The audience was surprised.
The young man who came to talk to them about advocacy for nuclear energy was standing before them belting out an operatic version of “The Impossible Dream” from “Man from La Mancha.” As far as utility conferences go, one could call this a departure from the norm.
But Eric Meyer is a man of many talents, opera being but one (B.A. in Vocal Music). Grassroots advocacy is another, hence his founding of Generation Atomic. His talk to the Northwest Public Power Association in Sunriver, Ore., this spring showed how direct outreach to people is helping build support for nuclear energy in the places it is needed most – currently Ohio. There, two nuclear energy plants are facing difficult times due to deregulated energy markets that don’t adequately value reliable and carbon-free electricity.
“We deregulated the energy markets thinking the only thing that mattered was price to consumers,” Meyer told me. “Then we realized that wasn’t the whole story. We care about clean energy. We care about reliable energy.”
Meyer hadn’t thought much about nuclear energy growing up and admits he probably had a vague disrespect for it because of watching The Simpsons. But in 2009, a friend sent Meyer a video on molten salt reactors.
“(I)n that video they talked about other reactor designs and how with nuclear you can do things that you can’t do with other energy sources, like make carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, desalinate water and, just in general, have reliable electricity that doesn’t harm the environment.”
That opened his mind to the concept of nuclear energy being a good thing. So he changed his education focus to public policy and advocacy and a year ago jumped into nuclear advocacy with both feet.
“(Pro-nuclear environmentalist) Michael Shellenberger invited me to come out to Berkeley and help organize a pro-nuclear climate march, the March for Environmental Hope. We had three big events and were able to build some momentum,” Meyer said.
Meyer felt more could be done on a grassroots level – and that more should be done to begin building the base of nuclear energy support. So Meyer started Generation Atomic with Tay Stevenson using campaign-style tactics that had worked for them before, such as in Minnesota building support for gay marriage legislation.
“There’s always been a small contingent of pro-nuclear people, people who work at the plants, or your enthusiasts, who haven’t had an opportunity to go into communities before,” Meyer explained. “There’s never been a door-to-door operation for nuclear. There’s been these efforts for clean water, renewables. You go back 30 years and the public wasn’t calling their legislators demanding renewables standards or subsidies. That took a grassroots effort.”
Generation Atomic is so grassroots that for the Ohio campaign, six people shared a Sandusky duplex and slept on air mattresses. “I don’t think we could have made it more clear how grassroots we were.”
While the accommodations weren’t fancy, Generation Atomic is running a sophisticated operation. Volunteers go door-to-door with a smart phone app that allows potential supporters to find their own path to why favoring nuclear energy is a good thing. And it works. Nearly 60 percent of residents they speak with sign on to the cause, according to Generation Atomic, and nearly 54 percent will take action.
“The plant workers get it. The enthusiasts get it. The climate scientists get it. But the public at-large is either not thinking about it or has their perception colored by the media in general,” Meyer said. “The general message (for canvassers) is, ‘nuclear is good for your community in these different ways.’ What’s most important to you?”
Those ways may be jobs, school funding or environmental benefits. “People don’t understand they like nuclear until they understand the implications of losing it.”
Generation Atomic is benefiting from, well, a generation of Americans who see nuclear through a different lens. It’s not about a missile crisis, fall-out shelters or doomsday clocks. They understand technology and how it can help society; it’s comfortable. The only doomsday clock they worry about relates to the climate. For them, nuclear energy is a solution. A good one.
Good examples of that mindset can be found in Emma Redfoot and Kelley Verner, the University of Idaho graduate students behind Students For Nuclear, a group for students “who have decided that developing and supporting nuclear energy is an important and meaningful way to spend their lives.”
Each came to nuclear energy along different paths. We had a chance to speak to Emma and Kelley during a recent visit to Columbia Generating Station. Watch these short videos to learn more about how they decided to support nuclear energy.
Learn more about Students for Nuclear by visiting their website.
After earning a bachelor’s in nuclear engineering at Texas A&M, Jean Lim found himself in Seattle, not exactly a hotbed of nuclear advocacy. Not yet.
“People outside the field of study don’t get many opportunities to be in positive conversations about nuclear,” Lim says. “They don’t get a chance to understand what nuclear energy can do for the environment, and really, themselves.”
Lim began his nuclear energy journey while still in high school, wondering what he would choose as a major. Nuclear’s carbon-free generation caught his attention and that’s the direction he ultimately chose. Now he’s working toward a Master’s degree and one day he hopes to work on Generation IV nuclear technology.
“The people I encountered within school and industry were driven and passionate individuals that believed in a science that can better mankind, and I still want to be a part of that. It may have been less romantic in their minds, but that was what I saw,” Lim said.
Lim’s passion for nuclear energy brought him closer to a fledgling group of nuclear energy advocates in the Seattle area, now known as the Friends of Fission.
“After moving here, I took some classes at a local community college to keep up with my technical skills and studies. I also started working with a work counselor and she urged me to continue creating nuclear Industry connections,” Lim said.
One of her suggestions was checking out Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe, as they were hosting a radiation talk that week. The talk happened to be organized by the founders of Friends of Fission, and affiliated with Cascadia Climate Action. Lim found out they wanted to do more talks focused on nuclear energy. “At that point I felt I had a way to continue advocating for nuclear power at a new place, so I started to work with them.”
Lim has helped the group with organizing events and designing graphics to promote them. The positive message of nuclear energy helping the planet with reliable electricity and clean air motivates him.
“We break away from the doom and gloom other environmentalists preach, and try to showcase a piece of the puzzle that can drastically improve our fight against climate change,” Lim told me.
With clear eyes
What I take away from these conversations is that this generation is more fact-based in its focus on solving the big issues, such as climate change, almost linear, in fact. If climate change is devastating to people and the planet, and low-carbon electricity helps reduce climate change, then nuclear energy is a good thing and we should have more of it. They look at arguments such as “what about the waste?” and see answers based in science and opportunities for new technology, not roadblocks or fear. In short, it’s hope shining through.
Yes, there’s something happening here. Make sure you take time to stop and look around.
Then join in. After all, this is the Summer of Nuclear.
(Posted by John Dobken)