The inspiration behind PopAtomic Studios: Solutions

By Suzanne Hobbs

My generation has been labeled Generation X, or maybe Y, I’m not sure. I don’t even know what those labels mean. I think of us as individuals coming of age in the Information Age. We have been exposed to more information than any generation before and have been made all too aware of the problems facing our planet from a very early age.

Much of this information is related to problems we stand to inherit. For instance, in my elementary school, we did a play about the dangers of greenhouse gases and acid rain. In middle school, we learned (with photos) about the suffering of persons in developing nations from avoidable and curable illnesses like HIV and malaria. My high school was continually placed on lockdown from threats of bombs and shootings, and I watched the Twin Towers fall in real time from a television in my senior classroom. And, as my college biology professor taught us about ocean acidification, he calmly stated, “It’s completely up you guys to figure out how to resolve all of this,” referring to my generation and the multitude of complex problems that we are facing.

My generation doesn’t have the luxury of making mistakes under the precedence of not understanding the impact of our actions. Generations past have not been able to get a handle of the true impact of their actions and consumption, but could the best possible outcome of the Information Age be a generation of people who can actually visualize their impact and rein it in? Could all of this information lead to solutions?

I think that energy is the most important issue for my generation. Energy is the foundation of modern society. The survival of our species (not to mention our quality of life) depends on the availability of abundant, diverse, and affordable energy sources. Fortunately, we have nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy stands to improve many aspects of human life:

  1. Environmental. We can end the constant stream of carbon and pollutants into our air and atmosphere, by ending the over consumption of fossil fuels. This would lead to an overall reduction of negative environmental impact.
  2. Economic. Creation of new power plants would create millions of new jobs, reviving the world economy. These jobs range from construction positions to administrative and scientific positions, employing a range of people.
  3. Political. Energy independence for all nations would help end wars over limited energy resources, saving lives and infrastructure. Reduction in international tensions could be achieved through increased use of nuclear energy.
  4. Humanitarian. Nuclear power plants contribute to increased availability to clean water, health care, and education to those living in developing nations. Access to electricity means a better quality of life.
  5. Medical. Continued advancement of nuclear medicine for diagnostics and treatment of countless diseases could save millions of lives. Fission reactions are the source of medical isotopes, and are a key component of modern medicine.

Nuclear is still a relatively new technology. Speculation about its potential impact has ranged greatly, and really depends completely on the decisions of human beings. My hope is that my generation, with all of its technology and information can use nuclear energy in the most beneficial ways, with consideration to all people. We understand more than any generation before in terms of the true impact of our decision-making because we are constantly trying to deal with the messes left behind. Based on my first-hand knowledge of long-term, interconnected impact, I have come to the conclusion that nuclear energy is the one solution to many problems. Sharing these solutions with my generation is the inspiration for PopAtomic Studios.

All artwork was created by PopAtomic Studios.

Suzanne Hobbs is creative director and contributing artist at PopAtomic Studios. She was born in Tokyo, Japan, and raised in Atlanta, Ga., by her nuclear engineer father and social worker mother, along with an older brother who is now an accomplished chemist. Her interest in art, science, and humanitarian issues started very young, fueled by frequent family travel and a sharp focus on education and community involvement. She attended Appalachian State University to study Fine Arts and since graduating has worked with several public arts organizations, always with the goal of using art to create positive change.

5 responses to “The inspiration behind PopAtomic Studios: Solutions

  1. Yes, yes, YES!

    I am currently 32 years old, and working for a software company near Cincinnati, OH. I am (slightly) older than the poster of this article, but basically of the same generation.

    I grew up in a time of great fear about nuclear power. Born in 1978, I am a child of the 80’s – Chernobyl in 1986 is on of my earliest memories. I’m a little fuzzy on the exact chronology here, but another of my early memories was attending an anti-nuclear demonstration with my parents, to protest the proposed Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Perry, OH.

