During my nearly thirty years of being a nuke, I have participated in hundreds of conversations about the basis for the widespread misunderstandings about the technology that are held by the general public. A variety of possible causes have been proposed over sodas, beers and glasses of wine including weaknesses in a public education system that rarely requires chemistry or physics instruction, failures by leaders in the nuclear industry to effectively market their technological advantages, or the long heritage of public silence from a major supply source for nukes, the US Navy’s submarine service.
(Aside: – if you have ever been in a gathering of submariners, you know that we are not “silent” or shy when “among friends”. I was recently in just such a gathering where one senior executive exclaimed “man, these guys can talk!”. Our meetings lasted from 8:00 am until 6:00 pm with a very short lunch break. End Aside.)
I digress. In nearly all of those hallway, passageway, wardroom, or barroom discussions among “us nukes” a major portion of the blame for the lack of love shown was ascribed to “the media”. In the view of many of my colleagues, the sensationalism prevalent in establishment news outlets has resulted in an over abundance of stories about leaks, spills, and minor incidents that were often portrayed as potentially catastrophic near misses. Many nuclear trained people have actually been taught to fear interactions with “the media” because they believe almost anything they say will be misinterpreted or dismissed as coming from an industry funded source.
In many ways, I understand how they feel. I have been accused of being a shill in online conversations more times than I could possibly count, even though I have never worked in the industry and have a paycheck that has no dependence at all on the source of electricity or power for any market. You know, even if I did work for a commercial nuclear power company, it shouldn’t matter. Nukes, have a right to participate in conversations about the technology that they know deeply, just like doctors and lawyers have a right to participate in discussions about the medical or legal industries.
One of the truly amazing opportunities enabled by the times that we live in today is that the established media has lost its near monopoly grip on the ability to influence the thinking patterns of masses of people. Stories get to the public from an enormous variety of people; it is no longer possible for carefully selected images to burn their way into the public consciousness without some competing images that shed a different light on the event being described.
As people like Dan Yurman (Idaho Samizdat), John Wheeler (This Week In Nuclear, Kirk Sorensen (Energy from Thorium, Charles Barton (Nuclear Green), and Finrod (Channeling the Strong Force have learned, there is no reason why nukes cannot form their own media outlets so that they can provide a different point of view. That realization is not really “new”, nukes like Jeremy Whitlock (Canadian Nuclear FAQ) have been on the web almost since its inception, but the momentum is building up to the point where independents are getting invited to the press conferences and providing far more than just analysis of someone else’s work. In some cases, new media outlets, looking for a fresh way to tell important stories, are actually approaching nukes and asking us to share more about what we know about our technology.
Next week, John Wheeler, Dan Yurman and I will be participating in a panel discussion at the American Nuclear Society (ANS) annual meeting being held in Atlanta, GA. We are scheduled for an hour and a half of give and take about our experiences as bloggers, podcasters, and web site developers that are focused on using those outlets to share what we know about an important power source. If you happen to be in Atlanta, please join us on Wednesday afternoon from 2:30-4:00 pm. (That time seems perfect to me, since it could very likely lead to a spill over session at a local eating/drinking establishment.)
I’ll give you a hint on my take – if you do not like the way that the traditional media outlets treat your favorite technology, you have the power to make an impact. The tools are there and the audience can be attracted if you produce compelling, informative material.
On a related note, I received an invitation from Babcock and Wilcox to attend a press conference today. The event is being held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. According to the release, B&W will be joined by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Representative Lincoln Davis (D-4th TN), Tennessee Valley Authority, and Exelon Nuclear to make an announcement about “a major commercial nuclear power product”.
Matthew Wald at the New York Times pulsed two industry sources and has asked the question Small Nuclear Reactors in the Offing?. I offered my feedback:
I am eagerly awaiting the press conference. The system that B&W is likely to announce may be as different from central station models as VAX computers were from mainframes.
The long term effects on the energy and power market could be substantial as it opens up the possibility of a range of new business models that include building clusters of modular plants that can share costs like engineering, personnel training and security while still exhibiting some of the redundancy, series production economies, and “right-sizing” that is possible with smaller unit sizes.
My guess is that the unit size will not be a small step down like the AP-600 was, but a much larger step down to something on the order of 10-50 MWe, more like the units being developed at NuScale or Hyperion. The difference here is that Babcock and Wilcox is not a small, venture funded outfit starting from scratch, but a major unit of a large, international energy company with more than 50 years of experience in building major nuclear plant components and managing large nuclear research and development sites for the US DOE.
Babcock and Wilcox’s heritage includes participation in the industry dating back to the earliest days in the Navy Nuclear power program; that participation continues today. As I like to remind people, the often repeated mantra that the US has not built any new nuclear plants in more than 30 years is only true with a modifier – the US has not built any new COMMERCIAL nuclear plants in 30 years.
The US – with Babcock and Wilcox’s help – has built dozens of nuclear power plants for ships and submarines that are smaller than “standard” commercial units.
We live in interesting times. The small, relatively quiet generation of people who have spent their entire careers associated with building and operating nuclear power plants have a real opportunity to change the world by applying the lessons they have learned and building on the struggles they have endured.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
As my friends in the Marines often tell me, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. Despite all obstacles placed in its path, the nuclear industry in the US did not die; it has the potential to arise from a period of significant struggle as a much stronger, battle tested force with importa
nt skills and knowledge that will enable it to compete strongly in a global energy market.
PS – Just in case you wonder why Senator Voinovich from Ohio might be taking time out of his busy day to attend B&W’s press event, Babcock and Wilcox Power Generation Group has its headquarters in Barberton, OH. It should not surprise anyone to see that Senator Lamar Alexander would be there. Babcock and Wilcox has a subsidiary company, Intech, Inc., located in Chattanooga, TN which is just outside of Representative Lincoln Davis’s 4th district.