Category Archives: PopAtomic

International Fusion Research in my Backyard? Yes, Please!

By Suzanne Hobbs Baker

[Suzy is at it again, this time touring nuclear sites all over North America. Make sure to check out her latest adventures at the Nuclear Literacy Project]

Earlier last year I spent about three months traveling throughout Europe learning about research, outreach, and all kinds of other nuclear related issues in many different countries and cultures. When I returned home in April I started the process of sharing my findings with the American nuclear industry, giving talks about my travels at universities and conferences throughout the country.

But recently, something very interesting has happened—nuclear facilities closer to home have started asking me to come visit, give talks, and write about their facilities. In a way, I guess going abroad has helped me realize that there are abundant, fascinating nuclear projects happening in my own backyard.

For instance, when I was in Germany I learned all about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project—since Germany’s fission reactors are scheduled to eventually be shuttered, the research community has been strengthening its already existing commitment to ITER. It has the tools, facilities, and people—so it makes sense. The thing is, just two hours from my home is another partner in the ITER project—Oak Ridge National Laboratory—that I had always sort of thought of as a weapons site, so I hadn’t actively pursued a tour.

Thankfully, earlier this year I received an invite to see Oak Ridge—and happily accepted. Here’s what I learned: Despite its history of involvement, like much of the national laboratory system, Oak Ridge is no longer engaged in weapons work—in fact, it is currently on the cutting edge of computer and energy research.

When I arrived I was amazed to see that the grounds look like a college campus. As I walked into the welcome center I was pleased to find a gorgeous mural in the entryway and a brand new cafeteria where I met Mark Uhran, the U.S. ITER project communications manager.

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Mark enthusiastically told me about his previous work on the International Space Station, and pointed out that the ITER project is second only to the space station endeavor in terms of large-scale international systems organizations. And while France houses the reactor itself, six countries are involved with engineering and manufacturing for the project—including 100 full-time employees here in the United States.

IMG_2560 268x201Some of the challenges with a project of this scope and scale include working across time zones, language barriers, and differing engineering cultures—but the potential benefits of a successful international fusion program are limitless. As a professional communicator, Mark was drawn to this project, which he sees as “a new step in engineering for humanity. [ITER] is a planetary organization that minimizes risks and cost to individual countries, while increasing access to both basic and advanced technologies globally.”

Barbara Penland and Mark Uhran

Barbara Penland and Mark Uhran

After breakfast with Mark, I took off to see the lab with official tour guide Barbara Penland. In addition to fusion research, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is also home to the fastest supercomputer in the United States and is a leader in neutron science.

Our first stop was the computer lab, which was quite mind-boggling. These computers are massive, room-sized machines, which run complex models to help us better understand things like climate change and nuclear accidents.

Using advanced technologies to support human advancement is practically a pastime at Oak Ridge, as I learned at our next stop: the graphite reactor. During World War II, while scientists were tasked with creating plutonium in the race to create a nuclear bomb, the job took a fateful turn. Scientists at Los Alamos requested a special material called lanthanum, and the Oak Ridge scientists complied, ultimately generating, separating, and transporting the very first large-scale production of a radioisotope. The scientists on the ground quickly recognized the potential of the material for use in medicine—setting the scientific groundwork for major breakthroughs in diagnostic tools and medical treatments we currently rely on every day.

The vast breadth of uses for nuclear materials is exemplified further at the sister neutron beam facilities at Oak Ridge: the High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Spallation Neutron Source. Basically, shooting neutrons (uncharged subatomic particles) at something is a great way to get new information! These facilities have been involved in solving manufacturing challenges in products ranging from candy to cars. Staying true to the history of the lab, major medical and environmental applications have also been achieved. Researchers at Oak Ridge were able use neutron beam mapping to watch the way that a virus infects a healthy cell—key information in creating new, innovative treatments. From nanotechnologies to 3D IMG_2554 268x201printing to advanced batteries, nuclear technologies are supporting scientific advancement in every sector imaginable. And Oak Ridge National Laboratory is truly a microcosm of this fascinating intersection.

Just across the mountain from Oak Ridge is another hub of education and scientific advancement—the University of Tennessee, where I wrapped up my day by giving a presentation to the nuclear physics department. They were kind enough to stream my talk, which I am so grateful for, because I can share it here.

A huge thanks to the folks at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee for your amazing hospitality! I am so glad to be reminded that even right here in my own backyard, there are amazing people and amazing advancements in science happening every single day!


suzy hobbs baker 120x148Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project.  She is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.  Read her recent experiences traveling through Europe and North America at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist – an initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project

Science-Based Science Communications: Surprising New Findings

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

Last week Dan Kahan, Harvard professor and member of the highly important Cultural Cognition Project, released his latest research about how scientific evidence impacts opinions. It was published under dim headlines such as Scientists’ depressing new discovery about the brain and elicited equally defeated sounding tweets and Facebook posts from science communicators all over the globe.

Here are examples of corroborated findings, which offer insight into why many cringed to hear their worst fears confirmed:

  • People who thought Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq believed the misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.
  • People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research continued to think so even after they were shown an article saying that only certain federally funded stem cell work was stopped.
  • People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of President Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year—a rising line, adding about a million jobs. They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down, or stayed about the same. Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.
  • But if, before they were shown the graph, they were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good about themselves, a significant number of them changed their minds about the economy. If you spend a few minutes affirming your self-worth, you’re more likely to say that the number of jobs increased.

Perhaps I am just wired to be an optimist, and perhaps it’s rooted in my own confirmation bias, but the thing that really jumped out at me was the very last finding, that when people reflected on a positive experience first, they became significantly more likely to accurately interpret the data in front of them. For me this is exceptionally good news, despite the broader finding that facts themselves do not easily change closely held opinions.

I’ve noticed that some in the nuclear industry find utilizing this type of social science in outreach efforts to be a forbidden form of voodoo. But I personally see no moral issue with making it a point to be positive and kind toward people in my outreach efforts, knowing that it improves the likelihood that they’ll be more open to hearing factual information about nuclear energy. In my mind it is the ultimate win-win, because I just try to be nice to people in general. It even confirms recent advice I gave after a presentation when someone asked, “What is the most effective outreach technique you’ve discovered?” and I answered, “Being nice.”

In addition, I want to point out that for very many people, viewing art is a very positive experience and that carefully designed public art at nuclear sites can act as a positive primer in learning about the technology. New public art projects would also likely be international news and excellent social media content, which could multiply that positive experience far beyond the site itself. While it may sound whimsical, it is supported by social science and would benefit the global industry.

Highly Radioactive Waste Treatment and Storage Building, Netherlands

Highly Radioactive Waste Storage Building, Netherlands

While huge declarations about better communications are always coming from leaders of the nuclear industry, we need to take the next steps and figure out how exactly we do that. According to the folks at the World Health Organization and the World Nuclear Association, as an industry our communications failures are officially more deadly than our technical failures (scroll down to the September 9 announcement When words cause more harm than radiation)—so I think the issue deserves less lip service and a lot more action.

In close, I want to challenge nuclear supporters to be kind, and to try new approaches—focus on building relationships rather than trying to convince people that nuclear is the solution, or worse, trying to prove them wrong and yourself right (more on that: How to win every argument). It’s time for the nuclear industry to take a science-based approach to communications, which means accepting that the facts alone are not enough.

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suzy hobbs baker 120x148Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project.  She is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.  Read her recent experiences traveling through Europe at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist – an initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project


Energy and Equality

By Suzanne Baker

Last week two leaders in business and politics spoke out about an issue that I care very much about: gender equality.

