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. 


Friday, June 13, 2014

Nuclear Engineering Students in Top Ranks:

Three Nuclear Engineering Undergrads Among "Most Impressive" at MIT

As an MIT alum, I am always interested in news covering just about anything MIT-related, so my interest was piqued when I saw a link to an article from Business Insider entitled, "The 14 Most Impressive Students at MIT Right Now."  I opened it.  After all, I might have a chance to learn something about someone who is destined to win a Nobel Prize someday.

Well, in the first place, I discovered that the article is a year old, so please forgive me if you have already seen it.  I had not.   Secondly, having read the article, I can't say that I can guess which of the students might be future Nobelists.  Since many of this group are focusing on fields of engineering, the answer might be "none of the above."  However, what did strike me first was how much some of these students were doing while they were still undergraduates.  While I believe that I was a pretty serious student and I also engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities, what these students are doing makes my undergraduate achievements pale by comparison.

But what really got my attention was that 3 of the 14 were nuclear engineering majors.  And even more, I happen to know one of them.  Let me share some highlights about each of them:

Cameron McCord
Cameron McCord, who graduated in 2013, double-majored in nuclear engineering and physics.  He has already had stints with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and Brookhaven National Laboratory.  He was the battalion commander of the Navy ROTC at MIT, a player on the MIT soccer team, a member of the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, and a recipient of a Truman Scholarship.

I met Cameron when he came to Washington in 2011 with MIT's DC Summer Internship Program, which I'm proud to say that my husband and I support.  Since he was interested in nuclear engineering, we served as his sponsors for the summer, so I'm especially pleased to see him recognized.

As a bit of a DC policy wonk myself, I particularly liked this quote the article included from him:  "Nuclear engineering and nuclear energy production will always be closely linked with policy.  They come hand in hand. If you aspire to be a nuclear scientist or engineer and you don’t make a concerted effort to both understand the policy as well as how to communicate, work in teams, and lead people, I think you are doing yourself a disservice."

He is initially serving in the Navy, but anticipates a career in government or a non-profit organization, working in the areas of nuclear safety and nonproliferation. 

Ekaterina "Katia" Paramonova

Ekaterina "Katia" Paramonova, also of the Class of 2013, majored in nuclear engineering and minored in public policy.  She is a dual Russian and US citizen who wants to help improve relations between the US and Russia, because she believes that countries have to be willing to work together in order to achieve success.  [As an aside, she obviously has greater challenges now than when this article was written.]

She has also studied at the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute doing materials research for the International Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER).  At MIT, she participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), working at the  MIT nuclear reactor, and was an assistant student leader of the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program.  In addition, she co-chaired a 500-person student conference through the American Nuclear Society, and organized a trip for MIT students and faculty to the AtomExpo Nuclear Conference in Moscow to foster a discussion about the ways scientists and researchers in the two countries can help each other.

She plans to get a masters in nuclear engineering and a PhD in France in order to work with fast reactors.

Ethan Peterson
Ethan Peterson, Class of 2013 as well, was a double-major in nuclear engineering and physics, and in addition, had a minor in French.  He was co-captain of the MIT football team and was the second football player at MIT to be named a National Scholar-Athlete.  [The Business Insider article reported that he was the first, but the National Football Foundation showed an earlier winner from MIT some years ago.]  He was also treasurer of his fraternity, and he volunteered at the Special Olympics and at the Boston Medical Center.  In addition, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout from the Boy Scouts of America.

He plans to pursue a PhD in nuclear engineering or physics and to become a college professor, working in the area of plasma physics and fusion research.

The resumes of the other 11 students are equally outstanding.  While I don't know exactly how the students were selected, what made them stand out from all the other high-achievers at MIT, and why 14 were selected, this is clearly an impressive group.  [Note that the end of the article has a link to a similar article highlighting 22 Harvard students with similarly impressive credentials.  Since Harvard does not have a nuclear engineering program, I have not included profiles of any Harvard students here.  Honestly, despite my allegiance to MIT, I would treat a Harvard nuclear engineer equally!]

Students who have amassed such credentials even as undergraduates give me high hope for the future.  And the fact that 3 out of 14 are nuclear engineering students gives me confidence that the nuclear field is attracting the best of the best, and that bodes well for the discipline.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

EPA's New Rule and Nuclear Power:

Another Renaissance?

It's been a big week.  In France, the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.  I heard one report call it one of the most historic wars in the history of the world.  And in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its new rules for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

I am not particularly trying to draw any connections between the two events (although I am sure that some will say the EPA rules are an epic war on coal!).  I just mention this because, with D-Day being celebrated this week, it was a little hard for me to start by saying the biggest news was the EPA announcement.  It is the event of the day that is likely to have the most impact on the future, just as D-Day had a profound effect on the course of history in its time..  Well, I suppose there's my parallel.

