Monday, February 8, 2016

Principles of Good Regulation--25th Anniversary:

NRC Celebrates 25 Years of the 
Principles of Good Regulation

On January 19, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched what they characterize as a year of celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Principles of Good Regulation.  The first event was an employee seminar on the history and evolution of the Principles.  I was very pleased and proud to have been asked to be a part of that event.

I had wanted to report on this seminar earlier, but Mother Nature (the Snowzilla that hit the Washington, DC area a few days later) caused me to move up my vacation plans.  I escaped the blizzard in time, but the things I'd planned to do the remainder of that week got put off until now.

I have previously discussed the thinking behind the NRC Principles of Good Regulation and will not repeat that here.  I will focus instead primarily on what was discussed at this event.

NRC dates the effective beginning of the Principles of Good Regulation to the publication of the Principles in the Agency's Five Year Plan for 1991-1995 and the dissemination of the Principles to all NRC staff in a memorandum from the Chairman of NRC at the time, Kenneth M. Carr, on January 17, 1991.  The Principles have become very important to the Agency in the last 25 years, and therefore, the NRC has apparently decided to do a number of things this year to recognize the role of the Principles and to set the scene for their future.

The first of these events was the January 19 staff seminar.  It was held in the Rockville, MD headquarters of the NRC, but was broadcast to all the NRC regional offices.  (I will also note that it was held on the 41th anniversary of the day NRC started--January 19, 1975.)   There are plans for several other events and initiatives to be held this year focusing on the Principles.  For example, at the upcoming NRC Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), there will be a panel discussion on the Principles.

The seminar brought together a number of people who had been at the NRC when the Principles were developed, as well as some who have been involved with the Principles in more recent years.  The current NRC Chairman, Steven Burns, the current head of the NRC Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, Michael Weber, and the current Executive Director for Operations, Victor McCree, were all on the NRC staff at the time the Principles were promulgated.  Mike Weber and Vic McCree each made opening remarks.  Mike had been a technical assistant in Chairman Carr's office in 1991, so was heavily involved in the "birth" of the Principles.  Vic McCree noted how the Principles later led to a staff-initiated statement of values a few years later.  Commissioner Ostendorff, who has been one of the more recent champions of the Principles, made opening remarks as well, focusing on how he has tried to promote this concept to regulators in other countries.

The main speakers were former Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, myself, and the current NRC historian, Thomas Wellock.  The three of us tried to detail how the concept for the Principles developed and evolved. 

The idea for the Principles came from Kenneth C. Rogers, who was a Commissioner at the time.  While many people contributed to the Principles, Commissioner Rogers had assigned me the task of gathering and synthesizing inputs to the document.  The two of us reconstructed for the NRC audience some of the details of that effort:  his discussions with the other Commissioners, my interactions with their assistants and with senior NRC management, initial skepticism in some quarters and our efforts to incorporate suggestions that helped bring everyone aboard, the attempt to draw from previous statements and documents, the process for identifying and narrowing the list of potential principles to a reasonable set, and the decisions on what order to put the principles in and what language to use to explain and clarify them.

Tom Wellock then tried to give some historical perspective to the Principles.  (He abbreviated them PGR, which is probably a good idea.  And while I'm mentioning good ideas, I noticed that, although I always painstakingly try to put them in the order we initially used--independence, openness, efficiency, clarity, and reliability--I have seen the acronym ICORE used, which probably makes them a whole lot easier to remember!)  He confirmed what we always thought--that as far as he has been able to find, NRC's Principles were the first of their kind.  However, he noted that he has found a number of other statements of regulatory principles that were created after NRC's, including in the UK, Ireland, the EU, and IAEA.  He also put the initiative in a broader historical perspective--pointing to the 1960s, when more regulation was often viewed as a good thing (he cited Nader's initiatives), to the deregulatory efforts of the 1980s.   Most interestingly, he pointed to antecedents for some of the principles we used--words like independent, open and reliable began popping up in NRC documents in the 1980s. 

