W&J event addresses use of nuclear power, climate change

October 24, 2013
Ingmar Sterzing, director of Westinghouse Electric’s commercial nuclear operations, answers a question Wednesday following the screening of a film on nuclear energy at Washington & Jefferson College. At right is Dr. Joel Cannon, professor of physics at W&J. - Michael Bradwell / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The opening of the film “Pandora’s Promise,” a new documentary by director Robert Stone, provides familiar coverage of a spirited protest against the opening of the Indian Point Energy Center in New York state.

But within a few minutes, the film takes an unexpected turn as a half-dozen well-known former anti-nuclear activists and long-time environmentalists describe the philosophical sea change each underwent in recent years to support the increased use nuclear energy in the United States.

In the 90-minute film shown Wednesday at Washington & Jefferson College’s Burnett Center, Stone explores the question, “How can you be an environmentalist and not be in favor of nuclear energy?”

The film, which was followed by a discussion with Dr. Joel Cannon, W&J professor of physics and Ingmar Sterzing, director of Westinghouse Electric’s commercial nuclear operations, was screened by W&J’s Center for Energy Policy and Management and the Three Rivers Chapter of the U.S. Association of Energy Economists.

Some of Stone’s subjects are well-known to anyone familiar with the American environmental movement of the past half-century: Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog; author Gwyneth Cravens, a former anti-nuclear activist who five years ago wrote a book in support of nuclear power; American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes, who has published authoritative books on the making of the atomic bomb; and Michael Shellenberger, an environmental policy expert and president of the Breakthrough Institute.

What these people and several others interviewed in the film have in common is that they see the use of nuclear power as the way to end climate change.

Shellenberger and co-author Ted Nordhaus have argued for a “climate pragmatism” and an embrace of modernization and adaptation of technology.

The authors predicted that the 2001 Kyoto Accord’s proposals to make fossil fuels more expensive would fail.

While acknowledging that the environmental movement has championed renewable energy as a replacement for fossil fuels, Shellenberger said when he studied the “big gap” between renewables and fossil fuels “we decided we could take a second look at nuclear energy.”

The film notes that coal is the most widely used source of energy in the world and is the fastest growing, outstripping even natural gas when considering the growth of shale gas in recent years.

Another argument for nuclear posited by Shellenberger and others is that while environmentalists have proposed ways of using less energy as a way to fight global warming, “we can’t keep using less energy forever.”

He noted that as more energy becomes available, “we find more uses for energy.”

He said the introduction of smartphones, with their ability to deliver data “use as much energy as a refrigerator” when all of the factors, such as the energy needed to drive the servers that provide the information, are taken into account.

The subjects also note that expansion of electricity generation will only continue to grow, because as Cravens states, “electricity can improve people’s lives,” adding that “the countries with the best quality of life consume the most electricity.”

According to Shellenberger, energy use is expected to double between now and 2050 and quadruple by the end of the century.

While acknowledging the large, upfront capital costs of building nuclear plants, Shellenberger adds that the plant will last between 60 and 100 years.

A portion of the film is spent dispelling some misinformation circulating about nuclear accidents.

An English anti-nuclear accidents is shown telling an audience about the “millions and millions” of deaths and cancer-causing incidents caused at places like Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986.

But the film shows documentation that the disaster killed 56 people as a result of the explosion and 4,000 people who were found to have some form of cancer in the aftermath.

The film included an interview with a priest who said he and 25,000 other former residents moved back to Chernobyl within a year of the disaster, and have lived there without any health problems.

Cravens states that, despite the radioactive leak at Three Mile Island, there has never been a death from operation of a commercial nuclear plant in the United States,

During a question-and-answer period following the screening, Sterzing noted that while Westinghouse is building four new nuclear generating plants in the Southeast, most of its business is being conducted in China.

He noted that while no new nuclear construction was begun in the United States for decades after the Three Mile Island incident, “nuclear construction has been going on around the world land it hasn’t stopped.” Cannon showed a graph depicting the occurrence of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere that has been measured, based on ice core drillings in Antarctica, to be relatively steady at 278 parts per million from pre-industrial times up to the start of the industrial revolution in the early 1900.

But from that time, he said, CO2 has moved up to 396 ppm and recently crossed 400 ppm for the first time.

At the same time, the average global land-ocean temperature, measured since the 1880s, has been climbing by 1.8 centigrade, or 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit, since the late 1970s.

“This has very serious consequences,” he said.

Sterzing cited statistics that show that 67 percent of Americans support the use of nuclear power, “yet we aren’t politically aligned” on the issue.

While the upfront capital costs are formidable, nuclear energy has several advantages, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

A single uranium fuel pellet the size of a pencil eraser contains the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil.

There are no emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide during the production of electricity at nuclear energy plants.

But Sterzing acknowledged that with the current revolution in shale gas, “we’re headed for a challenge in this country” because of the low cost of electricity being made possible from abundant natural gas.

While stating that there are many $1 billion nuclear plants around the world, Sterzing said smaller modular nuclear plans could be gradually added to the energy portfolio around the country.

“They can be phased in and built (over) time,” he said.

Michael Bradwell has been business editor for the Observer-Reporter since 1995, and was named editor of The Energy Report in 2012. He joined the newspaper in 1990 as a general assignment reporter in the Greene County bureau and has also worked as a copy editor. A 1974 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in English, he began his career at the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette. Prior to joining the O-R, he served as public relations director for Old Bedford Village, account executive at two Pittsburgh public relations agencies and copywriter for the country’s largest wholesaler of mutual funds.

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