Gender equality



Warren Buffet eloquently wrote about how, from a business perspective, women are an incredibly valuable yet underutilized resource. Chief executive officer of Foreign Policy David Rothkopf went a step further and quantified the problem. In the publication’s annual “Power Map” he correctly points out that “the most disturbing aspect of the list is that only 10 percent of the people on it are women.” Both men make the point that the lack of representation of women in leadership positions in the United States is bad for business and is intrinsically undemocratic. I highly recommend reading both articles.

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Despite major strides made in the 1960s and 70s in civil rights and women’s liberation, by the 1990s progress in this arena had essentially flat lined, and even moved backwards by some measures. Many people seem to think that this lack of progress is rooted in the fact that the movement succeeded—that women have equal rights and the fight is over. However, the numbers tell a completely different story.

In the United States, women are largely absent from leadership and decision-making positions. Pay inequality is wide spread and well documented. We are decades behind other developed countries in terms of maternity leave and childcare benefits, making it systematically harder for women who choose to have children to achieve and retain high-level jobs. We should not accept the status quo as good enough—because it’s really not very good. The vast majority of Americans self report that we want gender equality in our own lives and careers—but we need to be doing more to create that reality.

Women and nuclear energy

We in the energy industry need to pay special attention to issues of inequality. Access to abundant energy and electricity have proven to be one of the most successful tools in reducing poverty, creating opportunity and increasing quality of life. Energy’s contribution to prosperity and equality are perhaps our most compelling selling point. Nuclear energy has these benefits along with being one of the safest and most environmentally responsible energy sources—all issues we know that women in particular care a great deal about.

However, we also know to whatever extent that the nuclear industry has a “bad reputation,” and the reason lies squarely in our failure to connect with women, who are the primary decision makers about energy use in most American homes. Women oppose nuclear energy at nearly double the rate of men. As a woman, it is hard for me to not see the connections between gender inequality in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) careers, the lack of women in leadership positions, and the gender gap in support for nuclear energy. I also realize that these connections may not be as obvious to others, which is why I feel the need to properly acknowledge and address the ways that gender inequality plays into energy issues, as well as how this issue will likely unfold in the future.

The Century of Women—and a crash course

As a person who follows pop culture and sociology almost as closely as I follow energy issues, there are many indicators that the issue of gender equality is about to get really big. Tom Brokaw is literally calling this the “Century of Women.” Being ahead of the curve on this will pay dividends. I see the inherent opportunities in our changing cultural understanding of gender and I want the nuclear sector to successfully seize these opportunities—so here is a crash course in navigating the language and etiquette of social justice as it applies to gender issues:

  • Feminism means supporting equal rights for both genders. It does not mean women want to take away men’s power. It’s a “growing the pie” situation—we want you to keep your power and influence, and we want to also have power and influence. Feminism is not a dirty word.
  • Do not imply that women’s issues are somehow women’s responsibility to manage. Women’s issues are everyone’s issues and everyone’s responsibility. We are half of the population—not a special interest group.
  • If you are a man talking about gender with a woman—you should be an active listener—do not make assumptions about her experiences. If you are not sure what to say, then just ask questions and listen. It’s okay if you feel a little uncomfortable—it can be hard to hear, some of this stuff.
  • It takes a great deal of courage to speak up about experiencing gender inequality—be compassionate to that fact. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, under any circumstances say, tell or otherwise imply that a woman is not a valid witness to her own life. She is. And she should be treated like she is.
  • If a woman experiences sexist behaviors or remarks and tells you about it—do not make excuses for the person who has offended her. Do not imply that it is okay because said person has been to your house for dinner or is very talented. This is essentially asking a victim to show compassion toward her abuser and is Not. Cool. At. All. Don’t be a victim blamer.
  • Please do not use the phrase “feminist agenda.” It’s 2013. It’s called gender equality. And it is still a very real problem, not some made up conspiracy theory.
  • If you are a man speaking to a woman about gender issues, please do not start going on about reverse discrimination or how having a wife/daughter/mother makes you more knowledgeable about women’s experiences than being an actual women. Refocusing the dialogue on yourself is insensitive and inappropriate, and ultimately part of the problem.
  • If you are a man and you witness sexist behavior or language—speak up. Hold yourself, your friends, and colleagues to high standards on this issue. This change is happening, so go ahead and start participating like Buffet and Rothkopf. Few things are more powerful in creating change than social pressure.

Nuclear and social justice

On an industry level, it would be wise of our leaders to set ambitious goals for hiring and retaining more women. Monitor and correct for gender pay gaps—do it actively and loudly. Support STEM outreach for girls, provide excellent maternity and childcare benefits, and create internal mentorship programs for getting women into leadership positions. Supporting families through these types of benefits improves productivity and strengthens employee commitment to their jobs for men and women alike. We should actively align the goals of the nuclear sector with gender equality. This is the direction the world is going in and if we fail to adapt as an industry, we will also fail to be a leading energy source of the future.

rosie the riveter 120x155Thinking that women just need to toughen up to make it in this industry, or in other high impact careers, isn’t enough—we need to update our understanding of gender issues and get comfortable with the language of social justice. It may be a tough subject, and it may be uncomfortable—but it is an absolutely necessary step and it’s well past time.

A special thanks to sociologist Elizabeth Culatta, whose support and expertise were essential in researching and editing this piece.


suzy hobbs baker 120x148Suzy Baker is currently traveling through Europe and reporting on her experiences at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist – an initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project. Keep up with her nuclear adventures and be sure to check out the new photo stream.

Marriage and Nuclear Waste Management

What marriage can teach us about the nuclear waste problem

By Suzanne Baker

I am married to an engineer. My husband, Ted, is amazingly brilliant and always has big new projects happening, both at work and at home. At work he is figuring out how to improve hybrid vehicle batteries to reduce automobile emissions. At home he’s built our dining table, a shed, a chicken coop, raised garden beds, fences, rock walls, a walking path, a pizza oven, a shooting range, and a fully automated home beer brewing robot. He gardens, he cooks, he digs trenches. I know! I’m a very lucky girl!

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My hubs, a true Renaissance man and expert mess maker

Because I love the outcomes of all of these great projects, a significant portion of my home life is spent chasing him around like a crazy person helping to clean up messes. But it works. We are a great team. I try to set him up for success by making sure the messes of past projects are dealt with effectively before he starts on the next thing. How can you build a porch if you don’t know where your drill bits are? And in turn he always checks in with me about which projects to prioritize and how to best manage our resources. We rarely make a decision about any project without a spreadsheet and a Solid Works drawing first.

Messes and priorities

The nuclear industry is currently a bit like Ted before Suzy. Tons of amazing ideas and all of the necessary skills to create them—but a big problem with managing past messes, and some issues with setting priorities. As a nontechnical person, I don’t tend to make recommendations for specific technologies, but in a recent conversation (which reminded me of any given Tuesday at the Baker house), I laid out my thoughts on how to best manage our commercial nuclear waste. It struck me that these thoughts may be worth sharing.

The conversation started in a Google group after someone posted an article I wrote about CORVA—the nuclear waste storage facility in the Netherlands—as a part of the Nuclear Tourist series. In the post I asserted that, “Nuclear waste storage is perhaps the one thing that nuclear supporters, opponents, nonproliferation experts, politicians and everyday folks all agree on!!” As a proponent of interest bargaining, I see the waste issue as a key platform for building trust and collaboration in the near term, and enabling growth in the long term. I knew when I wrote that statement that I was going to get some backlash from nuclear supporters about how [insert your favorite generation IV reactor here] is going to make a repository unnecessary.