Of course, the true measure of the value of something like the Principles is in their impact, and that is much harder to assess.  The explanation of several of the Principles suggests the difficulty.  Each of these Principles is important, but there is always a balance to be struck.  Independence should not mean isolation.  Efficiency should not force NRC staff to act so quickly that they miss something.  Therefore, the goal is to minimize delay as much as is reasonably possible.  Reliability should not mean that regulations must be cast in stone.  Rather, the goal should be to make sure that changes in regulations are justifiable.

I have certainly seen times when NRC has been criticized for falling short on its adherence to the Principles of Good Regulation.  Some of this criticism may have been colored by the viewpoints and positions of the critics.  But even someone without an ax to grind might find fault at times in some of NRC actions.  After all, the Principles are a very ambitious set of rules to follow, and require a continual balance between opposing objectives.  What I think is encouraging is that, after performing this balancing act for 25 years, the NRC has made a conscious decision that this is still a valid standard of behavior to set for themselves, and has committed to continuing to try to hold themselves to that standard. 


Friday, January 15, 2016

Sake and Radioactivity:

Another Beverage with Benefits

It looks like I have an opportunity to start my blog this year with yet another claim of a beneficial effect of alcohol.  (Those who have been following this blog for some time will recall that I have previously written several posts on various intersections between radiation and wine, whiskey, and cheese.) 

This time, the beverage in question is sake.  A new study alleges that sake may help counter the effects of radiation poisoning.  The effect is postulated to be due to antioxidative characteristics of sake. 

So far, the benefit has been demonstrated only in the case of mice.  Of course, it would be hard to do a controlled study on humans!  But the interesting part was that the effect was not attributed to alcohol alone, as the study did compare the response to radiation poisoning in mice that consumed sake, mice that consumed ethanol, and mice that abstained from alcohol altogether. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I haven't reviewed the study in detail.  However, I do find it interesting to hear of findings that both sake and red wine (in both cases, used in moderation) might confer benefits against effects of radiation.  It is certainly an area that may merit further study! 



Thursday, December 31, 2015

Post COP 21:

The Name-Calling Begins

Some of my colleagues who participated in the COP 21 conference in Paris recently noted the increased visibility of the nuclear community and predicted a backlash.  Boy, were they right!  But that backlash has not gone unnoticed, and people have stepped up to respond to the worst of the false allegations.  I have been trying to follow the name-calling and the accusations, and it is more fun than a prize fight. 

One of the first statements I came across was an article by Jim Green entitled, "The Attack of the Nuclear Hucksters."  Attack?  So, promoting a pro-nuclear viewpoint is an attack?  But promoting an anti-nuclear viewpoint is not an attack in the other direction?  The article accuses the Breakthrough Institute of "promoting its pro-nuclear [views] and arguing against...anyone who disagrees with them."  Excuse me if I'm missing something, but when anyone has a viewpoint on anything, don't they try to argue their case?

Likewise, a letter to the editor by Alan Jeffery of "Stop Hinkley" complains that, "There seemed to have been a desperate last-ditch effort in Paris to convince us all that nuclear power is an important part of the answer to the climate crisis."  But it appears that he is writing his letter because he would like all funding to go for renewable energy projects. is OK to argue your case if you want windmills and solar panels, but if you want nuclear power plants, you are making a "desperate last-ditch effort"?

Another article, this one by Naomi Oreskes, referred to "a new form of climate denialism."  The article somehow accuses people like James Hansen, who has been one of the most vocal figures in warning the world of climate change, of "climate denialism"--apparently because he wants to use all possible measures to combat climate change, including nuclear power.  How that is denialism of anything, let alone climate, I don't understand. 

I was apparently not alone in my confusion, as I noticed several authors who challenged the assertions.  In particular, an article by Michael Specter in the New Yorker challenging this view makes the very astute observation that "denialism is not a synonym for disagreement."  He goes on further to say that, "Oreskes is certain that we won’t need nuclear power to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. This is a legitimate and essential debate. But it should be possible to have it without denigrating positions held by people who have spent their careers, quite courageously, trying to solve the world’s biggest problem."

Mathijs Becker posted a lengthy blog in which he made a similar comment about the term "climate denialism," and further, went on to dissect the rest of the article point by point.  In particular, he challenges the statement in the Oreskes article that this new form of denialism "says that renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs."  He turns this one around, saying to Oreskes that, "You are clearly part of a movement that denies fundamental scientific principles." [emphasis added]   "As such you deny that Nuclear Energy is a credible solution to the most dire problem of Climate Change." 

