Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Legacy of the Myth

Legacies are complex creatures.
War Memorial Court, commonly known as The Pylons.
I started college as a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, the military core of what was once an all male, all military, institution. On top of that, I joined the Corps of Cadets as freshman in the Regimental Band of Virginia Tech, the Highty Tighties.
The Highty Tighties, Circa 2008
Amongst the larger body of cadets, the legacy of the Corps of Cadets has a certain meaning, but in the Highty Tighties, or HTs, it takes on a whole new dimension of meaning. Right off the bat you learn that you are working towards becoming part of the heart and soul of the heart and soul of Virginia Tech. Then they show you the trophies, photographs, etc., and what was just word takes on another dimension, it becomes material, "real", so to speak.

But there are always two sides to a story.

Current HTs and HT alumni I met during my time would talk about the early days of the band and the Corps of Cadets as well as the glorious 1950s and 60s, but not much about anytime afterwards. In fact, the few stories I remember about the HTs in this "afterglow" period are about how the band, and the Corps of Cadets in general, sank to a less than respectable status in the university.

Granted, part of this "fall from grace" tale is hyperbole.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that from the 1970s onwards (the period that exactly coincides with the "fall from grace") Virginia Tech's shift from an all white, predominantly male military school, to an all inclusive modern institution, changed the role, and the fortunes, of the Corps of Cadets.

In reality, the "material reality" of what Virginia Tech was and is and the symbols used to describe both the legacy and the "afterglow" of the HTs are in fact the same story. Like a mixture of oil and water left to sit, they were once merged together.
Nucla, Colorado between 1910 and 1920
The legacy of uranium extraction in the American West possesses a similar quality when framed in the arguments of those who do/do not support the return of uranium extraction (such as the Pinon Ridge Mill) to western Colorado. Like the HTs and their relationship to the greater forces that mold and shape Virginia Tech, uranium extraction has an equally long lived place of symbolic and material meaning to latch on to.


As the final project for Advanced Science Communication (the blog this class is for) I took a look at how proponents and opponents of Pinon Ridge frame the legacy of Uravan, both in the positive and negative sense, in their arguments for what the future of the uranium industry should be.

What I found was, despite the rhetoric and emotion associated with both sides, both were portraying Uravan accurately, if you accounted the moment in time they spoke of.
USV Uravan Commissary Circa mid-1940s
Proponents of Uravan note that the community at its height was a bustling center of western Colorado. A little slice of order in what was otherwise a world of prospectors and shifting economic tides. Symbolically Uravan functions for them as the idealized uranium centric community, free from the interfering hand of the government that, for some, brought it down. Materially, Uravan was a place of prosperity, a community of nearly 1,000 that could afford the best teachers, doctors, and facilities in western Montrose County.
Opponents on the other hand argue that Uravan is the product of unbridled corporate greed and government incompetence. For them, Uravan symbolizes environmental and social ruin at its worst. Materially, this Uravan is not a bustling town, but the complete opposite, a government run environmental cleanup of the worst kind, a Superfund site.

In reality, Uravan is both a place of growth and prosperity, and environmental and social ruin.
Uravan, 1978
The former is Uravan during the uranium booms of the 1950s and 70s, a time when nuclear power was considered the solution for the world's energy needs. Conversely, the latter case is Uravan during the 1980s, where a mix of the uranium market's bottom dropping out and the ever mounting costs necessary to stabilize the decades of waste rock (tailings) built up around the town forced Union Carbide to shut up shop. This Uravan, no longer a part of a viable uranium industry, turned into a battleground over who exactly was going to clean it all up and who would pay for it all.

Now, after reaching this conclusion I thought to myself: "okay, so what do we do to break this mess up?" It's been five years since Energy Fuels began the process of getting the proper approvals for building Pinon Ridge, and so far its led to a lot of headaches, talking past each other, and more recently, litigation.
The Paradox Valley, Colorado
Pacing around my apartment (the people upstairs should be thankful I live on the first floor) I began to think about what other people had said about how western Coloradans have always had a strong distrust of the government...

