Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Nuclear Engineering Majors Rank High:

Survey Shows High Salary, 
Low Unemployment

It seems to me that nuclear engineering often doesn't even show up as a separate field in many surveys of academic disciplines, so it caught my attention immediately when I saw a recent survey reported in Money magazine that included nuclear engineering.  It caught my attention even more when I saw that nuclear engineering was ranked third in a survey that focused largely on expected salary and employment prospects. 

The information comes from a study done by Bankrate that covers over 150 professions.  As expected, the STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, and math) generally rank higher than other professions, but to see nuclear engineering near the very top was--for me--a bit of a surprise, although, of course, a pleasant one. 

As always with such studies, one has to do a deeper dive into the methodology to understand the significance of the numbers.  What is particularly interesting about this study is that, while average salary is the most heavily weighted factor, the unemployment rate is also factored in.  On this basis, petroleum engineering, which has the highest average salary of the fields identified, but also has a high unemployment rate, doesn't make the top 10. 

With some of the current uncertainties in the prospects for new nuclear power plants, or even in the continued operation of some existing plants, some of us have been worried about whether the nuclear field can continue to attract the kind of talent that will still be needed for decades to come.  A study like this, that shows nuclear engineering to be a field with high salary potential and excellent prospects for employment, should help persuade students now choosing career fields that the nuclear engineering field is an attractive one.

Of course, there is always some danger in choosing a field just because of the job prospects.  I've been around long enough to see the job prospects dry up in some fields, and whole new fields emerge.  But under any scenario, the nuclear industry is clearly going to need trained people for a long time to come.  And furthermore, nuclear engineering has historically been a very flexible field--with roots in several engineering disciplines, nuclear engineering majors are able to work in a variety of industries.  So all prospects appear to be good for nuclear engineering majors. 

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Secret Cities": A Look at Nuclear History

Architecture and the Manhattan Project 

I recently visited an exhibit on the Manhattan Project at the Building Museum in Washington, DC.  The exhibit has been open since early May, so perhaps some people reading this blog will have seen it already.  But if you haven't, and if you live in the DC area or have a chance to visit, I highly recommend the exhibit.  It is open until March 3, 2019, so I hope a lot of people will have the opportunity to view it.

Called "Secret Cities," the exhibit focuses on the extraordinary requirements for housing generated by the opening of Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford laboratories during World War II, and how they were met.  This is appropriate, of course, since this is a museum about buildings and architecture, but by doing so, it focuses attention on something many of us don't think about--the fact that thousands of people had to be brought to these sites and housed, fed, and entertained, all under a shroud of secrecy.  

The exhibit puts the housing issue in context--it discusses other attempts at the time to turn out modularized housing, it includes examples of the work of some of the famous architects of the day and how their innovations influenced the designs, and it even illustrates some of the post-war housing construction that built, at least in part, upon the experiences of the Manhattan Project. 

While the exhibit focuses on the housing, it also does a good job of covering a number of other aspects of the 3 laboratories and the communities that lived there.  It includes displays that show some of the major facilities built to conduct the research and production at the laboratories, and gives brief explanations of the scientific principles that were explored and exploited.  It discusses the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and controversy surrounding the decision to drop the bombs.  It talks about life on these remote, secret sites, and shows examples of the signs, the badges, and the announcements of social events.  And it is frank about the poor treatment of African-Americans working on the sites--the segregation and inferior housing.

The exhibit even includes a couple of pieces of Vaseline glass (also called uranium glass) and Fiestaware.  My most amusing moment in the exhibit came as I was reading that display and overheard someone behind me opining to no one in particular that it must be dangerous to eat from those dishes.  I couldn't help myself.  I turned to him and said, "Only if you eat the plate."

While a lot of the history and science covered in the exhibit will be familiar to people in the nuclear community, for me, the focus on the design and construction of the housing and on some of the memorabilia from life there at the time provided an added dimension to what I already knew.  I think others will also find that the exhibit provides a unique focus on some aspects of the Manhattan Project we too often take for granted.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Burton Richter, 1931-2018:

Scientist and Science Policy Advisor


Burton Richter died on July 18.  He was a Nobel Prize winner who was active in both the world of fundamental science and the world of science policy.  (Shown in the photo receiving the Enrico Fermi award from President Obama, along with Mildred Dresselhaus.)

