“With great power comes great responsibility.” This superhero-tinged adage applies to nuclear energy in multiple senses. When nuclear and radiological technology, born out of violence, turned out to also be a highly efficient way to power entire societies, an ongoing debate began over whether we were comfortable having such a potentially dangerous force in our collective “backyard.” Serious incidents with nuclear reactors, rare as they are, and the ongoing problem of nuclear waste have led many people to believe they are not worth the risk. But with climate change already causing danger and death all over the world, might nuclear energy be worth re-evaluating?
Jewish texts from various points in history may not have anything to say about this specifically, but they do offer advice on navigating risk and creating a safe environment. How does our collective responsibility to keep each other safe balance with other, temporary risks we may have to take for each other’s sake?Read Transcript
Rachel Petroff Kessler: I know we’ve got a lot of technology surrounding us right now, appropriate perhaps for a series all about different technologies. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s presentation with Marshall Kohen, and I just wanted to offer us maybe one piece of text from our tradition that we can hold in our minds as we hear everything he has to say, and then we’ll sort of think after about maybe some of the ethical ramifications of the things that he has to teach us.
So from the book of Deuteronomy: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” So it seems like a weird text to bring to an evening that’s going to be talking about radiological and nuclear materials, but the thing is this: houses need roofs. It’s the thing they need to be a house. In the time that they were living, houses generally had flat roofs. and they were used for lots of different things. People went up onto their roofs all the time, and that is dangerous. And what does our tradition teach? That [with] this necessary but potentially hazardous space, that we have an obligation to put a guard rail around the edges, interestingly, not to prevent anyone from ever falling off the roof, but to ensure that we have sort of reduce our liability. (laughter) We’ve waived our responsibility should that happen, that we have a certain responsibility or due diligence to create a safer environment in this way, by building this fence. It’s not always perfect. It doesn’t say so, that no one ever falls off, because sometimes [they do].
So we might come back to this text and some other interpretations of it later, but first I’m going to stop my share and turn things over to Marshall Kohen, who I feel like needs no introduction in the sphere of Temple Isaiah, where we know him well from his work as a lay leader, past President and of course, director of Shir Isaiah, but brings some significant professional experience to these conversations, of how we think about risks and responsibilities, and safely managing potentially dangerous but also useful substances. So I’m going to turn things over to Marshall.
Marshall Kohen: Good evening to everybody here, and good evening to everybody on Zoom. As Rachel said, I think I know most people in the room and probably almost everybody on Zoom. If we haven’t met, I’d love to be able to meet you when we’re done here. So that’s an extra opportunity. Again, my name is Marshall Kohen. Rachel introduced me. I’ll talk a little bit about what I do for a living as we go through this, but I want to say a huge thank you to Rachel and to the committee for inviting me. I’m very honored to be able to speak to you tonight about what I do for a living, and a little bit about science, a little bit about policy, maybe even a little bit about politics. So we’ll see if we can get all that in tonight.
So, a little bit of a different title than you may have seen online, trying to make it a little bit more interesting. So this is “The good… and the ugly,” in terms of our use of nuclear and radiological and radioactive material in the United States.
So you’ve got the good and the not so good. Or the ugly. So left to right – electrical power, medical use of radioactivity, and then atomic weapons. We’ll talk about all this stuff tonight.
So I want to start just a little bit about just a quick intro to me in terms of this is how most of you probably are used to seeing it – okay, maybe not with a drum major uniform on, but more like that, the back of my head waving my hands at the choir. So that’s what I do when I don’t get paid. I searched all over to try to find a picture of myself at work, and I really couldn’t find one except for this one that was taken with some colleagues in Indonesia. I was in Indonesia a couple months ago for work, and so that was the most recent one I found.
About me – so, about a 30-year career in the nuclear field. The first 15 years of my career, I worked for a consulting firm called SAIC – some of you are probably familiar with, the company, a very large contracting firm. We did support work for the Department of Energy. My field as it is today is Nuclear Safeguards and Security Policy. So the Department of Energy runs facilities throughout the country – and we’ll talk a little bit about DOE in a minute – and our job at the headquarters level was to develop policy for how they do security, how those facilities secure the material at those facilities. We also helped with implementation. So we worked with the sites on how they actually implemented that security.
About halfway through my time at DOE, I sort of changed a little bit in my career, moved away from strict policy, the security policy, and moved more into nonproliferation and arms control. If you think back to the history, in the late 90s, mid-to-late 90s, this was a big deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency was getting involved throughout the world in facilities and security and the protection of material, and that was a good career move for me in a lot of ways, because it moved me out of a little bit less interesting work — let’s put it that way — into more forward-looking and international type of work.
I left the DOE in 2006 and moved over to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where I currently work. I guess my title is a Technical Assistant, although I call myself more of a technical advisor. I work for an office director. The office level is one level below the Commission. So I work for the office director and actually have a detail doing something else right now, but that really doesn’t matter.
So just a couple of quick caveats, I guess I would call them. The first one is I’m going to try to stick to facts tonight, and even when we have a discussion, I’m going to try to stick to facts, but if I offer any opinions, those opinions are solely mine and they are not associated in any way with the agency for which I work.
The other thing I want to say is, in total respect to the other folks who are presenters in this program, I am not a physical scientist. My Bachelor’s degree is in Social Science and I have a Master’s in Business. Having said that, what I’ve always said about myself is that I probably know enough to be dangerous. So I know enough of the science to talk a little bit about it. I see a lot of scientists in this room who know a heck of a lot more about this stuff than I do, so (A) if I say something incorrect, you’re welcome to correct me, and (B), if you have questions that delve into science that goes a little further than my knowledge, above my head, we can ask the experts in the room, or I’m most happy to go find the answer.
So a little bit of history about the nuclear and radiological program in the United States. Of course, you have Marie Curie, who discovered radioactivity in the early 1900s, but the real start to the nuclear radiological program in this country was when the President created the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946. And what that did was it moved the nuclear program from the military, which of course had started with the Manhattan Project, to the civilian ranks. So we have this Atomic Energy Commission, this big government agency, that’s responsible for all sorts of stuff.
