In April, the Columbia University Coalition for Sustainable Development organized an evening event titled “Next Generation Nuclear Power: The Solution to Climate Change.” The event included a screening of Pandora’s Promise and a panel discussion about nuclear energy moderated by Andy Revkin, a well-known environmental columnist from the New York Times. The panel included Robert Stone and Gernot Wagner, the author of Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Warmer Planet.
The main attraction that helped to draw a sellout crowd, however, was Bill Nye, The Science Guy. He was invited to provide the keynote speech and participate in the panel discussion. Prominently displayed on the web site and presumably on the flyers that were most likely tacked on bulletin boards around the Columbia campus was the following headline:
The film screening of Pandora’s Promise kicked off the event, so the audience was primed to reevaluate whatever preconceptions they carried about nuclear energy based on the stories of the five converts and three technical experts that played starring roles in the documentary.
Unfortunately, Bill Nye’s speech indicated that he had either not paid attention during the film or that he was virtually unaffected by the information it presented. The opinions he shared could most positively be described as skeptical; the vibe he created seemed intentionally aimed at making his audience nervous to the point of being frightened about nuclear energy and the nuclear industry.
I was mostly confused by the mismatch between his words and stories and his persona as a popular science communicator who is still remembered fondly for his 1993-1998 run on television.
Nye started his talk with a bit of a rambling tale of his personal history that left me wondering why those family events caused him to be skeptical about nuclear energy.
His father was a civilian construction worker on Wake Island when the Japanese attacked and captured it in early December 1941. He spent the rest of the war in Japanese prison camps and was only released after the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945. Nye told the audience that if they ever have a chance to become a POW, “Don’t do it.”
If that was part of my history, I’d probably start with a favorable view of atomic energy. After all, it played a big role in getting his father home and allowing him to sire William.
He also talked about how his mother was a cryptologist during the war and didn’t start sharing any stories about what she did until the late 1990s, more than 50 years after the war ended. Somehow he transferred his feelings about that secrecy regarding cryptology to a negative impression about nuclear energy because it has been surrounded by so much secrecy. He said “Tradition of secrecy has played havoc with our perception of nuclear power.”
Several times during his talk, he firmly linked atomic energy to The Bomb. In one part, he gave a rather poorly summarized description of the basic operation of a nuclear heat engine and followed that story immediately with one about a family trip to the hardware store for a bomb shelter and associated supplies.
When describing enrichment, he used some colorful, memorable, and unnecessarily frightening language.
“All you need to do is to put the uranium in fuming nitric acid and hydrofluoric acid and you can make uranium hexafluoride. Simple. The most deadly freaking stuff there is.
(Emphasis in original.)
Like many in the tribe of nuclear skeptics that includes Amory Lovins and Joe Romm, Nye has a positive view of the Nuclear Navy. He was confused, however, about the Navy’s prime motivation for being interested in nuclear power; he told the audience it was because it reduced the need to refuel ships.
The key feature that really piqued the Navy’s interest was controllable heat from an emission-free, oxygen-free reaction. Nuclear energy’s ability to function inside sealed submarines freed them from the need to surface every few hours for waste disposal and oxygen intake. That is a feature that should be very attractive to a guy who gives talks like Climate Change 101.
He shared a favorable — but inaccurate — view of the Navy’s use of Idaho as a place to store its used fuel. For some reason, he was far less sanguine about the nuclear materials that are currently stored in Hanford, which is nearly as isolated and desolate as the Idaho National Laboratory site. (I’ve visited both places.)
Perhaps that has something to do with having lived in Seattle for a couple of decades and become part of the kind of group that reads and believes the daily news, especially when it includes a story every week about leaks. Those sensational stories make the public nervous, encourage them to purchase newspapers and help to keep about $3 billion per year of federal money flowing to the state of Washington from DOE clean-up programs.
Aside: Contrary to what Nye said, the Navy does not bury cores in Idaho and does not plan to keep them there much longer. It does, however, bury used reactor compartments at Hanford because it is a much more accessible location for large objects. End Aside.
He said something about Yucca Mountain that I have never heard before, so I’d like some feedback from those who know more about the site than I do. Is this a true statement?
I’ve been to Yucca Mountain. It’s a tunnel on a ridge. It’s way, way about the water table. There’s a stream visible from the parking lot.
As a science communicator and former Boeing employee, he holds a curious view about nuclear energy as being far more complicated than fluidized bed combustion and as being designed and operated by a bunch of Homer Simpsons. He made the following sweeping statement about the famous trio of accidents that have happened in the 60 years of widespread nuclear power plant operation.
Three Mile Island was almost a really big problem. Big mess up almost created a huge problem. Almost blew up. Then Chernobyl did blow up. Fukushima is still a problem.
He concluded with an apparent reaction to the favorable treatment of the potential for Integral Fast Reactors (IFR) in Pandora’s Promise. He claimed that Glen Seaborg insisted on the atomic symbol of Pu for plutonium because “The stuff stinks.”
After watching the video, I contacted Robert Stone to ask how he felt about Nye giving such a negative talk about nuclear energy right after the showing of his film. He told me that he thought Nye started to get it during the following panel discussion and that his willingness to be a headliner helped to draw the big crowd, which was a win as far as Stone was concerned.
Maybe he’s right and Nye just needs to break away from his tribe for a while to learn more about the use of nuclear energy as a powerful tool in the battles against climate change, fuel poverty, world hunger, and water shortages.
Here’s his talk so you can see for yourself if my summary and general impression are accurate.