Shifting the Conversation – A New Era of Nuclear Dialogue

By Jackson Harter

Starting a nuclear career as a nontraditional student can be daunting. I entered the academic world in 2009 as a 25-year-old with eight years of culinary arts under my belt. I am not your typical nuclear engineering student; I was not a model student and hadn’t studied any higher-level math or physics courses in high school. I was a professional cook and chef instructor working with my hands and exploring the world of food for years before making a shift to nuclear.

I decided to study nuclear engineering when they were finishing construction of the Large Hadron Collider. I was working in a kitchen, and I heard that it was going to make a black hole and destroy the world. So my restaurant buddies and I had an end-of-the-world party and I thought – people work there, people do this for a living. Entering academia was a big move for me; the first two years were rocky, honestly. I had very little going for me aside from a dream, positive mental attitude and some decent work ethic instilled from years of working in hot kitchens. I kept with it and received my bachelor’s degree in nuclear science and engineering from Oregon State University in 2013, and continued on to achieve my master’s degree in nuclear science and engineering in 2015 upon returning from a summer spent working as an intern at Idaho National Laboratory. I have elected to remain at Oregon State for my doctorate.

I value academic achievement as I value family and world community. I joined the nuclear science field with the hope of effecting change in the way energy is produced the world over. I choose to believe that with enough perseverance on behalf of all involved parties, a reasonable solution may be materialized which provides carbon-free baseload power and frees humanity from the chains of energy production through the combustion of fossil fuels. The solution isn’t 100 percent nuclear, and it isn’t 100 percent renewable. The logic entails a mixture of all power sources.

While I’m interested in discussing a great deal of topics, I’ve been thinking about our approach in communicating with the so-called “outsiders” of our world who are not scientists, who are not engineers, who are not as technically involved as our community. Put simply, I am referring to the laymen and laywomen that so many of us are quick to dismiss as ignorant, as careless, as foolish. Years ago, I would refer to myself as a layman, and in many ways I still am. One thing I’ve realized in my academic career to date is that every time I learn something, I also learn just how little I am aware of the boundless knowledge surrounding us.

As a community of responsible scientists and engineers, we can no longer minimize the approach we take in dealing with members of the public. I feel like we’ve known this all along but our community has lacked the drive to rise above the gut response of “go away, I’m busy, and you’re ignorant.” I have had the fortune of attending various conferences and getting to know my peers in the nuclear community, and it is rare that I have been a part of a conversation regarding nuclear power and public perception which did not quickly devolve into a discourse on how “they’re all idiots.”

We’re brilliant in our inventions, our optimizations, our logic, our drive and our heart to make things better.

I believe that most of us want the best for the planet, and we want to make life good for ourselves and others. So why is it that we so often slight those who are less-informed? There are many answers to this question, but a sweeping generalization might be: the public doesn’t know about what we do, they don’t take the time to learn, so why would we bother to educate if all they’re going to do in the end is try to shut down power plants and suppress the good work we do? I believe persistence is the key, as is the tone of our response.

We tend to go on the offensive, fighting fire with fire. What about a more gentle approach? What if we tried this: the next time I am verbally attacked by an anti-nuclear party, instead of just answering them with facts about how nuclear is so safe, turn the tables and ask them, “What’s up? Why do you think that way?” Try to reach out and be curious (one of the marks of a scientist), try to understand where this person is coming from instead of dismissing them as a knucklehead.

We can do it. It will take a shift in our perception of others, it will take patience. But surely we have this –spending weeks, months and years in the pursuit of a single result has indoctrinated patience into us. It is our time now to redistribute an adversarial tone for one of temperance and compassion. Perhaps it’s a little cliché (and a quote not directly attributed to Einstein), but insanity is repeating the same experiment over and over and expecting different results. Most of the response of the nuclear community has been the same for decades. We’ve entered a new era here, and instead of merely breaking the cycle, let’s redesign the entire thing.


 

Jason Harter of INLJackson Harter recently finished an internship with the Fuel Modeling & Simulation Department in the Nuclear Science and Technology Directorate at Idaho National Laboratory and is currently working on his doctorate in nuclear science and engineering at Oregon State.

