On Friday, Nov. 5, I heard an inspirational talk given by a man who had a big influence on my early career; he was the Brigade Commander who welcomed the class of 1981 to the US Naval Academy on July 6, 1977. Col. Art Athens, USMCR (Ret.) is now the Director of the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the US Naval Academy. The occasion for the talk was an update on the important work that the center was doing to help shape present and future military leaders, partially with the help of donations from my classmates, some of whom were gathered at the Academy for our 30 year reunion.
One of the most important “take aways” from the talk was the distilled mission statement that the center had adopted.
Even though it has so few words, Stockdale Center’s mission statement carries important messages – leaders need to be empowered, they need to make decisions, they need to make those decisions based on strong moral values, and they need courage in order to make the correct decisions. Some tough decisions put the decision maker and his people at mortal risk while others have significant financial or professional impact. One of Art’s messages to the class of 1981 was that even though most of us are no longer serving in uniform (only a few dozen members of my class of 966 graduates continue to serve on active duty), our ethical decision making still influences the nation and the rest of the world.
As often happens when I hear an inspirational talk or sermon, I walked away feeling like the speaker was addressing me personally.
Those carefully chosen words have intruded upon my thinking for the past few days as I spoke with old friends who are in a wide variety of responsible positions. They have also shaped my thinking as I have considered ways to respond to important continuing conversations about the health effects of low level radiation , the need to resist being seduced by salesmen who are touting temporarily low natural gas prices, and about the importance of helping people to understand that vast expenditures in unreliable energy sources are NOT wise investments of our time and treasure.
When evaluated using a monetary yardstick, my atomic energy advocacy seems to be on a losing streak. Many of the projects that produced so much atomic optimism in the US during the period from 2005-mid 2008 have been shelved; Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy have sworn off both existing and new nuclear power stations inside their borders, and many people continue to campaign against the operation of reliable power plants like Indian Point, Vermont Yankee and North Anna. Billions of dollars worth of infrastructure is either being wasted or not being built.
At the same time, developers of natural gas fired generation and developers of unreliable, but politically favored power sources are making impressive profits with seemingly bright future prospects.
However, leaders in countries where generational thinking has a stronger tradition are moving smartly to expand their ability to use both uranium and thorium as sources of power upon which to build more prosperity for growing numbers of people. They are taking action in realization that providing reliable, virtually emission-free power is a moral response to the challenges that their nations face. India, China, Arab and southeast Asian nations are all taking a hard look at the results of Fukushima, at the stresses in the fossil fuel supply chain, at the data coming from climate researchers and recognizing that there is an immediate need to move forward to develop new nuclear energy supply systems.
It is good for the US that we have learned how to extract methane gas from hard shale formations. The increased production from those formations is making up for falling production from traditional reservoirs and giving us the competitive advantage of significantly lower gas prices than exist in most of the industrialized world. We need to make good use of that resource to rebuild our industrial capacity and not let drillers take short cuts that will increase risks for neighbors.
We also, however, need to guard against irrational exuberance that would squander the resource as quickly as possible for short term monetary gain; just imagine what life would be like for future generations if they have the knowledge to drill into shale but have no more undrilled shale plays left to exploit.
Building new nuclear power stations is not immediately profitable. It is hard, often frustrating work that is made even more difficult than it should be by the need overcome artificial barriers that have been erected by several decades worth of focused effort to discourage new nuclear plant development. Like many decisions of questionable ethical basis, it might seem easier or more profitable to take an easier path with more immediate positive returns. That path, however, will leave both America and the world poorer, with less flexibility and resilience to overcome future challenges.
We need nuclear energy and we need to be building the capacity to use it NOW, while we still have time and resources like cheap money, low priced commodities and available skilled labor.
Disclosure: I am employed on a project to develop new nuclear power plants. I will personally benefit if more new nuclear power stations are built. Those facts, however, are not the reason I am an atomic advocate. I was an atomic advocate BEFORE I decided invest my personal future into developing atomic energy.
Wall St. Journal (November 7, 2011) Dalai Lama: A Role for Nuclear Power in Development Process