Thursday, April 21, 2016

Nuclear Energy and Politics:

It's Complicated

For years, the mantra has been that the Republicans are in favor of nuclear energy and the Democrats are against it, so if you're a nuke, "Republicans good, Dems bad."  I have always felt the truth was not so simple.  A recent article in the New York Times reinforces my viewpoint.  Even more interestingly, the author, Eduardo Porter looks at the issue from the point of view of climate change concerns.  But his conclusion is the same.  Basically, the political parties focus often focus on other issues, and things like nuclear power and climate change end up being "collateral damage."

The article notes that the liberal viewpoint criticizes conservatives for "climate change denial."  But, he notes that the liberals have their own biases that perhaps raise equal challenges for climate change measures being proposed.  Namely, many liberals are "anti-nuclear" and perhaps "anti-fracking" as well. 

Likewise, it has been my observation over the years that many advocates of nuclear power are also "fiscal conservatives" and therefore, are traditional against appropriating Federal funding for technological development.  Thus, in years when we've had a pro-nuclear Administration and/or Congress, the budgetary treatment of nuclear development has not necessarily been generous.

All of these observations are, of course, generalizations.  I personally know many people from both of the political parties whose views do not match the stereotypes I've noted above.  Hence, my liberal use of quotation marks.  My point is really that these issues are all complicated and have many factors.  People have biases and blind spots that sometimes cause them to end up undermining a cause they profess to support.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis is easier than the cure.  It seems to be difficult to get people to change preconceived biases, or to abandon positions they previously espoused.  And yet, people do change, and many of us probably know people whose views have shifted over the years--possibly in both directions.  I am hopeful that, over time, people will learn to understand better how their views on one issue may sometimes undermine their interests on another issue, and may moderate their positions accordingly.

In the meantime, I think those of us who feel that liberal equals anti-nuclear and conservative equals pro-nuclear should look closely at our own biases about the two ends of the political spectrum.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Energy, Economics and Correlation versus Causation:

Drawing the Right Conclusions

I recently came across an article that left me scratching my head.  Entitled "Economic development does mean a greater carbon footprint," it reports on a study by Max Koch, a professor in Social Work from Lund University in Sweden, and Martin Fritz from the University of Bonn in Germany, on the connections between growth, prosperity and ecological sustainability in 138 countries.  Professor Koch is quoted as saying that he conducted the study in an effort to test the assumption "that extensive investments in green production and sustainable consumption can increase economic growth without increasing the emissions of greenhouse gases."

That sounded like an interesting idea, so I read on.  They divided the world's countries into four groups based on their gross domestic product (GDP) per capita: poor countries, developing countries, emerging countries, and rich countries.  That's pretty standard, I thought.  But then they identified a category of 8 countries they called "overdeveloped."  These are countries in which the average annual income exceeds $50,000 (US) per person.  Five of the 8 countries in this group are identified:  the United States, Singapore and Switzerland, as well as "rich oil nations, such as Norway and Qatar."  Although the article didn't state the other three countries, it did include an infographic with a map that indicates the other 3 countries are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. 

Hmm, I wondered, seeing the word "overdeveloped."  That seems to have a bit of a negative connotation, as in "more developed than they need to be."  Is a bit of bias creeping in?   And given the diversity of these countries, should the same designation really apply to all of them--as opposed to, for example, most of the rest of Western Europe, which merely falls in the category of "rich countries."

But I read on.  They then looked at the prosperity of the different groups of countries according to several metrics: ecological sustainability, social inclusion and quality of life (including life expectancy, literacy rates and subjective well-being).  Their conclusion was that there was greater social inclusion and the quality of life as the countries became increasingly wealthy at the expense of environmental sustainability such as greater emissions and carbon footprint.


While they acknowledged in some sense that the GDP and the environmental emissions might be separable, saying, "We are not saying that it is impossible to separate economic growth from ecological issues," they nevertheless go on to say that there is "a clear connection between economic development and increased greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be ignored."

From this, they conclude that, because of the urgent need to reduce emissions globally, "the possibility of economic degrowth should be seriously considered"--in other words, that economic growth should be given less priority as a policy objective than has been the case.

I had to wonder about this conclusion on several grounds.  In the first place, I don't think that the study ever really made the projections that had been promised.  I could see what the emissions are today, but I could not see an analysis of how different levels of investments in some of the many possible options--nuclear power, renewable energy, biofuels, energy-saving devices, etc.--might affect economic growth--and environmental conditions--in the future.

In the second place, it is likely that that the greatest impact of trying to achieve environment sustainability by curbing economic growth would be to condemn the poorest countries in the world to continued poverty.  Yes, I suppose the conclusion implies that the overdeveloped countries may have to shave their own growth, too, but clearly, the impact on richer countries will be much more modest than the impact on the poorest countries.  In effect, the benefits of an improved global environment will accrue to all countries, but the poorest countries would bear a disproportionate share of the burden. 

