I grew up in Montana, where the natural world was not just a setting but an active character in the story of my life. My summers were filled with hiking with my parents, riding my bike around town with the neighborhood kids, and playing in the outdoors. The constantly changing sky could swirl from an inviting carefree blue to an ominous gray in moments, pelting you with teardrops of rain or bullets of hail.
My home was in Billings but I spent many of my weekends at my grandparents’ house in Red Lodge. There is a big spruce tree out back that I must have drawn dozens of times as a kid. The tree is now a constant source of entertainment for my parents as a mother black bear frequently uses it to hide her three cubs. From that base, we explored Yellowstone National Park, the Tetons, and the unique ecosystem around it.
As I grew into my adolescence, I did more backpacking and hiking. I joined an Explorer group that had some backpacking, rafting, or skiing trip planned practically every weekend. I also became more concerned with climate change. In middle school, I went to the Teton Science School as well as a local outdoor science camp. I became more aware of the human/nature relationship as not just one of recreation, but as a complicated relationship of resource use and stewardship.
My love of being in nature and concern about climate change inspired me to pursue a degree in environmental studies from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR. Environmental Studies is an interdisciplinary education that included everything from ecology to environmental economics to environmental philosophy.
I took off one semester from school to work as the ecotourism intern on an organic permaculture farm in Ecuador. The people in that rural region were hard working, able to fix anything, and full of good humor. But only one of the guys who lived on the farm was happy continuing to be an Ecuadorian farmer – the other guys all had dreams of moving to the city to find opportunities to have better lives.
I returned to school for another year, then took off to spend six months doing research on volunteer tourism in Cusco, Peru. While talking to different NGO groups, I learned the tragic story for most Peruvians who migrated to Cusco. The city had seen a sharp growth in population in the 1980's and 1990's as people in rural areas sought to escape the atrocities of The Shining Path terrorist group as well as mistreatment by the government. Cusco attracted people looking for opportunity as the city grew as a tourist destination for more than 2 million people a year traveling to Machu Picchu. The reality in the city was few jobs for people who looked indigenous and little opportunity for training.
I appreciated that my environmental studies curriculum introduced me to a wide variety of viewpoints, but my experiences in developing countries of South America made me impatient with the general environmentalist narrative. Too often, the environmentalist ethic creates a false dichotomy between preserving nature and promoting economic growth to meet human needs. In the case of climate change, some policies supported by environmental groups express more concern about ending emissions than ending poverty in the developing world. I felt the need for a different narrative to promote human progress while also promoting environmental stewardship. Human success need not come at the cost of the destruction of nature if we apply human ingenuity to solving the problems of sustainable economic development. The environmentalist narrative needs a better response to the people I met in South America than that their lives are more meaningful without the luxuries of a modern high-energy consuming lifestyle.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I moved back to Montana to my grandparents’ house with the big spruce tree out back. I took a year to reflect about my future and earn some income – and do some snowboarding. I was searching for a bigger answer to address the lack of opportunity I had seen in Peru that characterizes many developing and urbanizing countries, while also addressing the environmental issues that had been the focus of my undergraduate work. During this time, I came to the conclusion that energy is the soil from which everything from clean water to literacy to women’s rights can grow. Energy accessibility, especially in urban areas, plays an important role in economic development. It also provides the means for people to empower themselves. I decided to take a deeper look.
I started looking at the different sources of energy generation, I weighed the pros and cons of all forms of generation - and learned they have plenty of both. I evaluated the waste, safety, and cost issues associated with nuclear energy. I came to the conclusion that nuclear energy is clean and can be produced at the scale needed to allow for economic growth in developing countries. Its problems are solvable, and it should be part of the array of energy sources including renewable sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro. Nuclear is especially fitting to urban industrial areas such as parts of China and India due to its reliability, high energy density, and lack of emissions. Nuclear Engineers are coming out with incredible new designs in terms of safety, are decentralized, and can be cheaply constructed and operated. The current concerns about waste can be addressed through technological advances in reprocessing and updated nuclear policies that encourage new and better nuclear technology. Nuclear appealed to me as a field that still has so much room for progress, with promising emerging technologies, and with incredible environmental and social benefits.
After a year and a half of going to school full-time to earn my engineering prerequisites, I will be starting my master’s in Nuclear Engineering at The University of Idaho in fall, 2016.
Nuclear power faces major political obstacles, in part based on misinformation and widespread anxiety driven by headlines. After deciding to become a nuclear engineer, my friends and family were quick to be concerned for my future. People often say that nuclear energy is a dying industry in the United States. I hope this is not the case, because the alternative is to continue our reliance on fossil fuels. Clean renewables are not able to produce reliable around-the-clock energy, and they are more expensive than nuclear. I am confident that nuclear energy will have a growing place in the world’s energy solutions, because the benefits of nuclear energy are so compelling.
I recognize that my decision to become a nuclear engineer means that my future career will be influenced by politics, regulation, and public opinion. I believe that environmentalists, like me, should provide the leadership in presenting the facts about the incredible opportunities that nuclear power presents. My faith in the future is grounded in the belief that people can change their minds and respond to good information. A better future for our children, and the children of the world, depends on the decisions we make as a society about energy. I want to be a part of the solution.
This article reflects only the opinions of Emma Redfoot.
See also: http://www.students4nuclear.org