A Nuclear Power Lunch

 

simpsons-marge-homer-plant

Out of all the things we could do to mitigate climate change, switching from coal-fired power plants to nuclear powered could have the most dramatic impact in reducing our CO2 output. Nuclear energy provides clean, reliable electricity with a much smaller ecological footprint than either wind or solar, which also have the annoying problem of intermittency.

Obviously, saying that there are obstacles with nuclear is vastly understating things. Costs, waste, safety, and public opinion being the Big Four. As a layperson without trillions of dollars, the only thing I can really address is public opinion.

One of the most interesting things I found when I started digging into nuclear energy issues is that the people who are the least afraid of it are the people who either work at nuclear power plants or live near them. I think I expected the people who grew up around them to be looking for an Erin Brockovich to save them from the big, mean nuclear companies who were trying to secretly kill all of their customers.

What I found though was just the opposite.  A recent survey put out by the Nuclear Energy Institute shows an 89% favorable impression of the local plant. I don’t love relying industry surveys so I had a conversation with a friend who had grown up in Crystal River, Florida, home of a recently closed power plant, to see if her experience jived with this survey.

Jenny Lee, who is now a Jacksonville attorney, sat down with me over lunch and a glass of wine and gave me the lowdown on what it was like for her to grow up in Crystal River. The biggest takeaway from our conversation was that it was – just not a big deal. She said that the most mysterious thing about anyone working there was that they had pagers which were considered pretty exotic in the 80s. Nobody wore Tyvek suits or worried about cancer. The plant was a fact of life and a way to keep your bearings when boating on the river. It was frequently used as a reference point when giving directions and every Friday at noon, a test siren would go off. I asked her if this was every unnerving and her answer was, “Heck no. It meant the weekend was starting.”

While we were at lunch, Jenny called her sister, Molly Redrick, a pharmacist who still lives in Crystal River to see if she had any further insight but Molly’s childhood recollections were pretty much the same. As an adult and a pharmacist though, she has seen it from a new perspective. The closing of the plant was economically devastating for Crystal River, with many of the most highly educated (and highly compensated) people leaving town. As a town already struggling with poverty and a lack of opportunities, it was a tough blow.

Molly does remember a little uptick in fear after Fukushima when she had a few people come in to request potassium iodide from the pharmacy. That’s when she learned that the town keeps a stockpile of it in case of emergency. She said that occasionally people will come in and complain about their eyes hurting from the plant but that’s happened since it was closed so she suspects that it could be from the coal-fired plants still operating nearby.

Molly and Jenny suggested that I speak with a friend of theirs, who used to work at the Crystal River plant and still has an important role in the nuclear industry. He very graciously agreed to answer some of my concerns but we decided not to use his name since we still haven’t heard back from his legal department. (I’m sure they have more pressing matters than worrying about my blog.)

So, here is a condensed version of our Q&A. I’m sure I sounded like a complete moron but I think these are the issues most of us worry about when it comes to nuclear power.

Q:  Is nuclear ever scary to you and do you worry about cancer?

A:  When you learn and work in the industry, you better understand the facts behind radiation exposure and the impacts it has on the human body. I’ve never been scared nor do I worry about cancer from the effects of radiation.

There are monitors throughout the station that will sound an alarm if there is any type of unexpected/elevated dose (there never is) and when a worker enters an area that might have some small amount of radiation they wear specific monitors(dosimetry) that will detect the amount of the dose they are receiving and the rate at which it’s being received. It also records the cumulative amount and each worker receives an annual summary of the dose received.

I’d say that a typical nuclear worker (like a mechanic who works on a pump or a valve in a radiological controlled area) receives probably 40-50 mRem each year. To put that in perspective, a typical x-ray (medical/dental) is about 40-50 mRem also. The federal limits for dose are 5,000 mRem per year plus we set administrative limits much lower to ensure no worker ever approaches the federal limit…which still wouldn’t be harmful.

I don’t feel like the public is as terrified of nuclear as it once was. Maybe that’s just my perception though because my friends’ and family’s perception has changed as they’ve seen that it hasn’t affected me. (Although, they may have concluded that nuclear turns your hair grey and causes a receding hairline and weight gain.)

Q:  What about terrorism? Would flying a plane into a plant cause a mushroom cloud and give everyone cancer?

