Friday, August 22, 2014

Nuclear Waste:

A New Path Forward?

I was just wrapping up a post a couple of weeks ago and reflecting on how, most of the time, people don't want new infrastructure, be it a windmill or a factory, and yet they don't want to lose infrastructure either, even if other people consider that infrastructure dirty and polluting.

I was thinking specifically of coal mines, which arguably have often damaged the landscape and affected the health and safety of their workers, but I also recall cases where people fought to save industries in their communities, even when the industries spew pollution over the local residents.  I was toying with introducing a new acronym to the world to highlight the fact that there is a counter to NIMBY.  I thought of something like Keep Our Old Pollution Spewing Industries, or KOOPSI, and was envisioning sayings, like "oopsis follow KOOPSIs" or "KOOPSIs lead to oopsies."   

But I knew even as I was thinking about this that it was too simplistic.  If there is a KOOPSI attitude, there are certainly exceptions.  Witness people who have continued to argue against nuclear power plants in a region, even when they have operated safely for decades, and brought jobs and prosperity to their host communities.  So, I held off from publishing my whimsical new addition to the world of acronyms.

So, imagine my surprise, just after I hit the publish button, of opening a message in my mailbox that led me to an article about Loving County, a county in Texas that is thinking of offering to take the nation's high-level radioactive waste!

Of course, this is only an initial thought by a few people.  It doesn't mean we've solved the country's HLW problem.  It doesn't even have the full backing of the 95 residents of the county, and it seems to be for storage, not permanent disposal.  But the most interesting fact in the article was that there might be other sparsely populated counties in the deserts of the Southwest that see some benefits to the jobs and funds that would come with such an enterprise. 

But it just shows that, just as there are exceptions to KOOPSI, there are also exceptions to NIMBY.  In the end, in most cases, it boils down to jobs and the local economy.  That should surprise no one.  But if the old adage that the exception proves the rule is true, if we accept NIMBY, we have to accept KOOPSI, too, so I hearby introduce this new acronym to the world.

On a more serious note, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future recognized that the problem with Yucca Mountain is that it did not have the support of the local community from the outset, and any new process had to start with inviting interested communities.  The possible offer from Loving County, Texas seems like the first small step in that direction. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

EPA's Proposed Rule:

Some of the Complexities

There has been a lot of discussion since early June, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposed rules for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.  I have previously commented on the possible ramifications of this rule for nuclear power.

Since that time, there has been a lot more discussion on the possible implications of the proposed rules.  While I think there will be still more analysis, I thought it would be worthwhile to summarize some of the new information here.

One study comes from MIT, and emphasizes the importance of a multi-pronged approach to reducing carbon emissions.  While their study doesn't explicitly address the EPA's proposed rule, they do address some of the same issues.  According to the authors of the study, source-specific regulations are an important element of emissions reduction, but they provide only partial coverage and must be combined with other measures to have the desired impact.

The authors favor a price-based policy, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.  This is a contentious area, but one argument they make is that source-specific regulations force action in particular areas, while ignoring cheaper options that may be possible, such as reducing overall energy use or cutting emissions from industry.  They also say that, “Using targeted emissions policies can actually encourage emissions increases in other areas.”  When costs to the consumer drop (such as with fuel economy standards), there is a tendency for consumers to increase their usage.

Another study comes from a joint effort of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and National Security Program and the Rhodium Group (RHG).  On July 24, CSIS hosted a presentation in Washington to present the preliminary findings of this study.  This study looked explicitly at the EPA rules and assessed what changes to the electric power and energy production systems in the US are likely to occur under the EPA’s proposal, as well as what the price, demand expenditures and other impacts may be.  Their full report is due out in October, but in the meantime, you can view their 1 hour 10 minute oral presentation by clicking on the image below:

Unfortunately, there are a couple of spots where the audio fades for a moment, but overall, this session provides an interesting glimpse into some of the state and regional considerations that are likely to be involved if the EPA rules are adopted.

