We are not Spock: Emotion and Nuclear Power

By Meredith Angwin

viewfromVermontWhen Leonard Nimoy wrote his first autobiography, it was titled I Am Not Spock. Nimoy had mixed feelings about the title, but it did entice people to read the book.

Spock wikimedia 141x200Who would want to be Spock, after all? Though Spock is half-human, his character is usually portrayed as close to a computing machine. Spock will not let emotions rule his actions. Spock makes his choices through the use of logic.

When arguing in favor of nuclear power and especially Vermont Yankee, I sometimes felt I was channeling Spock. The opponents appealed to emotion – “I am so afraid.” I appealed to facts and common sense. Sometimes I wanted to scream: “Nuclear energy is the ONLY way to keep our civilization without destroying our world!” I never screamed it.

In retrospect, I was Spock.

The plant closes

When Entergy announced that it would close Vermont Yankee, my inner Spock continued.  The opponents celebrated all over the place. They chanted: “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”  They threw parties.  They wrote op-eds: “On Joy and Justice.”  And so forth.

And what about me?  In my blog, I wrote a careful analysis of the causes of the shutdown: “Questions I Frequently Ask Myself about Vermont Yankee’s Shutdown.”  I tried to understand Entergy’s decision and its implications for other nuclear plants.  (Jim Hopf  referenced my post in his excellent post at ANS nuclear cafe.)

I think I was still Spock.

Not Spock

It’s been about a month since the announcement and my attitudes have changed.

I am not Spock. I am sad.  I am sad and I cannot rationalize my way out of that feeling.  Everything is not for the best, and this is not the best of all possible worlds.

I am sad and I feel quite powerless.  No matter what I do, the plant will close.  No matter what I do, the people I know at the plant will be dispersed to other jobs.

There has been only one solid human-interest article about the plant closing: Vermont Yankee family faces uncertain future.  When the plant closes, Vermont Yankee employee John Twarog will be laid off.  John expects he will have to leave the area, and his teenage sons will have to complete their high school education in a new town. To me, this was the only article that is real because it was focused on what is actually happening.  Also, I admit…. I know the Twarogs.

Evan Twarog testifying at Vermont Public Service Board hearing last fall.  Mother in line behind him

Evan Twarog testifies at Vermont Public Service Board hearing last fall. Cheryl, his mother, is in line behind him.

Of course, lawsuits and opponent meetings and so forth continue, despite the announcement. Howard Shaffer wrote a fine blog post about the current anti-nuclear activism in this area: Our Challenge Continues.  Opponents will attempt to raise the cost of decommissioning in the hopes of giving nuclear energy a black eye.

I don’t want nuclear energy to get a black eye, but once the plant is closed and the teams of contractors appear to dismantle it….the decommissioning issues of “how expensive” and “how long” just aren’t that interesting to me.  I am interested in operating plants, not cost-savings on decommissioning.

Rallying for Vermont Yankee on the streets of Brattleboro

Rallying for Vermont Yankee on the streets of Brattleboro

Rallying for Vermont Yankee on the streets of Brattleboro

Rallying for Vermont Yankee on the streets of Brattleboro

I am not Spock, and my main emotion right now is sorrow.

Advice to myself

My current advice to myself is to stop pretending to be Spock. I find it hard to know how to move forward, which is itself a typical emotion related to the bigger emotion of sorrow.  I am full of self-doubts.  (I know a lot about nuclear energy, why did I decide to concentrate on one power plant?  Wasn’t “Yes Vermont Yankee” a silly name for a blog?).  This is also typical of sorrow.

Entergy closed the plant for economic reasons, not because the opponents won their case in court or in the legislature. But still – the bottom line is that my side lost.  We lost.  The people who wanted the plant to close have something to celebrate.  The people who wanted the plant to stay open have something to mourn.

Rallying for Vermont Yankee near the gate to the plant

Rallying for Vermont Yankee near the gate to the plant

I guess my only advice to myself is to allow myself to acknowledge this sadness. I know that, given time, a way forward will present itself. In the mean time, I plan to continue my blog.

Why will I keep blogging?  Because some people look to my blog as a bit of “their voice.”  These people include employees at Vermont Yankee. I don’t want to abandon my readers.  Also, in the course of blogging, I have learned a fair amount about energy choices in New England.  I want to write about that, too.

Blogging at Yes Vermont Yankee may not be a logical use of my time, but I am still going to do it.

I am not Spock.

