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Women of America Are Stepping Up As Nuclear Energy Advocates

Nuclear power is clean, safe and better for the environment than some alternative energy sources

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Nuclear Energy
Engineering manager Kristin Zaitz and her co-worker Heather Matteson, a reactor operator, started Mothers for Nuclear. VOA
  • The availability of cheap natural gas and greater energy efficiency has reduced demand for nuclear energy in recent years
  • Nuclear power is clean, safe and better for the environment than some alternative energy sources
  • Industry experts say that women who work in nuclear power can be powerful advocates for nuclear

San Francisco, August 26, 2017: Kristin Zaitz is confident that her nuclear power plant is safe.

Zaitz, an engineering manager, was at Diablo Canyon Power Plant during both her pregnancies and has scuba dived to inspect the plant, which hugs the California coast. Zaitz wears a pendant with a tiny bit of uranium inside, an item that tends to invite questions.

“We all have our perceptions of nuclear,” Zaitz said.

In a few years, Diablo Canyon will close, part of a trend nationwide. The availability of cheap natural gas and greater energy efficiency has reduced demand for nuclear energy in recent years. Add to that ongoing concerns about public safety, such as those raised by memories of disasters at nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) and Three Mile Island in the United States.

Nuclear is ‘cleaner’ than fossil fuels

Supporters of nuclear energy say that when a reactor-based generating station closes, not enough wind and solar power is available to make up the difference. They lament that energy companies tend to turn instead to fossil fuels — coal and natural gas — which produce environmentally harmful emissions.

Zaitz and her co-worker Heather Matteson, a reactor operator, started Mothers for Nuclear, their effort to get the word out that nuclear power is clean, safe and better for the environment than some alternative energy sources.

“I went into the plant very skeptical of nuclear and being scared of it,” said Matteson. “It took me six to seven years to really feel like this is something good for the environment. I don’t want people to take six to seven years to make that decision. We don’t have that long.”

Matteson, too, wears the uranium necklace as a conversation starter. “Nuclear is fun,” she said. Is there any radiation emitted by the pendant? “There’s slightly more than from a banana,” she conceded.

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Women seen as powerful advocates

Industry experts say that women who work in nuclear power can be powerful advocates for nuclear. They can help change attitudes of other women who tend to be more skeptical than men about nuclear energy’s benefits.

At the recent U.S. Women in Nuclear conference in San Francisco, women working in the industry talked about how more should be done to make nuclear power’s case to the public, and how they may be the best suited to do it.

“As mothers, I think we also have an important role to play in letting the public know that we support nuclear for the future, for our children,” said Matteson. “And we don’t know other mothers supporting nuclear power in a vocal way. We thought there was a gap to fill.”

Young women say they look at careers in this industry because they are socially minded.

‘Do something good for the world’

“I went into this wanting to do something good for the world,” Lenka Kollar, business strategy director at NuScale, a firm in Oregon that designs and markets small modular reactors. “Wanting to bring power to people. There are still more than a billion people in the world who don’t have electricity.”

Critics of nuclear energy say it doesn’t matter who is promoting it.

“Using mothers’ voices to argue for a technology that is fundamentally dangerous and that has been demonstrated by disasters like Fukushima to be not safe for the communities that surround the power plants or even cities that are hundreds of miles away is disingenuous,” said Kendra Klein, a staff scientist with Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

While the future of nuclear power in the United States may be uncertain, the women here say they have a positive story to tell. (VOA)

Next Story

UN Aims at Curbing Carbon Emissions Globally

UN Climate Talks Aim to Pave Way for Global Carbon Market

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Germany Climate Refinery
A Uniper coal-fired power plant and a BP oil refinery and chemical plant are at work in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. VOA

On a cold afternoon in late November, Jan Gerrit Otterpohl eyes the chimneys of Berlin’s Heizkraftwerk Mitte, a state-of-the-art power plant that supplies the city with heat and electricity. It’s not the billowing steam he’s interested in, but the largely invisible carbon dioxide that the power station exhales as it burns natural gas.

Under European Union rules, the plant’s operator, Vattenfall, needs a permit for each ton of carbon dioxide it emits. Otterpohl’s job is to keep costs low by making sure the company buys only as many permits as necessary, at the current market price.

Economists say that carbon markets like the one Otterpohl uses can become a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, by giving emitters a financial incentive to reduce greenhouse gases. But despite making progress in other areas, governments have for years been unable to agree on the rules that would allow truly global trade in carbon permits to flourish.

Negotiators at a U.N. meeting in Madrid this month are aiming to finally tackle the issue, after last year agreeing on almost all other parts of the rulebook governing the 2015 Paris climate accord.

China carbon dioxide
A coal processing plant that is emitting greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. VOA

“There are reasons to be optimistic and to think that there could be some progress because of the political attention that it’s getting,” said Alex Hanafi, a lead counsel at the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund.

Many governments are struggling to make the emissions cuts necessary to meet the Paris accord’s goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

The hope is that putting a price on carbon will unlock billions of dollars in investments as countries and companies seek the most cost-effective way to cut emissions. By capping the number of permits in the market and reducing it steadily, the incentive to save on emissions would grow over time.

“There is tremendous potential for carbon markets to contribute to the achievement of the Paris agreement goals,” said Hanafi.

But he warned that a bad deal on carbon markets, known in climate diplomacy parlance as ‘Article 6,’ would be “worse than no deal at all.”

That would be the case, for example, if airlines find it cheaper to offset their emissions than reduce them; or if countries protect large areas of carbon-absorbing forests, sell the resulting permits to other nations and simultaneously count them toward their own emissions-reduction efforts.

Brazil has long pushed back against some of the stricter accounting rules demanded by the EU and the United States. The Latin American nation, criticized by environmentalists for failing to properly protect the Amazon rainforest, also insists that it should be allowed to keep vast amounts of carbon credits amassed under a now-discredited system, a stance shared by China and India.

Climate change China
This coal processing plant in China produces toxic air pollutants. VOA

“It’s very important to really avoid these kind of negative impacts,” said Claudia Kemfert, a senior energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research.

Kemfert noted that it took more than a decade to tweak the emissions trading system that so far only covers the power and heavy industry sectors in 27 European Union countries— all, except Britain — plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — a region with well-functioning markets and low levels of corruption.

Otterpohl, who oversees emissions at Vattenfall’s Berlin power plant, agreed.“As far as the EU (emissions trading system) is concerned, there’s now a mature and functioning market in the areas it covers.”

Expanding that market to cover other sectors in the EU, such as transportation and home heating, or linking it up with other existing emissions trading systems in China, California and elsewhere should be possible, said Daniel Wragge, the director of political and regulatory affairs at the European Energy Exchange in Leipzig, Germany.

“Technically speaking, it’s not a challenge,” said Wragge, whose company manages the marketplace for European emissions, where a ton of carbon dioxide is currently traded for about 25 euros ($27.70). “But, of course, there are certain conditions and the key is, of course, that the certificates are mutually recognized.”

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Kemfert cautioned that putting a price on emissions alone won’t stop climate change.“What we need are many, many activities to reduce emissions,” she said. “If we reach a carbon market, that’s fine. But we should go for other solutions very urgently.” (VOA)