In 1974, Richter led the team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Menlo Park, California, that laid the  foundation for the standard model of fundamental particles and forces.  The team at SLAC (now the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) produced collisions between high-energy electrons and positrons to produce a new particle which they called the ψ.  At essentially the same time, a team led by Samuel Ting at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, discovered the same particle, which they called the J.  As a result, the particle became known as the J/ψ meson.  The discovery significantly expanded scientists’ understanding of particles called quarks, which had been discovered at SLAC only a few years earlier.  In 1976, Richter and Ting, who was affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.

In later years, Richter participated actively in the science policy issues of the day, including nuclear power, energy technology, and climate change. For example, he and some colleagues from the American Physical Society (APS) urged Congress and the White House to reorganize the Department of Energy to create a separate undersecretary for science instead of having just one undersecretary for the entire department.  In 2005 Congress passed an act that established the position.  Richter was also one of a handful of scientists who in 2008 helped the then-incoming Barack Obama administration identify $20 billion worth of “shovel-ready” research projects across scientific disciplines that it would fund from the economic stimulus package called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Congress approved in 2009 to counter the effects of the sudden crash of the economy.

Among his many activities and honors, he served as director of SLAC, president of the APS, and was awarded the National Medal of Science and the Enrico Fermi Award.  He also wrote a book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century, to explain climate change to the general public.

I had the privilege of meeting Burt several times and hearing him speak.  Two meetings that stand out for me include one at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna, Austria, and another, when I was president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), and he spoke at our embedded topical meeting on accelerator applications.  At the latter event, he spoke on the need for nuclear power to meet the world's energy needs, and the possibility of accelerator transmutation of waste from nuclear power plants.

Burt Richter was a native of New York City.  He attended Far Rockaway High School, which also produced two other Nobel Laureates, Baruch Samuel Blumberg and Richard Feynman.  He attended Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, then went on to study at MIT, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1952 and his PhD in 1956.

The country, and the world, has truly lost a towering figure, both in the realm of science and in the arena of science policy.  

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Halden Reactor Project:

The End of an Era

First, I must apologize for a long lapse in activity on this blog.  I have been busier than usual the past few months, but fortunately, it was all good things. 

I continue to be busy this summer, but what has motivated me to put pen to paper again (OK, fingertips to keyboard) is that I was saddened to hear that the Halden Reactor is about to close.  For those who are not familiar with this project, the Halden Reactor Project, located in Halden, Norway, was a pioneer in the nuclear field in several ways.

As I detailed in my book on Nuclear Firsts, an agreement for cooperation among several European nations was signed on June 11, 1958--just over 60 years ago.  The reactor was already under construction on that date and started up just over a year later, on June 29, 1959, making it the first multinational project to begin operation.  It also became the first boiling water reactor in the world to operate using heavy water instead of light water.  A further milestone that the Halden Project achieved was becoming the first truly international peacetime nuclear research project in 1961, when it was joined by countries outside of Europe.

(Examining the dates carefully, we find that the Eurochemic project had a signed agreement on December 20, 1957, a few months earlier than the Halden Project, making it the first multinational agreement for a nuclear research project.  However, construction of the facility only began after the agreement was signed, so operation began several years later than the Halden Project.  Furthermore, the Eurochemic plant, an experimental reprocessing plant, only operated for a short time, whereas the Halden Project has been underway for nearly 60 years.)

The Halden Project is jointly financed by about 20 participating countries under the auspices of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.  (Full disclosure--I worked for NEA from 2004-7.)  Over the years, Halden has hosted research in numerous areas important to the safe operation of nuclear power facilities around the world, and has improved knowledge and understanding in a number of key areas for nuclear power plant operation, including fuels, materials, man-machine interfaces, and other areas.

The announcement of the impending closure of the plant has only become public in the last day or two, and all the details are not yet clear.   In fact, as of this writing, there is not even an announcement yet on the Halden Reactor Project site or on the OECD NEA website.  What is clear from the WNA news item highlighted above, and from other news reports I have seen, is that the board of directors of Norway's Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) has made a decision that it is not financially viable to continue operating the nuclear reactor.

