Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Energy and Independence:

Thoughts on Independence Day

As the U.S. Independence Day approaches, I have been thinking of the meaning of independence in the world today.  I realize I am not talking about the same kind of independence that the early citizens of America fought for, and I'm not really trying to draw any analogies to the events of 1776.  However, the word "independence" has arisen time and again, so I have had ample opportunity to ponder the meaning of independence in an interdependent world.

The first time it really came to my attention was in 1973, during the Arab oil embargo.  At that time, the U.S. initiated efforts to achieve "energy independence."  This is not the time or place to go into the details of that initiative, but as we all know, the U.S. never achieved the complete energy independence that was discussed at that time.  The shock of those events did spur energy R&D and a variety of other efforts, but in the end, complete energy independence did not prove practical--and one could argue, it did not prove necessary. 

Nevertheless, that incident certainly sensitized the United States and many other nations to their potential vulnerability.  That sensitivity lingers to this day, and has been reinforced--albeit in other parts of the world--by more recent incidents, such as Russian threats to cut European gas supplies.  However, it seems to me the thinking has evolved from a concept of total independence to one of having multiple options--a kind of independence by virtue of diversity, perhaps.  This manifests itself in a number of ways.  President Obama's statement that we need an energy strategy that includes "all of the above" is perhaps the most explicit statement on the subject.

But the same concept works within a technology as well.  Nuclear power plants are a good example.  Nuclear power plants need uranium to operate, and many nations do not have indigenous supplies of uranium ore (or the capability to enrich it).  Nevertheless, there is far less concern over uranium supplies than there is over oil supplies, in large part because there are significant uranium resources in a number of countries.

There are some who argue that the use of renewable energy provides true independence, but even that is not completely true.  Wind turbines, for example, use rare earths, and currently, the largest known sources of rare earths are highly concentrated in a few countries, such as China. 

Thus, while I am pleased to celebrate Independence Day and all it stands for, I also like to think that maintaining our independence today requires that, to meet critical needs, such as energy supply, we must maintain a diverse set of options, both in the technologies we use, and in the sources of supplies for those technologies. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nuclear Energy Institute:

A Top Workplace

This week, the Washington Post published its survey on the best places to work in the Washington, DC region.  I was delighted to see that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) made this list.  Kudos to the management and staff of NEI for this distinction!

The results were based on a questionnaire to the employees of 317 firms in the DC area who agreed to participate, and companies were ranked in categories based on their size.  NEI was ranked 44 out of 75 companies whose rankings were published.  (Companies ranked below the top 75 were not listed.)  The category "small workplace" appears to represent companies with fewer than 150 employees in the DC area.  NEI has about 120 employees.

According to the Post, one of the reasons that the survey results were divided according to size is that smaller firms generally tend to score higher than larger firms, so NEI's ranking might have been even higher if all the companies had been ranked against each other irrespective of size. 

The survey looked at a variety of measures of employee satisfaction, including feeling "connected to their workplace through meaningful work and the belief that their company is moving in the right direction," feeling genuinely appreciated by their employer, having confidence in their leadership, and, of course, pay and benefits.

Since I live in the Washington area and have worked on nuclear policy issues for many years, I have had frequent opportunities to rub elbows with NEI management and staff.  I have always found them to be highly competent, helpful, upbeat, and enjoyable to work with.  I should also add that they have been very supportive of various elements of the nuclear community, in particular, students, and they have housed and advised the American Nuclear Society (ANS) supported students in the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program for many years. 

However, I must admit that, if you had asked me if NEI would have come in high on a survey of good places to work, I might not have guessed that they would.  Why?  I can imagine that the work of the NEI staff is often frustrating.  After all, we live in an environment where members of the public and Congressional decision-makers often have strongly held, but very distorted, views of nuclear power.  The staff must often feel like they are beating their heads against a wall in their efforts to promulgate factual information. 

In addition, one must realize that NEI does not operate as a completely free agent.  They work for their member companies, and while their members all share an interest in nuclear power, the companies vary in size, in their other operations, and in the regulations of the regions in which they operate.  What is best for one company is often not best for others, and NEI must constantly balance and consider the different perspectives and needs of their membership.  This, too, can be a difficult, and sometimes unappreciated, challenge.

So, what is it that makes NEI rise to the top ranks as a desirable place to work?  NEI published its own analysis, which I think does a good job of highlighting the things that make NEI a special place.  Marvin Fertel, the president and CEO of NEI, said, "NEI thrives because we believe the most satisfied and engaged employees are those who enjoy their work environment; have good camaraderie with their colleagues; are able to maintain a vibrant work-life balance; have good health and wellness; are provided opportunities to grow their knowledge and skills, and feel that they are directly achieving our mission and vision." 