Pin supporting Vermont Yankee, designed by Cheryl Twarog

Pin supporting Vermont Yankee, designed by Cheryl Twarog

End Note: My blog post Challenging Those Who Celebrate Vermont Yankee’s Closing includes a link to Jack Gamble’s eloquent letter in favor of nuclear power Count Me Out of the Party as well as links to some of the nastiest “Joy and Justice” type op-eds.

_________________________

Meredith-AngwinMeredith 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 formerly served as a commissioner in 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.

23 Responses to We are not Spock: Emotion and Nuclear Power

  1. Thoughtful post.
    Jerry

  2. Steven Unikewicz

    Meredith,
    I am not Spock but I try to be. I will not give in to emotionalist politics. I am not powerless.

    I do empathize with you – I am, and always will be a Connecticut Yankee guy. I was there at the end of Cy and Millstone 1 – both tragedies (I was a CY and then a NUSCO engineer).

    As a Spock wannbe, I need to understand and how to fight back. The ASME Presidential Task Force on Fukushima also writes to your point. To keep this short – I will fight on through the ASME Energy Committee, through the Nuclear Division, the Power Division, thru the GO Nuclear Organization.
    Channel that inner Spock – we will live long and we will prosper. Spock is strong – so shall we all be
    take care
    Steve

  3. Laura Scheele

    Wonderful entry, Meredith — Spock-mode is not always best when communicating, so not being Spock is one of your strengths. Keep doing what you love … but I suspect there are new opportunities will present themselves.

  4. What a perceptive and thoughtful essay this is! And there are many reasons to feel sad about a nuclear plant closing; you do a good job of listing some of them.

    One more: the shutdown of Vermont Yankee is a victory for the fossil fuel industry, which does not control its unhealthy pollutants the way the nuclear industry does.

  5. Hi Meredith
    I think it makes perfect sense to keep your blog title. The tragic closure will stand as a reminder of the foolishness that took place. Years from now people will be saying: “Remember that nuclear plant that put up a good fight but lost to corporate and anti-nuke protests? Yes Vermont Yankee.”

    I am reminded about how companies that run NPPs are in the energy business to make money and they push all of their energy sources when profit is to be made. I wonder about Ontario’s recent decision to cancel plans for new nuclear plants. OPG and Bruce both have interests in Natural Gas.

    Jeremy Whitlock’s recent piece “Everything’s Coming Up Trilliums” which is featured as a guest spot on Atomic Insights is clever and revealing as a Psychiatrist/Patient dialog: http://atomicinsights.com/everythings-coming-trilliums/

    You are not alone or crazy but wouldn’t be surprised if you feel that way.

    Rick

  6. Jeff Walther

    I think the most immediate threat to clean nuclear electricity generation, right now, is not anti-nuke protests, nor corporate indifference, but state “Renewable” Energy Mandates. The clause in the states’ RE mandates which require that “RE” be taken on the grid in preference to other energy sources is the greatest danger to affordable base load generators, and to the whole institution of reliable, affordable electricity for the consumer.

    This is how it works. When wind or solar generation start supplying 10% – 15% of total electricity, their theoretical generating capacity is much higher because they have capacity factors of about 20%. So wind installations which supply 15% of the energy needed in a year, have a name-place generating capacity of 75% of the power needed at any given time. They don’t generate 75% of the energy because the wind mostly doesn’t blow.

    But, fairly frequently, for brief periods, those wind installations, which can only supply 15% of yearly energy needs, will all get good wind, and then, they’ll generate 750% of the power the grid needs. When that happens, for that brief period, the RE Mandate requires that steady, constant, reliable generators, such as nuclear shut down or otherwise stop generating.

    Shutting down and starting up again are expensive and even damaging for base load generators. Now, this might be an okay situation, why not drive the inflexible base load off the grid? But the grid cannot do without the base load. Because, most of the time, the wind isn’t supplying 75% of the power. A lot of the time, it’s not even supplying 15%. That’s just what it averages out to over the year.

    So the grid cannot do without steady, reliable, affordable generators, but it could do quite nicely without expensive intermittent wind and solar.

    Yet, state legislated RE Mandates are pushing the necessary and affordable base-load off the grid.

    I cannot think of a single piece of legislation better designed to drive up the cost of electricity and drive away grid reliability, even if I was legislating from scratch. “RE” Mandates are the enemy of the consumer.

    The problem is that the connection is subtle and the public still believes that RE Mandates exist to benefit them and the environment. The truth is, that RE Mandates, combined with the recent “privatizing” of grids and generating capacity, are designed to drive out grid reliablility and drive up energy costs for all consumers.

    Given public perception, the goal should be to modify RE Mandates, so that “RE” does not receive priority on the grid; sell this as “proving” RE maturity, and get nuclear electricity generation included in the definition of “Renewable Energy”. Repealing them entirely is probably impossible.