And then it hit me.

Legacy of Conquest

In the revised edition of Patty Limerick's game-changing novel on the history of the American West, she makes an interesting, if not timely, comment about addressing the myths and legacies of the American West:

In countless showdowns and contests, the romanticized, commercialized, Myth of the West prevailed over my plucky challenges to it. After defeats beyond counting, a new strategy seemed in order. Why not try to co-opt the myth and enlist its endless energy for good causes? Moreover, why not even have fun with it?

At the rate I keep making plugs for Patty Limerick, I must either be trying to get into CU's History Ph.D. program (I am not) or I am becoming like every other scholar of the American West.

Pretty sure its the latter.

Anyways, it struck me that what I had before me was a similar "myth of the west"; both supporters and opponents strongly identified with the notion that you cannot trust the government to look out for your best interests. While each side argued it from a different angle (free market economics versus environmental protection) both reached at some level or another the same conclusions.

Co-opting this notion of distrust may serve to accomplish what legally mandated processes have failed to produce: real discourse. By getting stakeholders on both sides to come out and talk in an environment where they, not the government, are in control, it might be possible to generate discussion that will lead to actual results. Investing power in the people might not only bring them to the table, but encourage them to take responsibility for the future of western Colorado.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Geiger's Project Plowshare and Nuclear Harbors de Luxe

You DO use nuclear weapons, hmmm?
Between the fog and the mizzle (misty rain) today, a film noir themed post seemed appropriate. Today, The Week published an article about how during the late 1950s, the United States planned on using nuclear weapons to respond to the stir created by USSR's successful launch of the first satellite, Sputnik. First documented in the biography of the legendary science communicator, Carl Sagan, who was only a graduate student at the time, the project, conceived by physicist Leonard Reiffel, would detonate a nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) at the edge of the light and dark side of the moon so as to have the greatest psychological effect and global visibility.

The project was scrapped almost as soon as it was put together, and while it may be one of the most ridiculous uses of nuclear weapons ever thought of, it certainly is not the only one. Project Plowshare was the American government's plan starting in the 1950s and ending in the early 1970s to find a "peaceful, non-military use" for nuclear weapons.

While I could go on about the cultural aspects of nuclear science as the technological solution and the economics of making a nuclear weapon, I'll try to stick to the odd ideas the Atomic Energy Commission came up with for peacetime uses of nuclear weapons. Among the more intriguing projects were attempts to fracture rocks for the release of natural gas and oil, as well as leach copper from deposits still in the ground.

Project Chariot Harbor Excavation Plan
Everyone of the Project Plowshare nuclear explosions occurred in either Nevada, Colorado, or New Mexico, with the lion's share happening on the Nevada Test Site. One of the projects that was shelved (mainly because of strong opposition by the public) was Project Chariot, a plan to blast a harbor out near Cape Thompson in Alaska by using around 2.4 Megatons (Megaton = 1,000,000 tons of TNT) worth of nuclear explosives.

Cape Thompson, Alaska
The father of the Hydrogen Bomb, Edward Teller, personally went to Alaska to promote this project, and found a somewhat cool response (heh, Alaska jokes) from the local businesses. At over 300 miles north of the nearest harbor of importance, Nome, a harbor at Cape Thompson would be frozen the majority of the year. Furthermore, the "reason" for blasting out the harbor was to provide access for ships to take coal mined from the Brooks Range hundreds of miles away down to the continental United States. To make matters worse, the site sits less than 200 miles from the Siberian coastline, and as you might imagine, the Russians did not take lightly to Americans using nuclear explosives so near their waters, peaceful intent or not.

Point Hope, Alaska
However, in what quite possibly constitutes the first successful opposition to the federal government's nuclear technology programs, the native Iñupiat people, residing in Point Hope 30 miles to the south, along with the ecologists residing at the University of Alaska, brought enough attention to the potential environmental, health, and social effects of the project that by the time the Atomic Energy Commission realized Cape Thompson was not an ideal site, there was very little chance they would be able to move ahead anyways.

