What does Earth Day mean to you?

April 23, 2021, 12:02PMANS News

ANS’s latest webinar on April 22—Earth Day—posed that question to a panel of five young leaders in the nuclear community representing a broad spectrum of environmental, social, and advocacy perspectives. The event was moderated by ANS’s Executive Director/CEO Craig Piercy, who introduced each of the five panelists and the issues they are concerned about. The panelists’ presentations were followed by an engaging Q&A portion with the audience.

The program is available for viewing online.

Earth Day: Earth Day was founded in 1970, Piercy said, by Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, and Pete McCloskey, a Republican congressman from California. Piercy added that back in 1970, the United States was a very different place: There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Air Act, and no Clean Water Act. A lot has changed since then, he said, adding that Earth Day today means something very different than in the 1970s, but the underlying issues and desire for positive change remain the same.

The panelists: First up was Josh Freed, senior vice president for the climate and energy program of Third Way, who oversees the strategy to advance policies and change the conversation so that the United States gets to net-zero by 2050. Freed discussed how it could be easy to be cynical about an event such as Earth Day for those in the nuclear community who think about these issues day in and day out, but it provides a day for those not in the nuclear community "to focus on the issues we are passionate about." However, he added, it is important to keep the economic issues that most Americans are worried about part of the conversation on Earth Day.

Next up was Isabelle Boemeke, a social media influencer with tens of thousands of followers, who produces videos promoting nuclear energy on TicTok and Twitter. Boemeke agreed with Freed’s comments that Earth Day is important to not only look at environmental issues, but also the economic issues that matter to people around the world. Growing up in a small town in Brazil, Boemeke didn’t have access to reliable energy, but she noted that reliable and clean energy is one of the most basic needs to help empower people. That is why she inserted herself into the energy debate.

Kirsty Gogan, the founder of Terra Praxis, was the third panelist. Gogan said that to her and her colleagues, every day is Earth Day, but that this is a great time to connect with others outside the nuclear community. Gogan said that in her early days as an environmentalist, she was against nuclear power, but as she learned more about the tools available to economies around the globe, she realized that nuclear is an important tool to decarbonize.

ANS member Katie Mummah, a Ph.D. student in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a recent graduate assistant at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that Earth Day is a chance to think about how being a nuclear engineer leads back to another passion—protecting public lands. This means coming to terms with some hard truths and learning about some of the accidents and issues that happened in the early days of the nuclear industry. Mummah focused on two examples: the abandoned uranium mines that were established to support the military’s nuclear weapons programs and have not been remediated, and the early efforts to dispose of low-level waste at sites like Maxey Flats in Kentucky. She said that she hopes the nuclear community can really own up to these early missteps and fix the problems that exist there.

The last panelist, Rich Powell, is the executive director of ClearPath, a Washington, D.C.–based organization advancing policies that accelerate breakthrough innovations to reduce emissions in the energy and industrial sectors. Powell said that he was concerned about whether we as a people will be able to thrive on Earth. Energy is a difficult aspect of the economy, he said, one that he saw firsthand growing up in Scranton, Pa. Scranton was the first widely electrified city, but the use of coal for decades left its mark on the environment. That’s why, Powell said, ClearPath has focused on how to harmonize focusing on the economy to lift up communities and keeping the environment safe and healthy. One big way, he said, is to make sure that the United States gets back into nuclear during this decade to use its benefits to help decarbonize the economy and provide well-paying jobs.