Report from the FPS representative on the Panel on Public Affairs of the APS

Philip Taylor
September 16, 2013

The Panel on Public Affairs has about twenty members, all but one of whom are elected by the thirty-member APS Council. The exception is the representative to POPA from the Forum on Physics and Society, who is elected by whatever fraction of our roughly six thousand members choose to vote. As your current representative, I have pondered the significance of this difference ever since I was elected. Does this give me some special role as the voice of the sweaty masses working in the trenches? Or should I defer to those who were nominated and chosen by the select group of the great and the good?

While contemplating this question I have kept a fairly low profile, only raising questions about one issue. This involved a study of the technical challenges associated with extending nuclear reactor lifetimes from the current 60 years to 80 years. This struck me as somewhat akin to a study of the technical challenges associated with extending the lifetime of a 1933 Pontiac so that it could continue to be driven down the public highways at high speeds. I actually did own a 1933 automobile once, and vividly remember the difficulty I had in stopping it without veering off to left or right as I applied pressure to the cable-operated brakes. This analogy led me to question the advisability of keeping running some of our more primitive reactors, such as the early ones identical in type to those that experienced problems at Fukushima. However, the issue may soon be moot, as the economics of maintaining these creaky old machines may cause their owners to shut them down sooner rather than later. The Entergy Corporation announced in August that they plan to close their Fukushima-style 620 MW Vermont Yankee plant next year, although the SAFSTOR decommissioning process they would like to use would take 60 years to complete!

Returning to the issue of whether my role in POPA is special, I do have to concede that any claim I would make to represent the voice of a wider spectrum of APS membership than any other member is hardly valid if all I do is just sit there and offer my own opinions. To be the voice of the FPS membership I should actually consult that membership occasionally to sound out their (that is, your) views. As it happens, there can surely be no better time than the present to do that, for we are about to take up consideration of one of the most important statements that the APS has ever made, namely the statement on climate change. It was adopted by the APS Council in 2007, and can be found at the APS statement on Climate Change along with a clarifying commentary added by the APS Council in 2010.

POPA is not leaping into this particular maelstrom of its own volition: the bylaws of the APS require that every statement be re-examined every five years. A subcommittee has been formed, and it is hoped that its recommendations can be considered very early in 2014. Performing this task will require an extraordinarily intricate combination of insight, wisdom, delicacy, and, above all, transparency. It will be informed by such parts of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as are available at the time. The most relevant part for POPA purposes is the report of Working Group I, which is concerned with the physical science basis of the assessment, and is due to be released in Stockholm in late September. The existence of news leaks alleged to come from the report suggests that it will be ready on time.

Thus I end this report with the suggestion that, if you have any thoughts regarding revision (or non-revision) of the Climate Change Statement, or, indeed, any more general suggestions for topics that POPA might usefully address, you communicate them to me. I am not on the subcommittee considering the Climate Change Statement, but I will have the opportunity to pass on your comments to its members. General suggestions rather than wordsmithing are probably most useful at this stage. An e-mail sent to with a subject line starting with the letters FPS should escape my spam filter.

Philip Taylor
Case Western Reserve University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.