 If nothing else, these two studies illustrate the complexity of this issue, and emphasize some of the elements we should be looking at closely to be sure that the proposed rules have the desired effect and avoided unintended negative consequences. 


Friday, August 8, 2014

Energy Policy and Disruption:

Managing Change

Two items hit my mailbox yesterday, both of which relate in some way to the issue of the disruption that can be caused by technological transitions.  Therefore, although I addressed issues related to the evolution of energy technologies only a few weeks ago, I decided there were more dimensions to the problem that merited further examination.

The first of the two articles actually doesn't relate specifically to energy supply and demand.  However, it points out that the concerns about disruptive technologies are not limited to the energy arena, and are not limited to the historic changes I gave as examples in my last blog.  The more modern example that I can cite is the possibility of robots replacing human labor in more and more ways.

This is not a blog about robots, so I won't dwell on this, but we all know that we have been interacting with increasing frequency with machines instead of humans (think ATMs instead of bank tellers), and we can all see still more such interactions in our future (think driverless cars).

In the article, Vint Cerf, who is considered one of the fathers of the Internet (and who I've had the pleasure of meeting) is quoted as saying, "Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case.  Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices."  This is probably true, although it may be difficult for people whose jobs are affected to take the long view.

The second article is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and includes a graph showing that mining and related activities constitute a large part of the economies of several states.

This graph reveals a dimension I had not thought about too much before, and that is how profoundly some of the anticipated changes in our energy supply might affect some states.

Up until now, my thinking has been much like Vint Cerf's thinking--I assume that new jobs will replace the old ones, and I have regarded that as the main consideration.  I have always realized that argument is not as simple as it sounds.  At a minimum, people will need to be retrained for the new jobs.  There are also issues of whether the pay will be the same, whether the working conditions will be as attractive, etc.  In addition, people may need to move for the new jobs, and although we are a mobile society, moving is disruptive, especially if you feel you are being forced to move against your will.

But, what I hadn't thought about was to what extent there might be a large net migration of jobs out of some states.

At first glance, today's situation does not seem that different from technological and other transitions made throughout the course of history.  The types and distribution of jobs have not remained static in the past.  If they had, we would have remained mired in the Stone Age. 

And as job opportunities and other things have changed, people have moved.  That is also nothing new.  The United States was shaped by people who moved for better opportunity (or for other reasons, but this is not a sociological blog), whether it was out of other countries and to the US, or from the East Coast to the Midwest and West.

These moves have had profound consequences.  Cities prospered or declined due to the fortunes or misfortunes of the industries they harbored and the movement of people to or from their jurisdictions.

In the past, I don't think people could predict these transitions well, and both individuals and municipalities struggled as a result.  What is different today is that we understand better what the potential impacts of various actions and decisions may be.  And we have the time to act.  We will need to replace existing coal and other fossil fuel plants with cleaner technologies, which costs money and takes time.  This should allow time for individuals and states to adapt.

States and companies can continue to challenge new requirements--that, after all, is the American way--but they should also be looking to help promote other uses of coal products and cleaner coal technologies, to attract the development of replacement energy technologies, and to attract other industries.  When they lobby the Federal government, they should not simply fight all change, but they should lobby for ways to make the changes work for them.

I realize that this is easier said than done, and not everything states may try will succeed.  It may, therefore, seem easier just to try to keep things as they are, but that is a temporary solution anyway.  The argument for preserving jobs is a powerful one, but it is up against a more powerful argument of effects on public health and the environment.  Change is inevitable, whether it comes sooner or later, and the states and companies that anticipate that and start to position themselves will stand the best chance of surviving the transition--and perhaps even of improving their lot. 


Friday, July 25, 2014

NRC Commissioner Nominees:

A First Look

As had been widely rumored, the White House this week nominated Stephen Burns and Jeffrey Baran for positions as NRC Commissioners.  If confirmed, the two would replace George Apostolakis, whose term ended June 30, and William Magwood, who is about to assume the position of Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris. 

