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. 


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--October:

More Nuclear Developments

This blog will finally end my catch-up activities to outline the significant milestones in nuclear power development that occurred in each month of the calendar year.  These were intended to be published in the month being discussed, but unfortunately, I fell behind, for which I apologize.  Now, if I just manage to publish one on November's events before the month is out, I will be up to date!

Let's get right down to it.  Major developments in the history of nuclear power during the month of October include:

Oct. 2, 1968:  First reactor to use U-233 as fuel (MSRE, Oak Ridge, TN)

Oct. 3, 1960:  First portable, modular reactor (PM-2A, Greenland/a US project)

Oct. 4, 1957:  First use of the centrifuge process to enrich uranium (Sverdlovsk-44, Sverdlovsk, USSR)

Oct. 10, 1962:  First use of nuclear power in a country not involved in nuclear weapons development; and first PWR in Europe (BR3, Mol, Belgium)

Oct. 11, 1954:  First professional society focused on nuclear technology (ANS, Oak Ridge, TN)

Oct. 12, 1943:  First plutonium extracted from a chain reaction (Seaborg Laboratory, CA)

Oct. 18, 1945:  First government agency to oversee civilian nuclear power (French CEA, Paris, France)

Oct. 19, 1957:  First privately owned and operated reactor connected to the grid; first license for a power reactor (VBWR, Pleasanton, CA)

October also saw the occurrence of two significant nuclear reactor accidents:  the accident at Windscale Pile 1, Sellafield, UK on Oct. 10, 1957, which was the first severe early reactor accident yielding contamination; and the accident at Fermi 1, Monroe, MI in Oct. 1966, which was the first full-scale reactor to experience a fuel-melt accident.

Further details on all these events and others are outlined in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development." 



Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--September:

Continuing the Story

I continue to play catch-up on the monthly breakout of events important to the history of nuclear power development.  (For those who are not regular readers of this blog, I had planned to publish monthly accounts, but I fell behind over the summer.)  In this blog, I will report on milestones in the history of nuclear power that occurred during the month of September.

September was a particularly important month, as the events that occurred during this month (in different years) included the very first demonstration of electricity production from a reactor, the start-up of the first reactor to operate outside the US, the first civilian research reactor, and more.

Key milestones in September were:

Sep. 3, 1948:  First very, very small-scale demonstration of electricity generation from a reactor (X-10 Graphite Reactor, Oak Ridge, TN)

Sep. 5, 1945:  First reactor to operate outside the US (ZEEP, Chalk River, Canada)

Sep. 5, 1953:  First civilian research reactor; first university reactor to operate; first privately owned and operated reactor (Raleigh Research Reactor, North Carolina State College, NC)

Sep. 16, 1957:  First research reactor in South America (IEA-R1, Brazil)

Sep. 17, 1957:  First organically moderated and cooled research reactor (OMRE, NRTS, ID)

Sep. 26, 1944:  First "full-scale" reactor; first plutonium generated at production levels (via electromagnetic isotope separation) (Hanford B, Hanford, WA)

In addition, on Sep. 16, 1944, the first liquid thermal diffusion enrichment (a technology that proved to be a dead end) took place at the S-50 in Oak Ridge, TN, and in Sep. 1965 (specific date unknown), the first confirmed food irradiation took place in Canada.  September was also the month that saw the first accident at a nuclear facility (although not at a reactor) to occur that resulted in significant environmental contamination (Mayak, in the former USSR, on Sep. 29, 1957).

These events and more are described in greater detail in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development."


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--August:

Another Busy Month

First, an apology to my readers:  I had planned to publish one blog per month listing the milestones in nuclear history profiled in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development," (also available at the ANS bookstore) but I have fallen seriously behind.

As you can see from the title of this blog, I have not published the milestones for the past 3 months.  I actually have been busy with activities relating to the book book--specifically, updating it and turning it into an e-book--but I still should not have let this slip through the cracks.  Starting now, and over the next few weeks, I will try to catch up on the months I missed.

So, a bit belatedly, here are the historical events in nuclear power development that took place during the month of August:

Aug. 1, 1946:  First agency in the US to oversee civilian nuclear power (USAEC, Washington, DC)

Aug. 2, 1946:  First reactor to produce isotopes for peaceful use (X-10 Graphite Reactor, Oak Ridge, TN)

Aug. 4, 1956:  First research reactor to operate in Asia (Apsara, India)

Aug. 5, 1966:  First full-scale liquid metal breeder power reactor (Fermi 1, Monroe, MI) (Fermi 1 later became the first "large" reactor in the US to have a core meltdown.)

Aug. 14, 1964:  First demonstration of direct thermoelectric conversion from a reactor (Romaschka Reactor, USSR)

Aug. 15, 1947:  First reactor to operate in Western Europe (GLEEP, Harwell, UK)

Aug. 17, 1977:  First surface ship to reach the North Pole (Arktika, USSR)

Aug. 26, 1977:  First light water breeder reactor in commercial operation (Shippingport Reactor, Shippingport, PA)

Aug. 27, 1956:  First "full-scale" reactor to provide electricity and process heat to the grid; first Magnox reactor (gas-cooled) (Calder Hall 1, Sellafield, UK)

The month of August also saw the occurrence of the first fatal criticality accident (the Experimental Assembly at Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM, on August 21, 1945).

