River Bennett: Clean water advocate working to become a nuclear engineer to help ease our reliance on fossil fuels
My desire to work in nuclear energy comes as the result of a nonlinear series of interests ultimately rooted in a love for where I come from. My hometown is Nantucket – a small island off the coast of Massachusetts that is well known for its history as a whaling port and today as a popular summer destination for tourists. What is lesser known is the quality and the passion of its local year round and part-time community – one that prides itself on its diversity, inclusiveness, and relentless attention to empowering its children.
These values helped to shape who I am and from a young age I became interested in the concept of “global development”. Having grown up on an island and spending much of my time on the water surfing, swimming, and sailing it was no surprise that I would become passionate about access to water and sanitation – a passion made all the more indelible to others by having a name like “River”. Throughout high school and college I fundraised, interned, and traveled for groups like PlayPumps International, Water For People, Global Brigades, and charity: water to try and contribute to the movement to improve global water access.
Water access is an important developmental lynchpin with a significant return on investment when it comes to raising collective living standards. In many developing parts of the world, gaining access to clean water reduces the risk of illness, empowers women, and creates the necessary time and space for enterprise to grow. No other cause seemed as important or foundational to focus my energy onto.
But there was an elephant in the room – an issue that made me uncomfortable and one that too many of us are still grappling with or choose not to consider. As larger and larger swaths of humanity begin to leave agrarian communities behind to enter more industrialized sectors of society, their consumption grows on all fronts: the size of their living space, their food and water consumption, and the amount of energy they use. Over the past 25 years, 2.5 billion people have gained access to clean water and while that is a beautifully large number, it also represents additional stress placed on the systems and resources that each of us depend on.
Based on encouraging statistics like this (and many more – just ask Hans Rosling), the trajectory seemed clear: the world is changing rapidly and many people are and will continue to experience unprecedented gains in their standard of living. What wasn’t so clear was how we were going to balance all of this newfound demand. Energy consumption is the most basic development indicator and if the world is to continue on a path towards consuming even a fraction of what we do in the West, the additional expansion in energy capacity will need to be as clean as possible.
I really didn’t know too much about nuclear power until the end of college. I had grown up without understanding how fundamental it is to our supply of low-carbon energy and I assumed that wind and solar were our one-way ticket to ending our reliance on fossil fuels. Fortunately, given the opportunity to explore this topic while writing my undergraduate political science thesis on the rhetoric surrounding American energy independence, I was enlightened by something I had been so uninformed about. Not until then did I understand how gargantuan our energy infrastructure is and how embedded it is in our day-to-day life. If we wanted to continue decarbonizing our economy while at the same time installing new low-carbon energy capacity around the world, the numbers simply didn’t add up in the favor of those sources we call “renewable”.
Being born and raised on Nantucket also exposed me to the Cape Wind project during the early 2000’s. The proposal to build 130 offshore wind turbines in Nantucket Sound was exciting as it would be the first offshore wind farm in the United States and was intended to immediately reduce the amount of gas and oil-generated electricity in the region. It seemed like traction towards decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels. But there was significant local resistance to the project and while some of it could be attributed to NIMBYism, the feelings were not unfounded. The 24-square mile project would have had significant impacts on wildlife and even threatened the local tourism and fishing industries. Included in the list of problems was also the fact that 68,000 gallons of diesel, insulating oils, and lubricating oils for upkeep would at any given time be stored in the turbines and maintenance facilities suspended over the Sound. It seemed there were some tradeoffs for “clean” energy.
In comparison, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts – all current problems aside – takes up less than a square mile of land and at normal generating capacity creates more electricity than the Cape Wind project would have at peak capacity. These were the types of numbers I kept running into that made it difficult to ignore nuclear energy and the seemingly impossible work it accomplishes every day of generating immense amounts of power at low cost to the environment. It’s also important to mention that the problems PNPS is experiencing include symptoms of nation-wide problems affecting nuclear like the increasing economic pressure of cheap natural gas and nuclear’s exclusion from state renewable energy portfolios. The more specific safety issues are among those that currently frame the research going into next-generation reactor models.
Since graduating from college I have lived in Spain and have kept up with the nuclear cause and its developments. My interest has grown to the point that I recently began the prerequisite classes necessary to apply for an MS in Nuclear Engineering. Many of my peers are shocked when I tell them this but when I explain the developments in nuclear taking place in regards to things like cost, safety, and management of unspent fuel, they begin to understand the importance.
With a bachelor’s degree in politics as a foundation, my plan for the coming years is to study, remain focused on current research being done, and continually place myself among those who are moving this field forward.