(Following last week’s hearing on a nuclear energy task force in the Oregon legislature, we asked Sam Goodrich, a PhD student at Oregon State University, if he would write a blog post about his experience testifying before the committee.)
Last week I had the opportunity to offer testimony to the Oregon House Committee on Energy and Environment regarding House Bill 3445, which would have established a task force “to study and report on matters related to use of nuclear power.” The bill had expired by passing a legislative deadline and would not move forward this session but a courtesy hearing was held anyway. For my invited remarks I wasn’t given any prompts beyond “testimony regarding HB 3445” so I kind of just started calculating things to see if I could make an interesting point, and some interesting conclusions of these calculations can be found in my submitted testimony. It wasn’t the first time I’ve used research and my own calculations to draw conclusions.
In the beginning
When I was a sophomore in high school I chose to write a science report on the “evils” of nuclear power. There wasn’t a specific source of influence that I can remember which caused me to passively form a negative perception of nuclear energy, but at that point in my life, having never researched the topic for myself, the only information I had to go on was nuance, pop culture, and the viewpoints of others. If I had been asked to play the word association game about nuclear power I would have likely written “toxic,” “green slime” and some version of “leaking barrels with the yellow and black radiation symbol on the side.” When I began to do research for the report, the first thing that struck me was the significance of energy density and how it relates to various fuels. I found that coal, oil, natural gas and other typical combustion fuels had roughly similar energy contents by mass, but nuclear was in a category all its own.
Additionally, I could find no data to support the claims of environmental damage (think three-eyed fish from The Simpsons), widespread health effects, and the calamitous flooding of the earth with nuclear waste as broadcast by those vocally opposed to nuclear power. What I mostly found was a power source that could produce as much electricity from a truckload of Uranium as could be produced from a literal mountain of coal. I found that 40 years of nuclear power in the U.S. had generated enough nuclear waste to cover – a single football field. I also found that this so-called waste could be almost entirely re-used in another reactor, a practice the United States eschewed supposedly for non-proliferation reasons and continued for reasons of simple inertia. I found that those emissions highlighted in photos of nuclear cooling towers (which were often placed next to pictures of smoke stacks as though they were analogous) were plain old water vapor. Not clouds of toxic gas, not acid rain precursor, just plain, fluffy clouds made of the same thing as those produced in nature. The potential of such an energy source was so apparent to me at the time that I had to change the topic of my paper and wonder “why all the bad press for nuclear power?”
Making my case
At the hearing, there were some passionate individuals present to testify on the bill, myself included. Some of those in opposition to HB3445 raised the issue of Oregon ballot Measure 7 from the 1980 election, which reads “nuclear plant licensing requires voter approval” and the “existence of (a) federally licensed permanent nuclear waste disposal facility.” What Measure 7 does not prohibit is further discussion of an issue that passed with just 53% of the vote, 35 years ago.
The establishment of a task force to take a look at how nuclear power has changed in the last 35 years and how nuclear power could potentially fit into Oregon’s carbon-free energy mix does not directly or indirectly violate Measure 7. The main sticking point seemed to be the unchanged absence of a federal
waste spent fuel disposal storage facility. The lack of such a facility, while inconvenient, does not prohibit safe operation of nuclear power plants (remember the 40 years’ worth of used fuel on one football field) since the current arrangement has led to nuclear plants storing used fuel on-site for decades without any issues. The only seemingly insurmountable hurdles to safely and responsibly dealing with spent nuclear fuel at a federal level up to this point appear to be political in nature, not technical, economical, or ethical.
Beyond the discussion of Measure 7, there was limited data, research, calculations or scientific evidence presented by those in opposition to HB3445. Recalling Aristotle’s modes of persuasion, it seems that pathos, or emotional appeal, is too often the method of choice used in energy policy discussions such as these. Perhaps it is because the alternatives, ethos (deriving from authority in a field) and logos (deriving from logic) are, well, hard. Calculations on energy are hard; analysis of decades of data is hard; understanding current technological capabilities and costs are hard; earning credentials to speak authoritatively on nuclear energy is hard. Energy policy decisions require hard work and they require logos (the persuasion based on logic) because energy policy is a technical endeavor that requires facts and scientific expertise. Honest pursuit of factual information allows for impartial comparison of various options, which can then be leveraged to make informed and optimal decisions.
Personally, when I came to the topic of nuclear power, I had a vague notion but only after research, data analysis, and calculations I was able to properly form my opinions regarding nuclear energy, not the other way around. Unfortunately, too often some form an opinion first, then only data and analysis supporting that opinion is judged to have merit.
The only option left standing
In order to determine the best of a field of choices, certain metrics need to be identified by which to judge the options. Common metrics for power sources include cost, CO2 emissions, reliability, fuel availability and environmental impact. If one were to create an energy source decision tree using these metrics, the path would inevitably lead to nuclear power. The sun deposits a finite amount of energy into earth’s energy budget, which is then harvested for our use in many ways including photovoltaic panels, wind farms, hydroelectric dams and even food crops. It seems like science fiction, but the energy demands of human civilization on earth will exceed the energy the sun deposits on earth someday soon, at which point we will need to find an energy source that doesn’t trace back to the sun, namely nuclear power. In the near future, nuclear power is attractive because of its energy density, fuel availability, and lack of CO2 emissions but slightly further into the future, it may be the only option that can power humanity.
In the arena
I wanted to give my testimony at the hearing because I believe nuclear energy and a rational approach to energy policy are absolutely essential in order for our state and nation to prosper in the near and far future. I couldn’t justly complain about current energy policy if I wasn’t willing to do what I could to spread what I see are good ideas to those who make the decisions.
Most of those who testified in opposition to nuclear energy seemed upset about the amount of time that representatives from NuScale took to present their invited testimony. At the outset, it appeared as though there was indeed a point to be made about the minor injustice of the hearing regarding how the time was allotted. However, on further reflection I realized that there was nothing unjust about the meeting at all. The House Committee on Energy and Environment is tasked with finding the truth about energy options and how they impact Oregon and its environment. The representatives from NuScale took less than 9 minutes each to present their technology as the only nuclear energy company in Oregon and one of the more innovative nuclear companies in the country. The following 25 minutes was taken up by questions from various representatives on the committee and the answers from Dr. Jose Reyes and Dale Atkinson of NuScale. Perhaps the committee felt no need to ask questions of those opposed to the bill because they offered no objective, quantifiable information to support their testimonies.
I enjoyed my experience giving testimony in this hearing and hope to do so again. The committee was respectful, interested and professional. For debate in the technical field of energy policy, logos is king, ethos is helpful and pathos is just noise. I can only hope that the Oregon legislature and the federal government agree.
-Sam Goodrich, Corvallis, Ore.
Sam Goodrich grew up on a farm in Bend, Ore. where he graduated high school. He earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering at BYU and a M.S. in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear engineering at OSU, an endeavor which his wife and three young children support him in. Sam has worked at Idaho National Laboratory, a fuel cell company, and various other research jobs. He’s worked in experimental research in the areas of combustion, pyrolysis, hydrogen fuel cells, steam reforming, and thermal hydraulics, among others. He currently works for TerraPower part-time as part of an initiative to look at alternative uses for nuclear heat beyond making electricity, such as to drive chemical processes and create fuel. His dissertation research is focused on characterizing criteria for determining laminar-to-turbulent regime transition for natural convection boundary layer flows adjacent to vertical heated cylinders.