Becker goes on to address all the other issues raised in the Oreskes article and elsewhere about the cost of nuclear power, the time it takes to build, and--one of my favorites--the fallacy that so-called renewable energy sources are completely renewable.  The sun and the wind may be renewable, but the materials needed in order to convert the sun and wind to electricity are not.  In a companion blog, he also takes on the arguments made by Mark Jacobson and cited by Naomi Oreskes.

Finally,  an article by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post, gets away from the petty bickering and points out the magnitude of the challenges society faces.  He doesn't take on any individual, but he does take on the arguments that solar and wind power can solve all our problems.  He points out that the apparent large growth of wind and solar power is a result of the tiny base it started from and that both sources are still heavily subsidized.  He says bluntly, "We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these."  To be fair, he highlights the challenges of nuclear power as well, including accidents, waste disposal, and threats of terrorism. 

His solution, and one that I believe is needed as well, is that technological development is needed in all areas: "We know what’s needed: cheaper and safer nuclear power; better batteries and energy storage, boosting wind and solar by making more of their power usable; cost-effective carbon capture and storage — making coal more acceptable by burying its carbon dioxide in the ground."


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Unintended Consequences:

Why We Don't Get it Right the First Time

I repeatedly hear of problems in our industrialized society that, when you think about it, are really the unintended consequences of decisions we made, sometimes a long time ago.  We don't set out to pollute the environment, put poisons in food, or cause needed suppliers to go bankrupt, but somehow, we do it.  And we keep doing it.  And it takes a very long time to recognize what we've done, and even longer to fix it.

One such instance just came to my attention recently.  Tests of wells in the San Joaquin Valley, described as the richest farm region in the world, are showing uranium levels that exceed safety standards.  The reason:  "a natural though unexpected byproduct of irrigation, drought, and the over-pumping of natural underground water reserves." [emphasis added]

Another instance that has been much in the news lately is how unregulated electricity markets are failing to put appropriate values on all the benefits (and shortcomings) of alternative forms of electricity generation, including reliability, lack of greenhouse gases, etc.  The result is leading to the shutdown of nuclear power plants and their replacement by natural gas plants that put more carbon into the atmosphere.

I could cite many other examples, and I could include ones from all areas of society.  Every time one of these cases comes up, we all rant about the stupidity of the decisions that led us to these predicaments.  Sometimes, the decisions are conscious ones, like laws to fix some problem that we have noticed; other times, they are passive ones, like doing more and more of what has seemed to be successful.

In most cases, the laws or the decisions seemed rational at the time.  I am always particularly struck by the fact that many of our problems stem from the fact that, in small amounts, pollution or poisons are often of little consequence.  When we had only a handful of cars on the road, the emissions from cars were an inconsequential addition to the atmosphere.  And cars were convenient, so we added more and more cars...until we suddenly noticed that they were a huge source of pollution.

Other problems stem from the fact that we don't seem to look at the big picture when we make decisions.  Perhaps we can't figure out what the big picture is.  When we make changes to the electricity marketplace--putting auctions in place, giving various kinds of financial incentives to some forms of electricity generation, we look primarily at an immediate objective--increasing the use of solar and wind power, for example.  We don't look at the broader ramifications--impacts on existing power generators, impacts on grid stability, impacts on long-term reliability, and more.

There is no perfect solution to this problem.  I could cite numerous examples from our everyday lives that follow the same pattern and just chalk it up to human nature.  However, when the consequences become very large and significant, such as when they impact the environment, our food or power supply, or other critical parts of civilization, we somehow need to start thinking longer-term and more globally.

There are several hurdles we face.  One is to identify what the potential problems are well in advance of when it becomes apparent that they are going to be problems.  This is a huge hurdle.  In the earliest days of automobiles, when they were a plaything of the very rich, and there weren't many roads, and everyone still had horses or lived near where they shopped and worked, who would have predicted how ubiquitous cars would become.  A second problem is to sort out what is real and important from the voices of special interest groups on all sides of the spectrum.

