Nuclear’s back with new clarity

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Jason Parisi ’15 is passionate about energy issues. He is so passionate that he’s currently writing a book on energy in North Korea and China. When asked a question about the technical nuances of the global nuclear energy debate, Parisi nods, says “OK,” and commences to explain thoroughly.

On Thursday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized the construction of two new reactors near Augusta, Georgia, in a 4-1 vote. Approval for the reactors was delayed after the March 2011 near meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Number 2 plant caused concerns over U.S. safety regulations for nuclear power plants.

Parisi, who sees a future powered by nuclear fusion, said he approves of the decision.

“I’m very surprised — and I suppose I’m very pleased,” Parisi said of the licensing and building of the nation’s first new nuclear reactor since 1978. “If we weren’t dependent on fossil fuels, it would have happened far earlier.”

Parisi is this passionate about his chosen field of research, he said, because it saved him. By his second year of high school in inner city London, Parisi said, he was struggling both at school and at home. That summer, he went on a trip with his uncle to the Middle East, where he saw people living in conditions that made his own life seem privileged by comparison.

“I saw the condition of people who worked in Dubai and I was just amazed at how divided the energy consumption was,” Parisi said. The clarity that the trip provided Parisi with regard to the economy and energy motivated him to improve his schoolwork. He realized, Parisi said, “that the rules of general relativity apply to more than just physics.”

But Parisi is an outlier in Yale’s student body.

Economics, physics, and questions of development carried him through his school — and to Yale.

But now that he’s here, he thinks it could be better in at least one way.

“Yale is going to produce some incredible people, and they need to be nurtured in a place where environmental issues are at the forefront,” he said.

In a warmer-than-usual winter, Parisi said he has noticed that many students share the same reaction: Throughout campus Yalies have been walking out their entryways, and saying “Oh — must be climate change!” Whether or not the weather was caused by global warming is irrelevant, Parisi explained. He has observed that Yalies generally understand climate change — they just don’t talk about energy solutions.

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Last March, a Gallup poll found — paradoxically — that Americans simultaneously felt they understood climate change better and were worrying about it less.

For the general public, the only thing certain about this debate is uncertainty on how to move forward. Nowhere is this more clear than in the 70-year history of nuclear energy in the United States. Presidents and public figures have hailed the atom as the destroyer of civilizations and the savior of humanity, sometimes in the same speech.

Nuclear energy was all but abandoned in America after the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island, a nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Penn. But as the world understands the gravity of climate change, everyone is seeking a solution as large as the problem. It’s in this environment that the debate about nuclear energy has been rekindled. The debate is scattered, happening in the minds of students, professors and government officials, but not always in the mainstream. Some of these students and professors are Yalies, and yet nuclear hasn’t become a buzzword on campus.

HOW TO STUDY ENERGY?

The environmental movement missed an opportunity after the energy crisis of 1971, professor John Wargo GRD ’74 said. Somehow, he explained, the energy issue got subsumed into environmental studies — rather than becoming what it needed to: its very own discipline.

Truly understanding energy technologies and the potential for their use, Wargo said, requires knowledge of economics, physics, biology, law and engineering — basically any discipline north of Yale Law School.

As chair of the Environmental Studies major, Wargo has the precise perspective to evaluate the state of Yale’s undergraduate education in energy issues. He sees that Yale students in general do not possess the scientific literacy to understand the complex issues that determine which energy sources can or should be used.

But the problem is not exclusive to Yale.

“It’s a multidisciplinary problem that has fallen between the cracks of academia,” Wargo explained. In a university where the disciplines define how and who studies what, something that requires an understanding of many can seem monumentally challenging.

Some researchers have begun to see the demand for a new, focused, interdisciplinary field of study, potentially housed in its own, discrete department. Wargo said there is progress toward this end: Under his colleague, Gary Brudvig, deputy director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, an “energy certificate” program will launch for Yale undergraduates this fall. The pair hope to construct a cohesive program of study where none has existed before.

Some students are ready for this kind of focus. Chelsea Andreozzi ’12 is an Environmental Studies major who has noticed the lack of cohesion within the major, and what amounts to a gaping hole in the program — a lack of education on energy issues.

“The only class that I’ve taken related to energy was a college seminar that didn’t count for credit in the major, and it contradicted a lot of what I learned in other classes,” said Andreozzi. Her education in Environmental Studies did not teach her about energy solutions to climate change, she said.

Though it is covered in bits and pieces across the disciplines, Wargo said that he and some of his colleagues — Brudvig and other members of YCEI — think that energy studies could be a crucially important field.