Since I know one of the two quite well (I worked with Steve Burns while we were both at NRC), and the other not at all, I will try to limit this discussion to factual information so I can treat both of the candidates equally.  (I will allow myself one digression, which will become obvious in a minute.)

Steve Burns is well known, not only to me, but to most of the nuclear community, as he served as an attorney at the NRC from 1978 to 2012, rising from an entry-level legal position to the position of Deputy General Counsel in 1998, and General Counsel of the NRC in 2009.  He left NRC in 2012, to join the NEA as head of their Legal Affairs office.  The NEA website has a brief bio of him, noting that he received several high-level performance awards during his career at NRC.

Jeff Baran is much less known to the nuclear community.  He is also an attorney and has worked on Capitol Hill since 2003.  He was most recently appointed Democratic Staff Director for Energy and Environment in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce by Rep. Henry Waxman.  He has indicated that his education sparked an interest in pursuing a career in public interest environmental law.  Also in the course of his education, he served as an intern for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he worked on a case challenging the EPA’s issuance of a pollutant discharge permit under the Clean Water Act, and worked on Freedom of Information requests for information on the implementation by states of the Safe Drinking Act standards.

Both candidates have already had questions raised about them.  Questions about Baran revolve mostly around his lack of experience with nuclear regulation.  Questions about Burns range from concerns about his role during Chairman Gregory Jaczko's tenure to concerns that he is coming from the NEA.

I will leave to others to debate the importance of Baran's lack of experience on nuclear matters.  (I should note that the NRDC is usually regarded as anti-nuclear, but it appears--assuming the article cited above describes his internship completely--that Baran didn't work on nuclear issues during his internship there.)  I will also leave to others to assess the significance of Burns' role during Jaczko's tenure, as I don't feel sufficiently familiar with all the details.

However, I feel I must comment on the concerns that continue to be raised about high-level people coming from or going to the NEA because the NEA is viewed as "promoting nuclear power."  Since I served in the NEA, I know that not to be true.  And NEA has several strongly anti-nuclear countries in its membership that make sure NEA focuses on nuclear safety and regulation, legal issues, radiation protection, waste, and research collaboration.  So far, I have seen this criticism more with respect to Bill Magwood than to Steve Burns, which has surprised me.  I simply don't think the criticism is warranted for either individual.

Finally, I would point out that, although there are two nominees, this is not the type of pairing that has become the new normal.  That is, it is not a Democrat paired with a Republican.  It is two Democrats, as both of the vacancies were positions held by Democrats.  It is a little hard to say how this will play in the Senate, but it is an unusual set of circumstances.  Also, Congress is scheduled to go on recess at the end of July, and Magwood leaves at the end of August.  Unless Congress acts very quickly (and positively) on both candidates, which seems unlikely given the circumstances, come September 1, the Commission will be operating with only three Commissioners, two of them Republican.  At the moment, Congress has been moving slowly on other confirmations, even where there is no controversy. 


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nuclear Power and Crystal Doorknobs:

The Risk of Just about Everything

A news item from the UK a couple of days ago piqued my interest--an expensive house had caught fire because a crystal doorknob had concentrated the the rays of the sun

My first thought was to wonder how such a well-known and well-understood phenomena could have caused such a problem.  After all, most of us learn as young children how a magnifying glass can burn a hole in a piece of paper.  It may be one of the first scientific principles we are able to demonstrate for ourselves.

But, looking at this incident another way, builders have been installing doorknobs in homes for centuries.  It even looks like crystal doorknobs have been around for a long time.  Who would stop to think that a doorknob might carry a risk of fire?  Who would think to look around to see if the sun could strike it directly?