So, here’s the deal. Much like at my house, where a new project doesn’t get started until the last one has been finished—finishing what you’ve started is a huge part of building trust and responsibly managing resources. In addition, even with advanced reactor technologies, there is going to be some waste—from reprocessing, from research reactors, medicine, and industry. Of course, it would not make sense to put valuable usable materials into a geologic repository—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have one for true waste. In fact, if done properly, putting this infrastructure into place will strengthen public trust and show that we are responsible and ready to move forward with advanced technologies.

Moving forward with America’s nuclear waste

So as someone who is quite experienced, not in actual nuclear engineering, but in wrangling an engineer (namely, my hubs) and helping to maximize the benefits of his ideas—here are my thoughts on how to best move forward with America’s nuclear waste (which has been slightly edited/ improved upon for this post):

In my dream scenario, we finish the Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, start reprocessing and build an interim facility somewhere on the east coast using the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommendations of community-based siting. Then get policy in place to open the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), in New Mexico, up to commercial waste, possibly even building an above-ground interim facility there as well to serve the West Coast. Then we only place materials that absolutely are waste into the salt bed at WIPP—medical, industrial and research waste, vitrified waste from reprocessing—keeping potentially useful materials at the interim sites for future advanced reactors.

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The author at the COVRA interim waste storage facility. If they can figure this out in the Netherlands, we can do it here too.

This scenario takes into consideration upholding important international nonproliferation agreements with Russia, and continues the legacy established by the Megatons to Megawatts program of dismantling weapons and using the materials to produce low-carbon domestic energy. Then no one can say that we don’t know what to do with the waste, that we are unreliable partners, that we aren’t taking proper steps to prevent proliferation—the standard criticisms used to derail many a nuclear project.

And in terms of transport—there are over 54,000 shipments of radioactive materials EACH DAY worldwide. Increasing US transport would barely impact the existing number. The French ship spent fuel in from all over Europe and Asia—much further distances than anything in the United State.  Again—this is not a technical problem—but rather a political one. But unless we learn to solve the political problems, we will never get the technical solutions implemented. 

I also think that the federal government—which is responsible for a whole lot of the fear and distrust associated with nuclear waste due to mismanagement of legacy materials and the failure to complete the Yucca Mountain repository—needs to be accountable and prioritize solving the nuclear waste issue as a matter of national security on multiple fronts: domestic energy security, nonproliferation, and climate change. These are pressing issues for every American. Functioning waste management infrastructure is essential to solving multiple extremely important challenges.

Next: La Hague reprocessing facility

Next week I travel to France to tour the La Hague reprocessing facility and will undoubtedly learn a great deal and probably have a lot more information to add to my “dream scenario”—perhaps I will even have a whole new perspective on the situation. But one thing I know for sure from traveling throughout Europe for the past three months is that we have a lot of excellent options in managing nuclear waste, and that this problem is solvable. We just have to focus on the cultural and political challenges, like accountability, perceptions, and trust, as much as we focus on the technical challenges. Striking that balance is critical in achieving positive outcomes (pardon the pun).

Full disclosure: AREVA, one of the companies involved in building the MOX facility in the United States, is one of the sponsors for the Nuclear Tourist project. As a resident of South Carolina, I have been an active proponent of the MOX facility well before their sponsorship, even helping to organize a rally at a public meeting last year. Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of sponsors of the Nuclear Literacy Project or PopAtomic Studios.


suzy hobbs baker 120x148Suzy Baker is currently traveling through Europe and reporting on her experiences at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist—a new initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project. Keep up with her nuclear adventures and be sure to check out the new photo stream. If you have questions for nuclear industry leaders, write them on an index card, then scan or photograph and email to

Growing the Nuclear Pie for Pi Day

by Suzy Baker


As I’m sure readers of the ANS Nuclear Cafe are aware, tomorrow is March 14th, a.k.a. “Pi Day”, in honor of everybody’s favorite mathematical constant!

In honor of Pi Day I want to talk about, well Pie. Not the kind you eat, but rather the kind you grow. Yes, grow. Last month I wrote about the need for better conflict management in the nuclear sector and today I’d like to expand on that theme a bit.

For the past month I’ve been traveling through Europe for the Nuclear Literacy Project’s “Nuclear Tourist” blog. Our super wonderful sponsors (thanks AREVA, American Crane and Fuel Cycle Week!) felt that sending me to different nuclear sites and organizations around the word would provide me an excellent education in nuclear communications and outreach, which I will be able to draw on in future programming for the Nuclear Literacy Project. As it turns out they were spot on – and I’ve found that almost every country has both cautionary tales (like our Yucca Mountain) and success stories – many of which hinge on acting early and often in working with the public to gain their trust and support.

The Energy Pie

So the first type of pie I want to talk about is the following Energy Information Administration chart from 2010 (below). Approximately 9% of total American energy is nuclear energy. It’s really not that large a fraction when you look beyond electricity generation (19.2%) and at total energy use. For reasons of environmental and human health, as well as national and financial security we need to grow our piece of the energy pie. Shoot, as I’m finding here in Germany, for air quality alone we need to grow the amount of nuclear energy worldwide. “But how?” you might ask, “Natural gas is cheap – how can we compete?”

In my travels I’ve realized that we have placed the bar for public support far too low. Basically, support seems to be defined as, “no one is actively protesting or in litigation over the project.” I’m just gonna say it – that is not support! That is trying to stay under the radar, which is part and parcel of why we have big public trust issues to begin with. We can and should set the bar much higher.

Growing the Public Outreach Pie

In order to grow our piece of the overall energy pie, we must “grow the pie” when it comes to public outreach as well. This is a conflict management technique that suggests that when you are trying to make a deal, specifically when it comes to siting facilities within a community, you have to make sure there is enough “pie” to go around. We all know that nuclear facilities bring high paying jobs and other economic benefits to a community, but there is something to be said for creating other visible and novel benefits as well.

For instance, in the Netherlands their waste reprocessing and storage facility hosts five art exhibits per year and they store priceless tapestries in the same room with nuclear waste – as it turns out the waste and art have similar requirements for temperature and humidity control. These programs ensure that the public stays engaged with the facility in a positive way long after construction. Creating a space where the public can visit, and programs that enrich the community, are great ways to “grow the pie.” (Aside: Forgive me, because I am probably going to cite the Netherland’s public art program in every article I write from now until forever – it is just that good.)

The reality is that construction of a nuclear facility and management of nuclear waste are very specialized areas of knowledge, which means they can’t really be achieved with community input beyond allowing the facility to be built. However, we can create facilities and programs at nuclear sites with the specific intent of community involvement and enrichment (there are a number of facilities in the US which already do this quite well – I’m looking at you, McGuire Nuclear Station Symphony Nights).

Growing the Nuclear Pie

The thing about pie is that it is dessert, it is special and extra and delicious. So these programs should also be novel and exciting, yet big enough to include many different types of people – especially those who may otherwise lack a reason to be interested in or supportive of a nuclear facility. In fact, these programs should be created with abundant input from the community from Day One. Perhaps it’s an art gallery, or a theater, or a baseball field – whatever the community wants. It’s the process of asking, listening, and creating something together that strengthens trust.