I think scientists and engineers can play an important role in attacking these two problems.  Scientists and engineers are not the only ones, of course, who may have insights, but they have the knowledge and the capability to analyze situations and perhaps identify potential problems early on.

A final challenge is to convince policy-makers to act in a timely fashion.  Since every decision affects someone's special interests, convincing policy-makers to act before there is a crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.  After all, every decision that is made affects some individuals or organizations negatively.  Cutting the use of fossil fuels may encourage the development of nuclear power and renewable energy, but it adversely affects coal miners, a huge transportation infrastructure, and fossil plant operators.  

Failing to act in a timely manner on any new challenge, of course, means that we will face risks to our health or our environment again and again, although perhaps from a different technology, or by a different part of the infrastructure, or to a different element of the environment.  This reminds me of the old saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  It seems to me this saying applies even if it isn't literally the same thing, but rather, the same behavior in a different situation. 


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Whiskey and Radioactivity:

Another Link between Alcohol and the Atom

I don't want to make too much of a habit of talking about connections between food and radioactivity, but the fact that there are a number of connections has always intrigued me.  I have previously written several pieces in this blog about connections between wine and the atom, including one on how wine can help limit the toxic effects of radiation therapy, and another on how gamma decay measurements can be used to help date wine.  I have also written about how irradiation could be used to kill listeria in unaged, unpasteurized cheeses.

I thought those posts about covered everything I would ever find on the relationship between food and beverages and radioactivity, but I just discovered yet another connection.  A recent news item reported that the Environmental Research Institute in Scotland is experimenting with biological materials that can absorb radioactive environmental contaminants, such as strontium, at the Dounreay site.  Materials being examined for their biosorption capabilities include the grains leftover from whiskey-making.

This finding was part of a research program to test the efficacy of a variety of materials, including eggshells, seaweed, and crab shells, for absorption of radioactive contaminants.  I will admit that the country probably has a lot of eggshells and seaweed, as well, but it really sounds so fitting to me for Scotland to use of a byproduct of a major industry to remediate a contaminated site in the country.

And now, just think--when you have a shot of whiskey, you may also be helping to clean up a contaminated site!  


Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Paris Terrorist Attacks:

So Far, Yet So Close

I have been struggling all week with my thoughts on the terrorist attacks in Paris just over a week ago (on November 13, 2015), and more recently, the attack in Mali, wanting to write something, yet feeling anything I could say would be inadequate.

First of all, the attacks reminded me vividly of my experience as a visitor to Paris during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.  I was attending an international conference there, and I  particularly remember how sensitive the French were to the events unfolding thousands of miles away in the United States.

The newspaper headlines shouted, "We are all American."  The French organizers of the conference I was attending cancelled a planned social event that evening.  I know that such events require significant down payments, so that must have cost the conference budget dearly, but there was no hint of that in their discussions of their action.  It was the right thing to do, they said.  I will always remember that.

A couple of days later, I went to dinner at a fancy restaurant, and the owner signed my menu with a message saying, "In these difficult times, we French are with you Americans."  I have framed and hung that menu.

So I was very glad to see that the American response to the Paris attacks was no less sympathetic.  I don't know if any social events at conferences were cancelled in the US, but I do know that the news coverage and the commentary reflected the fact that this was not just an attack on Paris, but rather, an attack on all humanity, and that America stood with France.

And indeed, the numbers bear out the fact that this was an attack on the world.  Paris is a magnet for the world, and among the casualties were individuals from a dozen or so countries.

Furthermore, in this increasingly interconnected world, it is hard not to feel that these events strike pretty close to home.  Since I lived in Paris for several years, friends and family immediately called to ask how close to home this event had hit.

Were any of the sites of the attacks places I had frequented?  No, I assured them.  These places were nowhere near where I lived or worked. 

Was anyone I knew caught up in these events?  The answer to that is also no.  And yet--there is only one degree of separation between some of the victims and me.  I know people who knew a young nuclear engineer, Juan Alberto Gonz├ílez Garrido, who was killed in the attack.  A French friend in turn has a friend who lost a family member in the attack.  Someone else has a daughter who attended a concert in the same concert hall only the night before.  And then, in the Mali event a week later, the one American who was killed lived only a few miles from me.