Once again, there were several firsts for which I have no specific dates.  These are the start of the first known nuclear training program (Clinton Training School, Oak Ridge, TN) in Aug. 1946; the first reactor with a fast-neutron spectrum, and also the first liquid-metal cooled reactor (mercury) and the first plutonium-fueled reactor (Clementine, Los Alamos, NM), also in Aug. 1946; and the first in-place reactor vessel annealing (SM-1A, Ft. Greely, AK).  SM-1A was also the first reactor to have its steam generator replaced.  


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Salaries by Degree Field:

Nuclear Engineering Near the Top

I just stumbled upon a new salary survey by degree field, and was pleased to see nuclear engineering near the top of the pack.  And the pack was large--319 degree fields, covering the spectrum from engineering and science to humanities, and from philosophy to supply-chain management, and including graduates of over 1000 colleges and universities in the US.

Very briefly, at the bachelor's degree level, most of the top fields, in terms of early and mid-career salaries, were engineering fields.  Of the engineering fields, petroleum engineers fared significantly better than all other fields, both at early and mid-career levels.  But the second ranking discipline for the mid-career cohort was nuclear engineering, with a couple of other fields close behind.  Overall, while STEM majors have the greatest earning potential, there are humanities fields that outrank some STEM fields in earning potential.

The study looked at salary distributions according to several metrics, including by college attended, for different fields at the bachelor's degree level, for different fields at the Ph.D. level, and for different fields at the associate degree level.  The number of fields shown at the Ph.D. level was much smaller than the number at the bachelor's degree level (only 39 fields) and, for some reason, nuclear engineering was not included in the survey at the Ph.D. level.

I want to caution the reader that I have looked only at the reported results and cannot independently vouch for the methodology or the analysis.  There are also other breakdowns of the data I would have liked to see.  And maybe I would have liked to see the 319 different academic fields aggregated into a more manageable set of fields.

It was really no surprise to me to see engineering fields rank so high.  I have seen that in other studies over the years.  And nuclear engineering has also usually ranked high, although I think the exact ranking has drifted up or down a few notches, depending on the year of the study, and on the exact methodology used. 

Nevertheless, in an era where we worry about the aging work force and the impact of nuclear power plant closures on our ability to attract new talent into the field, this study should be a shot in the arm for nuclear engineering departments. 


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scary Energy Scenarios:

My Real Fears on Halloween

From Wikimedia Commons
As I sit down to write this, I realize that I have been bombarded by more than the usual number of scary things this Halloween.  Of course, there are the ghosts and ghouls and goblins, the witches and werewolves, and the vampires and zombies.  But what haunts me more is the specter of an energy future resulting from decisions made on the basis of short-term profit, misinformation, and dogmatic ideologies.

So, it is not the eerie sounds emanating from the dark forest that scare me, or the creaky sounds from upstairs when I know that no one is there.  It is not the skeletons hanging from the trees and rattling in the wind. 

What really scares me is a future where we are less safe because our critical energy infrastructure is not being maintained or operated with the highest attention to safety.

What really scares me is a future where our energy and non-energy infrastructure is at risk because we failed to plan for changes in the environment, population, and emerging needs.
What really scares me is a future where I cannot get the energy I need because short-term pricing and market imperfections have caused valuable energy resources to shut down prematurely.  
What really scares me is a future where the air I breathe is dirtier because misguided attempts to manipulate the market by favoring particular technologies or handicapping others has resulted in more use of polluting sources to back up intermittent technologies.

What really scares me is a future where energy availability is restricted because not enough fuel is extracted, not enough power plants are built, and not enough transmission capacity exists because we did not find a way to balance local interests and societal needs. 

What really scares me is a future where the price of energy is pushed so high that that gulf between the haves and the have-nots becomes a chasm, and social unrest results.
What really scares me is a future where we become dependent on the whims of other regimes because we failed to develop our own resources or because we favored technologies that use materials that are scarce in our country.
What really scares me is a future where we have lost our voice on the international stage because we have taken too rigid and unrealistic a stand, or because we have failed to stay competitive in critical markets. 

What really scares me is a future where we are mired in the use of outdated technologies because we failed to invest in research and development.

What really scares me is a future where we do not realize our full potential in all areas because we are impoverished in the energy supplies that fuel advances in other areas, a better standard of living, and so much more.
These are my ghosts and goblins.  They pertain to all sources of energy and all parts of all the fuel cycles--fossil fuel extraction, gas pipelines, electricity transmission, nuclear power plants, windmills, rare earths, and more.  And, while Halloween will be over tomorrow, and the scary spiders and blow-up black cats and sheet-clad "ghosts" hanging from my neighbors' houses will be taken down in a few days, the things that trigger my energy fears, unfortunately, are not as easy to stuff back into boxes and store in the basement. 

I would like to think that common sense will ultimately prevail and that, in the very near future, we will exorcise the demons of shortsightedness, ignorance, and fanaticism when it comes to energy matters (as well as other matters).  Until then, I am scared.

Happy Halloween!