2020 ANS Virtual Winter Meeting: Nuclear and politics--two views on the same conclusion
The 2020 ANS Virtual Winter Meeting kicked off on Monday, November 16, with an opening plenary moderated by ANS President Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar. The session, delivered via Zoom, featured two keynote speakers—Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress and Jessica Lovering of the Good Energy Collective.
Chosen with deliberation, the two speakers represented two very different political and philosophical views of energy production, but each made the case why nuclear is the best choice for a better world.
Nuclear as a moral cause: Epstein, author of the best-selling book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, made a values-based case for nuclear power, arguing that abundant energy has allowed humans to flourish. This includes higher life expectancy and lower poverty correlated to our increased use of energy. “I believe that the abundance of energy is directly and fundamentally responsible for the abundance of value that we experience in the world today,” he said.
Superior good vs. necessary evil: Similar to the fossil fuel industry, Epstein said that he sees the nuclear industry as too focused on its ancillary benefits, such as being a carbon-free energy source, and not its core value. This, he said, wrongly paints nuclear as a necessary evil. “We want nuclear to be seen not as an unnecessary or necessary evil, but as a superior good,” he said.
Pro-human perspective: The problem, Epstein said, is that when people discuss the costs and benefits of energy production, rather than looking at energy’s contribution to human welfare, they typically look at its negative impacts on nature. There is, he said, the opinion that we as humans should not be impacting the planet at all. “I don’t think that’s the right standard,” he said. “We want to minimize anti-human impacts to our environment, but maximize pro-human impacts.”
Strategy No. 1: To promote nuclear power, Epstein urged that advocates “fight for decriminalization and not for mandates.” For nuclear to reach its full potential, Epstein said that policy changes are needed, adding that nuclear should be taken out of the control of the government. “As long as nuclear is an arm of the government it is not going to do many people much good,” he said.
Strategy No. 2: “Do not get in bed with the modern environmental movement,” Epstein cautioned, claiming that the movement is really an “anti-impact movement.” Much of today’s environmental movement, he said, is based not on pro-human growth and flourishing, but rather an ideal of an un-impacted planet. It’s better for nuclear advocates to take a stand for human progress and prosperity, he advised.
The progressive view: Lovering, co-founder and co-executive director of the Good Energy Collective, a policy research organization, followed Epstein with a discussion of the politics of nuclear energy and how it fits into progressive values. “I know that ANS members come to be interested in working in nuclear for a variety of reasons,” she said. “But today, I’m going to focus on one of the main reasons young people are coming to nuclear, and why progressives are starting to reconsider nuclear energy, and that of course is climate change.”
Biden climate agenda: Lovering noted that Joe Biden ran and won on a clean energy plan that calls for 100-percent clean electricity by 2035, adding that Biden’s plan goes beyond the 2050 targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To reach these ambitious goals, the United States would need to add more than 350 one-gigawatt reactors operating at 90 percent capacity by 2035. “Obviously, not all of this clean electricity would be met by nuclear,” Lovering said. “But this gives you a feel for how large the market could be for new nuclear, if Biden’s climate plan is made into law.”
Progressive support for nuclear: While acknowledging that, historically, progressives and the nuclear community have not been allies, Lovering said that she sees a few areas where they align. While reducing carbon emissions is the major commonality, she also noted that more than one-third of workers across the U.S. nuclear energy industry are affiliated with a labor union, with nuclear power plants employing more union workers than other types of electricity.
Microgrids and SMRs: Lovering also pointed out the growing interest in local control of electric power through municipal and regional microgrids. Typically, these microgrids rely on gas or diesel generators for back-up power. “Small modular reactors, and specifically microreactors under 10 megawatts, could provide a carbon-free option for community microgrids that still enables reliability and resiliency in even a way that diesel cannot provide,” she said.