These events and others hit all of us in other ways, too.  The implementation of greater security at public gatherings.  The threats to Washington, DC, where I live, and to New York City.  The speculation about what other kinds of actions terrorists may have in mind--airports, the electrical power grid, the computer systems that contain all our private information, nuclear power plants, the use of dirty bombs or chemical weapons.  The list goes on.

Whether a terrorist event takes place on our own soil or far away, whether it is in a place we know well or a place we've never been, whether we know any of the names of the victims or not--every attack affects all of us.  Our sense of security.  The overlay of restrictions and checkpoints and delays that has become the new normal.  The slight paranoia that becomes ingrained in us.

So, more than a week after the Paris attacks, I still have on my computer screen a picture of Juan Alberto, as I have been wondering what I could say about the senseless acts that led to his death.  In the end, my condolences to his family and friends seems such a small gesture.

But if there is any silver lining, it is the fact that we have come to realize that these are not isolated event in places far away, but rather, events that attack all of us.  If there is a silver lining, it is that we have a sense of solidarity with the victims of this attack.  And finally, if there is a silver lining, it is in the determination of the Parisians not to let fear rule them, and not to let their way of life be changed.  Perhaps that is the only hopeful message I can draw from these difficult times.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--November

More Milestones

With this blog on key nuclear power "firsts" that occurred during the month of November, I have finally caught up with my monthly reports on milestones in nuclear power development in each calendar month, so without further ado, here are some of the most noteworthy events in nuclear history that happened in November of various years:

Nov. 3, 1954:  First reactor to demonstrate molten salt as a fuel (ARE, Oak Ridge, TN)

Nov. 4, 1943:  First reactor to operate above the zero power level; first reactor built for continuous operation (X-10 graphite reactor, Oak Ridge, TN)

Nov. 4, 1954:  First large-scale reprocessing using the PUREX process (F-Canyon, Savannah River, SC)

Nov. 23, 1963:  First on-line refueling for a reactor connected to the grid (NPD, Rolphton, Canada)

Nov. 25, 1961:  First nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (USS Enterprise, US)

I should note that the first on-line refueling (not connected to the grid) was at the NRU reactor at Chalk River, Canada.  This reactor started up on Nov. 3, 1957, but I do not have an exact date for the first refueling.

While this looks like a somewhat skimpy list for the month, there were several important events this month for which I have been unable to find an exact date.  These include two events in Nov. 1963 and one in Nov. 1968:  the Piqua OMR in Piqua, OH was the first organically moderated and cooled power reactor to start operation (Nov. 1963); the BR3 in Mol, Belgium was the first LWR to operate using mixed-oxide fuel (also in Nov. 1963, and the first demonstration of the THOREX process for thorium extraction occurred at the West Valley Reprocessing Facility, Ashford, NY in Nov. 1968.

Readers with outstanding memories may recall that I actually started this project in December, so this blog reflects the twelfth and last in the series.  As I wrap up this year-long project, I realize there are a number of loose threads.  There are probably a couple of dozen events for which I have found only a year, not an exact date.  A number of these are institutional--the start-up of academic programs (various degree levels, etc.) or professional society initiatives--and perhaps it is hard to determine what constitutes the start of the activity.  Several events occurred in the USSR during the Cold War, so perhaps little information was ever available in the West.  In some cases, I'm not sure why the record is not clearer on the exact date of an event.

However, the bottom line is that these events did not "fit" in any month, so are not covered by this series, although they are profiled in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development."  The book also contains more information on events that are identified in this blog, as well as in the previous blogs in this series.  Since publication of the book, I have found a few additional dates and other information, so there are one or two things reflected in some of these monthly reports that are not in the book.  For example, I previously did not have a date for the first on-line refueling for a reactor connected to the grid.

The new information will be included in an e-book version of the book, which should be completed and available soon.  The e-book will contain some updates, including a discussion of Fukushima and its impacts, profiles of several firsts that I identified after the print book was published, and some minor additions such as the dates I didn't have before.  When the e-book is available, I will publish some information on how to obtain it.