LET’S LOOK AGAIN AT NUCLEAR ENERGY (39)
With all of the debates and even diatribes today about the harms of our oil dependency, environmental pollution and global warming, it surprises me that there have not been more open and honest public discussions about nuclear power. Why is that? In my view it is a combination of mostly needless public fear of nuclear power, and the self-interested promotions of the oil companies. So let’s look at the facts.
Today by far the largest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere is the burning of coal. Why? Because it is plentiful and relatively cheap. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of coal, and today we generate a full 50 percent of our electricity from it.
But look at what this means. We now are burning about one billion tons of coal in our country every year. That is enough to fill 50 million freight train cars, and is double what we consumed in 1976. But the burning of one ton of coal spews about 3 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and this produces about 40 percent of the world’s so-called greenhouse gases, and about 20 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions.
What is even worse is that coal is one of the most environmentally destructive substances we can use as a fuel. In addition to the substantial pollution problems, the EPA estimates that it kills about 30,000 people in our country alone each year as a result of diseases incurred by miners and others who work with it.
On the other hand, nuclear electric generating plants require only a few flatbed trucks every two years carrying loads of fuel rods, and these are only mildly radioactive such that they can be handled simply by using special gloves. And these rods will stay in the reactors for about six years. (Most facilities replace one-third of their rods every two years.) Yes, the replaced rods are more radioactive than before, but they can be stored in a three-foot deep water storage pool, and actually can safely remain there almost indefinitely. It is also true that a residual amount of the spent material needs special handling, but most of that could be used for other commercial purposes if only that were politically feasible.
There is no exhaust from the generating of nuclear power, no carbon emissions, nor any sulfur sludge to be carted away like that caused by the burning of coal. In fact there is no pollution at all except for some non-tainted hot water that is a by-product of the cooling process.
So what are the public fears? The two most pervasive are that the nuclear plants will blow up, and/or that they will melt down. But the first result is physically not possible, and today the second is practically impossible.
I am far from being even knowledgeable about nuclear physics. But all of the information I have seen tells me that a chain reaction resulting in an explosion can only come from “enriched” uranium, which is about 90 percent U-235. But reactor-grade uranium contains only about 3 percent U-235, so there is simply no way that it ever could explode.
Secondly, in all of our history through the years with our more than 100 nuclear reactors, none of them has ever come close to melting down. Yes it is true that Three Mile Island had problems when a valve stuck in the open position. But the security system worked at TMI and the fuel stayed within the reactor vessel. No one was killed, or even injured, although we naturally roped off the area for a time, and it was expensive to clean up the facility. So the “China Syndrome” scenario is really just a Hollywood fable.
Ah, but what about the problems at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union? Well, that certainly did melt down. But Chernobyl did not have a concrete containment structure like all reactors in our country have, and the Soviets used noticeably inferior technology that we have never used.
Much of the rest of the world seems to understand the safety and benefits of generating electricity from nuclear reactors. France turned away from oil-burning electric plants back in the 1980s when it experienced an “oil shock” due to the increase in the price of foreign oil. So when its Civaux nuclear plant comes on line within another year, France will have 56 nuclear plants that will generate about 76 percent of its electricity. This situation already allows France to export electricity to the southeastern parts of England.
Similarly, China is building two new pressurized reactors in Zhejiang Province, which is near Shanghai, that will each generate 1 million kilowatts of electricity by the year 2014. And Japan, even with its history of being the only country to have experienced the horrors of the atomic bomb, began its nuclear generating program in 1966. So now with its more than 50 reactors, Japan generates more than one-third of its electricity from nuclear reactors. Even Egypt currently has plans to build several nuclear electric generating plants.
And what are our viable options other than nuclear? The generation of power from wind-driven turbines is unreliable. For political and environmental reasons we have reduced our reliance upon hydroelectric power from 30 percent in the 1930s to only 10 percent today, and those numbers will probably continue to decline. Natural gas is a possibility because it is clean-burning and large amounts are increasingly being found in places like Russia and the Middle East. And Singapore burns natural gas for 85 percent of its electricity, so why can’t we? Well, we already import 15 percent of our natural gas from Canada, and it is hugely expensive to transport it over water. So our reliance upon natural gas for our future power generating needs is unrealistic.
So why have we lagged behind other countries in this area? Presently the only nuclear power generating facilities in California are south of us in San Onofre and at the Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo. But one of the two reactors at San Onofre has recently been closed. That reactor could have continued to operate, but politically there was no support for that to occur. And no plans are presently on file for any company to open any additional nuclear generating plants in our state.
