Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama walk into a bar…

May 9, 2012, 6:00AMANS Nuclear CafeSuzanne 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.

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