    Putting children in picket lines at a protest is a great propaganda tool, but a terrible way to make policy decisions. I was told nuclear was bad, it was a terrible threat to us. I believed what my parents told me. It’s not like I had the faintest idea what radiation, fission, or anything else really meant, or what the real risks of a nuclear power plant were/are.

    A couple years ago, I began to question the ‘common-wisdom’ about nuclear power. The first stop I made on this journey was based upon concern about the “Nuclear Waste Problem”. I had heard, as “everybody knows”, that nuclear waste is highly toxic for 100,000 years or more. I was kind of aghast that the government, industry, scientists, and engineers of a previous generation would start the clock ticking on such a problem. I mean, obviously we can’t guarantee that we can safely contain ANYTHING for 100,000 years. How could anyone possibly live with that on their conscience. And what are we to do about it? Is it truly an unsolvable problem?

    So, I began reading up about the problem, and quickly learned that through reprocessing and re-using the reprocessed fuel, we could reduce the duration of toxicity from 100,000 years, to 200-300 years. This pretty much blew my mind. I do feel reasonably confident that we could safely contain a material for 200-300 years. That hardly sounds like an unsolvable problem.

    But it doesn’t stop there – I also learned that through such reprocessing and re-use of the ‘waste’, we would generate about 100 TIMES more power from the same fuel as we already extract today. That without mining another kilogram of fuel, we can power the world for 200-500 years – even taking into account population increase and increasing demand for power per-person (if consumption stayed at the level of today, I’ve read, the fuel would power the world for 1000 years – but assuming no growth in demand seems a bit foolish when viewing the arc of human history).

    But, I was still very concerned about safety. Sure, reprocessing might allow us to ‘solve’ the nuclear waste problem, but another Chernobyl, or worse, another Chernobyl *every few decades*, would surely lead to escalating levels of nuclear polution of the environment, making the world a much less hospitable place for human habitation for many thousands of years.

    Additionally, I’ve read an objection from many environmentalists that ‘nuclear is just too expensive – surely wind and solar would be cheaper; Nuclear plants are costing $10 Billion+ to build, and the costs seem to be eternally escalating out of control!

    As a child of the 80’s, I have a somewhat unique perspective on the matter. Technology literally grew up with me. I say that it grew up with me, and not the other way around, because to say that “I grew up with technology”, would merely imply that technology was all around me as I grew up. But what I mean is that in many different areas of human technology, huge advances have been made since I was a child. As I matured, so did many technologies. If you look at any technology from the early 80’s – computer hardware, computer software, medical devices, radios, telephones, televisions, automobiles, kitchen and laundry appliances, the engineering improvements since I was a child have been nothing short of breathtaking. I feel very fortunate to have been born at the time in history I was, and to have witnessed (and to continue to witness and even participate in) such radical technological change.

    Virtually every technology is more capable, cheaper, safer than it was in the 80’s by ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE. New technologies exist now which nobody had heard of in the 80’s because they only existed as designs at engineering companies and university research departments.

    Why should we not believe the same is true for Nuclear Power Technology that is true for EVERY OTHER FIELD OF ENGINEERING?

    Yes, I think the nuclear designs of the 70’s and 80’s were not optimal in terms of their safety characteristics – although designs used by the U.S., Canada, and the rest of the western world have shown that our designs from the 70’s and 80’s were much safer than the chernobyl design. Another of my early memories is the media coverage of the Three Mile Island incident. I have recently been trying to read more about Three Mile Island, to understand what the true significance, the true lessons to be learned from that event are. In any public discussion, someone always brings up Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and assumes that “obviously” that is the end of the matter.

    The problem was, I didn’t really understand what happened at Three Mile Island. As a child, I remember a lot of speechifying and monolouging by journalists, politicians, and representatives of groups like Greenpeace. But, as far as I could tell, the world didn’t end after Three Mile Island. So, I decided recently I absolutely had to learn more about what happened, and what the aftermath of TMI was.

