Making the Case for Nuclear Energy: 5 Questions

Everyone comes to nuclear energy along different paths. For some the journey starts in high school. For others, later in life, after knowledge has been gained and, perhaps, views have changed.

Such is the case for the participants in Tuesday’s event (April 4) at Seattle Town Hall, Making the Case for Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century (tickets and information available here). The event is an effort by the grassroots organization Seattle Friends of Fission, a group of Seattle-area residents, to ensure nuclear energy is part of the climate change discussion.

Panelists Dr. Jim Conca, contributor on energy and environmental issues; Dr. Nick Touran, advanced nuclear reactor physicist for TerraPower; Kristin Zaitz, senior consulting engineer, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and co-founder of the group Mothers for Nuclear; and moderator Scott Montgomery, nationally acclaimed writer, and adjunct faculty, University of Washington Jackson School of Intl. Studies, offered their thoughts on how nuclear energy became a calling instead of just a career.


Northwest Clean Energy: What first got you interested in nuclear energy?

Nick Touran: I first got interested in solving the energy challenge in high school. I went to the local engineering school not knowing how exactly to do this and ended up in a discussion with a peer advisor on what to major in during freshmen year. She asked what I my interests were and I said “energy.” Then she asked me if I had considered the nuclear engineering department. I had not.

Kristin Zaitz: I’m a civil engineer by training. I chose my profession when I was in my teens, flipping through college catalogs. The pictures of civil engineers were all outdoors, inspecting bridges, taking water samples. I didn’t want to be in an office. In my career I’ve rappelled down enormous concrete structures, swam amongst beautiful Pacific Ocean sea life, hiked along rivers, explored pristine coastland and tide pools,  and I’ve done that all while working at a nuclear power plant.

Scott Montgomery: I am a geoscientist and became an anti-nuclear activist in the 1970s. At that time, fear focused on radiation and on nuclear power as a dangerous technology forced upon the public by an anti-democratic concentration of power by a military-industrial-government system.

I began to question my views in the early 2000s, due to rising concern among scientists about climate change. One key influence was the endorsement of nuclear power by many of these scientists, who wrote of reevaluating their own former ideas.

Jim Conca: As a young planetary geologist in the 1970s, I first became interested in nuclear as

Jim Conca Salt I0001

Dr. Jim Conca with Delaware Basin salt from New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project.

possible propulsion for spacecraft. Later, I worked on deep geologic disposal of nuclear waste and began to see the irrational fear that surrounds radiation and nuclear power, and how the misunderstanding between weapons and energy led to nuclear being used as a political tool during the Cold War.

Being an environmentalist and understanding both climate change and the massive direct pollution caused by fossil fuels, it became obvious that we need all non-fossil fuel sources for a sustainable future that provides everyone on Earth with reliable and sufficient power to have what we consider a good life.

SM: Educating myself on basic nuclear science and radiation led me to look into the Manhattan Project, the detailed development of weapons and the impacts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and from there, into the history of nuclear power, the medical literature on health effects of radiation, and a great deal more. Over the past decade, as part of my research for a book on the future of nuclear in this century, I have had conversations with hundreds of physicians, radiation workers, nuclear engineers, radiobiologists working at hospitals, health physicists at the Centers for Disease Control, anti-nuclear activists, and ordinary citizens.


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Scott Montgomery, at far right, with students from his class on a tour of Columbia Generating Station.

The combination of all this study and work has made it clear beyond measure that nuclear power is among the least threatening of all major energy sources and among the most essential for battling climate change.

KZ: I’m interested in conserving our precious land, cleaning up our air, and protecting our climate. When I connected nuclear energy with the things that I value, my interest in nuclear was born.

Far more has been done out of uninformed fear than informed understanding.
– Scott Montgomery

Northwest Clean Energy: Why do you think there is not more widespread acceptance of nuclear energy?

Kristin Zaitz: Because of people like me. Like many people, I am afraid of things that I don’t know a lot about, I am biased in ways that I don’t immediately realize, and I am not naturally good at assessing risk. We all tend to seek out data that confirms our beliefs.


Kristin Zaitz with children Oliver and Kate.

I have spent over fifteen years working at a nuclear power plant, learning, questioning, exploring, discovering. When I started my career, I thought that I was going to uncover a pile of dirty secrets that the mad scientists were hiding. My preconceptions were the product of the mainstream environmental anti-nuclear fear campaign that preys on the public’s lack of information about nuclear power coupled with fear of radiation and nuclear weapons. It took many years for me to shake that fear, but I ended up discovering nuclear energy to be one of the best kept secrets in land conservation and climate action.

