A colleagues who used to work in the oil and gas industry pointed me to an article from the November 2012 issue of the Journal of Petroleum Technology titled Switch: The New Documentary on Energy’s Future. The article describes a video research project undertaken by Scott Tinker, a former oil and gas company geologist who is now the director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and Allday Endowed Chair professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Tinker decided that it was time to get out of the classroom and learn more about energy options. He pitched his idea, obtained financial backing and started traveling around the world. During his journey, he collected more than 500 hours of professionally produced video footage that has been edited into a documentary on energy titled Switch. The film is now being screened all over the world at college campuses, at private events, and in government theaters. It is a wonderful educational tool that is touted by some of its sponsors as being devoid of any particular agenda.
In the Switch trailer, a nuclear energy-oriented viewer will notice that there is not a single mention of the ‘N’ (nuclear) word; the closest the documentary’s promotional clip comes to acknowledging the existence of nuclear energy is a brief shot (second 0:38-0:39) of hyperbolic cooling towers. As energy professionals know, those towers might very well be associated with a different kind of steam producing power plant, even though the media tends to use them as icons for nuclear power stations.
The web site associated with the project is impressive and well organized. It provides a home for a large array of clips culled from the many hours of video collected. It is not immediately clear which clips became a part of the documentary, but at least the project leaders have realized that their collection has value that should be shared.
The clips are categorized by technology; even though nuclear energy did not make it into the trailer, there is a page that includes clips in which Dr. Tinker interviews people about nuclear energy. One brief clip includes Ernie Moniz, the man that President Obama has recently nominated to replace Steven Chu as the Secretary of Energy, providing his thoughts on where nuclear energy fits into our country’s energy future.
As supporting evidence for my choice of headline accusing the Switch energy project of damning nuclear with faint praise, the page featuring nuclear related clips is headlined “Nuclear: High power, hard to handle”. In contrast, the natural gas page is headlined “Natural gas: Abundant and clean…er”
As more supporting evidence for my assertion that Switch, at best, gives nuclear a “once over, lightly” treatment, this brief chat with Dr. Steve Koonin, US Undersecretary of Energy, is probably the most positive segment in the series. The others include more cautious language about the need to balance the benefits of nuclear energy against issues like waste, costs, accident risks or terrorism targets.
Here is my direct challenge to colleagues in the nuclear industry. Why is it so difficult for people that want to do documentaries about nuclear energy to obtain anything close to the resource base that evidently was available to support Switch?
Actually, I can make a reasonably educated guess for the answer to that question, but I would still like to challenge the penny wise and pound foolish approach of the nuclear energy decision makers that apparently think advertising and public information efforts are a waste of money.
PS – I just checked the screening schedule and realized that Switch is playing tonight in Emory, VA, just 2 hours and 40 minutes away. Wonder if I should try to attend?