Talking about my (nuclear) generation

By Meredith Angwin

I was not born a geek, but by the time I was a 10-year-old buying books at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, my path was set. Some considered this as an unfortunate background, so I had to learn the hard way how to handle myself in debates  and how to answer aggressive questions. Below, I share what I have learned in defending my position, in the hope that it will help others.

Get asked a question, give a long repetitive answer

I am a scientist, which means that if you ask me a technical question, I try to give an accurate and concise answer. When I do this in debate, the opposition usually runs right over me. Anti-nuclear activists are very willing to fill airtime with their own voices. They are often paid professionals, trained in debate. Sometimes a strong moderator can help keep things fair, but not always.

I once watched a videotape of myself debating, and I was astounded at how little speaking time I had. (For what it is worth, this problem is not just mine. When NRC Chairman Jaczko came to Brattleboro, many people noted that he spoke for less than two minutes at a time before getting interrupted.)

Advice: When you get the floor, hold it. Say everything at least two  different waysDo your best to prevent people from interrupting by pointing out that they ARE interrupting.

You deserve equal time, but you won’t be given equal time. You will have to take it assertively.

Learn to get your message across with blocks and bridges

Your opponents will rarely answer the question they were asked. Instead, they block the question, and bridge themselves back to whatever point they were planning to make anyway. In a recent debate in Vermont, State Senator Dick McCormack was a master at this. His main point was “a deal is a deal, and the Vermont Yankee deal [to close the plant down] was for 40 years.”

Almost everything led him back to his point. If you talked about economic impact of Vermont Yankee closing, he was quick to say that “Everybody knew the deal, so why are people surprised at the job loss?” No discussion of economic consequences for him: everything leads back to “a deal is a deal.”

You can’t make the opponents answer the questions, but you can block and bridge yourself as necessary.

(I know that it goes against the grain). You should learn to do this,  and keep this method in your arsenal of responses. It’s about getting your message verbalized and out there, not about convincing your opponents of anything by logical argument simply because they really won’t be listening. They will hear your words, but not digest them.

The audience may be convinced by your steady, repeated message. The opponents won’t be convinced by anything you can say.

Be ready for the shotgun questions

There is one situation in which you must block and bridge. If someone asks a reasonable question, you may well choose to answer that questions. When someone approaches with a loaded shotgun, you must block and bridge.

For example, on a radio talk show, some people called with single questions.  The question might not have been exactly flattering: “Doesn’t that cooling tower collapse prove Vermont Yankee is falling apart?” I usually answer single questions directly, however.

Other questioners loaded up their shotguns and asked multiple questions. They want to know about tritium, the fuel pool, the cooling towers, the Price Anderson act, etc. I have counted up to eight questions in a string. If you try to answer all of them, you will take up the rest of the show with their laundry list of concerns. Or, if you answer the first three, for example, you may be accused of ducking the later questions. So, what to do?

Don’t even begin to respond to a shotgun question. When you meet a shotgun, block and bridge.

“Thank you for your questions. It is clear that you are concerned with nuclear safety, and I am happy to tell you that nuclear is the safest form of energy production…” etc.

A shotgun question is an opportunity to get your own point across.

My final advice: Forgive yourself

My last advice is to forgive yourself. You go out there, and you do better than you think you do. Yes, you should have blocked that one…you will do it next time. Yes, the opponent interrupted and said something outrageous and you couldn’t stop him. Yes, it wasn’t perfect.

Face it. You are usually up against paid professional activists who have training in debate. You are up there as a geek, and you are saying what needs to be said and saying it to the best of your ability.

By being in the public forum and telling the truth, you are doing a service for the future of the world. Forgive  yourself for not doing it perfectly.


Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.

Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

9 thoughts on “Talking about my (nuclear) generation

  1. Meredith Angwin

    Thank you all for your comments.
    Yesterday, a couple of friends and myself met up in Burlington and helped Howard Shaffer prepare for his debate. Howard is debating Arnie Gundersen at University of Vermont this Thursday. The debate is going to get lots of media attention. Here’s a link to the debate announcement
    Here’s a link to some early coverage of the debate
    And here’s a link to my own blog, with a 5 minute video clip of me and Howard on a major local TV station that covers a lot of Vermont and part of New York State. We were there last night. They will have Arnie on later this week.
    Debating is constantly on my mind right now, and I thank you all for your comments and support.

  2. millerm

    Meredith offers some great points. They are great reminders that all of us entering public “debate” need to have fresh on our mind as we prepare. If our message is worth hearing, then we must make sure that it is HEARD! It’s not our egos at stake here, but a better world for everyone (including those misguided agendists). Otherwise, we might as well stay home and grumble.
    Joe Shuster, author of “Beyond Fossil Fools”, was once asked WHO he worked for (implying that he was a paid mouthpiece for some evil concern). His reply was simple, true, and spot-on! He replied, “For my grandchildren.”

  3. G. Murphy

    My debates have mainly been written battles, but I’ve done my homework , and always try to give deeper more revealing facts to the undecided, beyond the kind of catchphrase and fear icon thrown around by the NIRS/WISE/CAN crowd.

