How to Tell the Nuclear Energy Story

2ANS 167-L

Conference attendees walk the floor at the ANS Winter Meeting 2014.

Every year the American Nuclear Society hosts a winter conference that gathers together its membership of nuclear energy professionals. Within that umbrella, the membership is diverse — physicists, engineers, students, vendors, utilities and the occasional communications group, such as Forum on Energy. During the week-long conference, members check in with the latest happenings in nuclear technology, find jobs, present updates on technological innovations and get to understand other players in the field.

>> Read: ‘ANS Winter Meeting 2014 Opening Plenary – Great New Concept; Hints on Yucca’

At first, Disneyland seems an odd place to hold a nuclear energy conference. The Magic Kingdom in many ways stands contrary to the intense technical complexity of the energy source too small to see. For me, a first time attendee at both a nuclear conference and Disneyland, talking about the latest in nuclear technology amid the whiz-bang lights and peppy adventure music felt surreal.

But Disneyland and nuclear energy are in many ways not so different. Nearly sixty years ago, Mr. Walt Disney told a story he believed to be one of the most important to our future. Called “Our Friend the Atom”, this animated lesson examines the history of nuclear energy and the promise it holds for the future. As mentioned in the Opening Plenary, Walt Disney believed that his role as a storyteller was to educate the public about this energy form that is difficult to understand. Even today, with public mistrust of nuclear energy widespread and misinformation rampant online, the nuclear energy society needs to learn to tell its story.

Disney Land – Our Friend, the Atom (1957) from CaptanFunkyFresh on Vimeo.

“So what’s your story?”

The opening plenary took a page from Disney’s book, encouraging the audience to tell their nuclear story.

Opening speaker Edward Halperin, Senior Vice President of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, told the story of how California has been unable to reach its C02 reduction targets through renewable energies. The state has committed to lowering carbon emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Its heavy production of renewable energy has been hampered by difficulties with integrating the fluctuating load and voltage profiles on to the grid. California needs smart grid technology and nuclear energy. As promising as renewables are, they are not base-load energies.

The Forum on Energy's booth at the ANS Winter Meeting 2014.

The Forum on Energy’s booth at the ANS Winter Meeting 2014.

His presentation was underscored by Jessica Lovering, Senior Analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, who described BTI’s approach, called climate pragmatism. “If you care about the environment,” she said, “then nuclear is the best option.” Climate change is not tangible for most people, but there are other concerns such as air pollution, environmental degradation from coal mining and land use issues with hydropower, wind and solar, which also resonate.

Nuclear energy provides benefits beyond just replacing existing carbon-based electricity production. For example, in developed countries, nuclear energy has helped replace road transportation with electrified trains. Whole systems can become cleaner.

The overall theme of the conference highlighted nuclear energy’s low carbon characteristics and exciting research on how to improve its waste, safety and clean energy capabilities. While the ANS conference gathered the society of nuclear professionals, again and again it was mentioned that these professionals must reach out to decision makers and the general public to make its story heard.

What did Forum on Energy Do?

iRobot's booth at the ANS Winter Meeting 2014.

iRobot’s booth at the ANS Winter Meeting 2014.

A wide variety of nuclear organizations, including Forum on Energy, participated in the ANS Technology Expo. They included: Areva, Mitsubishi Electric, Westinghouse and its subcontractors, and iRobot. iRobot has sold several of its Packbots to TEPCO as part of the Fukushima clean-up effort.

At the Forum on Energy booth, we interviewed passersby on their views of the next big thing for nuclear energy, the best pro-nuclear argument and what they most looked forward to at the conference. According to ANS attendees, not only is nuclear a clean and efficient form of energy, it is also among the safest forms of energy available. Many anticipate that small modular reactors will the next big thing, although one asserted that nuclear’s contribution to cancer detection is going to be bigger.

In addition to the expo, we participated in several relevant committees. The International Committee showcased new online training programs, developments in Mongolia’s nuclear energy production and high-lighted an MOU-signing between ANS and the Society of French Nuclear Energy (SFEN).

SFEN Executive Director Valerie Faudon explained that the nuclear community will be gearing up to be a presence next year at COP21 in Paris. This conference is expected to be the most important conference after Kyoto, and will produce a new protocol that sets emissions goals for post 2020. The goal for Faudon’s new initiative, the Nuclear for Climate Initiative, is to have nuclear listed as a low carbon energy in the new protocol. This will enable nuclear access to green funding opportunities, such as the Clean Development Fund. Faudon explained it is necessary to communicate to the public, to policymakers and industry employees that nuclear should be included in a low carbon energy portfolio.

Nuclear energy should be noticed as a clean, safe and sustainable energy source around the world, but as the Fukushima accident shows, it is confronted with tremendous and inaccurate blowback. The key to keeping our atmosphere clean, while also enabling prosperity for an ever growing global energy demand, is to ensure that its true properties are widely known. As Halperin stated in the opening plenary, “We (the nuclear community) must be visible, out-front and confronting sensationalism with the facts. So tell our story, we count on your leadership.”