    The true opponent in the near and short term is the requirement in RE Mandates that intermittent sources be given priority on the grid. Changing that should be the single most immediate target of pro-nuclear activists. Public opinion about nuclear, and the NRC regulatory framework matter almost not at all, when existing nuclear generation can be driven off the grid by this single point of legislation and a small percentage of Unreliables penetration.

  7. Meredith:

    You are not alone in your sorrow. It is not just the loss of a single mature nuclear power plant, but the implications for our incredibly rich democracy. We inherited an amazing place from our forebears, but we are on a risky course of self-destruction.

    You mentioned that Entergy made it’s decision based on “economics”, but the financial attributes that drove that decision are almost entirely fabricated. Sure, VY cost a lot to operate. Who can forget the description of the massive effort to find a leak of nearly pure water because it had a few milligrams of tritium in it, the armies of lawyers who were billing Entergy for months during a sustained effort to defend the company’s private property interests in a facility that most certainly was doing the public a lot of good, and the requirement for Entergy to pay all of the costs of its professional opponents in the form of the Public Oversight Pane chaired by Peter Bradford and employing Arnie Gundersen as its engineering advisor?

    http://www.vermontbiz.com/news/july/arnie-gundersen-and-peter-bradford-vermont-yankee-public-oversight-panel

    Sure, other power sources beside VY were selected for long term purchase contracts by the Canadian company that owns most of the monopoly electric utilities and a substantial portion of the Canadian gas that will be burned in the replacement power plants. If I am not mistaken, that is the same company with divisions that will be compensated for building the necessary transmission lines to carry the new power supplies.

    http://www.masslive.com/business-news/index.ssf/2013/09/vermont_yankee_nuclear_shutdown_makes_ne.html

    Shumlin and his co-conspirators are deeply involved in companies that supply industrial wind farms and have worked hard to ensure they are compensated for those monstrosities by fees placed on everyone else.

    https://www.wind-watch.org/news/2010/09/07/vt-man-with-shumlin-ties-at-center-of-controversy/

    This is a sorrow-making situation that cannot be addressed with rational arguments. It is time for us to get emotional about the huge costs that are being imposed for no good reason other than to take from the poor and give to the rich. We need to resist the modern Sheriff of Nottingham (Shumlin) and his henchmen (Bradford, Cooper, Gundersen, etc.).

    I think it’s time for a new blog – Yes Nuclear Energy.

    Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

  8. Gwyneth Cravens | October 24, 2013 at 13:18 |
    One more: the shutdown of Vermont Yankee is a victory for the fossil fuel industry, which does not control its unhealthy pollutants the way the nuclear industry does.

    Why don’t little factoids like this get out of the web and knock people where it counts??

  9. Lindsay Dempsey

    A very thoughtful and reflective article thank you Meredith. While I am generally support of nuclear energy, the emotion I feel is frustration and some anger. The angle that most grabs my attention is the waste of it all and the apparent brokeness of markets and governments that can work together to kill off a valuable asset, an excellent local employer and producer of clean electricity long before it has reached the end of its economic life.

    The wastefulness of the entire exercise is breathtaking, with most of the costs hidden from the public which will be sheeted home them in current and future power bills, blamed on anyone and everything other than the small group of short-sighted individuals who have waged an extended and ultimately successful campaign against VY using all means at their disposal. It is just such a waste, we all need to do better.

  10. John Milton wrote, ‘Truth is strong’. So, don’t abandon the facts.

    But emotion has a part in this debate. We on the pro-nuclear side are entitled to draw attention to those whose lives will be affected negatively by the closure, including the employees whose jobs are lost and the wider world whose lives will be less prosperous and healthy.

    Those who want to close nuclear power plants choose declining prosperity and a deterioration of our environment. We should keep saying this. We are on the right side of history.

  11. I’m a pissed-off Spock.

    What strange times we live in! But considering what has been going on at Vermont Yankee, Kewaunee, San Onofre, Watts Bar, Vogtle, and V.C. Summer, at least I can feel proud to be a Southerner. The only outlier is Crystal River, but what can you do when you break your own containment structure? It was illogical to try a do-it-yourself job on an asset worth billions.

    Y’all live long and prosper now, ya’hear?

  12. Count me out of the party as well. This plant closing will be devastating to a great many families and impose underserved hardship on very many fine people. To those who celebrate this unfortunate event, I have to ask, what kind of a sick mind celebrates the misfortune of others? Those who celebrate the hardship of others deserve the harshest condemnation and judgment, if there is any justice in the world.