In 1974, Congress saw fit, and I believe quite rightly, to split the Atomic Energy Commission into two bodies. What was happening in the early 70s was the advent of nuclear power. We were building nuclear power plants throughout the country. And so Congress’s idea was that we really shouldn’t have an agency that both promoted nuclear energy and regulated it at the same time — it’s a bad idea, it’s a conflict of interest. We should split that into two organizations. So they did that. In this act, they created the Department of Energy, which you see on the right. DOE currently has responsibility over almost all of the nuclear weapons program. The only thing they don’t really regulate and oversee is what we would call full-up weapons, actual weapons that are ready to be deployed. That’s the Department of Defense. But DOE has control and authority over all the rest of that — nuclear material that is headed toward the weapons program.
NRC, the organization that I work for, was established, as you see, to be an independent regulator, and specifically over commercial use of nuclear material, including nuclear power. So NRC was set up specifically to be only a regulator. So if you ask any NRC employee, “What do you think about nuclear power?”, they have to step away from their job and tell you, if they want to tell you, what they think personally about nuclear power, because we are not an advocate or proponent for any type of energy. Industry comes in, works with the Department of Energy, and says, “We think this should happen,” they build a plant, they do it, and we have to regulate it. So that’s how that works.
It’s very important to split those out. There are a lot of people in the federal government who don’t understand this, and when they see me within NRC, they go, “Oh, what part of DOE do you work for?” And I have to inform them they don’t work for DOE, we’re a separate organization. DOE is a mammoth organization, tons of contractors, a lot of sites throughout the country, and a lot of federal employees. NRC, we’re probably down to about 3,000 employees, both in the DC area and throughout the country.
So here’s the boring mission statement, I’m not going to read it to you. You’re welcome to read it. What I did was highlight what I think are the important words here. “Civilian,” versus military, the split that I just talked about, “radioactive materials” – and the shorthand here is that our agency exists to “provide safety and security and ensure the safety and security of peaceful uses of radioactive material in the United States.” So we use the term “radioactive material” – okay, what is “radioactive material”? So as you might see in someone’s Facebook profile, “it’s a bit complicated.”
So the definition you can see here, of a radionuclide, is a substance in which the nucleus of an atom is unstable. So to go back to your chemistry class, this is about an atom’s instability resulting from it having extra neutrons or protons. So a subset of this material, which we call “special nuclear material,” (you know, we do acronyms in the federal government all over the place, so I just refer to it as SNM), is fissionable material. So what does that mean? That means that the atoms in this material can split, or fission, if they’re hit with neutrons. Fission leads to more neutron emission, which if you don’t stop the process is called a chain reaction. In a nuclear weapon, that’s not a good thing. In your nuclear reactor, it is a good thing. It’s exactly what we’re looking for, a controlled reaction. So the most common fissionable materials, it turns out, are uranium and plutonium – at least certain isotopes of those elements. And I’m not going to go into detail on isotopes, what they are and what these specific ones are, because I’ll be out of my depth and you’ll start correcting me. But suffice to say that different forms of radioactive material and elements behave differently.
So why does all this matter? Well, radioactive material can be used in a lot of ways, some beneficial, some not so much. So let’s talk about the good. I always like to start with the positive news. We’ll start with the good. You’ll see a number of different diagrams that come up here. I’ll start here. So as I said earlier, one of the good uses – one of the positive uses for society of radioactive material – is that radioactive material is used to power nuclear power plants, which provide about 20% of the electricity in the United States – many, many nuclear power plants around the world. In some countries, nuclear power provides a large majority. France is a good example – it provides a large majority of the electricity throughout the country. Nuclear materials are used in medicine, and my guess is all of us — well, I guarantee all of us know someone who has gone through cancer treatments. Many of them have used nuclear material, radioactive material in those treatments, which have been a huge industry and an amazing technology over the past 30-40 years.
Nuclear materials are also widely used in industry, in things like density gauges, radiography cameras — for example, those that are used in X-ray technology — and as I said, nuclear gauges. And those are used in many cases to determine the structural integrity of buildings and roads used all over the country. Probably none of you even knew that. They have small amounts of radiological material in them that help them in this process. And then finally, common items that have small amounts of radioactive elements in them: smoke detectors, particularly ionization smoke detectors, have a small, small amount of an radioactive element called americium, and the isotope is 241. This helps the sensitivity of those smoke detectors to detect fast-burning fires. So that’s built into the detector that you have. It’s a very, very small amount.
So the good news is, as I said, that the NRC regulates all of this stuff. We have a huge regulatory and inspection program that looks at all these things and ensures and works with state-level organizations to ensure that all this stuff is used properly, that it’s safe, and that it’s protected.
So one additional item we regulate — that is, NRC regulates — and I want to touch on, and it has to do with the nuclear power plant system that we have in this country. We regulate all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle. And you’ll see a diagram of what I mean by the nuclear fuel cycle in a second. But we regulate all aspects of that. So here’s what I’m talking about.
So where does the material come from that goes into a nuclear power plant? So we start here, with natural uranium. Where does that come from? It comes from the ground. We pull it out of the ground in many different ways. It’s largely in mines that occur throughout the country. Wyoming is a huge uranium-mine state. There are a number of processes that are used by industry to pull that uranium out of the ground. It then is recovered in a number of different processes, it’s milled, and it then has to be converted, because the uranium that comes out of the ground is not usable, really, for just about anything. It has to be converted, and then it has to be enriched. We say “enriched” – elements that come out of the ground have a lot of stuff in them, and you have to separate out the stuff, the garbage, and get to the thing that you’re looking to use for its intended purpose. So we have enrichment plants throughout the country that take the natural uranium and use processes to enrich it to make the isotope that you’re looking for more pure. So it’s really a purification process.
After that — so we’re up here in the corner. We go up around the corner, and the facilities take that enriched uranium and they fabricate it. What do I mean by “fabricate it”? So that uranium is in a powder form at that point. After it’s been milled and enriched, it’s in a powder form, largely. That powder is used in a process that compresses it into very small pellets. The pellets are compressed and put in long zirconium-fuel assemblies, in rods. The rods are put inside assemblies, and this fresh — what we call “fresh” — uranium oxide is then put into a huge, huge bundle, and it’s dropped into the top of a reactor. Nuclear Power 101. That was it. That’s all you get.
So that’s the process truly in a nutshell. So they drop the assembly into the top of the reactor, the dome is put over the top of it for safety and security, and then the reactions begin – when we turn the lights on, the reactions begin, and it produces electricity. That’s the gold standard. And that’s what happens throughout the world. So then that material only lasts for so long. Because it’s radioactive, it has a half-life. It’s only operable, it’s only good, for some period of time. We have to do something with that material after it’s done. So it comes out, it gets traded out, for new, fresh fuel that’s ready to be used.