Marv Fertel's statement goes on to say how NEI actively promotes these elements through targeted, proactive programs to assure a good work-life balance, to foster a healthy, productive work environment, and to assure high job satisfaction and morale." 

The NEI article also emphasizes the commitment of NEI's employees to the importance of their mission, noting that, "NEI employees are extraordinarily committed to NEI’s core mission, which is to foster the beneficial uses of nuclear energy and commercial nuclear technology.  NEI employees feel that nuclear energy, as a clean-air source of electricity, plays a vital role in meeting the growing need for low-carbon electricity." 

So this survey makes me realize that, while I have sometimes felt sorry for the monumental difficulties that NEI often faces, the commitment the staff shares to the importance of their work, and the recognition and appreciation they see from their management, makes them enjoy the challenges.

So, congratulations again to NEI staff and management on this notable and well-deserved recognition! 


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Science Denialists:

The Hidden Danger

An amusing tongue-in-cheek article in the New Yorker, entitled "Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans," made me smile--but also made me reflect on the darker truth behind the humor.

Most of us, especially those trained in science, find it difficult to believe that other people sometimes can't seem to understand principles that are obvious to us.  This has been a problem for hundreds of years, of course, whether the issue was the shape of the earth, the evolution of the human species, or anything else.  Most of the time, we tend to dismiss such people with a laugh and a shrug. 

The problem is that the failure of people to understand science is not just an amusing sideshow--too large or too loud a constituency of such people can influence public policy, and therefore, can have a profound influence on many aspects of our well-being.

The illustration in the New Yorker article shows an image of the earth, and the title reflects the fact that earth is endangered.  This would lead to an implication that the article is taking on climate change deniers.  That may well be the case, but as I thought about the article, I became convinced that the same strain of fact-resistant humans can affect many other areas as well, and in some cases, the implications may also be widespread and substantial.

For example, if emotional arguments against energy-producing technologies (such as nuclear power) and unrealistic expectations of other energy-related technologies (such as conservation or renewables) are allowed to rule decision-making on R&D and on new build, we are likely to face growing energy shortages in the future.  If irrational fears of advanced biological developments, like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), restrict our ability to improve the disease resistance and productivity of our crops, the world's food supply will remain vulnerable.  If too many people reject vaccines, we will be susceptible to new epidemics of diseases.

As I was thinking about this issue, I came across a related article in the New York Times.  This article reports on a study of scientists who seem to reject scientific explanations.  The article seems to suggest that my focus on the lack of analytical training of the general public might be too short-sighted.  The study found that the very same group of scientists employed questionable tactics over the decades to cast doubt on scientific findings relating to such diverse areas as acid rain, the ozone shield, tobacco smoke and climate change.  The researchers observed that some of these scientists had had major "career triumphs" during the Cold War, but later apparently came to equate environmentalism with socialism and government regulation with tyranny.

Thus, the problem may be much deeper than an uneducated public.  And, since some of these views come from people with scientific credentials, they may be even harder to counter.  Nevertheless, they are both manifestations of "fact-resistant humans."  Neither article suggests a way to overcome the invasion of this species, and alas, I don't have any easy answers either.  Perhaps the first step is for us to stop thinking that such views are harmless, and to start recognizing that they may be as dangerous as a new pathogen.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--June:

Getting Ahead of Schedule

I am making up for my lapse on reporting on nuclear milestones for May by getting a jump on the month of June and reporting the milestones for June early.

The month of June saw relatively few milestones, but the milestones that did occur perhaps one of the most significant nuclear milestones--the first supply of nuclear-generated electricity to the grid. 

Here are the highlights:

June 4, 1962:  First heavy-water moderated reactor to produce electricity for the grid (NPD, Rolphton, Canada)

June 27, 1954:  First reactor in the world to supply electricity to the grid (AM-2, Obninsk, USSR)

June 29, 1959:  First boiling heavy water reactor; and first international project to begin operation (Halden Reactor Project, Halden, Norway)

The month also saw significant activity on space nuclear reactor efforts, including the first downward firing test of an engine in a simulated space vacuum (XE-Prime, on June 11, 1969, in the US) and, while not a first, the development and operation of the most powerful reactor ever built (Phoebus-2A, June 26, 1968, with more than 4000-MWth maximum power, also in the US).

[Once again, these events are covered in greater detail in my book:  Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.]


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--May:

A Slightly Belated Report

I just realized that I failed to post the monthly report on nuclear milestones for May that I had planned to do at the beginning of this month.  I will blame it on a couple of back-to-back trips, but I realize that's a poor excuse.  It is still May, so I guess I will make it under the wire--but just barely.

