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The Cause: Nuclear Power Proponent Howard Shaffer

Howard Shaffer, here outside an Enfield power substation holding a sign powered by tritium, is a longtime advocate for nuclear power and the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Shaffer believes scientists need to do a better job allaying the public’s fears about the dangers of radiation.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Howard Shaffer, here outside an Enfield power substation holding a sign powered by tritium, is a longtime advocate for nuclear power and the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Shaffer believes scientists need to do a better job allaying the public’s fears about the dangers of radiation. Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

The Man: Howard Shaffer, 71, of Enfield.

The Cause: "Saving nuclear power for my grandchildren, and the world."

The Means: Public speaking, writing op-eds and letters to the editor, appearing at demonstrations in support of Vermont Yankee, offering testimony in support of nuclear power at anti-nuclear meetings.

The Impetus: An engineer who worked at Vermont Yankee and other facilities, Shaffer has been a pro-nuclear power activist for more than 30 years after becoming convinced during the course of his career that nuclear power is a clean, safe alternative to many of the common sources of power such as coal and natural gas.When I left the Navy and after I went to graduate school at MIT, I worked in Luddington, Mich., as an engineer on a pump storage unit at a power plant. During my time there, I got into my first debate about nuclear power, and I got to thinking, "Gee, am I wrong about this?" So I began examining the facts, whether or not what they were saying was true.

I found out there was a grain of truth in it (that there are dangers associated with nuclear plants, such as radiation exposure and meltdown), but when you stop looking for perfection in nuclear power and compare the alternatives, you are far better off. Most of the things being said about nuclear power in a post-Three Mile Island, post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima age are being wildly exaggerated. There's a small group of people that are genuinely concerned and scared, but among the scientific community, that fear doesn't exist.

What the scientific community doesn't do is communicate well with the public, particularly with the people that have these fears. What needs to be communicated with the public is that radiation is a natural force, like other natural forces, and a powerful one. So you have to understand it, and never be afraid, but always careful and cautious. Marie Curie was quoted once (as saying), "Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood." What we need to learn is to not be afraid so we can understand more.

Of all the power that's generated in Vermont, Vermont Yankee is responsible for more than one third. None of this power is being sold in Vermont. It's going off to other customers and other states. To fill in the gap, one of Vermont's utilities is buying power from the Seabrook nuclear plant (in New Hampshire). Vermont also has contracts from HydroQuebec.

There isn't any free lunch when it comes to power. There isn't any way to have more people on the Earth and more technology and no more impact on the environment. We really have to ask the question, not only to the people around Vermont Yankee, I think, but also at Lowell Mountain, where the wind turbines are, and in New Hampshire at the Northern Pass transmission project, "What is your fair share of the environmental impact?" You ask the Northern Pass people, "You still want gas for your cars? Do you have an oil refinery here?" And they say, "We don't want that, somebody else has to take the impact of that." You can apply that to any source. We want to be nice and clean and pristine here, but somebody else has to have the environmental impact for what makes us be pristine.

To those who are against nuclear power, I would say, please, look at the science and think about the evidence you see around you about radiation. Uses of radiation for beneficial purposes have been going on for 100 years. One century is a lot of experience, and there's been an awful lot of research over the effects of radiation and nuclear power on our bodies and the environment. We have the instruments to measure radiation, and we know what the limits are. The regulations for radiation have been set very conservatively; they are about a thousand times too safe. It doesn't mean we should up everyone's exposure, but the (least) we should do is stop being afraid.

Photograph and interview by Sarah Priestap

Published in print on September 9, 2012.

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