On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, I visited the Politics and Prose bookstore in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I went there for an author talk by Amanda Little. She shared the story of the journey of discovery about energy that formed the basis for her recently published book titled Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—Our Ride to the Renewable Future. She ended her story with a tale about meeting a woman named Melba Leggett and getting a personal tour of her new energy efficient, solar assisted home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. (Pages 349-357 in Power Trip.) After that story, here is how she concluded her talk:
Amanda Little: This whole shift that we’re making towards clean technologies, towards efficiency, towards better performing homes is not just about climate change and addressing energy independence and becoming a more efficient economy. It’s not just about the environmental and political implications. It’s about a change in consciousness, a change in the way we live. A change in the very intuitive wonderful emotional trip that was happening in this one woman that was not supposed to be the target consumer for these high tech innovations. But she was. And she understood it better than anyone I have ever met in my reporting.
. . .
It was then that I realized that this whole journey that I had taken, basically to understand the technology revolution was actually a journey that was happening on so many other levels, in so many other profound and moving ways. So, I want to leave you with that, with this idea that when we talk about energy, we’re talking not just about policy, about technology, but we’re talking about people and we’re talking about these beautiful stories of lives changing.
And if there’s one thing that I hope to do in this entire trip, that I hope to do in subsequent work is tell the human story of resources, tell the human story of how we use energy. And the next book I’m working on is about water, on water shortages. But the human story of these challenges that seem so abstract, so technical, but, in fact they have very real human implications.
So thank you so much for your attention and time and I would be happy to talk to you about nuclear power or “The Hammer” or my other very scandalous reporting experiences at Talladega, Alabama on the NASCAR racing track. But it’s really such a pleasure to end my little book tour trip here at Politics and Prose. Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here.
Rod Adams: Amanda, my name is Rod Adams. I write for Atomic Insights, so I am going to ask you the nuclear question.
Amanda: I knew I was setting myself up. . .
Rod: What I wish I really could do was invite you to the home that I had for several months at a time. That home had a little pile of “stuff” about this high (and I held my hand at a bit above my waist) that lasted for fifteen years while driving a 9,000 ton submarine under the water. I would love to show you how tiny that amount of fuel was and share the fact that after using it, that was the waste product – after fifteen years. And then compare that to how much oil that same ship would have had to burn. So, the question is, have you ever taken the time to go visit a nuclear power plant or a nuclear powered ship or submarine?
Amanda: The answer is no, I haven’t been to a nuclear plant. I actually shared a plane ride two days ago with with a nuclear submarine pilot. Is that the right term – pilot?
Rod: (Chuckling along with the audience.) Ah, No. The right term is a submariner. Pilots go up in the sky; we’re three dimensional, but we go under the water.
Amada: The Captain, the submariner. And he challenged me with the same question. You also often hear, hey, France does 70% of their electricity production from nuclear; Japan does 50, where are we on this? The answer is the barriers to developing nuclear; to significantly expanding nuclear in the US may not be relevant to the size of the waste. But they are relevant to the disposal and storage challenge that we have not remotely begun to figure out on a political level. Yucca Mountain is one option. We don’t have any regional plan, which is how France and Japan do it.
So there are emerging technologies for this but they haven’t been developed. It’s kind of the same thing with gasifying coal. You know, why don’t we use coal in carbon free or low carbon ways? Again, it sounds promising, but we haven’t begun to solve the challenge of proving it on a commercial level.
So when we have a viable storage and system, that’s going to be changing the discussion on nuclear. The other challenge is water. We’ve seen nuclear plants in France and Japan and around the US that have been shut down because they required such tremendous volumes of water to cool down. They don’t actually work in drought ridden areas. So water is an area that I am interested in. And that begs the question, how are we going to develop nuclear in regions of the country that are battling water problems and those broader parts of the country.
But I am not opposed to nuclear. I think it is a very important discussion on the table. And notice I didn’t even mention the fact that even if the waste is small, it is radioactive for eternity, basically. Which brings up a lot of questions about whose back yard do you want that to be in. And I can certainly understand why, if I was living near Yucca Mountain, I wouldn’t want it in mine.
I think there are security problems and I have not even looked at the challenge of containing the waste for security issues. It could be repurposed into nuclear weapons. But what I do hope to convey with the answer is I don’t think it should be taken off of the table but I think we need to look at these three very crucial barriers to developing nuclear.
Rod: If I can have one more thing to put in your mind, I think the biggest problem that nuclear has is that every time we built a nuclear power plant, we removed a market for 4 million tons of coal per year. The people who used to sell that coal weren’t real happy about it.
Amanda: Ahhh. So Peabody Coal is getting in the way.
That last was met with a round of nervous laughter in the audience. After all, this was a politically interested group of people who may have heard something they had never really thought about before.
While waiting in line to get my book signed, I struck up a conversation with the couple standing next to me. The man told me how one of his children, a childhood friend of Amanda’s, had given him a copy of the book for Christmas. He told me he read it almost straight through and believed that he might be one of the only people at the talk who had actually completed the book. He told me that he was quite impressed with the breadth of the research and the story of the journey.
I suggested that he might be interested in another recent journey of discovery book with the word “Power” in the title. I told him a little bit about Gwyneth Cravens’s Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. I told him how it was about a former Shoreham protester who took her inquisitive mind on a road trip guided by a nuclear scientist. He told me he would look for i
t and seemed very interested in finding another book on the topic to read.