Last week, while the ANS Winter Meeting was in full-swing, a group of students at the College of William and Mary hosted a Forum on Nuclear Energy. There were about 40 people in attendance.
This group of students belong to an organization known as the Global Awareness Interdisciplinary Alliance or GAIA, whose name bears intentional resemblance to James Lovelock's GAIA Theory.
Four speakers were invited to the forum to field questions pertaining to safety, economics, and environmental impact. The speakers included:
- Gene Grecheck, Vice President of Nuclear Services for Dominion
- Michael Stuart, Public Information Officer of North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN)
- Paul Gunter a representative of Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), an anti-nuclear organization based in Washington, DC
- Donal Day, an anti-nuclear research professor from UVA
After a short presentation presenting facts about nuclear usage and public opinion, each speaker was allowed a five-minute introductory address prior to fielding questions as a panelist.
Paul Gunter's main focus was that nuclear power is not safe. In his estimation, there are far too many possibilities for a problem stemming from nuclear to justify its use. These problems range from terrorist attacks, to waste storage, to plant degradation on what he refers to as the "bathtub curve."
The "bathtub curve" analogy posits that nuclear plants are bad when they are new because of failures related to break-in. It also posits that they are bad in mid-life because they are in their reliable, low-maintenance phase, and with oversight at a minimum, serious problems could go unnoticed. Finally it also assumes that nuclear plants are bad as they age, because then they are subject to age-related problems.
I guess it should come as no surprise that the anti-nuclear representative was down on nuclear power. Paul was garrulous, often being asked to wrap up after five minutes on a 90-second time allotment.
Donal Day and his wife Elena have been anti-nuclear voices in Virginia for over twenty years. To my astonishment, though, his anti-nuclear rhetoric was much less dogmatic. When the panel was asked, "Could an event like Chernobyl happen in the United States?" Donal was the first to answer, "Actually Chernobyl employed a much different reactor design than is used in the United States, so technically, no. Chernobyl couldn't happen here."
It was a Twilight Zone moment. I couldn't believe my ears! I wanted to get up and shake his hand. Thanks Donal!
However, Donal also was convinced that electrical demands would not increase by 50% by 2025, but could actually decrease by 50%. That being the case, there should be no need for nuclear. As he held up a compact fluorescent light bulb, he declared that if the utilities would send out one of these with every power bill, there would be no need for nuclear power.
My commentary: If you believe that conservation will lead to a decrease in energy demand, just take a look at the last 10 years. With better insulation, a heavier reliance on natural gas for heating, and more energy efficient appliances, we have consistently demanded more and more electricity each year. (What about population expansion, Donal? Do our kids have to live at home instead of moving out and getting a home of their own?)
But even if by some miraculous phenomenon, conservation takes hold in the American psyche like the Macarena, Starbucks, or the Atkins Diet, why not phase out sources of energy that are far more polluting, such as coal?
Grecheck provided a much more realistic approach: With demand forecasts expected to increase at 1.5% annually, we will need to bring 50 new reactors on-line by 2025 just to maintain the same non-carbon-emitting ratio that exists today - and that takes conservation into account. He also pointed out that this problem is not isolated to the United States, but the world energy demands will be increasing at the same time. Dominion is being proactive by planning ahead and exploring all options to meet those needs.
Along those same lines I put forth that it is not a choice among nuclear energy, conservation, and the use of renewables, but it will take the combined approach of all of these choices to meet the future energy demands while minimizing our impact on the environment and global climate change. Additionally, there's one very important thing that these projections do not consider, and that's the move towards a hydrogen economy. If we are to move towards hydrogen and electrical power in the transportation sector, the forecast seriously underestimates the need.
Overall, it is my belief that those in attendance left with a favorable view of nuclear power. Certainly the GAIA group, who did a commendable job hosting this forum was leaning pro-nuclear. Although this event was in my estimation a success, it is clear that there is yet much work to be done to educate the masses on the grim energy projections and the essential role that nuclear must play if we are to keep an environment worth protecting.