Nick Touran: I once went out on the streets of Ann Arbor, Mich. asking people what they thought about nuclear energy for a documentary. People generally mentioned the typical four


Dr. Nick Touran of TerraPower.

concerns: waste, bombs, accidents and cost. But one woman summed up the general feeling really well when she said “Honestly, my gut feeling is that I’m not in favor of it, but I don’t know hardly anything about it.” Her friend standing there chimed in “I second that!” So I’ve made an effort to try to help people understand nuclear energy better. Generally, the more someone understands it, the more accepting of it they are.

Scott Montgomery: This is both an easy question to answer and a challenging one to explain. There is little doubt in my mind:  the most fundamental factor is the fear of radiation. It is not a simple fear, combining as it does many anxieties about society and the self. But it saturates nearly everything to do with nuclear power, from the unending talk of “safety” to the idea of a “dirty bomb.”

Jim Conca: Agree. The intentional, but incorrect, fear of all radiation, even at low levels that cause no harm.

SM: Far more has been done out of uninformed fear than informed understanding. Educate and reduce that fear, and a great burden will be lifted.

Northwest Clean Energy: If there was one thing you could tell someone to help them understand why nuclear energy is good, what would it be?

Scott Montgomery: 50 years of civilian nuclear power, with an average of 300 reactors operating, has resulted in only 3 large accidents, two of them without a single injury to the public.

Jim Conca: Fewer people have died as a result of nuclear power than any other form of energy, including renewables. It is the most reliable, safest, longest-lasting form of energy we have.

Kristin Zaitz: I’d want them to understand how electricity is generated, how it is transmitted, and the magnitude of our consumption in the developed world. When you look at the abilities and limitations inherent in the technology of each available energy source, and pair that with the environmental pros and cons of each, you realize that there is a trade-off in every energy scenario. We need to understand those trade-offs and make wise choices. With nuclear as part of a clean energy mix, we can provide abundant energy to our growing world and minimize the impacts to people and nature.

Nick Touran: I like informing people that if they got 100 percent of their energy (electricity, transportation, heating, everything!) from nuclear fuel, they’d consume about 1.5 soda cans of it in their lifetime and produce no climate-altering byproducts. I’d then go through the key concerns and point out how there are reasonable solutions to all of them, but I guess that’s more than one thing.

Northwest Clean Energy: What is the greatest myth about nuclear energy?

Kristin Zaitz: The greatest myth about nuclear energy is that we don’t need it, and that we can decarbonize without it. Germany is a great practical example of this. Germany is succeeding at adding lots of wind and solar power to the electric grid, but still its carbon emissions are rising since this intermittent supply is backed up by fossil fuels. We simply cannot decarbonize our energy supply with renewables as long as they are backed up by fossil. Energy storage is something that we don’t do well at large scale, or for any appreciable length of time. In absence of an energy storage miracle, Germany and many others are doing the only technologically possible thing that they can do and locking in their dependence on fossil.

Nick Touran: That they’re unsafe. At a public meeting last year the people laughed out loud when a nuclear supporter said it was one of the safest energy sources known. Upon even brief research, anyone can see that the data support this conclusion. Nuclear has actually net saved 2 million lives worldwide by displacing air pollution deaths even considering the effects of nuclear accidents. I think it’s a shame that people reject the data on this one.

Northwest Clean Energy: Looking to the future, what is your hope for nuclear energy, in the U.S. and the world?

Jim Conca: My hope is that the United States will retake the global leadership in nuclear science and nuclear power. We should complete development of new reactor technologies that are ideal for eradicating global poverty and reverse global environmental degradation before we pass the point of no return, somewhere around 2050.

Nick Touran: Some Chinese urban populations are losing something like five years of life due to air pollution, so they have an urgent clean energy need. Accordingly, I see China, India, and Russia building large nuclear fleets in the somewhat near future.

Scott Montgomery: My hope is that the U.S. will see the need for expanding and advancing nuclear power in a major way, a technology it has given to the world. That the many new nuclear start-up companies in the U.S. and Canada focused on advanced reactors that address waste and non-proliferation concerns, find major success.

Kristin Zaitz: I want energy access for all of humanity, clean air, a livable climate, and room for nature. I see this happening through the protection of existing nuclear energy, and the expansion of new nuclear and other clean technologies across the world.

(Posted by John Dobken)