I was a junior at Brown University in May 1980 when I climbed onto a bus for the 100-mile trip to Seabrook, New Hampshire, where one of the nation’s largest nuclear power plants was being built. I was one of thousands of young people who were there to protest the spread of nuclear power – less than a year after the meltdown at Three Mile Island.
A couple of years earlier, fresh out of Concord High School in Delaware, I had joined smaller demonstrations against the nuclear power plants under construction in Salem County, New Jersey, just a dozen miles across the Delaware Bay from my parents’ home in northern New Castle County.
Like many other people during that time, I was afraid of nuclear power. I believed nuclear plants were unsafe and I thought they should be shut down.
Today, almost 40 years after those protests, I work for and advocate on behalf of PSEG – the utility that operates three nuclear power plants – including Salem and Hope Creek, the very same plants I once protested.
A cynic might say my change of heart is a convenient one: “You sold out haven’t you?”
That person would be wrong. My nuclear conversion, if you’d like to think of it that way, was a product of my new education and experience – and most importantly getting to know the dedicated and determined people who run our nuclear power plants.
Some say familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of my relationship with nuclear power, familiarity has bred respect.
As a young man, I was moved to protest nuclear plants by the same widespread mistrust of Corporate America that framed much of the 1960s and ‘70s: If the big, faceless company that owned a nuclear reactor had to choose between its profits and the health of me and my family – I believed my safety would be the one to be sacrificed.
Would there be another Three Mile Island? Would our lives be threatened? Would we have to leave home? I believed those were realistic concerns.
Many years later, after following in my father’s footsteps with a career in New Jersey government and politics, I joined PSEG’s Public Affairs Division in 2007. Right away, I had a chance to meet the people who operated and maintained our nuclear plants.
That’s what sparked the turnaround in my attitude toward nuclear power.
As you get to know the people who are responsible for running our nuclear power plants, many things become much clearer:
Their commitment to safety.
Their willingness to live near their nuclear power plants – in the same neighborhoods as the customers they work tirelessly to safeguard.
My new familiarity inspired a new understanding – a new confidence in nuclear power I hadn’t felt before.
Today, I’m happy to tell a much different story about nuclear power: That nuclear power is the nation’s No. 1 carbon-free energy source, a net positive for the environment and the climate. As more and more environmentalists are beginning to realize, we simply can’t tackle climate change without nuclear energy in the mix.
Talk about irony: The nuclear plants I thought were threats to my health and the environment turned out to be one of the best ways to protect both.
There’s more: I also tell them about our company’s investments in South Jersey – and that PSEG Power is the largest employer in Salem County. That we work hard to be good corporate citizens and, more importantly, to live up to our name – Public Service.
But when it comes to concerns about their own safety, and their families’, I do my best to share the confidence I have learned – confidence in our training and procedures, in our expertise, in our dedication to safety and our community.
As somebody who used to fear nuclear power, I understand why others might, too. But once I experienced the care with which the operators at PSEG’s Salem and Hope Creek nuclear plants go about their very serious business, I realized that those fears are no longer needed. And what I’ve learned about nuclear power’s role in reducing carbon pollution and fighting climate change only reinforces that confidence.
My days as a sign-waving, button-wearing protester were a long time ago. I sincerely believed that working against nuclear power meant I was working on the side of safety, based on what I knew at the time.
Today, I know a lot more. All these years later, I know that companies like PSEG – and especially the people who work for them – are doing their best, every day, to ensure our nuclear plants are reliable, secure and, most of all, safe.
Rick Thigpen – VP State Governmental Affairs , PSEG