Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The commissioner and I. A Debate on Nuclear Energy

This is a post that I had put together in 2011, just after the events it describes. At that time, I didn't publish it in Cassandra's Legacy because it seemed to me that it could have been seen as some kind of bragging on my part. After some years, I found it in the mass of unpublished posts and I thought that I could as well publish it on "Chimeras" in a novelized form, with some modifications that include the concept of "framing" that's becoming popular nowadays. So, if you think that I am praising myself too much, please accept my apologies. But it is the way things went. 

Italy, 2011

The debate on nuclear energy has been raging for months and it has been looking more and more pointless to me. The line that the government has been hammering down has always been the same: it is all decided; the choice has been made, Italy will return to nuclear energy. Yes, they keep saying, you can have all the debates you want and also this silly referendum called by this band of Greens, Communists, and assorted Subversives as if the opinion of the people mattered. But make no mistake: the government is not going to take a step back: Italy is going to have nuclear plants.

So, why did I accept to intervene in a debate on nuclear energy? Well, a friend asked me to come and I hadn't been able to find an excuse to avoid it. Some kind of a call of duty, but what's done is done and now I find myself playing the role of the "anti-nuclear" guy, a definition that I hate.

The debate takes place in a small Italian town where they seem to have a tradition of holding public debates. I am first introduced to the moderator. I know him, he is a physicist, a university professor. I know that that he is one of those physicists who seem to be still living during the "atomic age" of the 1950s and who see nuclear energy as an absolute need for humankind to keep moving along the road of progress. But, if he is the moderator, he should take a neutral position. Or so I can hope.

Then, I am introduced to my opponent; the "pro-nuclear" guy. He tells me he is the "commissioner" of an important government agency. He is in his early forties; an imposing man, wearing a double-breasted suit. His body language tells me that he is very sure of himself; he is not even wearing a tie. Evidently, he thinks he doesn't even need to look too official to win the debate. I note that and I take off my tie as a friendly gesture. He seems to appreciate that. We chat a bit; he tells me that he is a lawyer and he has been engaged in several of these debates. Apparently, he finds that he can make short shrift of the assorted ragtag band of commies and greenies opposing him. Fine, we'll see.

The auditorium is large and it slowly fills up with some 200 people coming from the nearby towns: young and old; several seem to be university students. We start, and I immediately see that it is a trap. The moderator speaks first and is not neutral at all; he is fully and totally pro-nuclear. They are playing on me the game called "the sandwich." I am supposed to speak in between my opponents and one of them will speak last. And, in this kind of games, he who speaks last is the one who wins.

But nobody can determine who will win a battle before it is fought and this one is still to be fought. As the moderator speaks, I can see that he is not doing well. He is lyrical, he speaks about Prometheus, about the nuclear fire, about the manifest destiny of humankind. Not that he is a bad speaker, but he doesn't frame his position: what is he arguing for, exactly? He is out of tune with the audience: they wanted facts and they are perplexed. He doesn't realize that as he keeps going. When he finishes, he receives some weak applause.

It is my turn. I have been looking at the audience and I think I can size them well enough. They don't seem to be politicized or already oriented on the nuclear issue. They seem to be, mostly, ordinary people, just curious about what they will hear.

I start with saying that I am not there to scare anyone, that nuclear energy should not be demonized. Of course, there are risks involved but, overall, nuclear energy has done us much less damage to people than coal and hydrocarbons. And that I think that the attempt of the Greens to scare people with threats of two-headed babies or of cancer epidemics is just plain idiocy. This seems surprise everyone, both in the audience and on the podium. It is completely different than the usual stance of the people arguing against nuclear energy. I take a quick look at the face of the commissioner. He is clearly pleased.

I continue by moving into another subject: my main field, mineral resources. So, I tell them about resource depletion, about the finite amount of uranium in the earth's crust, about the increasing costs of extraction, about the need for increasing amounts of uranium if nuclear energy production were to be expanded. I introduce the concept of EROI, energy return on energy investment and they seem to understand it. I tell them that there are many different evaluations of the EROI of nuclear energy but that, on the whole, it is not better than that of renewable energy and that it might be much worse. I also tell them that the more uranium we mine, the more expensive it is to mine, and that will necessary reduce the overall EROI or nuclear energy. I tell them that the Italian nuclear plants would have to run on 100% imported uranium that should come from countries which are not necessarily friendly to us. I ask them if they think it is wise to engage the country in such a risky adventure: if uranium becomes scarce, where are we going to find the uranium needed to fuel the new plants?

Over the years, I have developed a certain skill in understanding what the audience thinks. And, this time, I can see that the message has passed - the people in the audience understand what I am saying and they are interested. And I also developed a certain skill in passing the message: communicating is mostly about "framing."  That involves not just telling the message in ways that the audience can understand, but also taking a role that the audience can understand. In communication, the messenger is often more important than the message and, in this case, I consistently take he role of the teacher; a role that the audience is familiar with. They know that a teacher is not selling them anything nor he is trying to convince them to vote for some specific party. And so they tend to trust a teacher. It is not role-playing for me, teaching is my job. I just have to be what I am. And it works.

I finish my presentation. Now it is the turn of the commissioner to speak and he is clearly in difficulty. He keeps repeating the line that the government has taken a decision that cannot be changed.  eulogizes nuclear energy, saying that it is cheap and safe. But that's not what the audience wants from him: he should answer to the points I made, but he doesn't know how. It seems that he had never encountered this kind of objections to nuclear, he knows nothing about mineral resources, depletion, energy return, and the like. He seems to have been framing himself as a figure of authority; something like the stern father. But authority, just like respect, has to be gained. It is not enough to be a physically imposing figure. He has to demonstrate that he knows what he is talking about, and he can't. His speech is flat. The audience, clearly, is not satisfied; he finishes his speech and he receives unconvinced applause.

There follows the debate, and people have lots of questions. Their main curiosity seems to be, "if there is really a problem of availability of uranium, how come that nobody told us anything about that?" And, on this, the commissioner totally at loss. At some point, someone asks him about using thorium as fuel, isn't it true that it is more abundant than uranium? He can only answer, "I have technicians who take care of these issues". There is a perceptible gasp in the audience; their faces reveal what they are thinking, "this guy really doesn't know anything about nuclear energy". From then on, it is all downhill for me. The "sandwich" strategy has not worked, the people in the audience are asking questions mainly to me.

It is over. In the evening, we get together for dinner. The organizers are very pleased: the meeting has been lively and clearly appreciated by the public. Much less pleased is the commissioner; actually, he is still shocked. I can understand him: a lawyer to debate a scientist on nuclear energy against? Whose idea was that? But, apparently, in all the previous discussions he only had to debate people who knew nothing better than trying to win the debate by scaring the audience with the perspective of cancer and deformed children. But so it goes, we all live to learn.

As we chat amiably over a glass of wine, the commissioner stops for a moment to think of something. Then he says, "you know, the people who are against nuclear energy, they should be shot". I look at him, he looks at me. "Not you, of course," he says. I just smile. At least, I was right in thinking that these debates are useless.

In March 2011, the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster shook the world. The Italian referendum on nuclear energy was held on June 11, 2011 and 94.05% of the voters voted against the construction of new nuclear reactors.

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