What do we do with that spent fuel? This is one of the problems plaguing this country right now. What do we do with that spent fuel? So for now, what is done with the spent fuel is those rods are pulled out, the bundles are pulled out, and they are put in pools – literal pools, large pools, probably about double the length of this room, and probably about the same width. They’re connected to the reactor building, so a huge crane pulls those bundles out and puts them gently in the water. That water starts to continuously cool the material both radioactively and temperature-wise, because if that material heats up, that’s when you have a problem.
So that’s where we are at this stage. That’s all I’m going to talk about for now. We can certainly talk about more if you want to get to the next step, after the spent fuel and reprocessing. It’s a whole other ball game. And there’s so much I can talk about tonight, but I want to keep it relevant.
So again, we talked about what NRC’s role is in the federal government, what we do. Here’s what we don’t do: as I said, we do not regulate nuclear weapons. I have nothing to do with the weapon program. That’s DOD and DOE. Except for space vehicles. You may or may not know that NASA actually uses small amounts of plutonium in some of their space modules. I do not have the expertise to tell you what it’s good for, but they know and they use it, and they regulate the use of that material for that purpose. As I said, we do not lobby for nuclear power; that’s the administration’s issue. I should have said, NRC is actually not an executive branch agency, we’re not a cabinet-level agency. DOE is, State Department, all those. We do not have a secretary, we have a commission – off topic. We don’t regulate the naturally occurring radon or x-rays — those are done at the state level or by other federal agencies — and we do not, we DO NOT, own or operate the nuclear power plants. They are all run by companies. The one you’re probably most familiar with in the state of Maryland is the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant out in Lusby. It’s run by a little company called Constellation Energy.
So we move from many of these peaceful uses of nuclear and radioactive material into the ugly use – nuclear weapons. So a little bit of a brief history — there’s a lot to cover of the last 80 years of nuclear material. I’m not going to do all that tonight. We’re just going to hit the high points. So I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Manhattan Project, which resulted, ironically, from a letter from Albert Einstein and another guy named Enrico Fermi to President Roosevelt, and they were warning him about the German government having efforts to design a nuclear weapon. Four years later – just four years later, under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer – the first weapon test was held at the Los Alamos site in New Mexico, a fascinating place.
And this came home to me as I was doing this research. Only weeks later, only weeks later, after that first test, was when the only use of nuclear weapons occurred in the world. It was amazing to me just to have that timeline in my mind, of — it just seemed like forever. We had the Manhattan Project – that seemed like it took forever – and then all of a sudden, we used the nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the years that followed, the U.S. ramped up its testing program, largely, as scientists and engineers often do, to determine if there are better and more efficient ways of doing things. And of course, there are numerous political and military overlays – whether you call them deterrence or growth of the military complex, as some might refer to it.
So from World War II to the 1980’s, proliferation — and we can call it that, proliferation of weapons – actually occurred, primarily between the U.S and the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, and now Russia. So it’s important to point out, as this chart does, that at the same time, a number of bilateral treaties have resulted in a significant reduction in the number of nuclear weapons over the years. Here are a few of the treaties and agreements that pertain to nuclear material and nuclear weapons. You have the nonproliferation treaty up in this corner. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – this is a document that I actually take a little pride in, because I actually helped work on it, helped develop it. It is an information circular that the IAEA puts out. It’s considered the worldwide gold standard for guidance on physical protection. So it’s not a treaty — there’s no signature to it — but countries use it to help them develop physical protection, depending on the type of material that they have.
You see the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials? That actually is a treaty. Countries sign up to it. The photo is actually of the first signing of the NPT. And then there’s also a code of conduct that countries have signed up to, in principle, to protect radioactive sources. So we’re talking about nuclear material — that is, uranium, plutonium. Then you have all this other radioactive material that’s not really good for use in a nuclear weapon, but it can be used for other nefarious purposes.
So the reason I’ve gone to work for the last 30-some years is to prevent what you see on the next two slides — at least, the first 15 years of my career. So on the top-left, this photo, which I had never seen before I did the research, was taken six miles from Nagasaki about 15 minutes following the detonation. And you may have seen some of these. This one’s a little bit more famous, this one was taken one hour after detonation at Hiroshima. That’s obviously miles away, taken from an airplane.
So this one — I’m not sure how many of you know. We did a lot of testing in the United States, primarily at the Nevada Test Site, throughout the 40s and 50’s, and then, really, all the way up into the late 80’s, when the Test Ban Treaty came into effect. But this was actually taken at the first underwater test that was done at Bikini Atoll in 1946. I found that a fascinating photo — I mean, you know, you’re on the beach. So this photo was taken from, maybe, a hotel, or maybe just somebody standing on a beach, watching a nuclear test that was done out on an island out in the middle of the ocean. Fascinating photo.
Finally, we have a graphic of what we would call in the business an RDD. You may have heard it as a “dirty bomb.” That’s the typical public understanding of what this is. We call it an RDD, a radiological dispersal device. Basically, the concept here is, unlike nuclear weapons, where you have to have a lot of very sophisticated machinery, you have to have a lot of know-how using the material, put it in the right package, set it off the right way to make it work — this is an RDD, where you take radioactive material, you hook it up to explosives and detonate the explosive. I don’t want to give the sense that any of you could go out and do this, because you have to acquire the material — that’s the hard part.
And the other interesting thing about RDDs versus nuclear is, people get very excited about RDDs, and very nervous. While it is not nearly as difficult as to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, that is absolutely true, the damage that you can do with it with an RDD is a very different scale. We’re not talking about — we talk in our business about a “bad day” and a “very bad day.” These are very bad days – this is a bad day.
Audience member: Have people ever stolen nuclear material that could be used in these kinds of weapons?
Marshall Kohen: So – there have been reports of people in other countries stealing weapons – I shouldn’t say weapons, I’m sorry, stealing material in small quantities. The interesting thing about that is with certain types of material, if you try to steal it, you walk off with it, you’ll get very sick, and potentially die very quickly. So people who are trying to do this are, I think, terrorists, are trying to find the right way so that they can do that and not kill themselves in the process.
So the answer is: there are reports of it happening abroad. Not aware of any successful thefts in the United States.
Okay, so the “ugly.” And I say this as potentially ugly. So these are negative and potentially negative aspects of nuclear power.