Therefore, while the kind of data gathered in this study can be very useful, I believe that the authors have not looked at all the dimensions of the issue.  Given the seriousness and importance of the issue, I think that is a serious shortcoming of the study.  While I do not expect to find a solution that allows the world to "have its cake and eat it, too," I think far more exploration is needed of all the issues and options before we conclude that we need to move civilization backwards. 

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Renewable Nuclear Energy:

Expanding the Definition of Renewable

I often cringe at the simplistic associations words pick up.  "Natural" is totally benign.  "Renewable" usually means solar and wind power.  I could continue to make such associations, positive and negative, with lots of words we see and use frequently--organic, ecological, sustainable, GMOs, nuclear, fossil. 

As I have noted previously, particularly with respect to nuclear power, the truth is usually more complex.  In particular, I have pointed out numerous times that the "renewability" of solar and wind power applies only to the direct energy source--the sun and the wind.  Actually getting the energy out of these sources on the scale required for modern society requires, among other things, materials such as rare earths that are not in infinite supply. 

I was delighted to find an article recently that expanded my vision.  While I have been focusing only on the non-renewable elements of solar and wind energy production, James Conca, who writes for Forbes, recently looked at a a future where uranium might effectively become a renewable energy source

He was talking about the potential to extract uranium from seawater.  Admittedly, this is a technology that is not here today, so perhaps this is not only a different side of the picture than I've been focusing on, but it also reflects a different period of time.  Therefore, as with all projections about technologies that have not yet been built and tested, we have to be careful about how much we credit it. 

As Jim points out, there is a lot of ocean, and the continued leaching and weathering of rocks will replenish whatever we extract from the seas.  Perhaps the biggest sticking point is whether this process will be economical.  One guesses that there is a good chance that it will be economical, since the price of fuel is not a major component of the price of running a nuclear power plant.  However, this does remain to be proven.

Likewise, of course, proponents of solar and wind power will correctly point out that costs have come down dramatically in recent years, and that there is research underway on methods to improve the efficiency of solar cells, develop better energy storage options, and perhaps find materials that are in greater supply.  Again, we are talking about something in the research phase, and we do not know today whether the most optimistic of the projections will be realized.

The truth is that advances are likely in all energy technologies, but it is sometimes difficult to know how to incorporate such advanced technologies into our planning about the future.  We can't count on every predicted advance to be realized, but we can't count everything out, either. 

But Jim's article did get me to thinking about the way the word "renewable" is used in talking about energy today.  I have long chafed at the use of the word renewable for energy technologies because the term doesn't acknowledge the reality that non-renewable materials are used to extract the renewable energy.  Now, I will also chafe at the fact that the term doesn't recognize the fact that the total supply of uranium potentially makes nuclear energy as renewable as solar and wind.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day and Green Energy:

Fifty Shades of Green?

On this St. Patrick's Day, when even the beer is green, it may be appropriate to think about all the claims about which energy sources are green.

Most people view renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, as green, and fossil fuel sources, especially coal, as not green.  The reasons are clear.  Coal produces particulates, which cause significant health and other problems locally, and also generate greenhouse gases, which have global impacts.  The sun and the wind are "natural" and, in themselves, benign.  Some people think that means green, but it isn't that simple.

People tend to be uncertain how to rank nuclear in this regard.  On the one hand, they know it doesn't produce the particulates or greenhouse gases that coal and other fossil fuels produce.  On these grounds, pro-nuclear people claim that nuclear power is green.  On the other hand, it produces nuclear waste, which is not natural and lasts a long time.  On these grounds, anti-nuclear people claim that nuclear power isn't green.

The truth is that nothing is perfectly green.

As many experts have pointed out, we can't extract large quantities of sun or wind or hydropower without building solar panels or windmills or dams.  Solar panels, windmills and dams require materials.  The materials have to be mined and processed.  These steps cause environmental impacts, just like mining coal or uranium, or anything else.  Some of the materials and processes generate toxic by-products.   

But because the wind and the sun are diffuse, they tend to require more structures per unit of energy produced than more concentrated forms of energy, like fossil fuels and nuclear power.  And that means more materials and more mining and processing.   And more land use.

In truth, there are shades of green.  I don't know if there are 50.  There are probably more.  The designation "green energy" is, unfortunately, an oversimplification that has caught people's imaginations.  However, it greatly oversimplifies the situation.  Different energy sources use different materials, in different quantities, and generate different kinds of pollution in different places.  What looks green at point of use has negative environmental impacts elsewhere.

We seem to have a hard time acknowledging that human population and modern lifestyles have an inevitable impact on the environment.  There are measures we can take to reduce the impact, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that the green label we have bestowed on some energy sources really solves the problem.

So, maybe nothing is truly green today except the beer.  Sorry, Saint Pat!