A:  Flying a plane into a nuclear plant will not cause a mushroom cloud or cancer because there isn’t enough fuel, nor the right concentration, nor the right arrangement/geometry to create a nuclear bomb. The fuel does need to be cooled because as the radioactive particles decay, they emit heat for a long time. We call this decay heat and we have systems in place that can remove this heat until it decays to the point that it can be placed in storage canisters and self-cooled.

A terrorist attack could cause a loss of all power to the station which would challenge our ability to run the systems that remove decay heat. We have emergency diesel generators to power the equipment but eventually we would need more diesel fuel. After 9/11, we put many more defense in-depth systems in place to combat scenarios of this nature.

We further built up this “defense in depth” infrastructure following the Fukushima event. We have all types of equipment that could be utilized to keep the fuel cooled for an extended loss of power. We also have contracts with government contractors and off-site agencies to supply additional equipment via helicopters, etc., in the event roads are impassable.

So, I don’t think it’s realistic that a terrorist attack could cause the nuclear fuel to be damaged but it could cause our plant to shut down which would mean power outages.

Q: Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl are the big 3 scary events people think of when it comes to nuclear but when I started looking into them, I was surprised at how low the death tolls were at each. Any death is significant but I was under the impression that the tolls were much higher. Is that something that everyone in the industry knows but may not be accurately portrayed in the media?

A:  You are correct that the death tolls and health impacts aren’t always characterized accurately by the media. If the reporting is boring, it doesn’t sell newspapers.

The Three Mile Island event was unfortunate in that we were in the early stages of nuclear power in the U.S. and hadn’t fully realized the importance of training and eliminating human error in operating the plants. The operators didn’t trust some indications they should have and didn’t realize what was occurring. Therefore, they responded incorrectly and caused the event to get worse (they shut off cooling systems that ultimately led to the fuel being damaged).

We learned a lot from Three Mile Island and have put numerous controls in place related to redundant equipment, better monitoring of systems, and better training. An event like that will never happen again in the U.S.

Both Chernobyl and Fukushima were more significant in that the surrounding public did receive some radiation from those accidents. Chernobyl was caused by an unauthorized test where they bypassed safety systems and then they tried to keep the event a secret from the rest of the world. This will also never happen in the U.S.

Fukushima was caused by a series of events that were never thought realistic. Nuclear plants are designed to a set of parameters based on what is the worst expected (flood, earthquake, hurricane, etc.) to ever occur. Fukushima experienced an earthquake beyond what was ever expected and then a (tsunami) flood beyond what was ever expected.

We call the set of parameters we design against “design basis” and the equipment we have installed since 9/11 and then significantly added to since Fukushima are there for what we call “beyond design basis” events. We never expect to use this equipment but it sits there ready in the event something never imagined were to occur.

Q: Does the public fear of nuclear ever get on your nerves?

A:  Not really. I get frustrated that the government seems to impose incredible restrictions on the nuclear industry such that it challenges our ability to be competitive with other industries. There are other industrial facilities that have tanks of toxic chemicals, harmful gasses, etc. and they seem to have fewer restrictions. This presents a challenge to keep nuclear plants competitive which is a shame since it’s the most environmentally sound source of electricity for our nation and there is an abundance of fuel that is readily available and cheap.

Nuclear is the best option for climate change issues, pollution, etc. At times, there seems to be a disconnect between the people who oppose nuclear and their position towards protecting the environment. I think this is generally based on ignorance and fear. It seems to me this is changing though and people are starting to better understand the negative impacts of fossil fuels.

_____________________________________________________________________________

A big thank you to Molly and Jenny and their friend. If this piece ever makes it through the legal department, I’ll update this post with my nuclear engineer’s name and company. He was awesome about taking the time to answer my questions.

Nuclear energy is one of those things where the more you know, the less you fear it. I guess that’s true about most things though. If you believe that climate change is a pressing issue, and I do, please take some time and look at the facts about nuclear rather than relying on tabloid fear-peddlers and Greenpeace hysteria.

And look at how many people are killed by fossil fuels each year versus how many have been killed by even the worst nuclear accidents. Because even though it’s understandable to be leery of nuclear energy, getting to zero carbon is going to take a lot more than just unplugging our phone chargers and putting up some solar panels.

