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Guest Post: College Champions Debate Nuclear Energy

Bob Bishop
The following guest post comes from Bob Bishop, nuclear guru and former general counsel at NEI:
Each year, hundreds of university students from around the country participate in local, regional and national debate tournaments. In addition to their regular studies, they spend countless hours researching the topic and how best they can argue their position. The topic for this past year concerned U.S. energy policy with regard to domestic energy production. The precise wording was as follows: “Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially reduce restrictions on and/or substantially increase financial incentives for energy production in the United States of one or more of the following: coal, crude oil, natural gas, nuclear power, solar power, wind power.”

At each debate, the two-person team arguing in the affirmative chooses where to focus the argument based on the year’s topic. Under debate rules, the team arguing in the affirmative makes its case, the team arguing the negative makes its case, each team questions the other, and then each team makes its closing statements. It is an hour of focused intellects trying to win the judges’ votes based on their research, presentation skills, and mastery of the topic. Debates at the collegiate level, at least now, are not among nerds mumbling into their notes, but rather bright, intelligent, articulate young men and women happily and forcefully engaging in a battle of wits.

Andrew Arsht and Andrew Markoff
Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a debate on one narrow aspect of the broader issue of the use of nuclear energy: whether the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy should fund the development and use of new small modular reactors (SMRs) to power their facilities. Under the rules, that was the sole topic under discussion. It was fascinating to watch two teams ranked among the very best in the nation, a team from Georgetown University opposed a team from Northwestern University, go at it. Teammates Andrew Arsht and Andrew Markoff represented Georgetown arguing in the affirmative, and Northwestern’s team consisted of Peyton Lee and Arjun Vellayappan arguing in the negative. During the course of the give and take in the closely timed segments, each team had to address issues such as the design features of SMRs, the impact of the current sequestration of funds affecting government agencies, the NRC licensingprocess, high-level radioactive waste issues, security at government facilities, terrorist threats, micro-electric grids, and disaster planning. All as they might relate to the government’s potential use of SMRs.

Arjun Vellayappan and Peyton Lee
These are college students. Two juniors, a sophomore, and a senior, and not one of them even an engineering student. Yet their knowledge of the physical, engineering and political environments in which decisions will be made, and facets of the issue far beyond the assigned topic, was remarkable. I’ve had the benefit of almost fifty years of being involved in nuclear energy, first in submarines, then state energy policy, then a major utility, and then the broader nuclear energy industry. I was impressed. 

And don’t even ask about what they know compared to what I knew as a college senior.
I echo Mr. Bishop’s praise for the students. I was impressed by how knowledgeable both teams were. It was heartening that the arguments went beyond the why question, as it signals that these bright minds and future leaders recognize that nuclear has a place in America’s energy mix.


Martin said…
The unresolved question about Small Modular Reactors is whether factory production can lower their cost to be competitive with Large Modular Reactors (like the AP1000). Designing and building a prototype does little to address the cost of the 20th reactor built. Designing and building a factory which can build a quality reactor at the rate of one or two a month has never been done.

What is needed is a customer who could specify and purchase, say, 20 small reactors. The DOD owns and operates more reactors than any other entity (nuclear navy) making the DOD a logical first customer.

Small reactors come in many different sizes. The DOD is in a better position to specify size than the DOE.

The DOD has purchased expensive things before (ships, planes, tanks) and knows how to pay for the first of a kind and the Nth of a kind. The DOE has no purchasing experience with Nth of a kind contracts.

If the DOD and its supplier(s) are successful, then the world has a cost effective tool to fight climate change. Might even avoid a war or two.
I'm pleased that debate teams are becoming more familiar with nuclear power, but I'm not pleased with the Washingtonian context.

The introducer to the debate opens up the background statement that nuclear power can not be separated from nuclear weapons proliferation. Just to set the stage. The issue being debated seemed to be whether DoD should be first mover to install SMRs at military bases, or whether DoE is more qualified. There was no concept of private industry. Judges were of course Washington insiders. I found the debate context a good example of the failure of the US government to deal with nucleqr power now and how we are training future politicians to fail in the future.
jimwg said…
Re: "I'm pleased that debate teams are becoming more familiar with nuclear power, but I'm not pleased with the Washingtonian context."

All the more reason why the fight for hearts and minds in nuclear plant public acceptance must be waged on the media/educational battleground, not feel-good resume-raking forums or debates. Oil and gas and coal (heck, not even Tylenol!) never or seldom needed "debates" to be accepted by the general public. It's all Educate, Enlighten, and Empower with FUD-fighting Fact. Young Nuclear Professionals best focus their talents on producing cable/TV/Web adult nuclear education PSAs, Ads and 911 direct FUD rebuttals to anti nukers in public debates and knock down the media's door to offer themselves as true nuclear consultants, unlike the much tapped Doc Kaku, Arnie and Helen & Co. In their own best interest the nuclear "industry" and community ought be chipping in lively to fund them so.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

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