This was negative. This is Fukushima Daiichi before and after the explosion. We can talk about, if you want to talk about, sort of how this happened and what the precursors were – happy to talk about that, because I’m not sure there’s always a full understanding. This was a “bad day,” this was definitely a disaster. Chernobyl – very different set of facts, very different country, very different power reactor, very different set of circumstances.
So I’m hoping that this stays potential and does not become ugly. This is the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is in southern Ukraine on the Dnieper River. I’m hoping that current events are going in the right direction, and that we don’t have a bad situation there. You probably have heard on the news that one of the things the Russians did when they moved into this area was actually to sort of take over that reactor, and force the reactor operators to start working hellacious numbers of hours, which is not a good thing when you are trying to stay awake and focus on keeping a reactor operable and not going sideways. You know, you can’t be working 24-hour shifts. So that was something that the IAEA has actually come in and put a lot of pressure on the Russian government, and successfully, I think. This situation, just like this situation all throughout Ukraine, changes day-to-day. So I’m again hoping – I’m sure, we all hope, that it goes back in the right direction and we don’t get the stuff above.
Finally, another sort of potential “ugly” is the spent-fuel storage. So I knew I had a photo of this, so here you can see the spent fuel pool at a power reactor. So we talked about the fact that you lift the spent fuel out, you put it in the pool so that it cools. Usually the cooling time is five to seven years. So it has to stay in the pool for that period of time for the temperature to go down and for it to stop being radioactive to the point that it’s not lethal. If you jumped in that pool, you’d be dead within minutes because there is so much radioactivity. It would invade your body and would shut down your systems within minutes. So there’s obviously plenty of security around all these nuclear sites, but extra security around the spent-fuel pool, more in the safety realm. So if you walk around a spent-fuel pool, which I’ve done in the United States and in several other countries – you name the safety protection to keep any sort of accident from happening and it’s there, simply because of the danger of anything happening. Yeah, Gary.
Audience member: Two questions here: what do they do with the water when it’s done?
Marshall Kohen: Great question. The water’s never done. It is circulated, and so if you look at the map, if you look at where nuclear power plants are located, they’re always located near water. You have to have a water source to come in and come into the spent fuel pool for two reasons. One, to come into the spent fuel pool, as well as to keep the reactor cool, so the reactor itself doesn’t overheat. So there is constant circulation of water through that spent fuel. It doesn’t ever leave.
Audience member: But it’s radioactive water.
Marshall Kohen: Yes, the water’s radioactive.
Audience member: Where does it go?
Marshall Kohen: It doesn’t go anywhere. It circulates. It just stays in the pool. You’re getting about here on my level of expertise. Okay, so, that’s generally the case.
Audience member: And I noticed that you didn’t have a picture of Three Mile Island.
Marshall Kohen: I did not. Three Mile Island was another one we can talk about. Three Mile Island was another very different scenario. We would call it an “accident,” but to me, it’s nowhere near what those two were. That’s why I didn’t include it.
Audience member: How do we separate very nearly, “Gee, it wasn’t that bad but we know it could have been – and in some cases, well or not so well publicized, has been, though not necessarily on the scale that we think of when we see a picture or read about Chernobyl?” So from a regulatory or ethical viewpoint, controlling this seems a little bit like – handling the water, the spent fuel source. We’re making the water very radioactive, very hot. So presumably, we find ways to cool that water by running it next to something that’s going to be cooled, and then we recirculate it, which means there are going to be pumps, there are going to be pipes, there are going to be walls –
Marshall Kohen: Incredible amount of infrastructure.
Audience member: – none of which hold up forever.
Marshall Kohen: It’s fact.
Audience member: Those are factors which require ongoing maintenance to prevent accidents. How do we look at that from an ethical viewpoint? In terms of “Is this technology worth the price?”
Marshall Kohen: So did you read my slides?
Audience member: No, sir.
Marshall Kohen: Okay, it’s on my last slide. It’s a great question. And what I wanted to do was cover the technical stuff, and then I think we’ll get there. Great question, great question, really on point for what we’re talking about. Yes.
Audience member: The other negative side is all the health consequences from all the nuclear testing from the 40’s, including a whole Indigenous population on the Southern Pacific Islands.
Marshall Kohen: It’s a great question, it’s a great point, and in fact not just on the islands but in this country, the Department of Energy has been sued by a number of litigants to say “Look,” you know, “the work here caused latent health effects,” cancer, etc. So that is true, that the Department has had to pay out judgments to somehow help make those people whole, but you can argue about the ethics of that. So it’s a great point.
Audience member: So some of the fuel stays several years in the pool. How long do they stay in the reactor?
Marshall Kohen: Oh, now I think you’re really getting up here in terms of my knowledge. Certainly we could look that up. I’m thinking the periodicity is probably – I’m thinking about refueling, when they take the stuff out that doesn’t work anymore and put new stuff in. I’d have to look that up. I’m not familiar with refueling periodicity, it’s a good question.
Audience member: What happens when they run out of space in the pool?
Marshall Kohen: Okay, so let’s go there. So what happens after five to seven years when it’s been in the pool and now it’s cooled, both radioactively and cool temperature-wise? What happens to it? So at that point, it’s taken out, because it’s safe enough to do that. It’s over-packed in concrete and it’s taken out to what’s called a spent fuel pad – literally sits out on a concrete pad inside a big dome outside of the reactor area, because at this point it’s safe to do so. It’s not emitting radioactivity so that somebody walking by it would get sick or have some sort of intake. And it is also more secure, because if you were able to take some of it – very, very difficult to do, because we’re talking about thousands of tons of this cask that it’s inside – so you have to get inside the cask, get inside the rod, get to the material – very, very difficult. So that’s where it’s taken after it comes out of the pool. So we have this cycle.
So one of the things that maybe we want to talk about, if we have time, is this concept of reprocessing, which other countries have talked about to do what’s called “close the fuel cycle.” Remember we talked about the fuel cycle? Right now it’s open, because there’s really no end if it sits on the pad – and then what? What do we do with all that stuff? There were plans in the 80s, and those plans have sort of faltered at this point. The Department of Energy is trying to figure out what to do. But if you could reprocess that material, if you could reuse that material as opposed to just letting it sit on the pad, if you could send it back through the cycle and have it be uranium again, that’s good U-235 – put it back in the reactor, now we have a closed fuel cycle. There are problems with that – there are non-proliferation problems with that, there are political problems with that. We can have that discussion if you want. There’s so much to talk about here.
Audience member: Question — what happens or how often are the batches of rods replaced? How long does a load of uranium in a reactor last?