  13. Sorry for the typo, underserved should be undeserved.

    I forgot to add that spewing thousands of more tons of CO2 into the atmosphere by increased use of natural gas (which is what will happen when VY shuts down) is hardly worth celebrating. Neither is the destruction of dozens of more ridgelines and mountaintops if VT foolishly tries to replace VY capacity with unreliable wind generation. You have to be some kind of sick individual to celebrate that.

  14. John Alan Roderick

    Thank you for this well-written and thoughtful post. I view this conversion of decom money to cash flow as THE issue of the future in this post-deregulated electric power generation world — an unintended consequence of an ill-conceived plan. As such, it echoes the theme that is prevailing in the electric power industry at this time… what was once the domicile of engineers is now the domain of accountants. My estimates are that it will cost about $500-700 million to replace VY’s megawatts with a highly efficient gas-fired 2-and-1 combined cycle plant that will be dispatchable in much less time and have a much smaller staff (assuming they can get the needed natural gas capacity). However, this will come at the expense of fuel diversity and proper market function as margin prices become easier to manipulate thorough strategic and calculated fuel hedging. Pilgrim likely will not be far behind. New England could well find itself in a mess and it will be too late to do anything about it.

  15. Dennis Mosebey

    The real tragedy is the fact that Entergy and Dominion have been allowed to expand and buy up plants or assimilate small utilities into these big conglomerates and then they do things like shut down Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee acting like they will go bankrupt if they do not. Their profits are all they care about. But when the gas prices go back up again, both will really wish they had those megawatts back but they will not be able to get them. Utility executives appear to be able only to think maybe 5 years out, but the energy game requires vision and foresight farther than that. Entergy made a bad decision and it remains to be seen if Dominion did the same–time will tell but by then the Executives who made them will long have moved on or retired with the wind billowing through the soft, golden parachutes, while the workers may or may not find another job. Thank heavens my plant is part only of an alliance and not a fleet–for a tme this past year I was really worried Exelon or Entergy was going to be brought in to run my plant. Fortunately our owner companies decided probably the actual price was too high. Vermont Yankee was done in by people who had no personal stake in Vermont Yankee—that is what happens in all mergers into these bigger and bigger companies-loss of individual identity. Never forget the good fight you put up and if Entergy had not caved, the plant would still be running largely because of all your efforts. It is as Spock would say, “Most illogical, Captain.”

  16. Meredith;
    Emotion rules, you can’t reason with these activist, you can only throw their arguements back at them, meaning it is past time for us to safe how safe and non-poluting Nuclear is and attaching the other energy sources, showing all just what price they are paying even for some of their green technologies —look at the toxics produed as a by-product of solar panel manufacturing and a true look at the price we are paying for the so called Shale Gas option.

    Rich

  17. Fracking to get at the shale gas produces billions of gallons of liquid waste and never a peep about it from the greenies. Yet they got themselves into a tizzy about a few gallons of water from VY that had a tritium concentration of a few attocuries per cubic gigaparsec. And shale gas is exactly where the fuel will come from to power tha natural gas-fired plants that will replace the VY capacity. More tens of thousands of more tons of carbon in the biosphere and fracking waste to boot. That will be the real legacy of shutting down VY prematurely. Is that something to celebrate, ya kooks? I don’t think so.

  18. I agree that we need to bring some emotion into our arguments in debates. When people see someone presenting”rational” arguments but showing no emotion, they wonder what their real motivations are, i.e., why do they care. If we don’t show emotion, and express why we care, people will assume that we’re hiding something (i.e., our real motivation). They’ll probably assume that it’s something that we don’t want to admit (e.g., a purely financial motive).

    I, myself, really care about these issues, because I really care about global warming, and the 13,000 annual deaths in the US alone (several hundred thousand worldwide) which result from fossil-fueled power generation. And I let those emotions show when I’m arguing. I’d like to think that the result is people considering me more credible, and someone who really cares (about the environment, and people’s welfare, etc..).

    After all, all the experts tell us that the main means by which one really wins an argument (wins people over) is by making an emotional connection.

    BTW, like Meredith, I can’t really bring myself to care about, or maintain interest in, issues about VY’s decommissioning. For me the issue is how many nuclear plants are in operation (i.e., building new ones or keeping existing ones in operation). The fact is that the plant is closed. There is some truth to the notion that we can’t let the opponents make decommissioning as paiful and costly as possible (since that may prevent utilities from deciding to build more nukes in the future). But the real issue going forward is how to prevent more closures like this from happening in the future.

