s the current state of things.
Mr. Rosenthal doesn’t see that if there is an accident he has a legal right to have the utility purchase his land at FMV and compensate him for his lost work.
Yes he looses his land but the value is not a sunk cost, which is what is argument is centered around.
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