GLOBAL PROBLEMS, GLOBAL SOLUTIONS

Parisi is involved in the Yale undergraduate chapter of Global Zero, a larger organization dedicated to a goal that is both tangible and enormous: They want no nations to possess nuclear arms.

The group began at Yale in 2010, and has since grown drastically — Global Zero’s student leaders are organizing an intercollegiate conference on nuclear disarmament, to be held at Yale next weekend. The organization’s leaders are strongly motivated by the notion that individuals should not hold the power of destruction over millions of people.

“No human being should be saddled with responsibility for so much destruction. It’s a responsibility … that no one is capable of having and wielding responsibly,” said Donna Horning ’13, assistant campus coordinator for Yale’s chapter of Global Zero.

Unlike many campus organizations, Parisi said, Global Zero is focused on a specific, globally-oriented policy goal.

Global Zero is focused on the enormous global problem of nuclear disarmament, while other groups on campus attempt to tackle the similarly massive issue of climate change. One of those organizations is the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, though YSEC takes a markedly different approach.

On Feb. 8, the current board of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition sat in the Dwight Hall library discussing Earth Month. They’ve got movies and field trips planned and they praised last semester’s successful protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The agenda did not include discussing nuclear or alternative energies.

YSEC’s President Julie Botnick ’14 explained that anyone wanting to accomplish good for the environment has to set small, tangible goals. Tackling climate change can look like a large, overwhelming task. A large overwhelming task — YSEC Vice President Emmanuel Feld ’13 added — that can make individuals feel powerless.

Treasurer Patrick Reed ’15, the only freshman on the board, he said he was surprised to see that there were not more public attempts to push Yale students into a conversation about climate change. He said that he sees the silence on campus as indicative of a national silence.

“You could say people have given up hope,” Reed explained, saying that the perceived failures of Obama and the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen discouraged many environmentalists.

Events Coordinator Rick Herron ‘13 agreed that the absence of a conversation about energy on campus reflects its fall from the national limelight. “[Climate change] is not a flashpoint like sexual culture,” he said. “There was more discussion when it was a live issue on a national level.”

On potential energy sources, the group agreed that wind and solar are the ideal energy choices.

Feld explained that he, personally, does not see a role for nuclear power in weaning the U.S. off of fossil fuels.

“It’s not efficient, not cost-effective. It takes so many years to build a nuclear plant,” Feld said. He also pointed out that most nuclear infrastructure is old and takes years to update.

Yale’s chapter of Global Zero has grown enormously over the last two years, focusing on a campaign for a singular global policy initiative, while YSEC has maintained a core of environmentalists dedicated to local solutions to the global problem of climate change. Though YSEC members and other environmentalists often ponder broader solutions, the cohesion and coordination necessary to focus on and rally around a larger solution hasn’t yet been achieved.

While Global Zero advocates a simple, focused solution for their global issue, YSEC — and ultimately many environmental groups, programs, and initiatives — are scattered on exactly what to do about climate change and energy issues.

WHO HAS THE ANSWERS?

Nuclear power can be beast, angel — or simple utility.

Of all energy sources, nuclear power demonstrates the ability of the public mind to fixate on one quality of a technology and misunderstand the complexities of a global situation. The dangers of nuclear energy are obvious: There is the threat of an accident like last year’s quake that destroyed the reactor in Fukushima in March 2011 as well as the accumulation of radioactive waste that will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

“Nobody wants a nuclear power plant in their backyards,” Wargo said — despite the fact that he lived with one only miles from his home near New Haven until it closed in 1996.

Concerns like fears of radioactive clouds and reactor explosions are not assuaged by events like those that took place last March. Economics professor Ken Gillingham, who specializes in environmental and energy economics, noted that global opinion on nuclear power has varied dramatically over the last ten years, but in the US, it has not been warmly embraced — and Fukushima did not help.

“There are risks associated with [nuclear] and the U.S. population hasn’t been willing to take those risks,” Gillingham said.

But all energy sources possess drawbacks. The question is whether the risk is worth the reward. Robert Mendelsohn, a Yale economics professor and climate change economist, thinks that Americans need to embrace a more pragmatic evaluation of their energy sources. Mendelsohn is currently engaged in the massive endeavor of assessing the possible economic impacts of climate change around the world.

Mendelsohn sees nuclear’s negative image as just that: a bad reputation.

“It’s possible to vilify every source of energy — but you’ve got to pick something,” he said.