We must do better. One of the largest threats to the security of our country is our dependence upon foreign oil. If we could utilize safe and environmentally friendly nuclear power to generate our electricity, that threat would be materially diminished.
So when people look at the facts, they will see that nuclear reactors today are environmentally friendly, less expensive, safer and better designed than ever before. Most of the rest of the world sees those facts, why don’t we?
James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, is the composer of the high school musical “Americans All” (distributed by Heuer Publishing), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.
ARE ATTORNEYS FRIENDS OR FOES? (38)
Okay, yes I am a member of the legal profession, and yes I agree that our profession has some problems. But by and large I am proud of my profession, and I think it is time for me to stand up for it more vocally. So please permit me to pass along to you some thoughts as you consider what to think about attorneys and the legal profession in general.
In the first place, virtually all attorneys deal in disputes and other problem areas in our society. Today we litigate many disputes that involve deeply important and emotional issues, like who will have custody of children, who will be awarded sometimes large amounts of money from someone else, whether a candidate will be able to appear on a ballot or not, where the body of a loved one will be buried when the family members do not agree, whether a real estate development project has complied with all applicable laws, or whether a potentially life-saving medicine should be pulled from the shelves of stores. The reputation of those of us in the legal profession is inescapably affected by our being involved in those difficult disputes.
For those who work as plaintiffs’ attorneys in litigation, frequently their clients are not happy with them because plaintiffs often lose their cases. Or they are not satisfied with the eventual award, or, if they are, with the time it took to procure it. With regard to representing defendants in litigation, it is a fact that no one likes to get sued. At the very least it is expensive, aggravating and takes lots of time, and attorneys frequently charge a lot of money for their time and expertise.
So one way or the other, litigation attorneys usually have unsatisfied clients on their hands, and “it is always their attorney’s fault” (or the judge’s). And that does not even begin to discuss what people think about the attorneys on the other side of their cases. So, as I often tell people, we are in the “dissatisfaction distribution business,” and that is almost literally true. And that situation adversely affects our reputation.
Even the large remainder of attorneys who do not get involved in litigation mostly deal with unhappiness in one form or another. Think of those who deal with regulatory agencies and governments at all levels, and tax attorneys. Usually they deal with bad news - it is simply a question of how bad. And when negotiating contracts, leases and other agreements, it is the other side’s attorney that is trying to procure “unfavorable” terms at your expense. So as a natural result, people often equate the attorneys representing the other side with disaffection and even bitterness.
Nevertheless, I believe people innately understand what we are up against, and that there remains an inherent appreciation of the services we render. As an example to support that belief, one evening I was attending yet another fundraising event, and I found myself sitting next to a lady at dinner who found out that I am in the legal profession. Throughout the dinner she harangued me about how the “shyster lawyers” are responsible for all kinds of things that are wrong with our society. It was amazing and quite one-sided. Finally in despair by the time of dessert I tried to change the subject by asking her if she had any children. “Oh yes,” she exclaimed proudly, “and my oldest son is in law school!”
But let me pass on to you some additional points that maybe my dinner friend and even you might not be aware of as you ponder what you think about attorneys in our community. The first point is in response to those who feel that attorneys file too many frivolous personal injury cases. You might not be aware of this, but most of these cases are taken by plaintiffs’ attorneys on a contingency basis, which is to say that the attorneys only take a negotiated percentage of what is eventually recovered. That means that unless the plaintiffs recover an award of some kind, the attorneys receive nothing on the case. As a result, since the attorneys run the risk of working for free, and even paying for costs of the lawsuit out of their own pockets, a sizeable screening process takes place in deciding what cases are filed at all by attorneys.
Another thing that people are almost completely unaware of is that attorneys as a profession routinely donate thousands of hours of “pro bono” work, which is to say that they donate their time to worthy people and causes that otherwise could not afford them. Personally I am not aware of any other profession that comes close to that type of a contribution.
Further, the legal profession polices itself diligently, to the degree that 80 percent of the state bar’s budget is spent on disciplinary inquiries. If any active judge came close to treating people like “Judge Judy” does, or any attorney were to act as is portrayed in many movies or television shows, they would soon lose their licenses to practice law. And rightfully so.
Attorneys at least in California are also required to specify in a written and signed retainer agreement what the relationships are between them and their clients before they can represent those clients in almost any litigation. And before they can bring an action for unpaid fees, the attorneys must offer neutral arbitration to their clients or former clients.
In addition, please consider the following. In my view, there are really only two ways that we can maximize the safety of products in the marketplace and justice and the realization of our expectations in our relationships with each other. One of them is through our civil justice system, with all of its imperfections. But the other is to have even greater governmental regulation of everything we do. And no one I know wants the government to be involved with even more regulation. So maybe we should appreciate what we have a little bit more, along with continuing to use our best efforts to improve the system further.