 

 

 

 

The Goat and the Racehorse: Ecomodernist Moms Take Manhattan

Black_Caviar__Billy.img_assist_custom

Several months ago, Julie and I, moms from different parts of the country with very different political leanings, different parenting styles, and different personalities found each other through a feisty little environmental movement called ecomodernism – an optimistic outlook that celebrates humanity, embraces modernity, and reveres nature. What we found is that, while we may have different motivations and beliefs, we ultimately have similar hopes for the world our children will inherit – a world without hunger, a world with clean air, and a world with far less suffering.

That’s the background – so let’s get to the funny stuff. If it wouldn’t cause Julie to jam forks in her ears, I could write a great strummy guitar song about peace and love and finding a third way. Because we have y’all, we’ve totally got a 3rd way politically if everyone would just get on board. It involves a lot of wine and a lot of laughing at differences though because the differences are hysterical.

A Conservative and a Liberal Go for a Walk

Julie:  So, where are we going?

Amy:  I don’t know. Let’s just walk.

Julie:  Why?

Amy:  We could get something to eat?

Julie:  Where?

Amy:  I don’t know. We’ll find something.

Julie: *Eyes dart around for restaurant. Looks at watch.*

Amy:  What a beautiful church.

Julie:  *Glances up. Nods politely. Looks at phone*

Amy:  Should we take the subway?

Julie:  You’re joking, right?

Amy: *Yammers about art museums*

Julie:  I hate fucking art.

A Conservative and a Liberal Eat Dinner

Amy: I feel kind of guilty about eating at the Waldorf.

Julie:  Why?

Amy:  I don’t know. Spending money. We could have helped people or something.

Julie:  We “helped” the cab driver today and we’re “helping” the bartender right now. *Orders dirty martini and makes trickle-down hand motions*

Amy:  Yes, but…. *Struggles with empty ketchup bottle*

Julie:  What are you doing? *Narrows eyes*  You feel guilty about wasting fucking ketchup, don’t you?

Amy:  *Feels guilty about feeling guilty. Orders French Martini*

Julie:  I hate fucking ketchup.

A Conservative and a Liberal Ride in a Cab 

Julie:  *Sits on edge of seat*

Amy:  *Chills in the corner*

Julie:  It didn’t take us this long to get here. Why is it taking so long to get back?

Amy:  I love it here.

Julie:  I think this guy is ripping us off.

Amy:  The Christmas lights are so pretty.

Julie:  This is taking forever. Are you even fucking alive over there?

A Conservative and a Liberal Make a Book Outline

Amy:  Let’s write a book.

Julie:  Nobody reads.

Amy:  *cries*

Julie:  *Sighs* Fine. Let’s make an outline. *Pulls out Waldorf stationery*

Amy:   We can talk about clean energy, moms changing the world, hungry children *Cries*

Julie:   Okay, fine. People read. *Writes on Waldorf stationery: Nobody will read this fucking book.*

Amy:  *Cries*

Julie:  Buck up, Buttercup. We’re doing a podcast and funny videos.

Amy:  *Schedules facelift. Feels guilty*

A Conservative and a Liberal Go to the Natural History Museum 

Julie: Fuck this. I’ll meet you later.

Amy: *Wanders around Biodiversity Hall. Cries about climate change*

This is the way our trip to New York City and our first in-person meeting went. Julie is a racehorse –  a high-energy thoroughbred, ready to bolt from the field when she’s bored or irritated. I’m the mellow goat, munching on grass, bleating random thoughts. Like goats and horses, it’s weird but it works. The goat chills the horse out and the horse makes the goat stop wasting time on eating rocks. I make Julie slow down and she kicks my ass into action mode.

If Julie and I can laugh for 2 straight days and if goats and horses can be best friends, maybe there’s hope for the rest of the world. We found that it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t think climate change is an urgent issue – we both want clean air. We both think nature is worth saving. (The furry animals for Julie’s fur-trimmed sweaters need a place to live too.) And children everywhere deserve heathy food and access to modern healthcare.

These are things all moms, all people, can agree on so maybe there’s a 3rd way where we celebrate and laugh and drink to our differences. (I know Julie is laughing at this and making tiny violin motions.)

