Everybody wants to talk about nuclear, but who wants to listen?

Last night I went for the first time to one of EngenuitySC’s Science Cafe sessions at the Capital City Club. I’d been meaning to go to one for quite some time, and I finally made it to this one.

So did a lot of people. When I called at the last minute to RSVP, the session was full. But I was told to come anyway, as there were usually no-shows.

So I showed up. And while there were a few empty seats as the session was starting, I stood at first in case a latecomer needed one of the seats. Otherwise, SRO.

Neil McLean, Executive Director of EngenuitySC, began the evening with a somewhat wary welcome to the crowd, noting that this was the biggest turnout ever, and that he saw quite a few… new faces… in the audience. He then expressed his hope that the interaction would be civil.

The topic? “Sustainable Nuclear Power: Perspectives on Risk and External Costs.” The speaker was Travis W. Knight, the acting director of USC’s Nuclear Engineering Graduate Program.

He didn’t have an easy night of it. As I tweeted at the time,

Nuclear skeptics in crowd won’t let speaker at Science Cafe get on with his presentation; one keeps interrupting to read from The Economist.

and later…

Neil McLean of EngenuitySC has to change rules — 1 question per person — to let Science Cafe speaker continue with nuclear presentation.

When Mary Pat Baldauf, sustainability facilitator for the city of Columbia, wrote back to say it sounded like she was missing a good one, I told her she was “You’re missing humdinger. Speaker fairly rattled by crowd’s hostile interruptions. No way to have a debate, much less a lecture.”

In retrospect — and things really did settle down after Neil imposed that rule, and the speaker began to hit his stride a bit better — maybe I made it sound more dramatic than it was.

But judge for yourself. Here’s a recording from the first few minutes of the lecture. You’ll note that there are three interruptions during the 3 minutes and 25 seconds on the recording, including one from the Economist reader.

For my part, I found the lecture informative. But I went away thinking, with what is happening in Japan, everybody wants to talk about nuclear power. But how many people want to listen?

12 thoughts on “Everybody wants to talk about nuclear, but who wants to listen?

  1. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    I wish I could have heard this talk. I admit a bias, as the daughter of a career employee of the Savannah River Laboratory, who grew up among the children of nuclear engineers and physicists. I do believe we need to base our decisions on the best possible science out there, and not fear-mongering or wishful thinking. When we implement any option, nuclear or otherwise, we must not compromise on safety, in design, implementation and INSPECTIONS. This means making sure that best practices can be implemented without political or financial constraints.

  2. Steve Gordy

    Brad, you’ve hit on exactly the point; it’s not a matter of talking, rather of listening. When ranting becomes a normal form of social interaction, listening goes out the window.

  3. bud

    For my part, I found the lecture informative. But I went away thinking, with what is happening in Japan, everybody wants to talk about nuclear power. But how many people want to listen?

    Which people are you talking about? The pro-nukes or the anti-nukes? Both sides on this issue have valid points. It’s hard to sweep under the rug the risks. Yet it seems that’s exactly what the pro-nuke zealots do. On the other hand, nuclear does have a certain appeal for those who abhor the continued use of coal. This is a tough call. I’m leaning more against nuclear right now. Given the extreme risk involved, not to mention the cost, I prefer an approach that dramatically ramps up wind power and drastically cuts consumption. That would be the safest approach.

    Did anyone mention thorium? Still trying to figure out why that won’t work.

  4. Libb

    I thought this article (even though it’s mostly about Fukushima) offered food for thought on this nuke issue. Dr. Kaku started his career as a nuclear scientist and perhaps he is someone who warrants a listen. He also has a unique way of “breaking down” complex science into laymen’s terms:

    “Think of driving a car, and the car all of a sudden lunges out of control. You hit the brakes. The brakes don’t work. That’s because the earthquake wiped out the safety systems in the first minute of the earthquake and tsunami. Then your radiator starts to heat up and explodes. That’s the hydrogen gas explosion. And then, to make it worse, the gas tank is heating up, and all of a sudden your whole car is going to be in flames. That’s the full-scale meltdown.

    So what do you do? You drive the car into a river. That’s what the utility did by putting seawater, seawater from the Pacific Ocean, in a desperate attempt to keep water on top of the core. But then, seawater has salt in it, and that gums up your radiator. And so, what do you do? You call out the local firemen. And so, now you have these Japanese samurai warriors. They know that this is potentially a suicide mission. They’re coming in with hose water—hose water—trying to keep water over the melted nuclear reactor cores. So that’s the situation now. So, when the utility says that things are stable, it’s only stable in the sense that you’re dangling from a cliff hanging by your fingernails. And as the time goes by, each fingernail starts to crack. That’s the situation now.”

    And, yes, he goes on to offer what he thinks needs to be done in Japan right now. Interesting read:


  5. Karen McLeod

    @Kathryn, wouldn’t location also be an important consideration. We can build to withstand tornadoes, but earthquakes and tsunamis are challenging.

  6. tim

    Or meteors, or terrorists, or, oh, Florence, South Carolina being in charge of a poorly managed nuclear facility…

    This is the absurd to the possible situation.

    I don’t know the answers. Thing is, nobody else does either. Nuclear is clean and safe as long as its clean and safe. When it isn’t, its really, really bad. For a really long time.

    How cost effective can nuclear power be if you have to abandon a Tokyo once every 60 years?

  7. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    You can protect against terrorists and probably any meteor that we’d all survive. The Japanese could have designed with the tsunami in mind, but inexplicably didn’t, since earthquakes cause tsunamis.

    Bottom line on Fukushima: fewer adverse health impacts are likely to result from it than actually occur from coal-fired plants! There’s been more radiation released into the atmosphere from coal plants than any US plant, including Three Mile Island.

  8. Mark Stewart

    Distortion alert! Who’s abandoning Tokyo? I believe the other reactors at Three Mile Island are still functioning as well…

    I’m in no way saying nuclear is safe; just that it should be fairly evaluated.

    I would also say constant technological improvement is better than keeping first or second generation plants in service just because no one is willing to replace them. Learning is experiential.

  9. Bart

    @ tim,

    Uh, it is Hartsville, not Florence where the Robinson Nuclear Plant is located. It went online in 1971. Have had several relatives work there. No one is glowing in the dark, yet.

    For bud, the facility is a triple whammy. It has nuclear, coal, and combustion turbine units on the same site. What to do? What to do?

    A good point was made about the Japanese reactor damages. The damages were a direct result of the tsunami, not the earthquake. If the tsunami had not occured, minimal damage, problem contained.

    We are too quick to judge current events based on results to old facilities. Facilities that did not have the advantage of improved design techniques and knowledge base of potential hazards, natural and man made. Just as most of our refineries are old and inefficient, our nuclear plants are in the same boat. They need serious upgrading or replacing in order to meet our energy needs until the day comes when windmills and solar panels dot the landscape and fossil and nuclear are obsolete.

    The plant at Southport, NC is the closest one to us where a tsunami could cause damages. It is also at the upper end of the earthquake cresent running from south of Charleston to north of Myrtle Beach.


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