The costs and benefits of defeating this project were mixed; on one hand the Iñupiat people ushered in an new age of Alaskan Native activism that would eventually lead to the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. However, the University of Alaska scientists who opposed the project, William Pruitt and Leslie Viereck, found themselves out of a job and blacklisted from other institutions in the United States. So bad was the experience for Pruitt and his family (his mother was interrogated by the FBI) he moved to Canada in 1965 and did not return to the United States until his friends and colleagues successfully campaigned the University of Alaska to reinstate both him and Leslie Viereck.

The year was 1993.

For more information on Project Chariot and the battle waged against it, see Dan O'Neill's "Alaska and the Firecracker Boys" in Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay's The Atomic West.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Can We Have Moderate Voices?

At the beginning of my foray into blogging, I mentioned that I was at a conference on land management and policy in the American West hosted by the Center of the American West. The Center and its founder, Dr. Patty Limerick, have worked for the past two plus decades to walk the proverbial "razor's edge" concerning contentious issues in the American West such as water rights and natural gas extraction. After struggling to get our schedules to match for months, I finally got to talk to her about a book she began to write on the history of nuclear technology in the American West.

Well, we sort of got sidetracked.

Dr. Limerick and the Center have begun work on a grant related to the recent controversy over natural gas extraction via the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" method (no Cylons were involved in the creating of this controversy). As the humanities wing of this grant, the Center has begun to gear up to do what they do best: moderate contentious debates.

One of the things that Dr. Limerick and I talked about during this discussion was how intense these debates can get and how these emotions are expressed not only by "the public", but "rational", and more importantly credentialed scientists. In these cases, being a moderator means not only controlling voices, but learning ways to get them to talk to each other, even if indirectly.

It was interesting that Dr. Limerick expressed the need for moderate voices, because the week before, the Colorado School of Mines Nuclear Engineering program director, Dr. Jeffrey King, expressed a similar need for moderate voices, specifically "Honest Brokers". Honest Brokers are, in essence, individuals who like Dr. Limerick try to expand the range of policy options through fostering discussion and consensus. Honest Brokers don't advocate a particular position, they strive to get policymakers to think about all the options and the consequences of each particular pathway.

Lots of scholars who engage with policymakers talk about this idea of moderation or honest brokering, but never dive into the nitty gritty of how we can have these moderate voices engage in meaningful ways.

Nuclear Energy Panel at the Western Energy Policy Research Conference (I'm on the right)
This question is something that I struggle with on a daily basis as I too try to walk the middle path between support and opposition to nuclear energy in an effort to be an "Honest Broker-in-training". After a year of trying to do this, I think I have a few reasons as to why moderate voices, especially associated with energy extraction, are so hard to find. 

(1) Energy isn't just about economics.

From my own research and talking to other scholars who deal with the societal aspects of energy extraction, I find it very hard to believe that choices concerning energy are a matter of economics alone. Economics does not explain why Naturita residents tied the refurbishment of the Uranium Drive-In sign to the hope that the uranium industry would return to western Colorado. Energy technologies have a certain culture about them, and this culture is reflected in many of the people who interface with the technology on a daily basis.

(2) Scientists are people, too.

This might seem a little silly, but even scientists fall prey to the idea that "science" me and "everyday" me are two different people. Does putting on a lab coat or booting up a process modeling program make you suddenly not, "you"? Of course not. People are always people, and walking the middle road, especially when it comes to energy technologies, means knowing who you are and actively working to keep an open mind. Given the cultural elements of energy technologies, this can be especially difficult.

(3) You are a product of your expertise.

Being a product of your expertise does not mean that you are a mindless automaton that only knows one subject; it means that sometimes you are only viewed through the lens that is your degree. Think about it this way: can you imagine a Petroleum Engineering student who despises oil and natural gas extraction? A Nuclear Engineering student who thinks nuclear power is not a solution to the world's energy needs?

Not easily.

People who carry technology-specific degrees, especially petroleum and nuclear engineers, who are typically equated with O&G and nuclear, respectively, have a hard time convincing others that they are not their degree.

