Sarah Woolf

As a small child, terrified of thunder, my parents used to bundle me up on stormy nights and take my sister and I onto our back porch to appreciate the beauty of the tempest. Enveloped in the warming smell of rain, I watched in the distance, as the lightning danced across the endless fields. Flickers of light offered glimpses of the grand thunderheads rolling boldly across the sky as the swirling streaks of rain playfully frolicked around them. 

I spent evenings and summers exploring the undeveloped areas behind our little subdivision with my sister: frogging, adventuring, learning. Small things that instilled in me a love of Mother Earth. Growing up near Wichita, on the Kansas plains, in the middle of tornado alley, I developed my awe for nature — its unyielding power, and its intense beauty.

Later, I developed a fascination with the Native American culture local to our community. Through immersion and interest I developed an understanding of and appreciation for the fundamental idea that we as humans are dependent on the Earth, so we must care for it and live our lives sustainably to avoid eliminating our resources. That generations-to-come depend on us doing things now to ensure their futures.

Yes — I am a tree-hugger. An environmentalist and humanitarian. I am a member of well-respected environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. I am a donor to and volunteer for the National Parks Foundation and National Parks Conservation Association. I own a small business as a landscape photographer in New York State. I grew up on Dr. Seuss’ “the Lorax” and believing that there is no compromise in the defense of Mother Earth. I live for the beauty and purity of untouched natural places. 

I believe in sustainability. It angers me to think that poor decisions that we make today for convenience, frugality, or some political pat on the back to corporations are destroying our environment. We use nature as a credit card with no spending limit and overdraft the environment to live a plush existence with little concern for the eventual consequences.

These beliefs, I learned, weren’t universal. Ten years ago, walking out of a local movie theatre in my Kansas hometown, I noticed a large cardboard poster for Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” They had been talking about this film in my science classes and I was eager to see it; the same wasn’t true for my friends. “I can’t believe they made a movie about that crap!” one said, staring at the poster. “None of it’s even true! It’s just Democrat propaganda! Look! It’s cold outside! Global warming is just a hoax.”

That moment moved me deeply. And triggered a dramatic change in my reality. I finally understood that some people disputed global warming as fact—and how political of a problem this scientific truth had become.

As I grew and learned about global warming in school, nature’s powers that I saw in Kansas storms began to frighten me. If we don’t change what we are doing and how we are doing it, we could develop ourselves to extinction. 

In the summer of my junior year at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) I worked on a research scholarship from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) to study wind energy out of the University of Iowa. The first few weeks of the program was a crash course in wind power put on by the leading experts and companies in the industry: cutting-edge technology, legislation and policies, meteorology, materials, fluid dynamics, efficiency. 

In Iowa, where I confronted the inherent limitations of wind energy

In Iowa, where I confronted the inherent limitations of wind energy

I was in one of the leading collegiate research groups to solve the most challenging problems facing the troubling wind capacity factors. Make them bigger, make them taller! Use concrete instead of metal to reach new heights. Build offshore! We worked on wind farms, in labs, and in fields scaling and setting up meteorological data towers. 

When we started traveling to the industrial wind farms, I couldn’t help but think how inefficient they were. Looking at the little turbines scattered across the landscape with the knowledge that one little baseload plant, a couple of acres across could more than double all those turbines were producing–I was deeply disconcerted.

We were improving their capacity factors — alright! But those new and improved capacity factors were still… awful. I also became more aware of the problems standing in the way of wind energy being a particularly viable wide-scale source of energy. The lack of progress at that time in battery storage, for instance meant more fossil-fuel reliance when the wind doesn’t blow. Furthermore, and possibly most concerning to me was the stifling amount of area required to produce a certain amount of power—a practically usable amount of power. It wasn’t until I fully understood this that I really lost hope in wind energy’s ability to make a decent splash in the climate crisis.

Through many courses in school, the numbers had already proven to me that solar energy was not my niche. While I found passive solar technologies to be wonderful supplemental practices and great at reducing consumption, photovoltaics weren’t for me. The manufacturing processes were too toxic, the word “battery” just made me twitch, (from an environmental perspective,) the sun rarely shines in upstate New York, and they are fabulously inefficient. 

I returned to school for my senior year very concerned. I knew solar and wind energies were too unreliable and intermittent to replace coal and natural gas, but I still felt uneasy about nuclear power. I had so many media-driven preconceptions about nuclear power. Unsubstantiated but strong beliefs about storage of nuclear waste, radiation exposure and, what about all those people that died at Three Mile Island? I heard about that in school. I was pretty sure mushroom clouds were a thing, too.

I couldn’t believe in a sustainable future where hundreds of thousands of barrels of seeping liquid nuclear waste was leaching into our water and playgrounds. Or one where our children are all going to develop cancer by poisoning and proximity. 