So are attorneys your friends, or your foes? In my view, the more people are aware of the facts, the more they will understand that the legal profession is a basic, valuable and necessary part of dispute avoidance, dispute resolution and securing safety and peace in the land. As such, it should be genuinely respected for the contributions it makes for us all.
James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe, the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.
“I’M JUST A GIRL FROM CHINA” (36)
A short time ago I was waiting at the San Jose Airport for a flight back to Orange County, and I started talking to the young lady sitting next to me. Since American Airlines had canceled our particular flight we had an extra hour to wait, so we had a nice discussion.
Her name is Alicia, and I asked her what she had been doing in San Jose. She responded that she had been attending a 3-day conference. About what? She said she is an electrical and electronics engineer, and the conference had reviewed cutting-edge developments in her field. When I said that the Silicon Valley was the logical place to come for such a conference, she told me that actually the Golden Triangle area of Irvine is catching up.
But I noticed that when Alicia was talking to me about what she had learned at the conference she was actually beaming, and I told her so. She smiled and said the things that were happening in her industry were so exciting she couldn’t wait to get back to let her fellow workers know about them. But then her boss would probably want her to give a presentation to her colleagues, and she was nervous about doing that.
I said I understood. (Actually I once saw a study that concluded that most people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying.) So since I do a fair amount of public speaking, I passed along two tips to her that I have found to be effective. The first tip she had already mastered, which is to show your audience that at least you are convinced about what you are talking to them about. If you can’t show that you are convinced, it is hard to convince others.
The second tip is if you are nervous when standing in front of a group, instead of looking right at your audience, you should actually look over their heads and pretend to yourself that you are simply talking personally to a friend in the very back of the room. Never look down because that shows a lack of confidence, but if you look over their heads everyone will actually feel that you are looking directly at them. Try it; it works!
As an example, I told her that my wonderful wife had fairly recently given the valedictorian speech when she received her doctorate of occupational therapy, and she used this suggestion successfully. In fact, during her talk I actually stood at the very back of the room and she simply looked at me. And since I moved from side to side, everyone in the audience felt that she had been looking directly at them personally. My new friend liked the idea, and said she would try it. (I recommend it to you as well.)
Alicia also told me that she had been so fortunate in being able to come to this country from China and become a citizen she wanted to give something back. In fact she had learned of a group called MentorNet that tries to mentor and motivate young people, but the slogan from MentorNet prevented her from doing so. What was that slogan? She said it is “Until women and people of color are fully represented in the fields of science and engineering, society is losing out on the talents of a vast number of potential contributors.”
Then Alicia made me beam by saying: “I could not disagree more. Here I’m just a girl from China who came to America empty handed. And now look at me and what I have today. I think this country has already given me the equal opportunity. But equal opportunity does not guarantee equal outcomes. They focus on the wrong issue.”
So she asked me to recommend an alternative mentoring program. I recommended to her the Stay in School program that is overseen by the Nicholas Academic Center and its founder, Judge Jack Mandel, which is located at 412 West Fourth Street, Santa Ana 92701, telephone 714 834-0521. (As you may recall, the Stay in School program was the subject of a prior column.)
Are there still disparities or even discrimination in the workplace for women and people of color in our country? Okay, probably so. But there are also opportunities for everyone like never before. As a matter of fact, today I believe there are more females in law school than males, and companies of all kinds are hungry to find qualified people of color to work with them at every level of their operations. So in a lot of ways people of color who are good workers have an extra advantage over others.
In summary, I agree with my new friend Alicia. America, for all of its faults, still is a land of opportunity for people who work to get ahead. And generally people who have come over from other countries seem to appreciate our country more than those people like me who were so blessed to have been born here.
So without reducing our efforts to bring about a fully lawful and non-discriminating life in the United States, I suggest we all join with Alicia and not accept or even focus upon the contrary arguments of victimization. This is the next logical step in our progression to complete gender and racial equality.
As a result, for my part I don’t even respond to questionnaires asking for my race or ethnic background from the Red Cross when I give blood, or to other similar forms. In my view, today a person’s race is irrelevant for almost all reasons except medical, and I try to act accordingly.
This “girl from China” is now living the American Dream, and the opportunities she has are still available for people from Mexico, Indonesia, Rwanda, or anywhere else, as long as they come here legally, get their education, keep from having children out of wedlock - and work hard.
I am proud of Alicia and what she has accomplished, and I am proud of my country as we continue our march toward complete gender and color blindness. Please join us on that march.
James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe - the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.