Why Should We Stand Up For Nuclear Energy? (Podcast Transcript)

Join co-host Anna for a conversation about nuclear energy with Paris Ortiz-Wines, Global Director of Stand Up For Nuclear, an international group of nuclear energy advocates. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

Anna: So, as we all know, there’s a lot of fear and misinformation around nuclear power. What’s the first thing you think people should know about it? Why do you advocate for nuclear?

Paris: Right. I think when we talk about meeting our climate goals, it’s hard to grasp how big that challenge is, and how far we have still yet to go. I will say nuclear is the technology that’s given me hope. I mean, nuclear’s already been doing a lot of that work. It’s been an unsung hero, and so I’m glad we’re finally brave enough and ready to talk about nuclear and bring it out into the open.

Anna: I know Stand Up For Nuclear is a pretty new organization. I’d love to hear how it started and some of the highlights from the past few years. 

Paris: Yeah, so Stand Up was born back in 2018, and it was under a different name. It used to be called Nuclear Pride Fest. You know, nuclear seemed to be on a downward trajectory in many nations, and nobody was really saying anything about it. There wasn’t, I would say, nuclear advocacy. There are many advocates that have been doing this since before I was in this game. I’ve only been in this space for about five years and other people have been fighting this battle for 10-plus years, even 20-plus years. But it seemed that there wasn’t really any cohesive, collective action. 

So the idea around Nuclear Pride Fest was like, let’s just choose a day. Let’s go out, do community engagement, go back to the foundations of what it means to be an advocate, and of course, that means just talking to people on the street and promoting a vision. With nuclear energy, it really needed to be more focused on the humans. It needed a humanistic vision of how nuclear actually fits into your daily life. So, we started in 2018 and from there, you know, many advocates in different nations were like, ‘That’s a great concept, a great idea. We have a nuclear plant, or we would like a nuclear plant. Or even, one of our nuclear plants is at risk. Like, how do we get involved? How do we stand up for nuclear?’ 

And so with each year, you know, it was one day, one event; then it was multiple days in different countries; and now it’s just all throughout the year that we have actions and events. But what we’ve seen is, you know– you and I were just at SXSW– and it’s still a relatively new topic that people don’t talk about. People aren’t engaged [in] energy topics. There’s still so much work to be done, but with Stand Up, each year is better and it’s really motivating for those in the space to have other people that share that mission. 

Anna: Exactly. So yeah, we did meet at SXSW– the Anthropocene Institute sponsored all these projects, including SpaceshipOne and Stand Up for Nuclear and many others to have a booth at the Creative Industries Expo at SXSW. And it was really fun to just talk with all these different people that came by. How was that experience for you? Were people surprised to learn the benefits of nuclear? 

Paris: Yes, and I think for me, because I’m in the nuclear advocacy space, I’m just surrounded by it all the time– I think it’s great to go into a space where it’s not specifically focused on energy. It’s like, everyone is welcome. I had so many interesting conversations. Everybody loved the stickers I brought, and it was a great talking point where, you know, one of the stickers said ‘Nuclear Energy Is Clean Energy’. And I will say, many people came up to us and were like, ‘What?! Nuclear is good?! You’re for it?!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, are you not?!’ Like just even being pro-nuclear, saying that you like nuclear, that’s still a revolutionary act in itself. I think it planted a seed. 

Anna: What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate about nuclear energy with people who are hesitant or on the fence about it? Like, what facts, argument, or emotional appeal do you think shifts people’s perspectives the most? 

Paris: Yeah. Especially with a topic that is triggering for the older generations, and maybe it’s something completely new to, let’s say, millennials and younger, the majority of the time what we’ve found most effective is listening to individuals. So when somebody comes up to our table or booth or wants to know more about nuclear energy, what we found is that if you just ask questions about what they feel about it, what are your thoughts on it, we can kind of have this experience together and we discuss the things that may be triggering to them. You know, for example it’s, ‘What about the waste?’ And I just ask questions to help them get to the root of their fear. Maybe it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s radiation’. So then we talk about radiation. 

Humans, I would say, are pretty intuitive [about] when we’re trying to be sold something, or it’s unnatural, or it seems shady. And [when] talking about a topic that’s kind of weird, you just have to have a good conversation. People like to have a good time, they don’t wanna be bombarded with all these facts and figures– that’s definitely something that you can offer, but I mean, you’ve got a limited time with individuals asking about nuclear and engaging on this topic, so ask tons of questions, be there to listen, and then also understand that facts and figures aren’t usually the thing that really motivates people to change their minds. It’s that interaction that they have with the advocate. 

