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Warren Wilson Environmental Justice Crew’s Panel on Nuclear Energy Sparks Student Interest

by Karlyn Hunt, staff writer

Freshman Gabriel Perez Setright was in Vermont on March 11, the day the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered a series of equipment failures that lead to nuclear meltdowns, explosions and the release of dangerously radioactive debris, consequence of an earthquake and tsunami striking the Pacific coast of Japan.

The disaster hit 15,000 miles away from Perez Setright, but it sparked concern that a similar catastrophe is feasible at the nearby Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The next day he attended a vigil at the plant, where his interest in nuclear energy was aroused.

“The vigil made me aware of how powerful nuclear power plants can be, and how difficult they are to deal with,” says Perez Setright, “It made me want to know more about what causes these things to happen.”

His curiosity was engaged last Wednesday at a panel discussion on nuclear energy hosted by the Environmental Justice Crew. The crew felt that students needed an opportunity to learn about the issue in consideration of the recent disaster in Japan and a proposal to create nuclear dump-site 25 miles away from Warren Wilson.

Each panelist offered a unique perspective on the issues surrounding nuclear energy. While they all agreed that existing nuclear power systems are unsafe, their attitudes toward the future role of nuclear energy varied.

Warren Wilson professor Robert Hastings, a professional geologist with experience working in the oil and gas industries, regards nuclear power as a necessity to meet the United States’ increasing demand for energy. He sees it as an economically viable power source that holds potential for improvement in safety and efficiency.

“We have to replace our primary energy source with something other than petroleum, and the reality is that all of our options have downfalls,” said Hastings.

Panelist Ned Doyle, who referred to nuclear power as “the single greatest crime against humanity,” adamantly disagreed with Hastings. He argued that U.S. utility demand has decreased in the past two years, due largely to development in energy efficient technology, thus contending that the perceived increasing energy demand is a fear-induced fabrication.

Doyle does agree that, although energy demand may be decreasing, transitioning to alternate forms of energy is imperative. He asserted that the best approach to energy issues is through reducing overall energy consumption through individual lifestyle change. He described his personal experience living off the grid, paying no utilities yet still enjoying the luxuries of television, phone and refrigeration.

Anti-nuclear activist Mary Olson, Director of Southeast Office of Nuclear Information and Resource Center, who coined the phrase “No Nukes, No Coal, No Fracking Way,” also advocated reducing energy consumption through personal lifestyles changes. Furthermore, she praised development in alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power for providing systemic opportunities to taper off of nuclear energy, which provides 20 percent of the United States’ overall electricity, 14 percent worldwide.

After learning fundamental information about nuclear energy and possible alternatives, students were encouraged to conduct additional research and shape their own judgments on the situation. Doyle stressed that the complexity of the energy crisis requires consideration of not only the environmental consequences of nuclear energy but also of its economic and social impacts. Hastings urged impartial inquiry.

“[As you form] your opinion on this issue, I encourage all of you to listen skeptically, not to believe everything you hear and to check all the facts,” advised Hastings.

Perez Setright was inspired by the panel to do more research and engage in further debate on nuclear energy. He worries that nuclear power production is unsafe and inefficient and would like to see discussion on the issue expanded throughout campus coupled with responsive action.

“When you come to Warren Wilson, you learn that you can change your lifestyle, and we should educate each other on how and why we can better respect the earth,” says Perez Setright.


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