Energy Department Scientists Barred From Attending Nuclear Power Conference
By Elliott Negin
Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was one of 30 U.S.-based scientists scheduled to speak at the quadrennial International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on fast breeder nuclear reactors in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in late June. Lyman did not attend the previous two conferences, in Kyoto in 2009 and Paris in 2013, and was looking forward to rubbing shoulders with hundreds of scientists from around the world, including more than two dozen from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories.
Shortly after he arrived, however, Lyman learned that the 27 DOE lab scientists listed in the conference program were no-shows. One session featuring a panel of four DOE lab scientists talking about code development was cancelled outright, Lyman said, while a handful of other panel discussions, originally comprised of five to six speakers, soldiered on without U.S. participation. "On the first day, the DOE attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow gave a 20-minute talk about the U.S. fast reactor program and refused to take questions," he said. "That was it for the Energy Department." Three DOE scientists did attend the conference, according to the DOE, but none of them were part of the official program.
Sandra Bogetic, a University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student who presented a research poster at the conference, also couldn't help but notice that the DOE scientists were missing. Bogetic's poster session was slated to include presentations by 122 scientists from 17 countries, including a dozen scientists from DOE labs. The DOE scientists were nowhere to be found, and another five DOE scientists missed a second poster session the following day.
"Everyone was in shock that they didn't show up," Bogetic said. "It's the most important conference for fast reactors, and it was a lost opportunity for U.S. scientists to share their work at a conference that takes place only every four years."
Mum's the Word
Scientists planning to speak or present posters at the IAEA conference were asked to hand in their papers to conference organizers last December, five months before the event. The deadline was then extended into January, and at that point, the 27 DOE lab scientists were all on board to participate.
In early April, however, the DOE scientists received an email from Sal Golub, associate deputy assistant secretary for nuclear technology research and development at the DOE, indirectly telling them that the agency was not going to let them go.
"Yesterday," Golub wrote, "we informally notified the IAEA conference organizers of the following: Representatives from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy and DOE/NE contractors at the National Labs are currently unable to travel to Russia, which means they will not be able to attend the IAEA's Fast Reactor conference in June." He also assured the scientists that the DOE was "working with the organizers to adjust the program to reflect our absence," which obviously didn't happen.
Golub gave no reason why DOE scientists were "unable" to travel to Russia, and, when I asked him for an explanation, he referred me to the DOE public relations office. Spokespeople at department headquarters in Washington, DC and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois—where 15 of the 27 missing DOE scientists are based—were equally unhelpful.
A DOE spokesperson in Washington, who declined to be identified, responded in an email: "We greatly value cooperation with the IAEA and plan to continue to do so whenever we can. The Department of Energy and the [U.S.] Embassy were represented at the event."
Christopher Kramer, Argonne's media relations manager, also avoided answering my question. "I can tell you that Argonne greatly values its relationship with the IAEA and plans to continue cooperation whenever we can," he said in an email. "... From what I understand, Argonne did have two people in attendance at the conference in question."
I emailed both PR officers back and again asked why the scientists weren't at the conference. No response.
Finally, I called a random sample of the grounded scientists. It was another dead end.
"I wasn't able to attend," one said tersely. "I won't talk about it." Click. "We were told not to deal with outside media or organizations," said another. Click. Two others were slightly more talkative, but neither could clear up the mystery. "I know very little about the decision" to cancel the trip, said one of the scheduled panelists. "It was above my pay grade. I basically followed orders from management." The other scientist, a would-be poster session participant, was clearly perturbed. "The only reason I know is the [DOE] Office of Nuclear Energy wouldn't let people go," he said. "They didn't give us a reason. I don't know what their rationale is. Other U.S. government agencies are sending their people to Russia."
Trump's War on Science or a New Cold War?
So what's the story behind the case of the missing DOE scientists?
It could come down to money. It's certainly no secret that the Trump administration wants to slash DOE science spending. Just last month, for instance, the department closed its Office of International Climate and Technology, eliminating 11 staff positions. The office, which was established in 2010, provided technical advice to other countries on ways to reduce carbon emissions. The administration's proposed federal budget, meanwhile, would cut the annual budget of the DOE Office of Science—the nation's largest funder of the physical sciences—by 17 percent to $4.47 billion, its lowest level since 2008, not adjusting for inflation. Outlays for nuclear energy research would drop 28 percent. Even more drastic, the budget for the department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would plunge nearly 70 percent.
DOE spokespeople, however, didn't cite financial constraints as a reason, and the cost of sending the scientists to Russia was presumably built into the fiscal year 2017 budget, which predated the Trump administration. In any case, Bogetic, the Berkeley grad student, told me that one of the scientists who wasn't allowed to attend the conference asked the DOE if he could pay his own way. The answer was no.
It's also tempting to chalk it up to the Trump administration's war on science. Besides barring federal scientists from attending conferences, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the administration also has been preventing scientists from speaking publicly, dismissing key scientific advisors, denying public access to taxpayer-funded information, and ignoring scientific evidence to justify rolling back public health, environmental and workplace safeguards. No doubt, the administration's hostility toward federal scientists may have been a factor.
The most likely explanation, however, is where the conference took place—Russia—and what it was about—nuclear energy.
U.S.-Russian relations, notwithstanding President Trump's bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been deteriorating for quite some time. The White House is under investigation for colluding with Moscow to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and Congress just passed tougher sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, annexing Crimea, and supporting eastern Ukraine separatists.
Nuclear-related relations between the U.S. and Russia are also frayed. Last October, in response to U.S. sanctions, Putin suspended a U.S.-Russian agreement to dispose of excess weapons grade plutonium; an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. on nuclear energy-related research; and a pact between the DOE and Rosatom—the Russian state atomic energy corporation—to conduct feasibility studies on converting six Russian research reactors to safer, low-enriched uranium.
Putin's actions didn't get much media attention, but they should have. Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last December, Siegfried Hecker, former director of the DOE's Los Alamos National Laboratory, warned that "the Kremlin's systematic termination of nuclear cooperation with the United States … sets the clock back, putting both countries at enormous risk and endangering global stability."
Rosatom was the co-host of the June IAEA conference, which was held in Yekaterinburg mainly because the world's largest operating fast reactor is only 35 miles away, at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant. Conference participants were treated to a tour of the 880-megawatt BN-800 reactor, which began generating power last year, as well as its smaller predecessor, the BN-600, which has been running since 1980. There are only four other fast reactors currently in operation worldwide: one in China, two in India, and another one in Russia.
The IAEA conference, however, was not Russo-centric. Scientists from more than two dozen countries, including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea and Sweden, participated. And despite Russia's suspension of nuclear cooperation with the U.S., U.S. scientists were welcome.
"Scientists shouldn't be limited by political problems," said Bogetic. "We are scientists. We need to communicate."
Lyman, the UCS physicist who participated in a panel discussion at the conference, agrees. "With so many communication channels between the U.S. and Russia now cut off, it's essential to preserve scientific cooperation in areas where there is common ground between the two countries," he said. "Preventing DOE scientists from attending the IAEA conference—for whatever reason—was shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating."
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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