Several weeks ago in the quiet community of Gaffney, South Carolina, I attended a public meeting held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to discuss the potential environmental impact of Duke Energy's proposed William States Lee III site. About 100 anti-nuclear activists also descended on the meeting.
The funny thing about this meeting is that of the dozens of people who spoke out against the proposed nuclear plant, not a single one of them was from Cherokee County, which is the location of the Lee III site. In fact, the vast majority of them were not even native to South Carolina. This was a group of volunteers organized by professional anti-nuclear activists who were bused down from Asheville, North Carolina. Many who spoke had well-rehearsed speeches about sick children, multi-billion dollar proposals that benefitted their own solar companies, and even one very long "Occupy" chant that had little to do with anything as far as I could tell.
This is not the first time that activists based in western North Carolina have organized against nuclear projects in other communities, in other states. In fact, it has become protocol. In the past two years, activists from the Asheville area have hiked to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to protest, bused to the Savannah River Site, S.C., to speak to the Blue Ribbon Commission, flown to Florida to fight the Crystal River nuclear power plant, and donned zombie costumes in Knoxville, Tenn. I'm sure that some American Nuclear Society members have had experiences with these same activists in the past.
So, why do I care about these anti-nuclear activities, and why should you?
I'll start by explaining why this particular meeting was important to me. The Lee nuclear project will be built 15 miles from where my husband and I just bought our first home. We are located in the rural region between Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C., near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This beautiful area has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, as well as one of the highest poverty rates in the state (20.6 percent in Cherokee County, more than double the national average).
A 2006 survey published in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance suggests that building a new nuclear plant is one of the best ways for a community to grow. Like the majority of local citizens, I would love to see new jobs, flourishing cultural activities, and increasing home values. Sadly, this vision for future prosperity was overshadowed by the chanting, hollering masses of activists during this particular meeting (the presence of four armed guards suggests that things have gotten quite heated during past meetings at this location).
Unfortunately, my experience was not the exception but the rule when it comes to these meetings. Anti-nuclear activists have found effective ways to disrupt the NRC's public comment periods, and to create a false sense of community opposition to nuclear projects. This often translates into real delays in licensing and construction, increased cost, and sometimes litigation, which are serious reasons why nuclear professionals should care about how we respond as citizens and as an industry.
It would be fabulous if the NRC would implement a few common sense guidelines to make public meetings more community focused, and less of a circus. Simple steps like reserving comments at public meetings for community members, and asking out-of-state citizens to submit their comments by mail or email would add value to this process.
Of course, I don't see this happening any time soon, so I wanted to share some tips on how to survive an NRC public meeting. Many nuclear professionals understandably avoid these meetings, but the reality is that with new nuclear builds in the works, we should all become actively engaged in this process:
- Take a tip from the opposition and think of public meetings as a social event. Call your like-minded friends and family; go out for a nice meal together before or after the meeting.
- Use your local network. Send an email out to your ANS chapter, as well as other non-profits you may be a member of (NA-YGN, WiN, etc.). The more the merrier!
- Call the NRC in advance and request a table. And bring cookies. Seriously, sweets go a long way in win hearts and minds. So does smiling, it's very effective.
- No suits! If you are attending a public meeting as a citizen, then dress like a citizen. Grab your favorite pro-nuke t-shirt, or something colorful and casual.
- This is more of a lesson learned, and is a little harder to pull-off, but it can be achieved by arriving a few minutes early and asking nicely of the NRC. For example, if you have a group of a dozen people, and you all sign up to make a comment, request to be spread out through the meeting. Then, as accusations and false information arise, you can take notes and directly counter particularly inflammatory statements.
In case you are ready to go kill 'em with kindness and cookies at the next NRC meeting, here is the schedule.
And finally-as proof that with a little planning, an NRC meeting can actually be fun-here are some pictures of our crew of nuclear supporters in Gaffney last month.