So I took the question of nuclear head on. I made a list of the things that frightened me, and I went after the answers. I interviewed people. Read studies. Watched documentaries. Dug up the history.

By the time I was done, I was convinced I should at least give nuclear the same shot I gave to wind. So I applied to work at Ginna nuclear power plant, in upstate New York.

I found Ginna — which has one reactor and is thus about half the size of many nuclear plants — in a pristinely pruned, gorgeous little apple orchard. As an engineer, I am intrigued by how things work — as a landscape photographer, I am intrigued by how things look. 

My love affair with photography began when I was 14-years-old, studying Ansel Adams in an art elective in high school. The vast and majestic beauty found in the most unexpected places can easily be mistreated and taken for granted. If I can evoke a new appreciation in someone for the National Park, canyon, glacier or view in their backyard, I have reached my goal.

As I grew, learned, and evolved I found that my passion for photography and engineering profession began to mingle. As I learned of disappearing natural wonders in energy and environmental lectures, seminars, conferences and papers, I found myself changing my next assignment to match course. And my love of scenic beauty has guided me into sustainable engineering.

Arriving on-site at Ginna, reality takes hold. I drive past signs that warn me of imprisonment and/or deadly force if I bring certain things with me or try any shenanigans on-site. I make my way up to the security building—for what seems like miles—through huge concrete dividers forcing my path. 

After finally being admitted to the plant, I am stunned — what a beautiful place to work! The lake is within full view. It is clean. Bright. Updated. People are friendly. Not at all the dark, dingy, dirty place I had pictured. 

My interview is with four gentlemen. They spend an hour grilling me on the ins-and-outs of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics, like practical applications of the Rankine Cycle. My interrogators then ask me if I have any questions. “How much radiation do you think we absorbed sitting here in this interview?”  They all laughed at me, unabashedly. 

Needless to say, I overcame my fears, and took the job.  I currently work in fire protection engineering at Ginna Nuclear Power Plant. I have also worked in design engineering and at James A Fitzpatrick Nuclear Power Plant on their inspection team.

The health and safety of the public is the number one concern in the hearts and minds of everyone I have had the pleasure of working with in the nuclear power industry. No one treats their duties trivially or with reckless disregard. Dosimeters provide data that proves the radioactivity concerns I had clung to before were nonsense. 

In my career, I have scuttled through the bowels of the plant, climbed around inside of main condensers, steam generators and pressurizers, scooted through pipes, climbed to the top of the containment dome, spent hours upon hours inside of the containment vessels of several plants and I have no concerns that these plants are not held to the strictest and most critical standards. 

Now that I know the facts. That I understand the numbers. That I have opened my mind and experienced the truth. I find my stance before to have been utterly irresponsible. To have taken a stance without thoroughly evaluating the information. For believing the hype and the media over science. For not checking my sources with a critical eye.

If people like me trust fear over information, and small nuclear plants disappear they will be replaced by fossil fuel driven plants. And that scares me.

It is early March in 2013. I sit perched, perfectly still on the rocky shore of the mirror-like pond leaching from the Fláajökull glacier tongue in southeastern Iceland simply absorbing the stillness and calm of the scene in front of me. The guffawing squawks of nesting birds on an adjacent cliff and occasional ‘kerplunk’ of ice diving to the pond below are the only sounds to break the eerie silence. After what seems like an eternity, using my tripod as an anchor, I hoist myself to my feet.

This is my “process” as a landscape photographer. I try to establish a point of equilibrium with the place I am photographing to try capture the essence of it with my lens. After my experience in the movie theater, I was compelled to shift my focus in photography from people to these types of places. Places that are disappearing as the climate changes.

Now, at the pivotal moment of importance for the application of nuclear power to combat climate change, America is at risk of losing Ginna and nuclear plants like it, even though they provide clean low-cost power. Excluded from policies that support solar and wind, nuclear is at risk of disappearing like the trees in Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the book that spawned my initial love of caring for the Earth. As the book instructs, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

I have grown tired of watching as political decisions are made out of fear. 

I’ve decided it’s time to speak out — and march. I am eager to join the Mothers for Nuclear and Environmental Progress on their March for Environmental Hope in California, June 24 - 28. It’s about saving California’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, as well as Ginna and many other plants at risk of premature closure.

I am confronting my fears — fears that humans are going to turn our backs on this important technology for climate. Fears that people will refuse to understand nuclear for what it is, and insist it is something it is not. I am reminded of those stormy nights as a girl in Wichita. Though I would start each of these nights cowering in fear, I would become oblivious to the commanding boom of thunder, shaking our little corner of the world. I was calm. Intrigued. Enthralled. 

That’s why, when my family and friends asked why I’m going to California for a week, the answer I give them is this: I refuse to give in to people’s irrational fears. I feel deeply that we must march—for hope.


This article was written by Sarah Spath and represents her opinion alone and not that of her employer.