From there, I thought about parallels to other situations.  Although this particular incident seems bizarre, the news is full of reports of injuries or deaths from consumer products used in ways that weren't expected, or from malfunctions of devices because something about the environment wasn't considered.  It isn't only high technology.  Plastic bags have warnings on them because children have suffocated playing with them.  No one anticipated that before it happened.  

The question is, where does this understanding leave us?  It would be easy to say there should be no crystal doorknobs.  Certainly, in the case of doorknobs, we could live without ones made of crystal.  But what if we didn't understand that the problem was caused by the fact that the doorknob was made of crystal?  What if we thought all doorknobs were a problem, and we insisted that houses be built without doorknobs?  Or that living in a house is dangerous because it can catch fire?

The reality is that, in most cases, it is not so easy simply to reject a technology or a device completely.  If we had rejected every technology and every device that had ever caused any type of damage or injury, we would still be living in the Stone Age.  We'd have no heat, no vehicles of any type, and certainly no electricity.

So, although my thought train started with a news item about a fire caused by a crystal doorknob, it moved on to other technologies, and ultimately, to nuclear power plants. 

I guess the first connection I saw was the fact that something unexpected happened, even though in this case, the cause was something so simple and basic that every child has seen the phenomenon.  It made me wonder why people are always surprised when we run into an unexpected problem in a complex system like an industrial facility or a nuclear power plant. 

Then, I thought about what happened after the fire started.  Even though this particular event was unanticipated, the house had a system in place to provide a warning that there was a fire.  The fire alarm had not been installed because of the crystal doorknob, but it was a basic safety system that operated when this fire occurred.  Likewise, nuclear power plants have in place a robust set of warning systems.

The analogy probably ends there, because nuclear power plants have far more layers of defense than a private home.  Nuclear power plants also have backup systems and other features that a house doesn't have to help deal with incidents.  And the nuclear power infrastructure--the plant management and the regulator--reviews any incident for lessons learned and needed changes. 

In the end, then, the message I get from the crystal doorknob is a complex one.  Even the most benign of objects can carry a risk we may not anticipate.  Instead of banning things when we discover a problem, we are better off if we learn from them, whether it is a fire-producing doorknob or a nuclear power plant.  Depending on the exact problem, we provide instructions for use or warnings about risks, or we modify devices to be safer, or we put in warning systems such as fire alarms or backup systems to allow operation to continue without interruption, or we install systems to mitigate the situation. 

In the case of the crystal doorknobs, the London fire department is warning people not to put crystal objects in direct sunlight.  That seems to be an appropriate response to the problem.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Energy Evolution:

Managing Change

Much has been made of the recent EPA carbon emission rules (which were largely validated by the Supreme Court ruling earlier this week) and whether they will mean "the demise of the coal industry."  The arguments are complex and overlapping:

  • Some say that it would be OK for the coal industry to die if it is a free market "decision," but not if it is the result of government intervention.  Others point out the inherent complexities of the electricity "marketplace."

  • Some say that it will cause a huge amount of economic harm, both to those employed by the coal industry and to the states where the coal is mined.  Others see new doors opening when some doors close.

  • Still others take a different perspective and point out that delaying climate change policies may be worse  for the industry in the long run, noting that any new capacity that is constructed now might have to be shuttered prematurely, resulting in more stranded capacity.  

No one seems to have given thought to the fact that, throughout the history of industrialization, we have experienced numerous instances in which one technology has replaced another:  horse-drawn carriages, whale oil, and wood-burning stoves are just a few of the technologies and resources rendered obsolete by newer technologies.  Recently, we have seen even more rapid changes in telecommunications and related technologies.

Indeed, these changes were disruptive.  We don't have neighborhood wheelwrights and horseshoe makers anymore.  We don't have people making and selling ribbons for typewriters.  The younger generation has never seen carbon paper.

I could go on almost endlessly, but the point would be the same.  In each case, particular jobs have been lost, but new jobs have been created.  In most cases, the evolution took place over a period of time.  As a result, nimble companies were able to adapt and change their product line.  Some employees, too, shifted to other types of work, or completed their careers in a shrinking industry that adapted mainly by not bringing in new blood. 