Anna: Yeah, I love that you focus on tailoring the conversation to whatever their concerns are or whatever they’re talking about. I’ve definitely found that to be effective in my experience as well, especially with, you know, a sensitive topic such as nuclear.

So what do you say when people bring up the waste or the radiation? Or the risk of accidents– for example, Chernobyl, or Fukushima? 

Paris: I think it’s a little bit easier maybe for myself because I came from an environmental background. I studied environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, and I had no concept of nuclear, in general. So when engaging with those [who], let’s say, have no preconceived notions about nuclear, but do have these concerns, what we have found most engaging– most helpful– is we bring into context [the] dangers in this world. I think humans have [a] skewed risk perception, right? So if we talk about the waste, I think it’s helpful to remind everybody that [nuclear] is the only energy-producing industry that has to fully account for its waste. And you know, our beloved solar and wind– solar panels do have a limited lifespan that we do need to take care of, and so do wind turbines. And then, of course, the fossil fuels have been allowed to emit toxic particles into our air without any repercussions. And still, we’re working on that. 

And then if they ask about the accidents, I think it’s helpful to remind people that accidents happen all the time. I think it’s very helpful to look at, let’s say, the aviation industry. Flying is safer than driving a car, yet many people still have the fear of flying. Let’s say there’s a couple [of] plane accidents each year; it doesn’t mean people stop flying. This is where facts and figures do play a small role. When discussing Chernobyl and Fukushima, you know, Fukushima deaths and injuries from the nuclear accident were zero, but yet the earthquake and tsunami killed thousands of individuals, and I think it does them an injustice to just focus on the nuclear accident when many people died and lost their lives to this natural disaster. 

And if we talk about radiation, you know, radiation’s all around us; you and I are radioactive. Some of the foods that we eat are radioactive. And so I think understanding their fears, acknowledging them– because they are valid– they’ve been promoted in our news outlets for the past 50 years. So it’s totally fine that they have these concerns. We acknowledge them, bringing it back to the bigger context. 

Anna: I had so many people come up to me in the booth and just say thank you for promoting nuclear. We had this big map on the main wall of our booth that shows how many lives have been saved by nuclear [power]. Nuclear plants would have been fossil fuel plants, and because they weren’t, we avoided all of that air pollution from fossil fuels. Air pollution is one of the leading causes of death. It is the leading cause of death amongst environmental factors, and a good chunk of that is from fossil fuels. 

Paris: Yeah, and I think it challenges the status quo that many people are anti-nuclear. Like there will be the forever anti-nuclear opponents, but the majority of the people, they’re not thinking about it, and they can be pro or they can be like pro-neutral. One thing was like, if you don’t wanna attend an event, then just follow us on social media. Right? Like, I think just getting information and curating that into your algorithm, you’ll start to see more things about nuclear energy. You know, when I speak with politicians, sometimes they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’ve never been spoken to about nuclear– you’re the first one that’s come up to us’. And so even just talking about nuclear to your family and friends, like: ‘Nuclear’s good. It already provides 50% of our zero-carbon energy in the states. It’s the second largest zero-carbon source in the world.’

Anna: Is the first power source, hydro?

Paris: Yep. 

Anna: For zero-carbon, yeah. 

Paris: Mm-hmm.

[Anna]: That’s a big deal. So I know you mentioned you went to UC Santa Cruz and studied environmental studies. I’d love to hear a bit more about how your upbringing and your education shaped your understanding of energy and other issues relating to the environment.

What did you think of nuclear growing up, if you thought about it at all? 

Paris: I will say I am so embarrassed ‘cos now I help other advocates around the world advocate for nuclear, but I had no idea what nuclear was. Like, I thought it was just weapons. I didn’t even know what a nuclear plant was, and that we use nuclear for electricity. It just wasn’t talked about. And I don’t think I ever took a class that was focused on energy, which is, I mean, an injustice, really. 

I mean, energy is the foundation that allows societies to be built and to prosper. Energy is life, for all of us, and there’s still, you know, 700 million people in this world that don’t have access to electricity and energy. So growing up, I had no concept. They spoke about nuclear energy in one of my classes at City College briefly, but of course, it was just focused on the radioactive waste and possibly sending it to space. Like it was something so stupid. 

