Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Could Vogtle be Nuclear Energy's Florence?

Last week, the leaders of the commercial nuclear energy industry gathered in San Francisco to celebrate its recent successes and address the emerging issues of the day. The need for increased communications both within the industry and to stakeholders was a consistent theme.

Successes included the U.S. Department of Energy’s granting of two long-awaited loan guarantees, one to Southern Company for its new unit at Plant Vogtle and one that was announced last week to AREVA for its Eagle Rock Uranium Enrichment Plant in Idaho Falls. Southern Company CEO David Ratcliffe reminded the audience that as the first new nuclear plant to be built in the last 30 years, the next unit at Vogtle will be a target of anti-nuclear activists and asked for help in dealing with them. Conference participants learned about the impressive new nuclear energy program being launched in the United Arab Emirates. And they reveled in the great performance and safety record that the industry has maintained for years – the best in the world.

But other speakers reminded the industry that there are challenges ahead. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko put special emphasis on the need for strong communications programs, both internally and externally. Internally at nuclear plants, to continue to nurture and expand a strong safety culture for nuclear energy plant operators. And externally, to reach out to communities to help them understand that nuclear plant operators are trusted stewards of safety and the environment. Chairman Jaczko pointed to issues where much of the public sees a safety threat when in reality there isn’t one, such as tritium emissions into water sources. He cautioned the industry to listen and respond to public concerns, rather than brushing them off as irrelevant, and to be transparent with plant communities. And, he challenged the industry to look ahead, anticipate the issues that are likely to emerge over the next decade and plan to address them.

Stewart Brand, environmentalist and author of The Whole Earth Catalog and the recently published Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, gave a fascinating presentation about the realities of climate change and nuclear energy. He noted that the facts about climate change and nuclear energy should end the argument about nuclear energy for all but the most rabid anti-nuclear activists. He cited the works of a variety of scientists, including David MacKay and Saul Griffith, who lay out the “inarguable facts” that without a lot more nuclear energy, climate change will accelerate uncontrollably and tragically. And he argued that the nuclear energy industry should characterize itself as green, since its carbon footprint compares very favorably with those of other renewables. For Brand, communicating the facts about nuclear energy’s role in combating climate change will be key to its renaissance. Right on.

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