Marshall Kohen: I think that’s pretty much, Will, what you were asking. I don’t exactly know the answer. I know it’s not taken out at all at once, that’s physics, and that’s, again, outside my realm.
Audience member: But we’re talking about weeks, months, years?
Marshall Kohen: Years.
Audience member: Years. I mean, that gives some perspective.
Marshall Kohen: Yes, years.
Audience member: Question – where they did testing in the United States, at Leavenworth, is there still radioactivity there?
Marshall Kohen: Is there radioactivity there? Sure. But it is – let me say something about radioactivity, okay. People who live near a nuclear power plant – now, this may be something that I need to be calibrated on, okay. My understanding is, living near a nuclear power plant for 10 years, you actually get more radioactivity on a cross-country flight. Why? Because you’re getting solar radiation. It’s different, possibly. So we have to be careful when we say “radioactivity,” because that word scares people, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I know we have the “ugly,” we have the “ugly” screen up, so leaving that up is problematic, but one of the things that we’re trying to do as an agency is get the word out and spread the word that yes, there are dangers, that’s why we have my organization, to secure, that’s why we have our reactor regulation folks, to have safety systems in place. My point is, radioactivity in and of itself, we have to look at on a spectrum. There’s radioactivity that could be sitting near where people live – it will never, ever affect them, because it is in so much, so small doses, it’s encapsulated in dirt or concrete… so I want to be careful when we say “is there radioactivity out there?” Absolutely. There’s naturally occurring radioactivity that has nothing to do with any of the stuff that you come in contact with all the time.
Audience member: I’m going to ask you a question about something, which is: I understood that there is still tremendous controversy about these low doses of radioactivity. Is that true? And do you want to just summarize very briefly where that argument is right now?
Marshall Kohen: Two parts of the question. It is true. Number two – I am not an expert, so I do not want to opine on that. I know that we have a whole office, a group in one of our offices, that works on the medical uses of radioactivity, and I think that’s where a lot of this controversy comes in, from the industry, from the medical community, from patient advocates, who take issue. And anyone else who’s a regulator, anyone else who works for a federal agency knows this. There’s a push and pull with the public when it comes to regulation. There’s too much, there’s not enough, it’s wrong, it’s right. So there is that – I mean, that is just a fact of being a regulator, that you’re not going to please everybody, and it’s best efforts, and it’s using the best science and technology along with the policy, along with the politics, to make the decisions that are made in the best interest of the public, and safe for the public. I’m not in a position to give you a summary of what the state of the position is in terms of those controversies, but I know they exist.
Audience member: For years there was a plan to bury the spent fuel rods, and is what you’re saying that that plan is dead?
Marshall Kohen: So what you’re talking about is Yucca Mountain. There’s a law that is still in effect called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, 1982, I believe, that stated that all spent fuel coming from reactors, I believe in the weapons program, was going to go into Yucca Mountain and be entombed in the Yucca Mountain Project. That project was worked on for years, billions of dollars spent on it. There was controversy all over the place, very much including the state of Nevada. And so former Senator Harry Reid was a big player in that controversy. I wouldn’t ever call anything “dead,” and particularly as a federal employee, that would be a bad thing for me to characterize it as. Right now, there are other alternatives that are being considered much more strongly – let me put it to you that way.
But at the same time, it is not only hugely controversial, but it is also consuming the thoughts of hundreds, maybe thousands, of federal employees and contractors. “What do we do about this?” Because these people feel responsible for this material. No matter what Congress does or does not do, it’s these people’s job to figure out what to do [with] this to protect the public. And so you should know, as members of the public, that this is – it’s being worked on. It’s taking way too long, in my opinion; it should have been taken care of by now, but you should understand that it’s not just sitting around. There are people who are federal employees who are actively working on this and trying to lobby Congress to say, “Please make a decision. Whatever we’re going to do with this, let’s make a decision and let’s do it. Because this material is not decreasing in quantity – it’s only increasing. So it’s in everybody’s best interest to try to do something about it.”
Let me move forward. So I want to make sure that you know more good news. And the good news is that – and I’ll speak for DOE as well, because I worked there as well – DOE and NRC, which are the primary overseers of nuclear radioactive material in the United States, have solid security in place, not only security policy that we develop, but that the NRC licensees and DOE facilities implement security on a daily basis. They take it seriously. It is the utmost responsibility that they all have to protect the public, both in the safety realm and the security realm.
So just an example, just a little graphic to show you what the fence line at a power plant might look like.
We also work very closely with what we call the “interagency,” the United States agencies that work in security. Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of State, the FBI, and many others that have roles in helping protect this material. So that is an ongoing process. It is being perfected day by day. And one of the only positive things that came out of the 9/11 attacks was this recognition that the security community in the United States government just was not working together enough. They were doing their own thing. But particularly the intelligence community just was not communicating. And that is one of the things that, quite frankly, has improved significantly. You can say whatever you want about DHS – there are some really good things that DHS has put in place post-9/11.
So just another little graphic just to show you, generically, what the security would look like. As I said, power plants are typically near a water source, so we have to prevent somebody from driving in in a boat, driving up on land, and trying to do something bad.
Audience member: Question – given the issue of climate change, and you have this stuff sitting out […] you have a lot of stuff near water, where water availability is going to change dramatically in the Midwest and West, and sea levels are going to be rising relatively quickly […] How do you “Monte Carlo,” kind of, you know, things that could happen that you were planning 20 years ago? It’s now another 20 years that have passed, and things haven’t changed so much.
Marshall Kohen: Yeah, it’s a great question. Just to tack on to the phrase “Monte Carlo,” just for those of you who don’t know, it’s a statistical process to think about the range of events and their probabilities – so that’s what you’re talking about there. But it’s a great question. The Commission right now is dealing with a huge effort on environmental justice, so it’s in the same realm. It’s not quite climate change, but we’re talking – we’re having a conversation about environmental justice in the same context as other national discussions. We have nuclear materials, and it goes to the questions people were asking about: “Radioactive materials are in my backyard – How fair is that?” Were they put in places where there are disadvantaged communities? So we’re having that discussion.
Climate change is, for me, an enormous issue. It is not solvable by one agency, is what I would say. It’s a national problem, and again, in my opinion, needs to be solved nationally, as a whole.
Audience member: So nationally, it actually doesn’t even work […].
Marshall Kohen: You’re absolutely right. So I can’t give you specifics on initiatives that are going on with respect to climate change. I would suspect that there probably are, but I may not be aware of them within my agency.
