Reflections on the 2015 Future of Nuclear Conference

On Tuesday, November 10th, experts, leaders, and academics from a range of disciplines joined together for the Future of Nuclear 2015 conference. The conference, organized by Mindfirst Inc., focused on the topic of decommissioning and dealing with the various scientific and social dimensions of the nuclear power life-cycle.

While we can’t address every topic or idea discussed during the conference in this short review, we want to focus on a just a few key takeaways and impressions of the event.

When Dialogue is More Than Mere Discussion

Perhaps the most important theme explored by our speakers and guests was that of community engagement and public relations. It is an obvious point, perhaps, that the communities directly impacted by nuclear energy operations should have a say in the plans of industry. But, it is worth bearing in mind the various forms that consultation can take. At one level, we can think about the required environmental and local consultations that take place. These are, without a doubt, necessary for the development of new plants, the decommissioning of old ones, and the building of waste handling facilities.

However, at another level, we have a closer, more intertwined relationship between all of the parties impacted by the nuclear power life-cycle. This represents, in short, a more respectful and sympathetic level of engagement. We learned that many parties involved in discussions should not simply be deemed “stakeholders” – a phrase so often used in business that it often begins to lose meaning. Rather, many hold deep and complex emotions and ideas relating to the complex plans of industry. We are talking about First Nation people, employees, local residents, and others.

It is therefore incumbent that whenever a project is proposed, a schematic drawn, or a debate waged – that all parties communicate not from a position of distrust and cynicism, but from one of mutual and earned respect. These are not new lessons, in fact many signs point to this new approach already being taken in industry planning today, but they are lessons we must return to and remind ourselves of frequently.

They Blinded Me with Science

The second major theme of the conference related to the use and understanding of scientific knowledge relating to radiation. Indeed, ideas about radiation – whether fact or folk – are inexorably tied to the debates surrounding nuclear energy development and decommissioning. Over the last century, we have learned a great deal about radiation. We learned about the constant level of radiation that surrounds us, the possible curative and diagnostic uses of radiation in medicine, and, yes, about its tremendous potential to produce energy for good and for ill.

Those within the industry and scientists who are experts in nuclear technologies know well the myths that surround their work. Many people think first of Bruce Banner and the Hulk when they hear the word radiation. Or, they may immediately turn to thoughts of Fukushima, Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island. As experts and insiders have noted, it is often difficult to contextualize or dispel these impressions and intuitions.

A quote often attributed to Arnold H Glasow observes that: the fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion. The question is, can more facts weaken opinions, or change them? This question is too thorny, and too tangential, to review here. But, what we can say for now is that many years of study and fact finding has lead to a great deal of information on nuclear energy and it’s effects on humans, the environment, and the economy. However, that wealth has not always been enjoyed by the public as world events, war, and periodic disaster has intervened to obfuscate the scientific, big-t “Truth” (which is itself a moving, fluid reflection of current knowledge and research) with many varied and thorny small-t truths.

How does industry and science overcome this? That remains an open question. But discussion, education, and engagement is a start and we hope that the conference played a role in just that.

Conclusions and Next Steps

It is a joke in academia that every paper ends with a call for more research. While indeed funny, this trope signals a larger principle at play in all scientific, academic, and industry work. We are constantly making and remaking history. As many speakers noted, we have a duty to not only deal with the mistakes and decisions of the past but to plan for the future. No one knows for sure what the next chapter may bring for nuclear energy, but we cannot wait to let it be written in haste decades from now.

Technologies and ideas exist to deal with nuclear waste, to recycle and safely store it, to harness it for good and prevent it from being used for bad. Nothing is 100% certain or foolproof, no reasonable person believes that. We are constantly in a process of perfecting processes, ideas, and technologies. But often, we must make a decision to go forward with projects after we’ve collected all the evidence and studied every facet that we can. We do so while remaining flexible and open to change. That is the most sensible way. 

The story of the future of nuclear remains to be told, but we can be sure that the people who joined us Tuesday are going to be part of that story and we hope that wherever you, our readers, may be, that you too may be able to help guide the way.

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