I had an experience this weekend that reinforced my growing understanding that pronuclear advocates have been distracted by the wrong target. Instead of focusing our fire against the people — both outside and inside the industry — who have successfully driven up the cost of nuclear energy to a point at which it is unable to compete against burning hydrocarbons, we have allowed ourselves to assume that our technology is not accepted because too many people have a strong, negative reaction to its use.
My realization came as a result of deciding to travel from Lynchburg, Virginia to Washington, DC so that I could attend Pandora’s Promise during its opening weekend in the theaters. Though I probably should have known better, I was hoping to have an opportunity to experience a theater full of people having their minds opened to a new way of thinking about our available energy alternatives. I harbored fantasies of chatting with some of them after the movie was over.
For those of you who are not completely familiar with Virginia geography, Lynchburg is roughly 200 miles southwest of Washington. The first 150 miles of the trip is through some of the most beautiful countryside in the mid-Atlantic region. It includes mountain views, “horsey” country with rolling pastures bordered by white fences, densely forested sections, and pleasant small towns endowed with great local restaurants and functional economies that are often rich with opportunities for sightseeing or active recreation.
The last 50 miles of the trip passes through an increasingly densely populated zone of long stretches of suburbs, strip malls, crowded freeways, and glass faced office buildings decorated with marquee names like Boeing, AOL, and CACI. Even on a weekend, and with the help of a navigator (my wife) who is skilled in the use of a traffic ap called Inrix, the drive into town included a slowdown in a traffic jam surrounded by thousands of impatient strangers. Some of those other drivers seemed to be willing to risk their lives – and mine – to go just a little bit faster than their neighbor.
Saturday was a “Chamber of Commerce Day” in Washington, with blue skies, pleasant breezes, and relatively dry air. The Mall area was predictably crowded, with tens of thousands of people from dozens of states and countries enjoying a visit to one of the most interesting cities in the world. There was a Folklife Festival on the Mall and lines coming out of attractions like the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Spy Museum.
After an afternoon stroll, we had a tasty dinner at Jaleo’s, a popular tapas restaurant with a fascinating menu. While waiting between courses, we chatted with the young couple sitting next to us; they were from Minnesota, and were excited about a vacation in DC. I told them why were were in town; neither of them had ever heard of Pandora’s Promise, but humored me by saying that it sounded interesting.
When we walked into the theater a few minutes before the scheduled 8:00 pm start, I was disappointed to realize that there was only one other couple in the room. A few more people trickled in, but I would guess that the audience totaled less than 20 people in a city teeming with hundreds of thousands of energy consumers.
Lest you think I am completely out of touch, I understand that watching documentaries is not the most popular pastime. However, I compared that audience of 20 people in a city the size of Washington to the 200 or so that showed up to watch Switch in Lexington, VA, which is a relatively isolated college town with a population of about 7,000 people.
Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the movie, but a more important reviewer was my wife, who often just tolerates my atomic obsession. She said that the film was well done and included many thought-provoking ideas. Even though she was a little sleepy from the trip, the wandering and the sangria at dinner she said she was never bored or tempted to doze off. She was surprised to learn that some reviewers had claimed that Stone had become a pronuclear cheerleader; she thought that the director and at least one of the protagonists – Mark Lynas – were still quite undecided and slightly fearful about the technology.
As I thought about the high quality of the documentary versus the small size of the audience, I wondered if the explanation is that most people do not have strong emotions about nuclear energy. Perhaps a movie about environmentalists that overcome their fear and learn to accept nuclear power as a viable energy alternative is not as gripping a tale as some of us think it is.
Perhaps the dramatic story about nuclear energy still needs to be found and told. I am going to continue to keep searching for a way to help more people to pay attention to the availability of a concentrated power source that has the potential to make an energy system that depends on burning coal, oil and gas seem as quaint as a communication system limited by smoke signals and fleet-footed messengers.