  19. You are most certainly NOT Spock! Folks like you and AtomicRod Adams and Kirk Sorensen, who are preaching the reality of nuclear power are getting people excited. It just takes time, and unfortunately Vermont Yankee didn’t have enough. As a tech-minded consumer I came to realize 2 things: 1) Cheap, super-reliable electricity is perhaps the greatest advancement of mankind, and 2) Everything we’ve been told of electricity generation and nuclear power is completely wrong. Point 1 was fairly easy to come up with on my own (just try primitive camping for a week), but point 2 has only come through seeking out blogs like yours, where a true discussion about the benefits and realities of nuclear power can be presented in a clear, concise and, dare I say, passionate way.

    Please keep doing what you’re doing. You are making an impact.

  20. Thank you all for these thoughtful comments! Thank you for your support of nuclear power and Vermont Yankee.

    A not-complete reply (I’ll write more after I get back from a family trip out of town this weekend):

    Several of the comments are detailed enough to be blog posts themselves. I have already asked Rod Adams for permission to post his comment as a guest post on my own blog. He agreed. I will be asking others, for permission, also (when I get back to town). These are amazing comments!

    Rod was also kind enough to carry the conversation about emotion and nuclear energy to a post at his own blog today. Thank you, Rod!

    http://atomicinsights.com/nuclear-professionals-can-get-emotional/

    A more general comment. Yes, we ARE on the right side of history. But sometimes it is hard to remember that.

    However, we each move the needle of public opinion a bit. Sometimes I think that just being visible is the most important thing. For example, I am having some physical therapy now (Did I mention I am a grandmother? And that I’m not as young as I used to be?) At the end of the PT session, the therapist asked me to explain these decommissioning options she reads about, and tell her my opinion about them. (If I could do this explanation them relatively quickly.) She admits that she doesn’t understand the options OR the arguments. She follows my op-eds in the local newspaper and decided to ask me, because I would know. So…there I am in her office and I am glad to help. In other words—“visible” helps, in ways we don’t even guess.

    Speaking of visible..I will write more after the weekend, but I have to give a shout-out to Michael Angwin. Another pro-nuclear Angwin! I have never met Michael, though he is undoubtedly a distant cousin of my husband. Michael lives in Australia, and is CEO of the Australian Uranium Association.

    http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2012/08/michael-angwin-wins-nuclear-debate.html

    I was very glad to hear from Michael, and very very grateful to all of you for your comments. Thank you and more later…

  21. Meredith-
    On the day that VY shuts down, you need to start a counter on the ‘Yes VY’ website that shows the extra tons of CO2 being generated because the VY plant is not making its megawatts.

  22. Ralph Larson

    Well, I used to work at Nukes and I used to work at Hanford. One of the Nukes I worked at was Kewaunee. It is another victim of these cheap gas prices. I also have worked at coal plants. A lot of them have shut down. Nobody seems to get emotional about them either. It’s kinda sad. Nuke plants are so clean that you could eat off the turbine floor. I used to think the most dangerous thing was a paper cut.

    So I’ve been reading about what appears to be the apparent demise of Nukes and I’ve run across the story of the LFTR. Holy Cow! This thing looks to be the solution to the energy problem and it’s been buried in a desk drawer in Tennessee for 30 years. It’s a real life Indiana Jones and the Arc of the Covenant story. You know that natural gas prices won’t be low forever. I hope some smart company is getting the LFTR on the drawing board. When the gas prices go up, the orders should pour in. In the long run, we’ll all be better off.

    Wind does not pay for itself. Solar does not pay for itself. They should be victims of the TEA party. Coal is being legislated out of existence. People are becoming aware of the Mercury and acid rain it causes. Gas is going strong, but stronger demand will drive the price up. It will also be exported. Give it 5 years and the price will be up. The Chinese will have the LFTR first and then we will lease it from them.

    The closing of Vermont Yankee should be a lesson that members of the public need to be educated about energy. Many people are in favor of Nukes. More are needed to silence a rabid and non silent minority.

  23. Have the Anti-Cooks, I mean Nukes watch the TV show “Revolution”. It gives a dramatic look at the world they want.

    I spent 25 years in the nuclear industry. Cut my teeth on it starting at the age of 18. Saw my first irradiated fuel assembly through 60′ of water at that age too. Awe-inspiring.

    I cried during the Fukushima event, having spent my carrier on the refuel floor of a reactor plant of the same design. Imagine my feelings when the roofs of the two plants exploded. I even chatted with web based media there helping them understand the radiation reports they were getting.

    Nuclear power is the only safe and clean way to keep the lights on indefinitely. When are people going to realize that?

    I’ll never make a good Spock.