This is a great way to build relationships, gain support and offer something really cool and special to the communities that house nuclear facilities. Let’s be honest, when you are building a multibillion-dollar facility, a quarter of a million dollars or so to “grow the pie” and raise the bar on community involvement is a very good investment.

The nuclear industry is a good industry. We make technologies that provide clean energy, lifesaving medicine, and reduce weapons stockpiles – making the world a safer place. Our reputation is not consistent with the reality of what we do.

We can and should transform the reputation of the nuclear industry into one of consistent and effective community engagement. We can learn from Switzerland, Finland, France and the Netherlands, and have communities fighting for waste repositories and new nuclear builds. We can improve public outreach at existing sites, and improve our reputation and public trust in the process – ultimately allowing us to increase our contribution to the energy mix. We just need to grow the pie!


Suzy Baker is currently traveling through Europe and reporting on her experiences at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist—a new initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project. Keep up with her nuclear adventures and be sure to check out the new photo stream. If you have questions for nuclear industry leaders, write them on an index card, then scan or photograph and email to

Why problem-solving is more than finding technical solutions

or: When nuclear supporters are their own worst enemies

by Suzy Baker

There is an ever-growing online pronuclear movement brewing, which I see as a very promising and important part of moving nuclear technologies forward. I am, however, also seeing some trends within the online pronuclear community that have the potential to create new challenges.


I’ve only ever had to ban one person from the PopAtomic Studios facebook page. I am keeping a close eye on another person and have had to mark several offensive remarks as spam—in a post about the importance of the energy industry staying engaged in nonproliferation efforts.

The surprising thing is that the woman I had to ban and the gentleman who made the comment above both are pronuclear advocates. Interestingly, I have never had to ban an antinuclear activist from the page. In my opinion, the man’s comment above is insensitive, but I let it stand. (The remark that he responded with had to be removed, however.)

Silver bullets

As movements form, there are always debates about the best way to move forward. Recently I’ve read quite a bit about how the nuclear issue divides leaders in the environmental movement, and the nuclear community will surely face similar struggles over time. One of the big issues that I see emerging that stands to divide the pronuclear movement is the potential for narrow focus on a single technology vs. broad support and cooperation in moving nuclear forward as a whole.

People who support nuclear tend to be technically-minded and can even be quite, um, unemotional. These are valuable qualities if you must stay completely calm in an emergency situation or remain as unbiased as possible in your research. However, when trying to connect with everyday people and get them engaged in the process of learning about energy issues, being blunt and unemotional can come across the wrong way. It can even do more harm than good in terms of advancing your message.

This effect can be amplified when nuclear supporters get focused on a single technology as a ‘silver-bullet’, and start to blame culprits like the government, the industry, the environmentalist movement, the public for not knowing enough about energy… the list goes on.

The reality is that moving nuclear technologies forward requires huge amounts of collaboration and cooperation. When things don’t work out, it is very often due to communications breakdown between all of the parties involved. The more powerful parties have a bad habit of excluding less powerful parties, which has frequently resulted in very poor outcomes. Inclusivity is the word.

We’re all in this together

My suggestion to the nuclear industry is the same one I gave to ‘snarky internet man’ who seems to think the Integral Fast Reactor is going to sprout the ability to negotiate with policy makers, the public, and other stake holders and save the world all on its own.

In the end, the nuclear industry is not an industry at all. It is just individuals positioned within different organizations trying to work together to safely make clean energy. We are unique in that cooperation is central to our success in a way that is quite different from other energy sources. We should treat each other with kindness and respect, even if we favor different technologies.


Suzy Baker is currently traveling through Europe and reporting on her experiences at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist—a new initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project. Keep up with her nuclear adventures and be sure to check out the new photo stream. If you have questions for nuclear industry leaders, write them on an index card, then scan or photograph and email to

Nuclear Literacy Project launches “Diary of a Nuclear Tourist”

Artist Suzy Hobbs Baker to chronicle
European nuclear facilities tour

Suzy Hobbs Baker of the Nuclear Literacy Project has announced a European tour of nuclear sites to occur in February and March 2013. “This international tour will offer a first-hand view of nuclear facilities and the opportunity to demystify nuclear energy technologies,” Baker explained. “I will be reporting on my experiences via social media, including a new blog called Diary of a Nuclear Tourist.”

Baker serves as executive director for PopAtomic Studios, an independent non-profit organization that uses the power of visual and liberal arts to enrich the public discussion on atomic energy. In 2012, PopAtomic Studios established the Nuclear Literacy Project to help the public learn more about nuclear technologies and how they affect our daily lives. Baker holds a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Appalachian State.

Diary of a Nuclear Tourist will cover Baker’s visits to Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Austria, and the European Nuclear Society’s Conference for Nuclear Communicators in Switzerland. Additional site visits are under development. Baker will be speaking about arts-integrated educational outreach at several sites.

“In Diary of a Nuclear Tourist, I will explore cross-cultural issues with an aim toward understanding how and why nuclear technologies have flourished in some cultures, while being dismissed by others,” Baker explained. “The goal of the Diary is to expand the dialogue on energy issues as part of the overall international shift toward science-based environmentalism.”

Diary of a Nuclear Tourist has been made possible by the support of AREVA, Fuel Cycle Week, and American Crane. The Nuclear Literacy Project expresses sincere gratitude to these forward-thinking companies and their commitment to innovative solutions to the technical and communications challenges facing the nuclear industry.

Suzy Hobbs Baker
(770) 331-1672


Timing and framing: How to address nuclear and climate change

by Suzy Hobbs Baker

Technology is an amazing thing. As Hurricane Sandy approached the Northeast last month, I watched and read as friends in the area tweeted pictures and thoughts on the situation. I didn’t have to worry if they were okay, as many were able to post hourly status updates with items such as: “Still okay, still have power. Just wish we had more beer and chocolate.”

In stark contrast to the several-day silence in the wake of Katrina in 2005, New Yorkers were ready with carefully-charged mobile devices that allowed them to self-report their entire experience of Sandy—even long after the power was out. In 2005, the iPhone and Twitter did not yet exist. Seven years later, these tools were essential in New York City’s emergency response.

New York’s Governor Cuomo

In the wake of the storm I also bore witness to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s real-time “climate awakening” on twitter. Yes, I know it sounds strange, but he shared his realization that climate change is here now, 140 characters at a time over the Internet. He also made the rounds with the media, refusing to entertain a political debate about the causes of climate change, and instead focused on the immediate challenge of managing increased coastal flooding of his state in recent years. Having just witnessed the first presidential debate in my lifetime that did not focus on climate change as a central issue—I was relieved that a politician was willing to talk climate with both frankness and urgency.

Unfortunately, Cuomo also used this as an opportunity to talk about shutting down Indian Point Nuclear Station—one of the structures and sources of electricity that weathered the storm without damage. He sees the changing climate as a threat to one of New York’s primary energy suppliers, and thinks it should be shuttered.

Timing and framing

Two things about this situation struck me as important: timing and framing.

The framework that Cuomo has laid out is extremely important in that it serves to confirm what some people already believe should happen, at a time when they expect dramatic action. That confluence of events translates into a real risk of shutting down nuclear plants specifically in response to climate change, now and in the future. If the nuclear industry stays mum on climate change, this could become a dominant narrative.

The iron is hot, however, for providing another way of framing the situation that offers a better solution.

