The Sustainability Drinks Affair

“Hey”, said Trish, “guess who the speaker at the November Sustainability Drinks is! Ben Heard.”

“How Curious!” I replied. Sustainability Drinks is a monthly gathering of people interested in sustainability, held at my local pub, The King’s Head. Ben Heard is a PhD candidate at Adelaide, and an aggressive advocate of nuclear systems. He runs pro-nuke websites, gives talks on how to persuade unbelievers by avoiding awkward questions, and has been pushing for SA to take nuclear high-level waste and use Integral fast reactors to burn up the fuel.  He is a most unlikely candidate to address Sustainability Drinks

“Perhaps we should go along and see how he performs.” I said.

“Yeah, and we could ask awkward questions, in an innocent way” said Trish.

Trish is a fellow Environmental Studies student, one of the ACF trained Climate Ambassadors, and one of my co-hosts on the radio Environment Show. And I’ve known her for several decades.

So it was, two weeks later, that a gaggle of nuclear skeptics met at a pub across the road from the venue, an hour before the meeting, to plan a barrage of awkward questions. We’d looked at some of Heard’s material and slideshows, and had checked out his submission to the Royal Commission. We fairly quickly agreed on five questions we’d try to ask at the meeting if appropriate.

We reassembled at the King’s Head, trying to avoid looking like an organised mob. The fact that Trish and I had already attended some meetings and knew some of the attendees made it easier to blend into the background.

It was a very interesting and slick presentation from Ben Heard. “I’m not going to talk about nukes, rather I’m going to talk for ten minutes about my personal discovery of sustainability.”

Sneaky bastard: a personal story is a lot harder to challenge. He paced to and fro, while slides were (badly) projected on a screen  to his right — mainly of high rise developments and slums.

He was working as a Physical Therapist, when he discovered a book by David Suzuki: it was an eye-opener. In short time, he devoured works by Lovins, Lovelock et al. All the right names to persuade us he had an epiphany.

Heard got into the sustainability business, which at the time meant advising business how to be more efficient. They loved his advice, because it meant they made more money. In particular, Heard said he was very interested in the issue of energy.

He noted that, rather than use less energy to do the same thing, business tended to use the same amount of energy to do more.

[This is the first of several assumptions which might work against sustainability: after all, the desire of very profitable coal companies to burn all their coal reserves is precisely what threatens the planet.]

“If the choice is between dirty energy, and no energy, people will choose dirty.”

“They won’t stand for limiting energy use.”
[Ignoring the move to energy efficient appliances when the cost of energy is high]

“We need to provide ‘clean’ energy for the world’s poorest, otherwise they will use coal.”

[There was a little aside here, “this is the last time I’ll mention nukes” so that we’d all make the correct conclusion that nukes are clean. This “implicit assumption” wasn’t directly challenged during the evening]

“We must provide plentiful ‘clean energy’ to tackle climate change.”

“With enough energy, all other problems vanish.”

[No discussion of nukes, construction times, residents, proliferation, safety or alternatives. All nicely wrapped up in a slick ten minute presentation.]

Things began to unravel quickly in question time.

I opened the questions with the observation
“The Indian government has already planned to provide energy to the poorest with solar PV, because coal is too expensive. Given that nuclear is more expensive than coal, wouldn’t it make more sense to push for renewables?”

[Note my assumption that renewables are clean]

“We want PV, but the small, distributed service isn’t enough for big cities and industry. It’s the difference between a big central hospital and field hospitals: we need both.
“We need nukes to provide centralised, plentiful ‘clean’ power and baseload.”

[Apparently Heard hasn’t noticed the industrial strength solar farms, big hydro, huge wind farms or Concentrating Solar Thermal providing centralised, plentiful clean power. And he persists with the antiquated notion of “baseload” when the smart money is on renewables, storage and dispatchable power.]

I didn’t try for a follow-up question, as I thought I’d managed to get a few digs in.

Rosie (someone I met subsequently), tried a followup question, pointing out that the poorest don’t have access to the grid, and the centralised power station will do absolutely nothing for them.

Heard started to talk over her to give his answer, but she interrupted him and pointed out she hadn’t finished.

At which point Heard spat the dummy.
“If you keep interrupting me, I’ll leave. I don’t have to put up with this, I’m the guest here”
A voice from the crowd: “No, we’re the guests, you’re the entertainment!”

The moderator stepped in a this point to calm things down, and there were a few more questions, including a technical one as to the difference between uptime and reliability when discussing renewables vs baseload.

On the question of whether nuclear reactors were terrorist targets: “I’m not read up in this area, but I’ve visited nuclear reactors and I felt perfectly safe. I’m sure there are plenty of other targets out there.”

Heard came across as rude, intolerant and unable to answer questions. Though his presentation was slick, carefully tailored to the audience and designed to avoid awkward questions, he really couldn’t deal with the obvious questions raised.

The evening concluded with a few more drinks and discussion amongst the attendees.