The month of May saw its greatest activity at the very beginning of nuclear power development, with two events occurring in two different US laboratories in 1944.  In other years, May saw significant developments, both in the US and elsewhere, for research reactors, a non-electric application, and expansion beyond the weapons countries.  Specifically:

May 1, 1964:  First nuclear power plant planned and operated primarily for district heating (Agesta, Sweden)

May 3, 1958:  First "inherently safe," pulsed, high-flux reactor built for widespread research (TRIGA Mark-1, San Diego, California)

May 9, 1944:  First reactor to use enriched uranium (LOPO, or Y Reactor, Los Alamos, New Mexico)

May 12, 1963:  First large-scale reactor in a country not involved in weapons development (Latina, Borgo Sabotino, Italy)
May 15, 1944:  First heavy water reactor (CP-3, Argonne, Illinois)

Each of the 1944 achievements were key milestones in the development of what would become two major classes of reactors, still in use today:  the enriched uranium operation that would allow the development of the light water reactors that currently produce most of the world's nuclear electricity, and the use of heavy water, which led to another major class of reactors.

Likewise, the TRIGA reactor proved to be a powerful and versatile research tool, and is still in widespread use around the world today.

[These events, and others, are covered in greater detail in:  Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.]


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Nuclear Power Reliability:

A Key Issue for Our Energy Future

I recently attended an interesting briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Global America Business Institute (GABI).  The subject of the briefing was "The Role of Nuclear Power in Energy Reliability: U.S. & International Perspectives," and the speakers were David Brown, Senior Vice President of Federal Government Affairs and Public Policy for Exelon Corporation, and Andrew Paterson, a Principal of Environmental Business International and financing affiliate Verdigris Capital.

I expected to be familiar with most of the issues, and for the most part, that was the case.  However, the two speakers raised some interesting points that I thought I should pass on.

First, David Brown showed a bar graph with the capacity factors for all forms on electrical energy supply.  I knew nuclear power was high, and I knew wind and solar power were low, but I did not realize just how much higher nuclear was than all the other sources until I saw his graph of 2013 data (which comes from the Nuclear Energy Institute):

Granted that some of these numbers may reflect how various types of power plants are used rather than how it might be possible to use them.  Still the magnitude of the gap between nuclear power and its closest competitor deserves more attention than it seems to get.

Brown further reminded the audience how nuclear power far outperformed other energy sources during the Polar Vortex in January 2014, and how wind power was lower in the summer, when demand was higher.  The consequences of this are significant.  Brown pointed out that, looking at annual figures, one would project that a wind farm would need to have 3 times the capacity of a nuclear power plant to provide equal output.  However, looking at summertime supply and demand, a wind farm would need more like 10 times the capacity of a nuclear plant to provide equal output.

Of course, that is a one-for-one comparison that does not consider storage or alternative sources, but it graphically made the point about the large difference in performance of nuclear versus wind power when demand is highest.  Also, as noted in the Q&A session that followed the talks, solar power does peak when demand peaks in the summer.  Nevertheless, there is still a large gap in capacity factor. 

On a slightly lighter note, Brown mentioned that we all believe that the public wants electricity to be clean, economical, and reliable, as we generally speak of them in that order.  However, judging by the volume of calls Exelon receives if the power goes out, the public is far more concerned about reliability than about anything else.  If you doubt that, just think about the last time the power went out where you live!

Andy Paterson's talk, which was co-authored by his colleague, Walter Howes, focused more on international issues.  He raised the troubling question of whether the US might be in danger of losing a vital industry, and drew an analogy to what happened in the UK as a consequence of its "dash for gas" in the North Sea in the 1980s.  He observed that they let much of their nuclear capability lapse, and now the gas fields have largely played out. 

He also made a point that I think we have all come to recognize--we simply cannot return to the status quo ante.  We cannot snap our fingers and return to a position of "US leadership" in the world.  We have lost the capability to manufacture major components.  Compared to other countries, where the utilities are very large and join vendor bids for overseas reactor sales, US utilities are relatively small (even Exelon) and are not active internationally.  He also argued that "getting government out of the way" is not a viable strategy for the nuclear sector.  Among other things, the governments of other countries support, and even lead, the bids for international sales.  Even domestically, he projected that half the US nuclear capacity could be shut down before 2040 without government leadership.

He then presented some interesting statistics showing the growth of nuclear power over time in different regions of the world, as well as population projections.  In fact, even now, more than half the world's population lives in Asia.  Further, there is a trend in both Asia and Africa for rural populations to move to cities.  By the year 2030, most of the cities in the world with a population of more than 10 million will be in Asia.  Air pollution from coal plants and vehicles is already a critical problem in China and will grow without a change in direction.  He raised the interesting question:  Where can those countries put large arrays of wind turbines or solar panels, sufficient to power their homes--and their mega-factories?  What sources can provide the required reliability?