The reactor is currently shut down due to a faulty valve,  and the license is due to expire in 2020, so the expense of restoring it and going through the relicensing process was deemed to involve an unacceptable level of financial risk for IFE.  The board has expressed a commitment in continuing a research program in some areas.  The Halden laboratory does have other facilities, and the board stated that they planned to revise their research program.  Some of the organizations that have been conducting research at Halden have indicated that they are already beginning to look to research facilities elsewhere around the world to continue their research.

For many reasons, I am sorry to see this reactor shut down for good.  It has been such an important facility for so many years and has made so many contributions.  And the kinds of changes now needed--relocating research projects and revising the Halden research program--will take time and effort.  But the important contributions that the Halden reactor made to the safe operation of nuclear power plants around the world will live on. 

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Challenges to Nuclear Power:

Not Always the Obvious

Most conventional wisdom has looked at the rising use of solar and wind power and concluded that these are the primary reasons that nuclear power plants have been shutting down in recent years.  There is a growing body of analysis, however, that refutes that claim.  A recent study by MIT has reinforced the findings of a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, showing that solar and wind aren't the real problems.  Natural gas is.

It's easy to see how such misperceptions have arisen.  Multiple changes have been occurring in energy markets in recent years--various incentives to encourage the use of solar and wind power, a reduction in some of the initially high costs of building solar and wind systems, the movement away from regulated energy markets.  And the growth of fracking, which has flooded the market with cheap natural gas.

Of all these things, solar and wind power have gotten the most press, so at times, it has seemed as if so-called renewable energy systems and nuclear power plants were enemies.

These studies show that this is not the case.  Looking at energy supply geographically, there was little correlation between where coal and nuclear plants were retiring and where new wind and solar capacity was located.

Rather, the closures seem to be correlated with cheap natural gas.  In the short term, that may look good to a lot of people.  After all, who doesn't like a bargain? 

But haven't we all fallen for something that looked like a bargain, only to find that it wasn't?  The cheap shoes that didn't last.  The bargain appliance that broke down quickly.  

Natural gas may well be the type of bargain that looks great now, but can cost us dearly later on.  First of all, cheap prices are only good if we can rely on them to remain cheap in the long run.  History has shown us that is a bad assumption.  Oil and gas have fluctuated dramatically in price before, and could do so again.  

Secondly, when natural gas plants replace coal plants, there is a net reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  But when natural gas plants replace nuclear power plants, the result is an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  So our glee at our short term bargain may have health and environmental ramifications in the long run.

Cooler heads have always argued for maintaining a mix in our energy supplies, including renewables, nuclear power and natural gas.  A recent report by Jim Conca in Forbes looks at the recent "bomb cyclone" and shows the value of diversity.  A mix of sources offers a kind of resilience that no single source can offer.  It offers a buffer against short-term weather outages or transportation problems.  It offers some disincentive to any one source manipulating prices.  It offers some flexibility when bad things do happen. 

The MIT and national laboratory studies come at a critical time, when a number of nuclear power plants have closed due to financial pressures, and more closures are threatened.  Hopefully, they will help point the way to measures that can be taken to assure that the benefits of nuclear power are appropriately valued in the marketplace.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Nuclear Fission and Accurate Reporting:

This Shouldn't be so Difficult!

Those of us in the nuclear field frequently find ourselves having to address inaccuracies in published material.  In the past, I've encountered 2 categories--publications from organizations with a bias against nuclear power, and publications that attempt to be balanced, but sometimes make a mistake.  Today, I just encountered a third class--a publication that I thought was respectable, but that responded to my observations about a deficiency in their reporting by circling the wagons.

The publication I have in mind is an email list of articles I get called Energy Daily, which publishes under the management of Space Daily.  The article in question was an article discussing the impacts of US budget cuts on the ITER international fusion project.  Most of the article focused on that subject, but I was startled to see a paragraph that read:

So far achieved in a handful of labs at great cost, the process entails fusing atoms together to generate energy, as opposed to fission, the atom-splitting process behind nuclear bombs and power stations, which carries the risk of costly accidents, theft of radioactive material and dealing with dangerous long-term waste. 