So very quickly, I’ll go through the rest of this stuff. Also, one of the huge topics in the past 10 years, which affects all of us, whether we’re talking about our iPhones or our computers, is cybersecurity. NRC has been on the vanguard of cybersecurity efforts for its power plants in particular. We actually put a rule in place for the power plants in 2008. So we’ve been on this for 15 years, back when it was just “computer security.” Now it’s cybersecurity. There’s so much. And the problem with cybersecurity is it’s very different from the generic terrorist threat. Terrorists can figure out new ways of doing things, but they’re human, and they have to actually get to you. In cyber, we know you can sit in a basement and throw some keys, and if you don’t have protection on the other side, that person can do stuff just sitting around. They don’t have to put in the money, the resources, the effort to get to that material, to do something to it. You should be very comfortable knowing that our nuclear power plants and the other NRC facilities are very well protected in the cyber-realm.
Okay, so now we get to Alex’s question, and maybe some others that you might have. So I thought through it, and I said, okay, we’ll cover all the nuts and bolts or the technical details, but really what we’re here to talk about, I think, is “What are the ramifications for Judaism?” What are the ramifications for ethics, just in general?
So a couple of things that just occurred to me as I was thinking about this, and this is sort of overall: should we sacrifice the good uses of this material on account of the potential for the uglyy? So that’s the big question. I think, Rachel, you started by asking that question: is it worth it? Is the potential bad a limiter of the good that we use this for? And then, again, we talked about the nuclear waste problem. We’re producing 20% of the electricity. Let’s say that we were to stop all nuclear power today – where would that 20% of electricity come from? There are countries right now that are mandating blackouts because they’re having issues. Just forget about nuclear, they’re having energy issues writ large. So you can say renewables – it’s great. I think renewables are part of the energy mix. It’s a question of whether we’re there yet, and have the infrastructure and have all the other stuff that you need for all the renewable energy sources to work.
So for me, that’s all my presentation for the evening. I don’t know whether we’re providing people slides, but I want to put up, if there’s more that you want to know that I can’t always answer for you, or the sort of ancillary stuff that you want to go mess around on the internet, a lot of stuff here that we recommend that you can go to to look at. One of the really good ones, I think for anybody who — forget about nuclear, forget about all this stuff, I really recommend you go to ready.gov. DHS and FEMA have combined to do a terrific website and a terrific series of information on just how to be prepared for anything. Ready.gov is a really good website, tons of resources for you. It reduces a little bit of the fear factor, I think. I think it puts it more in the context of “here are the things that I can do – me, just me personally, in my household, just to be ready.” No matter what comes up – hurricane, tornado, somebody coming across your backyard and entering your house and doing whatever they’re going to do – so I recommend that website, too.
Audience member: Can you talk about Fukushima? Not that I know much about this thing, but it just seemed from what I’ve read, that nuclear really gives incredible weight to production quotients. I mean, you can get – it’s a very efficient way to produce energy, and with good safety regulation, they can come up with a solution for the waste material. They can recycle it. It still seems, despite the fact that there could be a catastrophe, the good is worth that risk. And you had mentioned that Fukushima – there was more to it – the implication was perhaps it was poor design or whatever. We should be able to learn from these things.
Sure. I agree with almost all of what you said. I was not implying that there was poor design at Fukushima. I guess what I was saying is – so let’s talk a little bit about what led up to the accident there. You had the huge tsunami – tsunami comes in, rolls all that water in. And part of the problem was they didn’t have backup generators, they didn’t have battery backup power, to keep the reactor working and the fuel pool working. And so when that wave came over, it knocked out a portion, or maybe even all, of the on-site power. They didn’t have an offsite power to be able to compensate for it, so that power went down. It didn’t allow the fuel pool to keep cooling. What happens – and again, the experts can correct me – what happens when that fuel heats up is it produces more hydrogen. Hydrogen is probably the most pyrophoric thing on Earth, or one of the few. So it causes a fire, so when you get to that temperature it caused a fire. And that’s what caused the explosion in the fuel pool. And I remember sitting around with Lynn and I’m like, “this isn’t awful unless it gets to the fuel pool, right?” and then in one reactor site, it did, and it caused the explosion. Now, of course, it also caused the meltdown in two of the five units, I believe, I probably have that wrong. So a couple of units, actually, were not affected for the most part.
Audience member: Do you remember the fire engines? They were putting water in the fuel pump.
Marshall Kohen: Absolutely. They were just trying to add water and add cool water to try to keep those fuel elements from overheating and causing the fire.
So I agree with – well, I hear what you said. I hear what you say about nuclear power, and it, for the most part, if you look at the world, if you look at the – and this is what this is, what the industry will say, if you look at all the usable hours – there’s a term for it that’s escaping me – all the hours that power reactors have been used throughout history, if you add them all up and then take the number of hours of accidents and divide by that, it’s minuscule. So that’s their argument that nuclear power is safe.
Now, then we say, “Well, in the instances that it wasn’t, it was pretty catastrophic.” So how do you balance that and we have measures of risk that we talk about? We talk about risk being this equation of probability of occurrence and consequence. So if you have a small probability of occurrence but a huge consequence, then you have a certain risk. If you have a huge probability but a “who cares” consequence, maybe it’s the same risk. The problem is when you have a big probability and a big consequence. That’s when you have big risks.
Audience member: It seems like in order to get the equivalent of a nuclear power plant output, when you talk about wind turbines or solar panels, the resources that go into that are just enormous compared to what’s required to run a nuclear power plant, particularly for that same amount of value.
Different audience member: You mentioned that NRC has approximately 3,500 employees.
Marshall Kohen: I think we’re lower than that now.
Audience member: My question is, based on what you described as responsibility with such a broad stroke, nuclear materials, do you have investigators, you know, who look at things, and–
Marshall Kohen: Absolutely, yes. We have a full-scale inspection program that does inspections on a regular basis of all the nuclear power plants and the fuel cycle facilities that we have responsibility over. Now, the one thing that – I think I see where you’re going. We also, wasn’t going to talk about this [because it’s] kind of in the weeds, but I’m happy to discuss it. Years ago, the NRC created what’s called this agreement state program. So all of this stuff about medical use of material and industrial use of nuclear material, radiography and that sort of stuff, that’s all regulated by the states, with whom we have agreements. I believe there are 43 of the 50 states that are agreement states.
