Yesterday, I pointed Atomic Insights readers to a series of articles that provide an overview of the history of the antinuclear movement. In addition to recently reading those articles, I have been rereading a 1982 book by Bertrand Goldschmidt titled “The Atomic Complex: A Worldwide Political History of Nuclear Energy.”
The two self-assigned homework projects are as part of a reflective effort to understand more about how human society moved from a period of optimism based on a vision of “Atoms for Peace” to a period where someone reading the advertiser supported press would believe that sensible people would logically consider giving up the whole technology out of fear of radiation and its health consequences.
One of the hopeful lessons I have learned so far is that the initial conditions of our current fight to defend and expand the safe use of atomic energy are far different from those that faced the people engaged in the earliest battles against a well organized opposition to nuclear technology development. We have a much better chance of success now than we did then – and there are several reasons why that is true.
One condition that is vastly different is the ability of nuclear professionals to have their voices heard. No longer are most people who understand nuclear energy isolated in small communities with few media outlets. In the 1970s, a large fraction of nuclear professionals were located near remotely sited national laboratories or power stations. Today, though many still work at national labs or in small market communities like Lynchburg, VA, we are all globally connected to a vast network on the Internet. We have Skype, YouTube and blogs. Some of us know that major decision makers and journalists read or listen to our words on a regular basis. We are no longer shy about responding to misinformation and unwarranted criticism.
For example, many of you have probably seen or read the Associated Press hit piece on the effort by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry to address the issue of aging nuclear power stations.
It should be no secret to anyone that the average age of nuclear power plants in the US increases by almost exactly one year with every passing year. We are only officially building one plant right now, with four more that will enter that category as soon as the NRC issues the construction and operating licenses. It is also no secret that the NRC and the industry have been working hard to address aging as part of the effort to relicense plants for an additional 20 years, a process that is complete for more than 60 plants so far.
However, the AP reporter, most likely someone who has never worked on an old car or repaired an old submarine, took a lot of stories out of context. He added a number of scary sounding inferences about the relationship between the regulators and the regulated. In response to the story, Dan Yurman, who blogs at Idaho Samizdat and was a professional journalist before he became a nuclear professional, reached out for real expertise.
He interviewed Dr. John Bickel, a man who has about 39 years worth of professional experience in plant aging, defense in depth and other safety related issues. You can read Dan’s excellent article at Associated Press Nukes the NRC on Reactor Safety.
The encouraging thing about that response is that it happened on the SAME DAY as the AP report was released. After Dan published his report, he notified the world via Twitter that the post was up. I have already had the opportunity to retweet his announcement and to share his link in a conversation related to a Huffington Post article titled U.S. Nuclear Regulators Weaken Safety Rules, Fail To Enforce Them: AP Investigation and in a conversation on Joe Romm’s Climate Progress titled AP Bombshell: U.S. Nuclear Regulators “Repeatedly” Weaken Safety Rules or are “Simply Failing to Enforce Them”.
Think about that – it has been just 24 hours since the AP story hit the wires, yet nuclear professionals are already sharing a completely different side of the story without the filter of someone else deciding what is important.
Another thing that is different about the fight over using atomic energy now, compared to the fight that happened in the late 1960s through the 1990s is that the opposition has a much less capable base of leaders. In the previous phase of the battle, the antinuclear movement grew out of a morally understandable effort to stop testing nuclear weapons in the earth’s atmosphere.
That effort was inspired by real world events like showering a Japanese fishing vessel with lethal doses of fallout from an ill-timed test in the middle of the Pacific ocean. It was led by some of the world’s most renowned atomic scientists, many of whom bore a deep moral guilt for their wartime efforts to build the Bomb in the first place.
When that effort succeeded in convincing the US, the UK and Russia to agree to stop atmospheric testing in 1963, some of the organizations that had been formed to do the heavy lifting saw substantial decreases in membership and contributions. After all, they could have easily hung up a large banner saying “Mission Accomplished” and closed up shop. Some did just that. Some persisted for a while with a variety of related issues like fighting against antiballistic missile installations and medium range rockets.
Some of the “ban the bomb” organizations became heavily involved in protests against the Vietnam War, but success in that effort again led to falling membership and a search for a new mission in the early 1970s. In at least one notable case – the Union of Concerned Scientists – a tiny fraction of remaining members decided that they liked protesting, testifying and organizing so much that they needed a new boogyman.
And then in 1971, I got into the big issue, the reactor safety business, which basically made UCS a nationally known organization. By that time, we had already learned reasonably completely how to proceed, although we had no resources to speak of. On the safety business we did a technical study, wrote a paper, had a news conference, and we were launched.
Then you were really covered, on a week to week basis at any rate, it seems (not quite, but close. I looked at the New York Times during the period, and the first mention is in July 1971.
That’s right, that was our first news conference.
Not on that particular issue. But we had certainly had press conferences and had developed a modus operandi: generating technical studies, having press conferences, and ultimately giving testimony, either by invitation or by soliciting invitations. Our way of doing business had already been well established.
It is true that that was the opening gun, so to speak, on the nuclear reactor safety debate. And that report and press conference was followed by another one, I think in October of that year. Not long after that we became involved in the major hearings that went on for about two years on the subject of emergency core cooling and reactor safety.
This reactor effort, started when the Union of Concerned Scientists, was very small. Indeed there were really just two of us by early 1972 who carried the Union and its name through.
That was you and…
(Daniel Ford. There was a small vestigial group at MIT who had no contact with reactor safety. My own interests in the nuclear arms race never abated, but there seemed to be no satisfactory opening for making that a matter of public controversy.
The groups organized against nuclear energy today are no longer led by world renowned scientists, though they do have some media celebrities with spotty professional histories and puffed up resumes. In many cases, they are grayer than I am and less well versed in the techniques of modern communications. Their fellow travelers on blogs and message boards routinely expose their own ignorance and sometimes their near illiteracy.
In contrast to the past, many of the renowned nuclear scientists and engineers in the profession today have no guilt at all. They did not participate in developing fearful weapons of mass destruction. Instead, they have spent their lives participating in an enterprise that provides massive quantities of emission free, low cost power to the people of the world. Seasoned professionals like Ted Rockwell, Margaret Harding, Meredith Angwin and Gail Marcus are out there blogging away and telling people what they know to be true about nuclear energy.
Enthusiastic younger people like Kirk Sorensen, Jack Gamble, and Suzy Hobbs are sharing optimistic visions for the future and explaining why they have chosen to support nuclear energy development, often in the face of numerous friends who disagree.
On sites like this one, people who are too busy in their professional lives to run their own blogs regularly contribute some awesome content in the comment threads.
I am encouraged. Atomic energy is alive and well; there is nothing that humans can do to eliminate its existence. We are entering a golden age of nuclear energy where facts and reality will overcome fictional tall tales spun by folks like Arnie Gundersen or Paul Blanche.
PS I have just found out that part two of the Associated Press salvo against nuclear energy focuses on tritium issues. That has been a topic of numerous posts here on Atomic Insights. If you get nervous about tritium, please do a search using that word to find more than two dozen articles that put it into perspective.