Repositioning and reframing

In my opinion, the nuclear industry has a critical opportunity at this point in history to position itself as the hero in this story. First of all, nuclear is one of the largest sources of carbon-free electricity. Anyone who is serious about addressing climate change needs to be fully aware of the many, many historical and current examples of increased greenhouse gas emissions as an unavoidable outcome of shutting nuclear plants. In addition to increased emissions, Germany and Japan are also dealing with skyrocketing energy prices and grid destabilization that is negatively impacting manufacturing.

The nuclear industry is also very experienced and knowledgeable in terms of hardening infrastructure and emergency preparedness. So, as Cuomo fights for better infrastructure and planning in the face of climate change, he has mistaken a potential ally—the nuclear industry—as a foe. The nuclear industry can help reduce impacts of climate change by building out new nuclear technologies, and also by providing an advanced understanding of adapting and preparing for extreme weather.

As small modular reactors and Generation IV designs near commercialization, we need to update the way we frame and communicate about the role of nuclear energy in society. In the 1950s, radiation gave comic heroes their superpowers Now, nuclear is often aligned with the villains in movies and comics. Luckily, we live in a time when information abounds and perspectives and cultural constructs change rapidly, and everyday people have more power than ever to influence that dialogue.

Technology and the subsequent ways that we communicate are constantly evolving.  Just a few short years ago there was no such thing as Twitter, and social media was just starting to gain traction as a serious platform for news and information. Now, social media is central to how we share information and communicate—and even to how we conduct emergency response.

Nuclear is a relatively new technology when compared to other energy sources (younger even than solar and wind), and we are still adapting and processing our feelings about this technology as a culture. The dominant narrative at this time is that people who are concerned about climate change should reject nuclear energy—but that simply does not have to be the case. Right now is the perfect time to provide a new framework for supporting nuclear as a solution to climate change.

I highly recommend starting with Governor Cuomo. If you’d like to tweet your thoughts to him, his Twitter handle is @NYGovCuomo—let him know that the nuclear industry is the hero in this story—not the villain.

Photos courtesy of Greg Molyneux


Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.



Art, Infrastructure, and Inspiration

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

I recently had the good fortune to visit Vogtle nuclear power plant, in Georgia, to see the ongoing construction of Units 3 and 4. The only comparable experience I’ve had was the first time I saw the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, Mexico. It made me think long and hard about how much planning, cooperation, and hard work we humans are capable of doing. You can’t build a pyramid, or a cooling tower for that matter, without a lot of help.

The Pyramid of the Moon

This experience also got me thinking about the role of collaboration and cooperation in cultivating public interest and innovation. There are plenty of past examples, from Michelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel to the more contemporary Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna. Architecture and infrastructure have a long history of being created with the input of artists to ensure a finished product that is both functional and beautiful.

Kunst Haus Wien

These spaces ultimately become places of inspiration for generations to come.

When I visited the Kunst Haus Wien as a child, I left with the understanding not that I was going to become an artist, but that I already was an artist. On some level I think that we are all artists (and scientists for that matter, but that’s a whole other post). Humans love things to be beautiful, interesting, and symmetrical. We see beauty in each other, in the clouds and in outer space. Aesthetics are an important part of the human experience, and as a species we have a long history of actively making the spaces we inhabit more beautiful.

The act of making a space beautiful is a way to communicate that it is somehow important. Aqueducts and bridges are good examples of critical infrastructure that historically have also been considered works of art. When I looked up at the giant containment vessel heads at Vogtle, however, it struck me that the need for humans to feel connected to this technology is not just about beauty, it’s also about prosperity.

We live in an age in which we are simultaneously more connected, and less connected, than any other time in history. I don’t think the “more connected” part takes much explanation; the Internet and subsequent technologies allow (perhaps even pressure) us to be constantly in contact with our “networks.”

It seems, however, that in our technologically-charged lives it’s easier than ever to assume that food comes from the grocery store and that electricity comes from a socket. As the world’s population booms and our career paths become increasingly specialized, it is easy to never have to think about where things come from.

The ease of use of our modern tools often means that the only time we think about where something really comes from is when we momentarily lose access to it (or the price sky rockets). I think this is why many green groups idealize “simpler times”, when people were (theoretically) more connected to and responsible for their consumption. They assume that people are only able to appreciate what they have when it’s very limited. I tend to disagree with the hypothesis that scarcity brings out the best in people—in fact, I think that it does quite the opposite.

I am all for being more responsible for our personal consumption, but I reject that the path to forging that connection is through having less. Robert Hargraves’ well-known presentation “Aim High” explains why having access to abundant electricity is one of the most important factors in living a prosperous, healthy life.

It is tempting to take a stance similar to green groups and think, “people will finally appreciate nuclear when natural gas prices rise,” but instead of leaning on fear of scarcity I think I will aim for prosperity and say that, “I’d really like to inspire people to appreciate what nuclear energy does for us now, every day.”

Art is my favorite way to inspire, but I would love to hear about other ways that readers are inspiring their communities. I recently learned about some really wonderful community outreach organized by the Savannah River ANS section—be sure to check out the “Interactive Nucleus Exhibit” at the above link.

Please let me know in the comments what inspired you to become a nuclear professional, and/or what you are doing to inspire others.


Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

The future of nuclear at #MOXChat

By Laura Scheele

On September 11, the National Nuclear Security Administration (U.S. Department of Energy) hosted a public meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn., concerning its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the disposition of surplus weapons-grade plutonium as mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in power reactors. You may have seen the ANS Call to Action for the hearing and perhaps read the ANS position statement or background information.

L to R: Stephanie Long, Nick Luciano, Alyx Wszolek, and Suzy Hobbs Baker.

This is the story about how ANS members fulfilled the mission set forth in the position statement:  to inform the public and media about the nonproliferation benefits of the MOX fuel program. It’s also the story of how ANS student members answered the Call to Action and contributed to the success of this event for the Society.

The Chattanooga ANS Local Section and the Chattanooga State Community College ANS Student Section both committed to supporting the September 11 hearing as a priority outreach project. ANS Public Information Committee Chair Dave Pointer e-mailed nearly 700 ANS national and student members within a 5-state radius and asked them to come to the hearing to represent the Society, to explain why MOX fuel use makes sense, and to make a stand for nuclear in an area where nuclear opponents had monopolized the public discussion about nuclear.

ANS members showed up.

ANS student members from University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UT-K): (l to r) Hailey Green, Remy Devoe, Tyler Rowe, Seth Langford, John Wilson, and Brent Fiddler. (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

LOTS of ANS members showed up.

Chattanooga State Community College ANS students wear their blue-and-orange shirts in a standing-room-only public hearing.

MOST of the ANS members who showed up were students.

The faculty and student delegation from University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UT-K). (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

ANS members who couldn’t show up replied to the e-mail to say they couldn’t come, but wanted to pass along their encouragement and their belief that this was the right thing to do.

We can take pride in how well the Society was represented in Chattanooga.

The students took pride in representing the Society and the profession—and did so very well.

Chattanooga was a communications victory for ANS across the board: a great turnout for nuclear professionals and students and a great event for explaining the benefits of MOX fuel technologies.

Defying expectations

The presence of so many young people supporting the ANS position on MOX fuel made a definite impression upon attendees. The most common question I was asked by non-ANS participants was, “How many Chattanooga State students are here today?” One gentleman who opposed MOX fuel prefaced his remarks by saying that he once taught at Chattanooga State and was thrilled to see so many students attending the hearing.

Chattanooga ANS Local Section Chair Samuel Snyder wrote following the hearing:

Samuel Snyder, Chattanooga ANS Local Section Chair

Samuel Snyder comments during the hearing.