So we have an agreement with, let’s say, the state of Maryland. They have a state agency that has inspectors who are qualified to our standards, who have physics degrees, nuclear science degrees, who do the work on the ground, so we don’t have to have 10,000 inspectors to do all this work throughout the United States. We farm it out. The states have the responsibility for doing certain things. We keep the responsibility for doing the, I would say, inspections of the licensees who have the material that is of greatest consequence – let me put it to you that way. Power plants, fuel cycle facilities that have uranium and plutonium.
Audience member: How much is the benefit – be it economic, political or otherwise – of farming out that inspection and regulatory work to the states? What, if anything, do we gain?
Marshall Kohen: So, one is simple geography. We would have to send inspectors. If you had headquarters – I’ll also point out, we also have four headquarter regional offices throughout the United States, one in Pennsylvania, one in Illinois, one in Texas and one in Georgia. And they do the large part of the inspections and oversight of the plants that are in their jurisdiction. But if we had to do inspections of hospitals or cancer treatment centers, our staff would triple, at the very least.
Audience member: My question is: if your staff would triple, to say the least, but they would all be reporting in one chain, and when a regulation is changed it would automatically apply nationally, without being debated and kicked around and rewritten and put into state regulations, and the total number of work hours would apparently be the same. It’s just the color of the checks paying these people every however-often might be different.
Marshall Kohen: Yeah, I hear your point philosophically. I think we’re getting into bureaucracy of federal versus state responsibility, and I think there are some aspects of this that are in state law and the state constitution that they’re not going to give up responsibility to the federal government for. Likewise, I will say – when you say that when a regulation is changed, it has to be changed at the state level, it does not. The inspectors who do the work at the state level use NRC regulations. All licensees, when they agree to a license and pay the license fee and open their facilities, they all agree to license conditions that are set by NRC. So they’re national-level regulations, as opposed to state.
Now, it is true that those inspectors, and those people who are working at the state agencies, also have state regulatory authority that they have to comply with as well. So I hear what you’re saying, it’s a way bigger problem.
Audience member: So taking a different spin, going back to the name of the event, you know, science in synagogues, is there any Jewish opinion, state of Israel opinion? Orthodox opinion?
Marshall Kohen: You’re not looking at me!
Audience member: – or anything related to nuclear energy or any you know and from that perspective, to go along with the theme of our event?
Rachel Petroff Kessler: So there have been some. I’m going to bring us a couple texts that might clarify, or might confuse us, and then we’ll go to your question, okay. So we saw this text before, that the roof is potentially dangerous, you have to build this fence around it so that you don’t bring bloodguilt on your house. “Lo tasim damim b’veitecha,” “you don’t have blood on your house.” So then later, the Talmud, Rabbi Natan, says, “From where is it derived that one may not raise a vicious dog in his house?” Okay, the rabbis of the Talmud (I have to say, they don’t like dogs very much), “And you may not set up an unstable ladder, because you shall not bring blood into your house.” That you shouldn’t set up these risky situations. And for them, the dog, and certainly an unstable ladder, risk is high, the benefit is low.
Then, they say in another space – this is coming much later, in the Mishna Torah, the Middle Ages, trying to sort of summarize generations of debate, that this requirement of building a parapet or a fence applies to a roof and similarly to any place that might present a danger. If you have a well or a cistern, you have to have a wall ten hand-breadths high, or make a cover so that someone won’t fall in. The rule is not “you should stop digging wells,” because you need a well, but you also have a responsibility to safeguard the well in a certain way.
So here I think we see this – the question, and this is a question that our ancient texts can’t answer, and that I would say Jewish law, in modern times, is really built on specific cases and less on overarching principles. So that the question really comes down to the specifics of benefits and risk in any given case.
This is sort of a later text from the 19th century. The question comes around sailing at a time when long trips were still something you’d do. They were dangerous, and the question is: can you do it – if you’re supposed to, as a Jew, avoid taking certain risks, avoid situations where you’re going to put yourself in danger? Can I go on, can I put myself in this situation? And what Rav Aryeh Leibish Balhubar says, is that it sort of depends what your reason is. If you were putting yourself on the Great Sea in order to wander the world and see new things, since you’re doing it for fun, it’s not worth the risk. But if it’s for business, if it’s for food, if it’s for these sort of common, necessary matters, then the risk does not concern us as much, because it’s something that has to be done, that we don’t put ourselves in risky situations just for the fun of it. That thrill-seeking maybe is not aligned with this line of Jewish thinking. But it also doesn’t mean that we can build for ourselves a life that’s risk-free, because the things that we need in life – food, money, sufficient energy to run our community – these things require engaging with the world in some way that there’s an element of risk.
And then the question becomes: how are we balancing that risk and doing everything we can to put appropriate safeguards around the dangers that exist in the world? So with that, I’m going to stop the share, and we’ll open back up for questions, starting, Robin, with you, who’ve been very patient.
Audience member (Robin): I just wanted to first say that, Marshall, that was an amazing presentation. I learned so much, and thank you for putting it in layman’s terms so that we can understand it. And I just had a question going back, and I’m getting off of what Rachel has just been sharing, going back to Marshall’s presentation: I was just curious to know, since the power, the nuclear plants, are near bodies of water, and that the fuel pools are also near water, is it in any way harmful to the waters that they are near?
Marshall Kohen: For that one is Robin, you’re making it very difficult for a minute you told us to come on here so the simple answer is: it can be, if there is discharge of that radioactive water into a body of water that’s commercial, or is not even commercial, it’s just sort of near the plant, there is some environmental concern there. We hear that a lot from the folks on Cape Cod, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Massachusetts, and you all know, Massachusetts is one of those places where people are very politically active. So we hear a lot of stuff from the folks in Massachusetts, we hear a lot of stuff from the folks at Indian Point, which is in New York State – again, another very active community. So yes, there are concerns, but I will tell you that – and again, I’m not an environmental engineer, I am not in the office that deals with those types of issues – but I know that that is something that is of great concern, not only to the agency but to the communities that are involved. And it is something that has been a consistent conversation between the agency and the facility and the community. So yeah, I mean, it is something that needs to be kept in mind.
Audience member (Robin): Do they do regular studies on the local waters?