I immediately found a contact link and sent a message that indicated that this paragraph was highly inaccurate and misleading, and that I was surprised to find such a statement in this publication, particularly without attribution, as though all of this was established fact.  Among other things, I noted that, 1) fusion is used in bombs as well, 2) other energy sources generate toxic, long-lived wastes, 3) fusion isn't mature enough to know what its negative features are, and some radioactive byproducts will certainly be among them, and 4) the mention of accident risks and thefts of material need to be put in context.

Now, I have commented on statements in publications before, and if the publication is a reputable one, I usually get some acknowledgement that a statement was not as carefully thought out as it should have been.  In print publications, the resolution is sometimes an editorial correction in the next issue.  In online publications, it is a change in the text, and a mention that the text was corrected.

Therefore, when I received a response within 45 minutes, I was initially pleased.  But then I opened their message and discovered that they totally rejected all my points, even the factual statement that nuclear fusion is used in weapons.  Their argument was that the description of fission was "a stock, standard description."  They also argued that they provide extensive and detailed coverage of nuclear power news and technology, and therefore, "to single out one story without placing it in context to the rest of the news coverage creates a false impression..."

The only problem with this response is that no one reads everything, and no one remembers everything they read.  And the statement is made without any attribution or qualification.  I do realize that an article on fusion is not the place to digress into a long discussion of fission.  However, the article could have stood on its own without saying anything about nuclear fission.  In fact, the initial point of the comparison is clearly on the difference between fission and fusion, and the thought should have come to a full stop after saying that one process fuses atoms together while the other splits them.

But, once they made a statement that is so problematical, they should have responded to me much differently.  Any responsible publication that makes should be open to making corrections and clarifications.

I felt that some of my readers who may also read Energy Daily or other publications from this source might want to be aware of the level of their reporting, and of their attitude about it.  I tried to comment to the editor privately, thinking to save them the embarrassment of having their errors called out publicly, but since they seem to be unwilling to acknowledge even the most obvious errors, I should note that there is a place for comments at the bottom of their page. 

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

An Important Nuclear Milestone:

75 Years Since the Birth 
of the Atomic Age 

I woke up today to news articles in several sources highlighting the fact that today marks the 75th anniversary since the world's first man-made nuclear reactor began splitting atoms.  I'm a little chagrined that I didn't think of this earlier myself, since it holds a major spot in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development."  In truth, I've been a bit distracted by other things in recent weeks, and have neglected blogging altogether, so the reminder I got from others about this anniversary has drawn me back to the keyboard. 

When I wrote the book on Nuclear Firsts, it was almost a little surprising to me to see how many milestones there were in the development of nuclear power, and how so many milestones were small steps that built on other small steps.  This probably shouldn't have been so surprising to me.  After all, science and technology have always built upon past developments.  In addition, I was well aware of the different types of reactors that were explored in the early days, each of which were steps in different directions.  Likewise, I was aware that the other parts of the fuel cycle, and particularly, in the different enrichment technologies that were tested again each constituted steps in different directions. 

As I wrote the book, I kept finding more of these small--and maybe some not-so-small--steps, and the book kept getting longer.  But through it all, it occurred to me that there were really layers of importance, and some of the firsts were definitely more significant than others.  I didn't try to explore this dimension in the book, perhaps because it was too subjective and too dependent on which end-points one looked at (after all, the Canadians might have a different perspective than the US on which technological developments were most important). 

But if any one event stands out as being a truly pivotal event to almost all subsequent developments, the first demonstration of a controlled fission reaction at Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) on December 2, 1942, would have to be a leading candidate.  Not only was it a giant scientific step beyond anything that had been done before, but given world events at the time, it very quickly launched a major development effort that led to transformative applications on both the military and civilian side.

It is certainly true that CP-1 didn't develop in isolation.  It was built on a number of scientific experiments and theories that preceded it.  And it is true that it might have been forgotten if nothing else had followed.  But given that so much did follow this historic day, it is appropriate to celebrate this milestone anniversary in the development of nuclear power.

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