To get serious, the pundits are now lining up to predict what effect the rules are going to have--on the coal industry, on renewables, on natural gas, and on nuclear power.  I personally think there is still a lot uncertainty about this whole initiative.  Will Congress find a way to undercut it?  Will there be legal challenges?  What will happen if the next Administration opposes it?

And even if it succeeds, it pointedly does not spell out a single, uniform solution.  It does not follow the path of some states have adopted in the past by mandating a percentage of renewables (or any other energy source).  It merely spells out the carbon dioxide reduction goals and identifies several possible approaches to reaching those goals.

In that sense, it doesn't mandate--or handicap--either renewable energy sources or nuclear power.  This looks like it should be a good thing for nuclear power.  We have just been going through a bleak period where we have seen some plant closures spurred by a flawed marketplace, and have heard warnings that there could be more such closures.  There have been calls to fix that marketplace.  This EPA rule doesn't directly do that, but it may create incentives to modify the marketplace rules in order to create a more level playing field for all clean energy sources. 

At a minimum, it should help halt the premature closures of the current fleet of nuclear power plants.  The longer-term impacts are more difficult to project.  It should encourage the completion of the current nuclear power plant construction projects, and it may revive some that are on the books that have stalled in recent years.  It could even spur the initiation of some new projects, although that is less certain.  It will probably give at least some encouragement to advanced reactor development plans.  However, realistically, the goals in the EPA plan are relatively short term, so designs that are not yet ready for prime time may not help meet the goals.

On the other hand, one prominent point that has been made about the EPA goals is that they still fall short of US commitments to the global community for greenhouse gas reductions, specifically, the broader targets of the 2009 United National Copenhagen Accord.  Therefore, if this is viewed as a first step, and if even more stringent goals are expected to follow, the incentive to develop new designs could be very strong.

As is often the case with government rules and regulations, the landscape is very complex.  There are a lot of interacting factors.  There are a lot of special interests who are going to weigh in heavily on this.  We already see the coal lobby lining up.  And although this rule is very favorable for renewable energy, we already see complaints that it has the fingerprints of the nuclear lobby on it.

Realistically, the most reliable predictions are the nearest-term ones, and the primary near-term prediction for nuclear power is that the rule will help stave off the threat of closures of operating plants.  This rule has the potential to set the stage for longer-term R&D as well--for a variety of energy sources, including clean coal, renewables, and advanced nuclear power.  But a lot of things have to happen before we are sure of just how much this rule may help longer-term projects.  It is a bit too early to break out the champagne.  But perhaps we can put it in the frig to chill.


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lessons from the VA:

A Reminder for the Nuclear Community

I hesitate a little to talk about the recent revelations from the Department of Veterans Affairs of apparent widespread falsification of records of patient waiting times.  There is still much we don't know about what happened and where the blame should be assigned.

However, as the story has unfolded in the past few days, I have been reflecting on nuclear safety culture and how it requires constant vigilance to maintain the standards we set to assure the safe operation of nuclear power plants.  I think it is timely to say a few things that are already apparent.  

In the nuclear community, we have established a principle that safety is paramount.  Further, we have realized that everyone has a stake in ensuring safety, that ensuring safety requires adherence to the rules and procedures, and that ensuring safety requires the willingness to stand up when necessary and identify when rules and procedures aren't being followed.

Of course, as everyone knows, the understanding of what is required to ensure safety developed in response to instances where things went wrong because someone fabricated a maintenance report, or ignored a critical step in a procedure, or failed in some other way to adhere to the highest standards.  And as we also know, it is very easy to "fall off the wagon."  But overall, the nuclear industry has established and maintained high standards.

Furthermore, management has learned that they get the performance they ask for, whether they ask explicitly or implicitly.  The nuclear industry has made great strides in creating an environment where, most of the time, employees feel free to report problems.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that other industries and other organizations need some of the same kinds of standards.  Whatever we learn from the VA fiasco in the future, it is already clear that staff and management were responding to a short-sighted focus on performance statistics and paying insufficient attention to other signals.  If it turns out that the problem was that the organization didn't have sufficient funding, staffing, and facilities in the first place, then what has happened is all the more tragic.

Whatever the outcome of this situation, I hope that the VA will look to the nuclear community for examples of how to create a culture where employees feel free to bring problems to the attention of management.  In the meantime, I hope the nuclear community will look at this example and reinforce their efforts to sustain that culture.