By Rod Adams
While attending the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Energy Future, held in Washington on August 30-31, I had the opportunity to become refreshed. Like many Americans, I have recently been disappointed with the performance of many elected officials and people who choose to put political wins over making hard choices and doing the right thing for today and for the future.
The opportunity for psychic refreshment came as I observed former Senator Pete Domenici (R., N.M.) operate as the co-chairman of the meeting. Domenici was born on May 7, 1932, which makes him 78 years old. As a man who served six terms as a United States senator, he has an excellent pension, so it should be evident that he is not working because he needs money.
Based on watching him during a day and a half of testimony, I recognized that the senator is not in the best of health. He apologetically excused himself frequently for brief periods. I overheard him responding to a “how are you senator” with a quiet “not very well”; I could see that such a response was not something that he liked giving.
It was impressive, however, to observe his attentive interest and perceptive questions on a complex, contentious technical subject. The senator holds some positions that I do not necessarily favor—particularly with regard to the safety and utility of using hydrofracturing to supply increasing quantities of natural gas—but we agree on the fundamental importance of energy to the health and prosperity of this and future generations.
It is also obvious that Domenici has a deep well of knowledge and memory of many years’ worth of testimony about making better use of used nuclear fuel, then eventually disposing of whatever products cannot be reused. Though I cannot project my thoughts into his head, I would guess that the reason that he accepted President Obama’s appointment onto the Blue Ribbon Commission was that he considered this issue to be unfinished business that he would like to complete before he can no longer do anything about it.
During one of the breaks, I had the opportunity to have a brief conversation with the senator. I expressed my admiration for the way that he chaired the meeting and injected humor as he maintained good meeting discipline. He smiled and acknowledged that one of the talents he had to develop during many years in the Senate was the ability to enable healthy conversations, even when there was strong disagreement.
I probably will never have the opportunity to serve on a commission like the BRC; I am too opinionated to do well in a politically charged environment. I am pleased, however, that people with Pete Domenici’s integrity and experience remain willing to offer their services, sit through lengthy meetings on uncomfortable chairs, and help steer contentious conversations into fruitful directions.
Unfortunately, Senator Domenici was unable to attend the afternoon session on the second day of the hearing, so he was not there when Mary Olson, director of the Southeast Office of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), boldly claimed that a single gamma ray interacting with a single human cell had a reasonable chance of causing cancer. He also missed her near gloating demeanor when she declared that her organization and its allies had achieved a “three quarters victory” by limiting the US nuclear power fleet to just 104 units when there was a time when more than 400 nuclear plants were planned.
Ms. Olson expressed her disappointment at not being able to educate Senator Domenici about the dangers of radioactive materials; I silently expressed my disappointment that he did not have the opportunity to charmingly disarm her unscientific and emotional pleas to “think about the children.”
It does not matter where you sit on the political spectrum, but having the opportunity to watch a leader like Senator Domenici in action would make you feel just a bit better about some of the people who choose to make a career as a public servant. It should also make you more comfortable with the possibility that the BRC will end up with a useful product that will help to ensure that the fuel cycle back end will not hinder the development of new nuclear power plants or other productive uses of nuclear material.
Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005.