    The undecided public is the only real listener that counts.

    Agendists have jobs to do, paid for by foundations, and they are not only blind & deaf, but consider it important to steal every microphone, muffle honest questions, & blind everyone else. They are employed, act important, and feel sanctified because they’ve got a demon to exorcise, and a laundry list of hate phrases with which to cast witch spells.

    A reasonable person can’t learn much from “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, (insert a name) has Got to Go”, but for an Luddite provocateur, a night spent chanting such dreck is counted as a sublime, transforming victory, a communal feast, and a recruitment milestone. Ask any participant what they learned from the chanting, and you will draw only blank stares.


    The object is not to learn. The object is to intimidate officials and citizens to clear the streets, and defer extra-democratically, to whatever brownshirt clique has occupied the square.

    Vermont, however, is not Egypt.

    Luddites have no innate justice on their side. They act against the needs of 621,000 unsuspecting citizens, and conspire to force-feed a sham, unworkable energy socialism down the throats of 240,000 struggling households, and in the process to povertize the state, ruin its forests for biomass, and eventually sell the place off wholesale to out-of-state real estate interests.

    It’s demographic cleansing, masquerading as an energy argument.

    It’s the selloff of the Green Republic for a dozen media careers.

  4. Rod Adams


    The NEI represents diversified companies that have some interest in nuclear energy – it does not represent “the nuclear industry.” There really is no such animal in the United States.

    Because of the diversified nature of the members, NEI tends toward efforts that inform legislators and the public about the benefits of nuclear energy without attempting to compare them to all of the other alternatives. One of the key messages from the NEI is that there is a need for a diversified mix of energy sources with a “place” for nuclear energy.

    I respect the NEI, make frequent use of their resources, and wish them well. However, I never expect them to be terribly aggressive or effective and I never expect that they will fund the efforts of independently minded pronuclear activists who recognize and promote the technical superiority of fission compared to all other energy alternatives. That message would be very risky for many of the key members that make far more money selling wind mills or coal-fired electricity than they do building nuclear energy facilities or producing nuclear generated electricity.

  5. AtomikRabbit

    “up against paid professional activists”

    Why doesn’t the NEI fund a cadre of professional pro-nuclear speakers?

    Not lobbyists cornering legislators in cloakrooms, but speakers, bloggers, and advertisers concisely hammering home the message.

    Surely they can’t say it would cost too much. This is an industry that depends upon the goodwill of regulators and politicians to survive, let alone prosper. In a media-driven democracy, they in turn are driven by public opinion.

    Favorable opinion right now for atomic energy is a mile wide and an inch deep. To get the public to understand the fundamental advantages of the technology will take an outreach effort a hundred times what has been expended to date. Look at the efforts put out by the competition on a daily basis.

    If the “nuclear industry” wants its deserved market share, it can’t depend solely on well-meaning amateurs anymore.

  6. Rod Adams

    @Meredith – excellent advice which matches with what I have learned about debating techniques.

    I never joined the debate club in school, but I did study the subject and have served as a judge during college debates. That is actually quite an experience these days – the system is designed to give points based on the number of arguments and references. The scoring method leads to the most rewarded skill being the ability to talk really fast.

    In those debates, there is a strict time limit and the judges enforce it rigorously. For people trained in modern college debate competitions, a less formal setting with a more easily manipulated moderator is heaven. They can make their points without as much fear of interruption or time expiration.

    Though it goes against the grain for scientists and engineers, debating requires the ability to interrupt, capture and hold the floor as much as possible. The fact that we can do so with solid, hard to refute information helps. It also helps to be willing to get a little dirty. I would have asked State Senator Dick McCormack why he was so adamant about enforcing a bad deal.

    If ever given the opportunity, I will ask why he and his friends are fighting so hard to help the gas or coal industry to sell more product. The people that capture monetary benefit by sacrificing the jobs, the low cost power source and the low emissions associated with an established nuclear energy plant are not exactly popular. Use that knowledge wisely and aggressively.

  7. Suzanne Hobbs

    One thing the antis get right is sticking to a clear, concise message like “a deal is a deal.” Bringing everything back to one central point is a very effective branding method. It would be very beneficial to the pro-nuclear community to come up with a re-branding strategy that includes a catch phrase or slogan.

  8. Jeff S

    If I may be so bold, I might add one more thing. . . people will usually say again, the things they’ve said in the past (but not always). If you are debating someone who has debated on the same subject in the past, you can watch video or listen to audio, or read transcripts of the things they say, and prepare ahead of time with a good response – or, you might be able to be pro-active, and get some idea out *before* they are able to say what they had intended, that might sort of ‘make them lose their footing’, if you will.

    I know I’m not a good debater, because I’m a little bit slow on my feet – I don’t come up with quick, snappy responses all the time, but if I have a few minutes to reflect, I might be able to come up with something good. Reviewing your debating ‘partner’s style and comments ahead of time could help give you enough ability to reflect, to have just the right answer to one of their questions or objections.

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