I don't want to belittle the potential impacts of change on individuals, or even on companies.  Certainly, any change produces new challenges.  And any challenge produces winners and losers.  Surely, some companies may fail, and some people may lose jobs.  However, new companies and new jobs will be created.  With foresight, the states that are most concerned about potential job losses in the coal industry can counter those losses by attracting some of the new jobs that will be created by the replacement industries. 

In reality, the challenges presented to the coal industry by the EPA rule are really no different in nature from the challenges presented by the introduction of trains, automobiles, airplanes, digital cameras, computers, and any of a dozens of other products I could name.  In fact, coal itself is a relative newcomer on the human stage.  It was undoubtedly a disruptive technology in its early days.

I am not a Pollyanna.  I am sure there will be some companies and some employees that will not be able to adapt.  But the changes will not take place overnight, and most should be able to adapt.  In that case, the net result for most can be positive.  

Therefore, while there is certainly a potential for disruption in the wake of the new rule, there is also considerable opportunity.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

NRC and the Non-Concurrence Process:

Success or Failure?

I was a little surprised to read that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) non-concurrence process has recently come under attack.  I have always considered it one of the strong points of the NRC's efforts to ensure that all possible efforts are made to hear and consider minority viewpoints on safety issues.  Briefly stated, the NRC non-concurrence process provides for several mechanisms through which NRC staff members can raise their concerns about NRC decisions--and be sure those concerns are considered

The criticism seems to be spurred by the results of a survey the NRC had conducted to see what different groups of staffers felt about the process.  Overall, the survey found that the views of the process were fairly positive.  However, the employees who had actually used the process gave the agency lower marks. 

The question is, what do the results of this survey really mean?  As Rod Adams has pointed out in his blog, Atomic Insights, the results of the survey are based on a very small sample size, and there is a tendency, in this type of survey, for people who are unhappy to be the most likely to respond. 

There are other factors as well.  There are a lot of smart people at NRC, and they all take their jobs seriously.  This means that it is a normal practice to consider all options.  This doesn't make them immune to making mistakes--that is the very reason the non-concurrence process exists--but it should not be surprising that, most of the time, even after the enhanced review that the non-concurrence process spurs, the original decision of the staff will prevail.  

Furthermore, the problems that NRC deals with are complex and multifaceted.  There are often many considerations to be balanced.  It is very easy for any one individual to focus on one solution and start to shut out the big picture.  That is one good reason that most decisions at NRC involve a number of staffers, often from different specialties.  It helps reduce the chance that a decision will be made without looking at the problem from all angles.  Those who challenge the NRC decisions are most often individuals, and may, at times, operate without the benefit of these multiple inputs.

Even with all this, there is always a chance of bias creeping in.  The non-concurrence process provides an avenue to ensure that someone takes an independent look at the decision, and the criticism of it, before it is finalized.  Thus, the process provides for review by a higher management level, up to and including the Chairman of the NRC.

This process has been used, and it has resulted in changes of direction.  Nevertheless, in many cases, the original staff decision is upheld.  Ideally, both sides should put the events behind them after a final decision is made.  There is not supposed to be retaliation against someone who raised a concern, and there is not supposed to be continued resentment by the challenger if his or her view doesn't prevail in the end. 

But human nature being what it is, that part of the process may be the greatest challenge to the system.  It would not be surprising for a manager, consciously or subconsciously, to be particularly critical of an employee when performance appraisal time comes around.  And it would not be surprising for an employee to feel rejected in general and to view every interaction in a negative light.

I don't know if any of this is the case.  I certainly am not aware of any cases where managers or staff discriminated against employees who raised safety concerns.  But it is not impossible.  Therefore, I think NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane took exactly the right approach when she said that the agency was taking these findings seriously and would look into them.  That response is exactly in the spirit of the process itself.