Anna: *Laughs*

Paris: It was so sad. But going to UC Santa Cruz, that’s hippie university, right? Like, the campus is in the redwood forest, and like half the people are vegetarian or vegan, and I became vegan, and made my own deodorant. I was in the camp, I would say, that believed our world is gonna have to undergo a huge transformation on how we view life and how we’ve done things. We had this disdain for people that were like, ‘We can just solve this problem with technological fixes’. And for us, [it was] like, nah, everybody’s gonna go back to just consuming less and flying less and doing less. And it was looking a little bleak. 

It wasn’t until I got a job at a nonprofit in the Bay Area that focused on nuclear energy. Part of the hiring process was watching one of the TED talks from the founders [on] why they changed their mind about nuclear. And because I didn’t have any knowledge, any baggage, any fear, I was like, ‘Heck yes! Clean, reliable power– who wouldn’t want that?!’

Anna: Exactly. Was it Michael Shellenberger’s Ted Talk that you watched?

Paris: Yeah. I used to work for Michael Shellenberger at his nonprofit called Environmental Progress here in Berkeley. 

Anna: Yeah, I remember watching that, too, several years ago, [and] having a bit of an ‘ah-ha’ moment. 

Paris: I’m glad another person had that, ‘cos for me, I watched it and I was like, ‘One and done. I’m here.’ Especially [since], you know, Michael himself is, I think for some, a controversial figure, but with his background, he was involved in the original Green New Deal under Obama, and so he was the classic environmentalist who I identified with. So I was like: ‘Well, if this person believes this and this is how they came to that conclusion, I’m for it.’ We have to have that space to change our mind and to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I changed my mind, I was wrong, and let me share it with you all.’

Anna: Absolutely. So I wanna hear more about Stand Up For Nuclear’s events and actions. 

Paris: Yeah, so Stand Up continues to grow. People are added to our WhatsApp groups every week. Stand Up now, for example, will be heading to Earth Day in San Francisco, and a couple other groups will be doing a local booth at their Earth Day, some in New York and Germany. One event isn’t enough and we have to keep the momentum and give opportunities to get involved. It’s slowly growing into a more sustainable movement rather than just focusing on events, but actions all throughout the year. 

And so in Germany, for example, we have a couple groups that we work with there. Unfortunately, the German government has chosen to phase out their nuclear and replace it with coal. So they’re currently opening up new coal mines to replace the lost generation from nuclear. And so working with our groups, we’ve been able to do, you know, counter-protests to anti-nuclear. We’ve been able to join climate marches. We’ve been able to host debates and speaking gigs for our allies. Not everybody’s gonna be, you know, our classic activist going out there holding a banner, protesting, but there are actions that every individual can do. 

It’s a wide range of what advocacy looks like. Speaking with our politicians, supporting legislation that includes positive language for nuclear– there is a movement in the US to repeal nuclear moratoriums. In my home state of California, we still have a nuclear moratorium, although we saved our plant for an additional five years. You know, 50% of our electricity comes from gas, so we still have a long way to go. We have had little wins in the past couple years, and I think the energy crisis has really highlighted nuclear’s role. There [are] many forms of advocacy and I’m really eager to see what certain groups come up with and what they’re able to accomplish. 

California’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (Image: American Nuclear Society)

Anna: Me too. So for our listeners, what is one thing they can do to support nuclear advocacy or Stand Up For Nuclear? 

Paris: Wonderful. So, [the] first one is, follow us on social media. If you just wanna kind of get a feel of what we’re looking at, [or] who’s involved with us, I think that’s a very easy step that you can take. So we’re most active on Twitter and Instagram, and if you wanna know more, if you have a question, if you wanna be put in contact with maybe a local group, or even start your own local group, send us an email. On the website, you’re able to contact us through the form or email and we’ll reach out to you. We love the one-on-one conversations. 

And for anybody that loves films and wants to look more into nuclear and is a very visual person, there is a new film that’s coming out. It’s called Nuclear Now. It was done by Oliver Stone and Joshua Goldstein, and it basically leads through the journey of, you know, what images we were fed, especially older generations, around [the] Cold War, nuclear weapons, [and] apocalyptic visions for the future. And then goes into, you know, what nuclear’s current status is, and how people are using it now. Many countries are moving back towards nuclear. It will be premiered in New York [on] April 28th, and will be in theaters across the US in over 300 theaters on May 1st, as well as internationally. 

Anna: Awesome. Yeah, so that information will be in the show notes. Nuclear energy is clean energy!

Paris: Exactly, baby! Clean. 

Anna: We love it.