Julie’s Version of Events….­­­­­­­­­­­­­

 “I’m meeting a friend I met on Twitter.”

Yes, those words actually came out of my mouth. I felt slightly embarrassed confessing this to the friendly Irish bartender at the Waldorf as I waited for Amy to arrive He had the same reaction I would’ve had a few months ago….”oh wow, that’s great, how fun”…as he backed away and desperately looked for another guest to serve. I’m sure up until that point he thought I was a perfectly normal person.

But I didn’t care. I was really excited to meet Amy; since partnering up with her on several writing projects over the last few months, we have communicated nearly every day. It’s weird to develop a bond with someone you’ve never met, especially someone who still believes in manmade climate change. And it’s not as if either one of us needs friends, like we’re two lonely girls working on adult coloring books at night. By all accounts, we have very full lives with busy husbands, active kids and a debauched social circle.

So how did the suburban Chicago conservative mom and the liberal Southern beach bum mom hit it off? Just as well as I thought we would. Amy is tall, thin and pretty just as I expected. Yet her demeanor is much softer than her writing. You’d think someone who can use profanity like a blowtorch in her blog posts would have a certain edge, but there is none. She’s a little more introverted and soft-spoken than I thought she’d be. There is an easygoingness about her that I admire but could never replicate. She’s open to anything, a pleaser at heart, so she’s a good foil for a control freak like me.

We found plenty in common as we shared our life story and journey from working women to stay-at-home moms. We even like the same food – we split tuna tartare and a cheeseburger the first dinner then raw oysters and separate cheeseburgers the next night. We found humor in a lot of the same things.

But then, yes, the differences. I don’t have catchy titles for my snippets, so I’ll just throw these out at random (see, Amy did have an influence on me).

Amy: When you go to that meeting, I’m going to go to the Natural History Museum.

Julie: Why?

Amy: There’s a climate change exhibit I want to see.

Pause.

Julie:  Have some more Kool-Aid.

Amy later bummed exhibit was closed so she looked at some dead animals in Biodiversity Hall.  

Amy: *Babbles about museum’s evolution room*

Julie:  *whistles*

Amy:  Are you like…a Creationist? *eyes well up*

Julie:  I’m not really sure. Maybe a mix of both. I want to cover my bases.

Amy:  So when you see all the skulls that show the progression of evolution….?

Julie:  All I know is that I’m here now so who fucking cares? *orders Whistlepig scotch*

Amy:  *dries eyes. orders rose champagne*

 _____

Amy: Why do people keep talking to me about mountains?

Julie:  Because you have a picture of mountains on your blog.

Amy:  It came with the free template. I’m not that into mountains.

Julie:  Wait, you’re the save-the-planet freak and you don’t care about mountains?

Amy:  Well, to ski on and then look at from the hot tub afterwards. But we aren’t skiing this year, we are going on a tropical vacation with friends who all snorkel. But I’m not snorkeling.

Julie:  Why?

Amy:  No way am I getting in that fucking water. I hate fish.

Julie:  So much for loving nature.

Amy:  I don’t want anyone to think I don’t love nature.

Julie:  Who fucking cares what people think?

 ____

Julie: *sees UN, rolls eyes*

Amy: *sees banner for UN Sustainable Development Goals – seal claps*

Amy:  I wrote an article about those goals. Nobody read it. *cries*

Julie:  That stupid banner probably cost $100,000 but let’s take a picture. It’ll be funny. You can give a thumbs up and I’ll do the middle finger.

Amy: No, I don’t want to bother the cabdriver to pull over.

Julie: He’s fine. We’ll pay for his time. We don’t take the photo.

Obviously, we took a little creative license here. I’m not nearly as wretched as this seems and Amy is not nearly as weak and weepy. Our temperament is as different as our political leanings. But we’ve found a way to transcend that and develop a true relationship to work – and have fun – together. At the end of the day, our goal is the same: to promote modernity as a way to address some of the world’s most dire problems. And to fuck with a few organic executives (ok, that’s just me. Amy doesn’t like to fight.)

Our biggest challenge will be to get people – moms – to listen. There’s a lot of unfounded fear out there that’s getting in the way of progress and providing aid to those who really need it. If anyone has ideas about the best way to do this in 2016, please let us know. Amy will listen intently and I will think of how much better my idea is.