Answering his own question, he pointed out the very small land requirements of nuclear power plants compared to wind and solar plants, and the fact that the areas of highest solar intensity are not even near the cities, where the greatest need exists--and where air pollution is greatest.

Although his focus was mainly on the global situation, Paterson also addressed the situation in the US.  He showed that, even with license renewals to 60 years for all plants in the US, without new build or further license renewals, nuclear capacity begins to drop after 2030, and is almost nonexistent by 2050.  If plants are shut down prior to 60 years, the situation is much worse.  Given my previous and repeated (2009, 2010, and 2014) interest in acronyms, I was pleased that he presented one that was new to me--YIMBI, or "Yes, in my backyard, immediately!"--noting that, in large parts of the US, the public is very positive about nuclear power.  Nevertheless, the extended outlook for low gas prices in the US is trumping most other options, and it is primarily gas that is replacing coal.  He touched on the possibility of small modular reactors (SMRs) having a role in the future.   

Toward the end, Paterson returned to a point he had made at the outset--the UK let their nuclear capability atrophy, and there is a risk that the US and the EU could do the same.  "US" vendors are now foreign owned.  Once "excellence" is lost, it cannot easily be rebuilt.  He did express a caution for Asia.  The pressure to build rapidly there creates incentives to cut corners and avoid needed regulatory discipline, leading to a risk of accidents later.  For the US, he concluded that market forces alone are not enough.  Policy drivers--national security, air pollution, reliability of supply for urban areas--are important, and that means the government has to play a role.  Furthermore, nuclear power is a long-range effort, and decisions made now will affect the nuclear scene for decades.

He noted that no nation is self sufficient.  The US has lost its manufacturing capability, but Asia lacks fuel.  It thus is consistent that his conclusion was that global partnerships in nuclear energy investment and innovative public-private financing approaches will play an important role in bringing a full set of capabilities to projects and in balancing risks.


Friday, May 15, 2015

The Nuclear Future:

Looking Beyond the Horizon

I was a bit startled a week or so ago to get a question from someone asking me to take a really long view on the future of nuclear power.  I'm not sure my answers really addressed the entire picture, but it was interesting to think about the subject, and I thought others might want to consider the issue as well.

The first question was not all that surprising.  It asked about the prospects for the Gen IV nuclear reactor technologies.  The answer, of course, depends on so many things that I found it a difficult question.  To be honest, I didn't come up with specifics, like which technology might be most likely to succeed, or how many Gen IV reactors might be built, or where they might be built.  Rather, I tried to identify factors that might play into that decision, and how--the economy, R&D funding, other energy technologies, environmental requirements, market factors, financing options, etc.  But all of these points were points that I'd seen discussed many times.

It was the next questions that really got my attention.  What future nuclear technologies, they asked, might lie beyond Gen IV?  I must admit that the Gen IV technologies cover such a broad spectrum that it is difficult for me to think of much that Gen IV doesn't cover, at least partly.  And given that most of the Gen IV technologies are based on concepts that were first conceived in the early days of nuclear power development--and yet still have a long road ahead of them to achieve a practical role as a source of energy--it is difficult to think when we might envision a next generation beyond Gen IV starting.

Yes, I limited my thinking mainly to fission technologies.  In part, I thought I was the wrong person to answer a question about the prospects for fusion, and in part, I assumed that any breakthrough in fusion would so clearly be a new generation technology that they didn't need me to tell them that.  Perhaps concepts like accelerator-driven fission reactors might fit the "beyond Gen IV" description, but I really wasn't sure.

The last question, in a way, proved the hardest.  They asked what novel applications I envisioned for nuclear power beyond the ones presently in use or being considered.  Again, so many possibilities are on the table that I wasn't sure what would be truly novel.  We are already talking about direct use of thermal energy from high-temperature reactors for industrial processes, including hydrogen generation.  We are also already talking about small reactors for remote applications, such as small communities in the Arctic, or mines.   

One can envision space colonies--or cities under the ocean--powered by nuclear reactors.  That would be a new application, but might not necessarily entail significant developments for the nuclear technology needed.  I once worked briefly on the concept of a nuclear-powered aircraft, but I don't see that as being a likely future application.  Perhaps the most futuristic thing I could think of might be some sort of advanced nuclear technology for long-range space propulsion.  But again, not only were we getting to the farther edges of time and space, we were also getting to the limits of my knowledge about how such a technology might work.

So, I was left a little frustrated that I hadn't done an adequate job of answering the questions, but intrigued by the opportunity to look beyond what I already had thought was the future for nuclear power.  It made me think that others might want to engage in the same exercise.