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Meltdown at Nuclear Panel in Chicago

By Jamie Leventhal

A panel discussion focused on the benefits of nuclear power in Illinois on Monday evening at Medill’s Chicago campus turned into a heated debate between audience members and panelists.

The panel was sponsored by Environmental Progress Illinois, an organization of independent scientists and conservationists dedicated to saving and expanding nuclear power in Illinois. The event brought in an audience of about 40 to hear short presentations by the panelists and raise their concerns during an open discussion. While the panelists – climate scientist James Hansen, Environmental Progress’ Michael Shellenberger and Pritzker Innovation Fund’s Rachel Pritzker – all voiced their opinions in favor of nuclear power, many audience members expressed their disapproval.

The event began with the speakers’ presentations, in which they highlighted nuclear power’s cleanliness, efficiency, and safety, especially in Illinois.

“I think if we could find a way to level the playing field for zero carbon technologies, we might discover a new reason to value nuclear,” Pritzker said.

However, disagreement arose between panelists and outspoken audience members about the safety of nuclear power plants compared to other renewable energy power sources. Panelist Michael Shellenberger spoke about the low mortality rates from nuclear power compared with other fuel sources, nuclear’s unfair reputation.

“How can you make a plant that doesn’t kill anybody any safer?” Shellenberger said. “The real danger here is our irrational fear of this technology.”.

His words were not forgotten. Like the broken relief valve that created the nuclear meltdown on Three Mile Island in 1979, his small comment about “our irrational fear” of nuclear power set off an especially explosive member of the audience. Margaret Aguilar, who defined herself as a concerned citizen, discussed her concerns with nuclear plants’ susceptibility to earthquakes and tsunamis, the potential leakage of nuclear waste into water systems, and contamination of Navajo lands through mining.

“My fears are not minor. My fears are not unfounded. My fears are not silly, which is what you are saying,” said Aguilar, a former nurse

Here came the meltdown. In his response, Shellenberger called Aguilar’s viewpoint a “belief” in comparison to his own views, which he claimed to be backed by peer-reviewed science. The two bickered back and forth until moderator Abigail Foerstner cleaned up the mess and prompted more respectful discussion.

“What [Shellenberger] said is that I have a belief. I don’t have a belief. My view of the situation has been affected by scientific information,” said Aguilar after the panel.

Aguilar claimed that the panelists had focused on anecdotes instead of science. Some might see her fears about nuclear power as realistic, but they are actually quintessential viewpoints for older generations.

“I think the older generation of anti-nuclear activists have a very good reason to be afraid and concerned, and that’s because they grew up in the era of atomic weapons, and… where nuclear waste was an issue that affected people’s lives,” said mental health therapist and climate activist Ariane Norrgard, “We today have technology that can actually utilize waste from light water reactors and make it into energy.”

So is nuclear the energy source we need, or a dangerous path to more destruction? For now, it looks like it depends who you’re asking.

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