6 thoughts on “Shifting the Conversation – A New Era of Nuclear Dialogue

  1. Hank Roberts

    P.S., re the lack of shielding that could have allowed workers to finish opening the vent valves after hot material began moving through them and the counts went up — I’m aware that a small amount of lead shielding is worse than useless for hot gamma emitters. A friend who worked with such demonstrated that routinely to new doctors learning about radio-iodine by taking the count from a patient (it’s a hot gamma emitter) then asking the interns if they’d prefer to be wearing a lead shield. They invariably wanted one. Then my friend held up the Geiger counter with the lead shield in place and showed them far higher counts. Yeah, hot gammas mostly go right through bags of salt water, but put lead in between and there’s a lot of secondary radiation — alphas and betas — coming out. It’s obvious if you know the physics, but new doctors don’t and choose ‘protection’ worse than useless.

    So the question for the designers — if Fukushima had installed protective shielding, so their workers could have kept coming in and turning the relief valve wheels to fully vent the containment — would they have installed enough to handle the level of radiation coming off the pipes and valve once material started to vent? And would that have prevented the hydrogen explosions that finished wrecking the plants?

    Foresight. It’s easy after the fact. This is what we need to see the nuclear engineers addressing. Not reassurance — verification. Find the plastic valves that melt and replace them and check whether workers will be able to operate to them in such a situation. Don’t say it couldn’t possibly happen _again_.

  2. Hank Roberts

    Yes there are wackos out at the fringe, in all directions.
    It would help to see the operators publicly acknowledge discovery of issues that — while they haven’t led to a failure yet, for any particular plant — would be failures if ever tested.

    Two related examples from Fukushima: the automatic pressure release valves failed to operate because they were, duh, made of plastic that melted:
    http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/news/nuclearwatch/20151217.html
    and it took this long to find that out.

    And for those who remember, at the time, crews were sent in to try to open the pressure vents with manually operated valves that required hundreds of turns to fully open — the first operator managed to partly open a valve before exceeding his radiation limit and retreating. That let enough hot material into the valve that the next operator couldn’t even get close to it to finish opening it.

    Thus, hydrogen explosions.

    It’s the combination of little failures (plastic that melts) and poor planning (valves that took hundreds of turns to open, with the control wheels located right next to the pipe that got very hot as soon as the valve began to open — instead of a long shaft through a radiation shield, because presumably nobody expected the valves to ever be operated during a meltdown, because nobody … yeah.

    Thing is, how many such are still out there?

    We’re at the early-steam-engine stage knowing how these things can fail, it appears. A really serious attack on failure paths from the people knowledgeable about them would be reassuring, if the problems being found were being fixed and the failure paths rechecked after each change.

  3. Eric_G

    As another layman, who once produced television commercials and still follows media closely, the problem with nuclear power isn’t that most people are for or against it, just that the people who are against it play on emotions, not intellect. On an intellectual level, people can understand a chart that shows how safe nuclear power is. But on an emotional level, we still have images of Chernobyl and Fukushima burned into our brains. It doesn’t matter how many safety layers and containment domes there are, because all they have to do is remind us of some engineering disaster and point out the hubris and folly of man. When they’re called on the carpet for some of their dubious claims, the debate degrades into “Yea, but still…” arguments that have no response.

  4. Toby Hayes

    J…thoughtful, heartfelt and truthful piece. I’m hearing you say, “listen, with humility,” and you not only become part of a conversation, but you also stand a far better chance of being heard. Ain’t that the truth! And thanks for sharing your remarkable journey…out of the frying pan and into the future! I hope there’s more to come…t

  5. James Greenidge

    This new PR awakening among nuclear community members is welcome and long overdue and well and good, but their response to deal with and educate the public still clings to a Tupperware party mentality. If you want to enlighten the public in erasing nuclear’s Darth Vader image with a bite, follow the sweet and simple response BP Gulf had in not just salvaging its image after that disastrous and lethal Gulf rig explosion and massive spill, but so cleaned up their crime and image that folks in the Gulf states today nary recall anything happened. If nuclear community organs and companies and unions chipped in and say, hired BP Gulf’s publicity outfit even for a short while (Puppy Rescue commercials run regular here in NYC — saying they have deeper pockets than the whole nuclear community??), the positive public nuclear outlook payback would be incalculable and far more effective than nuclear enlightenment via the osmosis of teaching scout troops or garden clubs one by one. The proof it works is there — if “we” get it.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  6. Celia snow

    Bravo, Jackson. Leave it to you to come up with a humanitarian approach to the layman…people like me. I appreciate your thoughtful and humble attitude.
    And an extremely well composed and interesting piece

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