One thing that struck me last night was the average age of those who attended the meeting in support of the nuclear science and technology industry. When you take last night’s “pro-nuclear” group as a whole, I would say that the average age was in the 20s.

A good number of students were willing to get up in front of the group and provide public comments in favor of the ANS-backed proposal for the disposition of surplus plutonium. The comments were very civil from the “pro” side, and mainly civil from the “anti” side, though my biased opinion is that the “pro” side did a much better job of presenting facts and providing sound arguments for their position.

It’s good to have friends…

This was the first public hearing experience for most of the participants. Recently, Chattanooga has seen a lot of anti-nuclear activity, including opponents who stage protests dressed as zombies.

In asking ANS members to attend this hearing, we were asking nuclear professionals to venture outside of their comfort zone in terms of making public comments on an issue that might not really be their area of expertise—and oh, by the way, you might also need to wade through a crowd of zombies who will be heckling you. No worries!

Three ANS students wisely team up and keep their backs to the wall to prevent a zombie sneak attack. (L to R: Alyx Wszolek, Steven Stribling, and Stephanie Long ) (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

That’s what friends (and professional membership societies) are for—to watch your back when you’re surrounded by zombies. Being the only science-informed person in the room can sometimes be uncomfortable and even intimidating. There is strength in numbers, and so coming together on a vitally important issue strengthens our association by strengthening our professional and personal bonds.

…Especially social media friends

Suzy Hobbs Baker of the Nuclear Literacy Project drove from South Carolina to support the hearing. (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

The social media promotion of this event contributed to its success. The ANS Social Media Group is an amazing collection of people with wildly different perspectives and backgrounds who share one thing: the conviction that the nuclear community needs to improve how we communicate if nuclear energy’s promise is to be realized.


Alex Woods, Chattanooga State

Alex Woods, Chattanooga State Student Section president, led off the comments.

Individually and collectively, they have shed much blood, sweat, and tears in their efforts—and they are willing to lend a hand so that your blood, sweat, and tears might be spared.

#MOXChat was the twitter hashtag for the Chattanooga hearing. The live-tweeting provided a minute-by-minute rundown of the comments and observations by nuclear professionals across the country who followed this on twitter. Unfortunately, the tweets have expired on Twitter.

A roundup of social media coverage of #MOXChat is at the end of this article. Many thanks to everyone who supported this event via social media. Your observations and advice were invaluable, and many of the students brought printouts of your entries to the hearing as prep material.

Steven Skutnik

Steven Skutnik

A special tip of the ANS Nuclear Cafe cap to Steve Skutnik, who did it all at this hearing: made public comments, live-tweeted the hearing, live-blogged the hearing here at the ANS Nuclear Cafe, blogged pre- and post-hearing at his Neutron Economy blog, and helped prep students in his capacity as UT-K assistant professor. Thanks, Steve!


The power of  showing up

Howard Shaffer, Meredith Angwin and Eric Loewen

Howard Shaffer and Meredith Angwin receive presidential citations from ANS Past President Eric Loewen.

Meredith Angwin and Howard Shaffer have spearheaded a nuclear advocacy effort in Vermont that has changed the public debate over nuclear energy. They often talk about the value of  ‘Showing Up’ to support nuclear. By showing up, Meredith and Howard have built a pro-nuclear grassroots movement in a place where people sometimes seem to think nuclear is a four-letter word.

Pro-Nuclear Rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Go Team Nuclear!

We asked ANS members to come to the hearing and comment on behalf of ANS—but we also asked those who could not comment to show up and support their friends and colleagues. They did—and they applauded every comment. Some who couldn’t stay for the hearing showed up to meet with the students and answer questions that they had about MOX fuel and reactor operations.

ANS members mingle before the public hearing begins.

Everyone there contributed to the success of this event—just by showing up.

Having fun is contagious

The disposition of excess weapons-grade plutonium is a serious issue. The ANS student members took seriously the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the ANS position and the need to counter some of the more implausible assertions by the nuclear opponents who attended.

Chris Perfetti preparing his public comments.

Taking the responsibility seriously, however, doesn’t mean being humorless. Sometimes we err too much on the side of serious and need to remember that positive experiences build upon themselves: having fun at an event makes it more likely that you’ll do something similar in the future.

Besides, we’re hilarious! Why try to fight it?

Sometimes a little #MOXSnark needs to be vented due to the wild claims made by nuclear opponents.

And sometimes brilliant ideas—like ANS Man, or a YouTube show featuring Sarcastic Science Guy in a Turquoise Shirt, or setting future public comments to cheering cadences—are born of these shared experiences.

All I will say is this:  My understanding of  plutonium dispersion factors has been forever transformed. Or, as Steve Skutnik live-tweeted, #youprobablyhadtobethere.

You know, in Chattanooga.


*in a technically credible, knowledgable, and thoroughly polite and eloquent manner, while adhering to the highest standards of safety (no zombies were harmed in the writing of this post).

L to R: Remy Devoe, John Wilson, Rob Milburn, and UT-K Student Section President Ryan Sweet

Social media roundup

Rod Adams, Atomic Insights:
Plutonium Power for the People

Meredith Angwin, Yes Vermont Yankee:
MOX & Hearings in Chattanooga
Meeting Success Story in Chattanooga
Show Up for Nuclear in Chattanooga

Steve Skutnik, Neutron Economy:
Wading into the Zombie Nuclear Horde
Mixing it up over MOX – a wrapup from Chattanooga

Dan Yurman, Idaho Samizdat:
Mix it Up about MOX in Chattanooga
Calling Out Red Herrings about MOX Fuel for TVA

US Areva:
Can you Talk MOX? 10 Things You Need to Know about MOX Nuclear Fuel

Chattanooga State students stand near a MOX fuel assembly mock-up at the open house. (L to R: Geneva Parker, Mark Hunter, and Brian Satterfield) (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information

ANS was able to support this important effort thanks to funding provided through its Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information.


 Laura Scheele is the Communications and Public Policy Manager for the American Nuclear Society’s Communications and Outreach Department.

Call to Action: Public hearing on MOX fuel tonight in Chattanooga


American Nuclear Society members in the Tennessee Valley region


Public hearing on the use of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel technologies for surplus plutonium disposition—Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement


Today, Tuesday, September 11
5:30pm–8:00pm Eastern Time (click HERE for schedule—scroll down)


Chattanooga Convention Center
1150 Carter Street
Chattanooga, Tenn. 37402


The existence of surplus weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium constitutes a clear and present danger to national and international security.
National Academy of Sciences, 1994

The American Nuclear Society endorses the rapid application of mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel technology to accomplish the timely disposition of surplus weapons-grade plutonium (ANS position statement).

Industry and professional organizations should work to inform the public and media about the nonproliferation benefits of the MOX fuel program and the safe and successful track record of manufacturing and using MOX fuel.

Come join many of your fellow nuclear professionals and ANS members in the nuclear science community in the Tennessee Valley area to help provide some credible scientific and technical perspective on this important issue, as well as play an essential role in providing factual, credible information in this public setting to increase public awareness.

The hearing will be live tweeted at #moxchat.

Stay tuned to the ANS Nuclear Cafe for updates on the hearing later today.


Teacher Workshop at IYNC/NA-YGN Public Information Day 2012

By Suzanne Hobbs Baker

This past week, I had the privilege of participating in the Nuclear Technology Workshop for Teachers in Charlotte, N.C. The all-day event was part of the International Youth Nuclear Congress (IYNC)/North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN) Public Information Day, and it had a great turnout—about 50 area science teachers were in attendance.