Marshall Kohen: I believe the answer is yes. Again, this is getting away from my area of expertise, but I’d be quite confident in saying that there are continual environmental studies done by the licensee – that is, the owner of the plant in the local area – if for no other reason, an economic reason for them, because quite frankly, they’re in it to make money. These companies that run these nuclear power plants – it is an incredible investment to build a nuclear power plant. We just had the first power plant almost finished in rural Georgia, the first one that has been built in some number of years – 20 years. It was an incredible investment, billions of dollars just to build it, do the permitting, all the environmental studies, the construction. Now, it was a boon for the industry, because it employed a ton of people for a number of years, probably more years than they wanted because it ended up being way over budget. Shocking, I know. But the point is, they have an economic interest in doing things the right way, safely, securely, so that their communities feel safe, because they have this huge facility in the middle of a community, and they’re very well aware of that. Some of them do a better job than others about communicating with the community, talking about safety, talking about security, talking about environmental issues. It’s just like any other industry. You have some companies that are really good, some not as much.
Rachel Petroff Kessler: I’m just noting a few things in the chat. Marty, I think you’re right that a lot of what we see in the text tends towards being conservative in the fact of like mitigating and minimizing risk. I think in large part that’s because the rabbis really wanted to make sure that people were not so concerned, particularly with fulfilling mitzvot, that they put themselves in dangerous spaces – that this sort of overarching responsibility to safeguard our lives, to live by that, not die by them. to minimize houses, all sort of supersede any following of sort of specific mitzvot. There are lots of other really interesting texts around risk, particularly when it comes to, sort of, medical things – do you listen to the patient and what they say they need? Do you listen to the doctor and what the doctor says they need? Really fascinating, as an aside of what we’re talking about tonight, but yes, I think you’re right to note that sort of the general thrust of Jewish tradition is in being cautious and conservative around things that we take in, making sure that we are doing what we can, really, and really doing everything we can, even if it means sometimes a little more red tape, a little more money spent on regulators, or more money, building a fence or a wall around your well, which you spend a lot of money digging.
Rachel Petroff Kessler: Right. Mishna Torah, by the way, says a wall around your well should be 10 hand-breadths. Ten hand-breadths is how high it should go. And I think the idea is here, with these fences and around the wall, is about the owner mitigating risk, and not reducing all danger existing, because people still have autonomy and get to make choices.
Audience member: So what do the rabbis say about their individual responsibility?
Rachel Petroff Kessler: So they say that people have a responsibility to keep themselves safe. I don’t know if I brought a text with me sort of really – so this one, a little bit, that the people are breaking – they’re transgressing a Mitzvah, that’s what the rabbis would say. It’s a positive Mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger. And you have to beware for yourself, that you have some sort of personal obligation. And so you’re transgressing a Mitzvah, these rabbis would say, if you’re intentionally putting yourself in dangerous situations without benefit. What “benefit” means, that opens up a whole other, very large, complicated conversation, but that we have a responsibility on ourselves to sort of protect ourselves, and we have responsibility to make sure that the things that we have, that we’re responsible for are [safe].
Audience member: A real-world example of that – we’ve seen it a couple of times around zoos. So in the San Diego Zoo a few years ago, these kids climbed over a 20-foot fence to get into the wolf cage. And guess what the wolves did? You know, they thought it was fast food. And then the family sued the zoo, and the judge threw it out of court, and that was not an accident.
And then you have other people that climb over the moat, like they’re lonely. So there’s a place where the proper protections were put up there, but somebody consciously went over that. I think that’s what you’re talking about.
Rachel Petroff Kessler: Yeah. In every space there’s a balance. What’s our responsibility to create a safe environment? And then every individual has their own responsibility to behave appropriately. And we’re going to take Alex and then Gary, and then, even though I think we could have lots more questions and conversation, then we’re going to kind of bring things to a close, just to be respectful of everyone’s time.
Audience member: I just want to toss a ball out, not because I think it can be discussed tonight, but because before we get to our question and answer session – when we talk about risk versus reward, when we talk about the obligation to be careful, to have a fence, to put a fence around a nuclear power plant, all those nice things, there’s a third item that comes into play which I would urge people to think about, and that is money. Now, you can call it investment, you can call it risk versus return, you can call it anything you want. But ultimately, the tremendous investments required to make technology safe or manageable, be it nuclear or other – those are large investments, and you have to ask who is in a position to gain from, or to ethically make, those decisions or those investments?
The nuclear power plants, for instance, I know of one that was built many years ago where they reversed the temperature readings on the lake. […] In other respects it was a wonderful site for a plant, it’s just that for various reasons, it wasn’t going to cool as well as one would wish. So they reversed the reading and treated it like a typographical error.
Rachel Petroff Kessler: So I appreciate this point, I think it’s a good one. And Marshall touched on it in different ways too, right – the sort of tremendous resources that go into this work. They go into keeping us safe in different ways. And who has the incentive to put those resources into play? And who sort of has responsibility, even if maybe they’re not financially incentivized to do so, right? The bad – I could say things about how I feel about capitalism, right, there are those pieces of these things that kind of pull in different directions.
Audience member: I wanted to take on Marshall’s very last question, which is our duty towards future generations who are going to be stuck with the nuclear waste problem. Does Judaism have any statements on our obligations to future generations?
Rachel Petroff Kessler: So specifically [related] to nuclear waste, I can’t say, but in general, yes, there are really powerful texts that say “this is the only world we have,” and “if we don’t take care of it, it’s sort of lost for us.”
I think we get, even as far back as Adam and Genesis, you have this responsibility to watch over this world, that that’s sort of the work that we’re put here to do. And some beautiful midrash that say, “this is the world we have, there’s no other world that’s going to – poof! – come in to replace it, and that we have a responsibility to take care of it.”
The most famous example of our responsibility to future generations, I think, is the story of Honi, who sees an old man planting a carob tree. “Oh my god, why would you bother,” right? Like, “You are going to be dead long before this tree ever grows tall enough to bear fruit,” right. He Rip Van Winkles – he falls asleep, wakes up a long time later, and oh, who look at who are you? And how did you come out of the street? “Oh, my grandfather planted it.” And had he not had the foresight and the care to look towards the future and do that, then we would not have what surrounds us.
So I think [it’s] a powerful thing that our tradition also teaches us to keep in mind, that our safety has risks and benefits for today, but also a really long view of what we’re leaving for our children.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Marshall Kohen has worked in the nuclear-power field for over 30 years. He is currently a Technical Assistant and advisor at the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and has been lay leader, past President and of course, director of the choir [Shir Isaiah] at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, MD. This event, originally recorded on November 16, 2022, was part of their Scientists in Synagogues series, “New Wars, Old Questions: Military Technology and Jewish Teachings in the 21st Century”).