Mendelsohn approaches questions of energy sources with a practical attitude that, as yet, does not have a loud voice in the popular discussion of energy options. However, Mendelsohn is also willing to poke holes in the idea that sometimes new energy technology can do no wrong, laughing at the thought of relying on nuclear fusion. The technology does not yet exist — it’s been in the works since the sixties, he said — and Mendelsohn does not count on being able to rely on it in the foreseeable future.

Gillingham put it this way: “Fusion has been tens of years in the future for the past forty years.” In his own work on the economic feasibility of various forms of energy sources, Gillingham is investigating what the future would like if the world was dependent on nuclear energy.

He sees the technology as a complicater: a tool with complex pros and cons. Nuclear does not have to be as dangerous as it once was: new technologies have produced reactors that can reuse their waste. He’s currently working with two models to evaluate claims recently made by scientists about nuclear’s vast potential.

“What if the whole world switched to being like France? What would that really mean for our emissions and what would that do for the climate? What kinds of subsidies, how many nuclear plants would have to be built? We’re hoping to have some conclusions this summer,” Gillingham said.

Gillingham and Mendelsohn agreed that the world cannot wait for fusion, but they also said it cannot bet solely on massive wind-farms or hydroelectric power. Mendelsohn sees the single wind turbine planted in New Haven’s harbor as only an illustration that alternative energies exist, not as promise a future in which all electricity can be wind-generated.

“There is no such thing as perfect source of energy, and that’s especially true as you scale them up,” Mendelsohn said.

The answer, instead, he and Gillingham agreed, lies in combining sustainable solutions in a flexible package. An “energy portfolio,” Gillingham and Mendelsohn called it. A community’s general portfolio will depend on an area’s natural resources. But nuclear energy has an important role to play in that portfolio.

“I think if we take climate change seriously, nuclear is a part of the answer,” Mendelsohn said. Nuclear is necessary because it provides the base power required by a community. This power provides a steady amount of energy that wind or solar cannot.

Like Mendelsohn and Gillingham, Wargo said that the US would have to embrace sustainable energy portfolios.

SEPARATION OF MONEY AND STATE

There is a fox in the henhouse. Or rather, there are many foxes in the variety of henhouses that make up America’s energy policy. Wargo explained that the public’s understanding of energies and energy possibilities is undermined by the fractured state of the nation’s energy policies and regulating bodies. He sees the origins of Yale students’ silence on and the public incomprehension of matters of energy in the fractured state of public policy.

Governmental agencies contain internal contradictions. The Minerals Management Service provides the offshore drilling licenses to oil companies, cradling industry and regulation in one body.

As Wargo put it, “The corporations intended to be regulated end up capturing the regulators.” And the workings of politics protect that relationship, he added.

By dividing energy affairs between bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, and the Department of the Interior, the federal government sacrifices an understandable image of the workings of America’s energy consumption.

“There is no national energy policy,” Wargo summed up.

But even the divisions within the bodies the regulate the U.S.’ resources cannot completely explain why there is no public consensus on the future of the nation’s energy.

All told, these simultaneous academic and political divisions build on each other, producing what Wargo called a “fractured knowledge base”—no one person who knows all there is to know about energy and thus no independent authority that the public can trust. Researchers who attempt to tackle some portion of America’s energy problem end up spiraling into very specialized, technical issues. Intensely specialized environmental and technological knowledge produces intensely specialized laws and regulations.

“The public is left going ‘what?’” Wargo said. The public no longer has a decision-making ability on their energy and energy regulations. Politicians and technical experts do that, Wargo said.

Nobody understands their energy portfolio.

Nuclear power seems foreign and larger-than-life, like something they do in France or Japan, not in Yale’s backyard. But part of New Haven’s energy portfolio was once provided by the nuclear reactor in Haddam Neck, Conn., about 25 miles from New Haven near Wargo’s home. The power plant had been in operation since 1968, eleven years before the Three Mile island accident. If a conversation grows between policy makers, the public, and researchers in energy studies, than modern nuclear plants just may begin taking its place, providing base power in support of renewable energy sources.

Comments

  • jmb

    Discussions about renewable energy issues are, in fact, on YSEC’s agenda. If you would like to talk about these issues in a public forum, join us on Wednesday 2/15 at 8 in the Dwight Hall library for a discussion with Professor Ken Gillingham (quoted in this article). The week after, we will be hosting a movie screening and discussion on mountaintop removal and the idea of “clean coal.” We hope to see you there!

    • jmb

      Also, we have a solar energy group, a joint project of YSEC and the Energy Club. More information is on our website, yale.edu/ysec.

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