The workshop was an excellent experience in collaboration, and included NA-YGN members from all over the country.

Here, Jana Thames (on the right in purple) of Southern Company explains radioactive half-life using M&M’s! Yum.

The Nuclear Energy Institute’s Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides (on the far left) works with several brave teachers to act out a fission reaction using a clapping routine. Talk about making learning fun!

The event wrapped up with an incredibly informative careers panel, which highlighted the vast opportunities in the nuclear industry, ranging from technical jobs like welding and construction, to human resources, communications, engineering, management, and research & development. The teachers were especially surprised to learn that as much as 40 percent of the nuclear industry workforce is expected to retire within the next five years, which means more and more job opportunities for their students as they graduate.

Jana Thames, Kristine Madden, and Adam Bingham share information about the variety of jobs available in the nuclear industry. I am on the far right next to the fuel rods (!), as panel moderator. Additional panel members not pictured: Adam LeRoy, Steve Hensel, Morgan Davis, and Tim Rogers.

The Teacher’s Workshop was a great success, and I wanted to share with you the slides and information used. Here is a link to the “Nuclear 101″ slides that were used, as well as additional public outreach materials courtesy of NA-YGN.

A big thanks to all who volunteered and attended the workshop! And lastly, to answer the age-old question, “Do ‘nukes’ know how to dance?”—Yes! Yes, they do! In fact, they are quite fabulous on the dance floor!

The American Nuclear Society also conducts teacher workshops in nuclear science and technology throughout the year and throughout the United States. See this link for an ANS Nuclear Cafe article and video that previewed a recent teacher workshop in Chicago, Ill., for more information.  See the upcoming teacher workshop schedule for dates and locations (soon to include Saturday, November 10, in San Diego, Calif., in conjunction with the ANS Winter Meeting).


Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Climate Change and Nuclear Energy: We Need to Talk

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

During my undergraduate studies in art school, I created a body of artwork about micro-organisms. After taking my two required biology courses, I was completely obsessed with cyano-bacteria and diatoms (they are still a central theme in my home décor). Learning that every cell in my body has mitochondrial RNA identical to these ancient life forms floored me, and made me feel completely connected to the planet and all of the other life on it in a very concrete way.

These phytoplankton are not only our actual ancestors — they absorb CO2 and pump out oxygen, which created a unique environment that gave rise to the variety of oxygen-loving species that exist on our planet today (including humans). I wanted to glorify these little powerhouses and to encourage others to think about how these simple, tiny life forms could create a transformation on a global scale. It’s really quite inspiring.


Ocean Acidification

While I was making artistic monuments to single celled organisms in the ceramics studio, new research was emerging about ocean acidification affecting these beautiful and integral pieces of our ecosystem. As the ocean absorbs excess carbon from humans burning fossil fuels, the pH of the ocean is rapidly changing. This means that our ancient oxygen-making pals cannot properly do their job. As their ocean home becomes inhospitable, they are dying off in droves. This not only impacts the ocean’s ability to naturally sequester man made carbon emissions; it also negatively impacts the entire food chain, since they are the primary food source for other multi-cellular ocean creatures, some of which we enjoy eating.

Oh, and did I mention that these little phytoplankton are also responsible for creating the ozone layer that protects all life on the planet from cosmic radiation, and they churn out 70-80% of the oxygen we breathe? These creatures are much more than just a pretty floating form.

Ocean acidification is the issue that brought me to supporting nuclear energy. Ocean acidification is an often-overlooked aspect of climate change that is potentially more threatening than the heat, the super storms, the fires, the drought, the crop losses, and all of the other trends that we are seeing now, which climate scientists have been warning us about for decades.

Climate Change and Nuclear Energy: Like Oil and Water?

It didn’t take long for me to find out that in the nuclear industry, climate change is not something we all agree on. Discussing climate change as a concern is often polarizing, and brings up intrinsic conflicts of interest in the larger energy sector (the companies who design/build/run the nuclear plants also happen to design/build/run the fossil fuel plants). I’ve been advised by people who deeply care about me, and the success of my organization, not to bring up climate at all, and to be extremely careful not to base my support of nuclear on climate issues. I’ve also been specifically advised not to make the argument that nuclear energy is the only solution to climate change.

When you are the new kid, it is usually best not to make waves if you can help it. So, for the most part, I have heeded that advice and held my tongue, despite myself.

However, as I watch the news (and my wilting vegetable garden) and see the magnitude of human suffering that is directly related to increasingly severe weather events, I cannot keep silent. Climate change is why I am here supporting nuclear energy, so what am I doing not talking about it?

The CEO of Exxon Mobile recently made clear that despite his company’s acknowledgement of the irrefutable evidence of climate change, and the huge ecological and human cost, he has no intentions of slowing our fossil fuel consumption. In fact, he goes as far to say that getting fossil fuels to developing nations will save millions of lives. While I agree that we need stronger, better energy infrastructure for our world’s poorest nations, I wholly disagree that fossils are the right fit for the job.

Fossil fuel usage could be cast as a human rights issue only to the extent that access to reliable and affordable electricity determines what one’s standard of living is. At the same time, fossil fuel usage is the single largest threat to our planet and every species on it. Disregarding the impacts that fossil fuel use poses, merely to protect and increase financial profits, is unethical, and cloaking fossil fuel use as a human rights issue is immoral.

Although we are all entitled to our own opinions and beliefs, the idea that climate change and ocean acidification are even up for debate is not reasonable. Just think: The CEO of the largest fossil fuel company in America freely speaks out about climate change, while nuclear energy advocates are pressured to stay silent on the subject.

Silence is No Longer an Option

I am someone who avoids conflict, who seeks consensus in my personal and professional lives, and so I have followed the advice of well-meaning mentors and stayed silent in hopes of preserving a false peace within my pro-nuclear circles, including my family and friends. But my keeping silent is now over— starting here and starting now—because this is too big and too important to stay silent. I am not alone in believing this, and the nuclear industry does itself no favors by tacitly excluding the growing movement of people who are passionate about the need to use nuclear energy to address climate change.

And nuclear power is the only realistic solution. It would be great if there were also other viable solutions that could be easily and quickly embraced; however, the numbers just don’t work out. Renewables and conservation may have done more good if we had utilized them on a large scale 40 years ago, when we were warned that our ecosystem was showing signs of damage from fossils fuels…but at this point it’s really too late for them. And burning more fossil fuels right now, when we have the technologies and know-how to create a carbon-free energy economy, would be the height of foolishness.

In the meantime, there is real human suffering, and we here in the developed world are directly causing it. Our poorest brothers and sisters cannot escape the heat. They cannot import food when their crops fail. They cannot buy bottled water when there is a drought. They cannot “engineer a solution” any more than my childhood friends the phytoplankton can.

Energy Choices as an Ethical Obligation

We have an ethical obligation to stop killing people with our energy consumption. That statement may sound oversimplified, but let’s be honest—we know that fossil fuels kill approximately 1.3 million people each year through respiratory diseases and cancers, and the death toll for climate change related events rises every day. Yet, we do nothing but dither about climate change politics. Where is the outrage?

The fossil fuel industry has been successful at presenting a united front and maintaining consistent strategic communications. In contrast, the safety record and clean energy contributions of nuclear are always overshadowed by politics favoring fossil fuel use. If anything, nuclear advocates should be particularly sensitive that the very same politics are happening with climate science.