    What I learned is that, yes, the reactor fuel melted down, yes, plant operators made mistakes that made the whole situation worse than it had to be and resulted in the meltdown. But I also learned that the reactor had a feature designed into it, which did it’s job – a safety feature of last resort, which was a very heavily built containment building which succeeded and doing the job it was designed to do – it contained the reactor fuel during the meltdown event, so that TMI did NOT become Chernobyl. In some ways, I know think that TMI is a great success story for nuclear engineering – everything that possibly could go wrong just about did at TMI, and yet there was still almost no release of radioactivity during the event (there was, I’ve read, a moderate amount of radioactive steam which engineers had to release from the containment building, to prevent the internal steam pressure from building up too high, but that the amount of radioactivity released was nowhere near the amount released in the Chernobyl meltdown and fire, and was too small to present a significant threat to public health).

    I also believe that nuclear engineers learned from the mistakes of the past, as they do in every other field. I’ve been reading about new Gen 3+ and Gen 4 reactors that compare in the level of engineering improvement much in the same way as comparing today’s cellphones with the brick and bag cellphones of the 1980’s and early 90’s – the new designs are simpler, more elegant, and obviously safer (even for someone who is not a nuclear physicist or engineer, it’s obvious that reactors running cooler, and depending on simple inherent physics to prevent a catastrophe instead of depending on active systems which have to be properly managed by humans, is obviously going to increase safety to the point where a catastrophic problem essentially *can’t* happen). Reactors such as the Integral Fast Reactor/PRISM, or the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, or the various Thorium Reactor designs being discussed.

    I’ve tried to do some reading about the Gen 3+ reactors too, and while they don’t appear to be quite as advanced in their safety designs as the Generation 4 concepts, they still rely on much more passive safety designs than reactors of yesteryear.

    I am of generation X, and while I understand the need to cut back nuclear developments during the 80’s and 90’s – the reactors, though not disastrously dangerous, really weren’t safe ‘enough’ for massive build-out of hundreds of reactors. But technology does not stand still. While we have somewhat been idle in this country, the state of the art in nuclear engineering has continued to advance in places like France, India, China, Japan, and S. Korea.

    I believe the time has come for our nation to once again get back upon the horse of Nuclear Power – but cautiously, with our eyes open and our ears listening intently. We shouldn’t be reckless about it, but I truly believe that we *can* build Nuclear Power Plants which are safer, better, cheaper. I believe we *must* if we are to gain the energy independence, and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which we desperately need.

    While I am not anti-wind or anti-solar, and think they each have a part to play in our nation’s energy future, I believe we simply cannot afford to ignore the need for nuclear power to also be in that mix.

  2. Jeff, thanks for the thoughtful response! I absolutely agree that effectively addressing public misconceptions is the biggest hurdle for the advancement of nuclear energy, not the technical or scientific arguments that one might assume are standing in the way. And now the stakes are higher than ever to stop harming our environment, but instead of adopting contemporary energy technologies we are defaulting to more fossil fuel consumption. I feel that this technology freeze when it comes to energy is due to a lack of basic science knowledge, especially here in America. I applaud you for taking the time to do the research and find out the facts on nuclear- I hope that more folks will take your lead!

  3. Suzy, if I may highlight a particular question you raised:

    …but could the best possible outcome of the Information Age be a generation of people who can actually visualize their impact and rein it in?

    Long have I been of this opinion in regards to the human condition. Since the dawn of Man our history has demonstrated a clear trend; as soon as an idea transforms from abstraction to concrete understanding we as a species manage to manifest that outcome. And so it will be with the energy crisis. Some may say I am naively optimistic, but I retort that I’ve got history on my side.

    Regardless, you do our generation proud—we are Gen Y by the way—and I wish you continued success in transforming people’s minds.

  4. Pingback: 22nd Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers | ANS Nuclear Cafe

  5. Thanks Greg- likewise!

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