As Dr. King expressed last week, nuclear engineers tend to end up being placed by their peers and the world in general in one of two categories: for or against nuclear power. The problem with this dichotomy is twofold. First, nuclear engineers, like petroleum engineers, and all other engineers, are not a product of their degree. They have the ability to think for themselves and many are quite frankly ambivalent about whether nuclear power is "the solution" or not. Second, this dichotomy makes acting as a Honest Broker when you have or are working on a nuclear engineering degree especially difficult. No one expects a nuclear engineer to provide a moderating voice about Yucca Mountain.

I know this from experience.

Being the moderate voice like Dr. Limerick is not a role you develop overnight. It requires decades of relationship building and open communication with voices on both sides of an issue. Even then, though, you may still have to deal with the reality that people will always view you based on your degree.

You're just a chemist. You're just a sociologist. 

The Decommissioned Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant
Developing moderate voices around such subjects as fracking and nuclear power will require not only willing and able students, but environments that are tailored to promote broadening the scope of what scientists and engineers consider relevant. So, I suppose the real question of the day is not "Can we have moderate voices?", but rather "How do we develop moderate voices?"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The "Big Picture"

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture for the Advanced Science Communication class this blog is for on how "the public" uses science to support their arguments for or against a particular project, such as the proposed Pinon Ridge uranium mill in western Colorado. The idea of an engineer talking about research in science communication might seem a little ridiculous, but it really makes a lot of sense. You just have to expand your mind about what constitutes an "engineering project".

Engineering students learn a great deal during their undergraduate education about how to approach solving complex problems. Usually the steps include learning the basics (chemistry, physics), connecting the basics together (statics, mechanics, thermodynamics, transport phenomena), taking the basics to the next level (reactor kinetics), and finally put all the pieces together to design something (senior design). In very few cases do engineering students ever talk about the processes that surround their engineering designs.

Last week, the Telluride Daily Planet published an article talking about the public hearings currently going on over Energy Fuels’ application for a license to begin constructing the uranium mill. This new round of hearings is the product of a lawsuit filed by the Sheep Mountain Alliance last year against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) over the validity of the previous hearing process.

Here is where understanding the system that surrounds an engineering design comes into play:

According to the Colorado Code of Regulations, 6 CCR 1007-1 Part 18 (yes that was from memory), the legal process to license a mill that processes radioactive material (such as uranium or thorium) must have two public meetings where:

"One or both of the meetings shall be a hearing conducted to comply with section 24-4-104 or 24-4-105, CRS." 

This is where the CDPHE went afoul. Part 18.6 give very specific requirements as to what a hearing is, and how the public can participate in the process. Organizations and members of the public can apply for "party status" in these hearings, which gives them the right "to make motions or objections, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and appeal from the decision" amongst other things.

In the original set of meetings, no organization or member of the public had party status or the opportunity to do anything but walk up to the microphone and argue their case for their allotted time. It was because of this distinction between a "hearing" and a "meeting" that in June of this year, the Denver District Court ruled that the CDPHE failed to provide an opportunity for a public hearing and ordered the CDPHE to convene a proper hearing within 75 days of July 5, 2012.  

It is important to note that while the court ruled in favor of the Sheep Mountain Alliance on this count, the court ruled against the Sheep Mountain Alliance on a multitude of claims related to the scientific and engineering information contained within Energy Fuels’ license application.  

Now, you could say that this issue was in fact a legal one, and has nothing to do with engineering. That's true, but only to a certain point. Like science communication, the connections between legal code and engineering design don't seem obvious until you think about the bigger process.

Engineers are, at their core, problem solvers. It's why they tend to abhor talking about "nothing". Nothing, though, can mean something, especially to people outside of the technical sphere. Completing large engineering projects, especially those concerned with energy resource extraction, means engineers must be able to interact with the public through various legally and non-legally mandated pathways.     

Consequently, "problem solving" means working with the public to reach a solution that is favorable to everyone. Failing to engage the public (especially through legally mandated pathways) not only tarnishes your credibility, but also increases the time and energy involved in a project.