We should be championing nuclear energy as a science-based solution, instead of enforcing a meek code of silence. People from outside the nuclear industry, like Gwyneth Cravens, Barry Brooks and Tom Blees, have pointed out these relationships, yet the nuclear industry has yet to internalize and accept these realities.

How can we expect people to listen to science and not politics when it comes to nuclear energy, but not climate change?

Disagreeing with a policy does not change the facts. You can disagree with policy to limit carbon emissions, but that doesn’t change the fact that our fossil fuel consumption is changing the PH of our oceans. Many people disagree with the use of nuclear energy, but that doesn’t change the fact that nuclear is our largest source of carbon free electricity and the safest source of electricity per kilowatt hour.

Nuclear Must Lead by Example

If we want the public to overcome the cognitive dissonance between science and policy when it comes to nuclear energy, we need to lead by example and overcome our own cognitive dissonance when it comes to climate change — even if it means risking our own interests as members of the larger energy industry. We are not going to run out of fossil fuels any time soon, so the decision to move to carbon-free energy—to move to nuclear energy—must be made willingly, and based on ethical principles, not the limits of our natural resources.

As green groups wait endlessly for renewable technologies to have some kind of breakthrough, and nuclear supporters stay mum on climate change, we continue using fossil fuels. Our collective inaction is allowing the destruction of our planet’s ecosystem, the dying of our oceans, and the suffering of the poorest members of our own species. The climate conversation has become so convoluted by politics and greed that many smart, compassionate people have “thrown in the towel.” We should be more concerned than ever at our lack of a comprehensive global response.

I strongly believe that there’s still time to reclaim the dialogue about climate change based on ocean acidification evidence, and to use nuclear technologies to improve the long-term outcome for our planet and our species. The first step is acknowledging the complicated and unique role of the nuclear industry in this conflict, and the conflicts of interest that are impeding open communication. The second step is to realize that the climate change community is a potential ally, and that openly addressing the subject of climate change in our communications is in the best interest of the nuclear community. The third step is choosing to do the right thing, not just the polite thing, and reclaim our legitimate role in the energy community as the “top dog” of carbon-free electricity, instead of quietly watching natural gas become “the new coal.”

Climate change is not going away—it is getting worse—and each one of us in the nuclear community has an ethical obligation to speak up and to do something about it. I am speaking up for the oceans, for the cyano-bacteria and diatoms and our shared mitochondrial RNA that still fills me with wonder at the beauty of this world. Please join me if you can, to speak up for what you love—and if you cannot, please understand that we all remain nuclear advocates, and that the nuclear community is much stronger with the no-longer-silent climate change harbingers in it.

Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama walk into a bar…

By Suzanne Hobbs Baker

Okay… Well, the Dalai Lama probably isn’t much of a drinker.

Let’s try again: “Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama walk into a book store, introduce themselves, and sit down. What do they talk about?”

Nuclear energy, of course! Okay, maybe it’s not that obvious, but I’m willing to bet that these two of the world’s greatest humanitarians would connect on this rather surprising topic…

Actually, let me start one more time. What happens when someone who you respect very much has a different perspective than your own? How do you respond to their concerns, even if you think they are standing on the wrong side of the aisle on an issue that is important to you both?

This is the situation I found myself in recently, which led me to start daydreaming about Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama’s imaginary coffee date.

A friend of mine and I recently found ourselves on opposite sides of the aisle at a Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting about a proposed nuclear plant in South Carolina. The prospective Lee Nuclear Station would be situated right between us, both geographically and metaphorically. For privacy’s sake, let’s call this friend Maxine.

When we saw each other in the lobby of this meeting, big hugs were in order, since I had not seen Maxine since I moved away from Asheville, N.C., about a year ago. I felt self-conscious because we both already knew that we disagreed on this particular issue, but we put that aside and caught up on everything non-nuclear for a few minutes.

Once the meeting got started, I fell into my normal routine of writing snarky notes and passing them to my friends who were also there in support of the plant. Notes like: “Can you believe that old hippie actually conducted a chant during his speaking time? All of the anti’s mindlessly repeated his nonsense in unison! Non-conformists, my %^&!” And: “Does the NRC moderator own a watch? Apparently not, considering that this woman has been talking for 15 minutes now about some plant that was built in another state in the 1970s. . . What is the purpose of this meeting again?”

My defense mechanism to deal with dozens of people who very publicly (and on the record) are calling my chosen profession evil, inhumane, and irresponsible is to make fun of them, very quietly, in the back of the room. The truth is, these accusations are heartbreaking and insulting and flat-out wrong, and humor is the best tool I’ve found for coping. Without it, I would probably be crying in the bathroom.

When my friend Maxine got up to speak her piece, however, I stopped joking and listened. Not only was she respectful of the process, the amount of time allotted to her, and the people involved, she made a really good point that left me scratching my head for a moment. She realized that many of the people in the room were very intelligent, well-educated scientists and she sincerely asked them to find a better way. Essentially, she challenged them to use their intelligence and resources to solve the energy crisis and respond to climate change, and to do it without nuclear power.

I thought to myself, what a touching and reasonable request. I knew I always adored Maxine for a reason. She is such a lovely person and she makes such a compelling case.

But then I remembered that not only have the best and brightest scientists been trying for decades to do exactly what she has asked, but so have our greatest business people and humanitarians. In fact, many top nuclear scientists at places like the Idaho National Laboratory and Areva have literally split their time between nuclear and renewable research. These folks really want to solve these problems, and they are already doing everything they can to advance our energy portfolio and quality of life. The people whom I have met in the nuclear industry are some of the smartest, most inspired humanitarians I have ever encountered. They know that their work impacts people’s lives, prosperity, and health. That’s why they do it—to make all of our lives better.

The reality is that the greatest thinkers from many different fields already agree that nuclear energy is the solution that Maxine is looking for. When Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, James Lovelock, and Patrick Moore all agree on something, it’s got to be a very good option. In fact, I think that nuclear is our best option. It is not perfect, but if we want to solve the energy crisis, protect the environment,  and advance medicine all while supporting the planet’s poorest nations as they gain access to clean water, education, and health care—then we should listen to these great minds. It is not a riddle to be solved. The answer is already clear.


Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Introducing the Nuclear Literacy Project

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

The Nuclear Literacy Project is a new website and outreach initiative geared toward reaching young, non-technical audiences with information about nuclear energy. You can check out the site at

The nonprofit organization PopAtomic Studios has teamed with a committee of nuclear communications and technical experts, as well as Atomic Insights, American Crane, and StratusFX, to develop an innovative and effective approach to energy education.

The website is just the beginning. We are also working to create new apps, games, and quizzes to reach young people through venues that they already know and enjoy using. You want to learn 10 important facts about nuclear energy in about 1 minute? No problem! Just check out our Fast Facts page. Want to test your nuclear knowledge on your smart phone? Try one of our Quizzes.

We are also very excited to offer a first hand look into the lives of young nuclear engineers through our “Nuclear All Stars” blog. Click on the picture to read about Anagha, a California girl who is headed to the southeast to pursue her education in nuclear engineering and make the world a better place.

We invite you to visit the new website and to get involved. You can support this effort in many ways:

  • Share this article with friends and colleagues.
  • Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Make a tax-deductible donation to the Nuclear Literacy Project.
  • Ask your company or organization to make an annual contribution to NLP.

You can read more about the history of the NLP at


Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the power of visual and liberal arts to enrich the discussion on nuclear energy. Hobbs Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.