***


Thoughts from the NRC Leadership:

More from the 
NRC Regulatory Information Conference

In my last blog, I focused on one session held at the NRC Regulatory Information Conference (RIC)--the session on the 25th anniversary of the Principles of Good Regulation.  I focused on that because, of course, the subject was near and dear to my heart.  However, I did not want to leave the subject of the RIC without reporting on a little more of that conference. 

I think some of the remarks made by the leadership of NRC--the Chairman, the other Commissioners, and the EDO--also deserve mention.  For brevity, I will just summarize portions of their presentations.  Their complete remarks, as well as videos of their presentations, are available on the NRC website. 

The RIC opened with a speech by Chairman Stephen Burns.  One focus of his presentation was a discussion of risk.  He noted the changing public attitudes toward risk that have led, over the years, to requirements for things like seat belts in private automobiles and bicycle helmets for recreational bike riders, and to concerns over processed foods.  While acknowledging the increasing sensitivity to risk, he also cautioned against treating all risks alike, quoting Justice Breyer as saying that treating all risks as equal is like the boy who cried wolf.  He pointed out that the general public rates nuclear as the #1 risk, while experts put it at #20 out of a list of 30 risks, well below car accidents, guns, smoking, and food additives.  

The next speaker was the NRC Executive Director for Operations Victor McCree.  Interestingly (to me, at least), both the Chairman and the EDO are long-time NRC employees, both having joined NRC in the 1980s, which is also the time I joined the NRC.  Vic talked about two issues that I've worked on over the course of my career, the Principles of Good Regulation and Knowledge Management (KM).  I actually got involved in KM after I left NRC, but while working in this area, first at the Department of Energy and later, at the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency, I communicated frequently with NRC staff, who had developed some very advanced KM tools.  Vic noted all the significant challenges the nuclear industry and the NRC are facing--post-Fukushima changes, decommissioning, license renewal from 60 to 80 years, licensing advanced and small modular reactors, and economic challenges the industry is facing.  He notes that all these things challenge KM.  I would observe that they also make it all the more important.

The next session featured two Commissioners, Kristine Svinicki and Bill Ostendorff, and the newest Commissioner, Jeff Baran, spoke the next morning.  This was Commissioner Ostendorff's last speech as an NRC Commissioner before his term expires at the end of June, so several of the Commissioners used the opportunity to particularly thank him for his contributions to the NRC during his time there.  While this was, perhaps, not unexpected, what was most interesting was some of the detail of what the Commissioners said.  In particular, several of them explicitly acknowledged the differences of opinion among the Commissioners.  They did not present that as a negative.  Rather, they indicated that they had learned from each other.  Most interestingly, Commissioner Svinicki even noted she had a couple of differences with with Commissioner Ostendorff (even though both of them are Republicans).  Commissioner Baran noted that, while he and Commissioner Ostendorff have disagreed on some things, they have agreed a lot, too.  And that they have "good, respectful discussions...often finding ground on a constructive way forward." 

Beyond that, each of them reflected on issues and themes of particular interest to them.  Commissioner Svinicki addressed some issues of organizational culture, noting that organizational culture can change more slowly than people or processes, but that some consistency is a good thing.  In fact, she prefers the word "adaptation" to change.  Picking up the theme of differences of opinion with other Commissioners, she also commented on the role of dissent versus majority opinion. 

Commissioner Ostendorff spoke a lot about accountability, and how necessary it is for trust.  He gave NRC, both the Commissioners and the staff, high marks for a sense of accountability, and he gave industry high marks as well.  He also summarized the principles guiding the post-Fukushima activities:  clear priorities based on safety importance, integrated decision making (incorporating cost-benefit considerations for changes exceeding the base requirement of adequate protection, and mitigation for beyond design basis issues), and regulating in the open.  He noted the number of public meetings (about 300) and votes (about 25) on Fukushima issues alone. 

Commissioner Baran also addressed some of the post-Fukushima efforts, discussing his votes on several issues such as severe accident management guidelines and filtered vents, and his rationale for his views.  He also discussed the additional reviews needed for the Tier 2 and Tier 3 post-Fukushima measures that are still under review in the NRC.  He also noted there are sometimes qualitative factors that have to be considered, noting that some post-Fukushima actions were based more on qualitative factors than on cost-benefit analysis, and citing the importance of things like enforceability and public confidence.  Finally, he noted the need for the NRC to give more attention to the plants shutting down to minimize the need to grant exemptions.

Several of these speakers also addressed internal NRC activities such as Project AIM, a current initiative for the NRC to right-size itself in light of current and expected needs.  

Many of these remarks by the leadership reflected issues that are important for the NRC at the present time, and that were reflected in one way or another in many of the technical sessions that took place during the rest of the RIC. 

***

Monday, March 14, 2016

NRC Principles of Good Regulation:

Compliments and Critiques

This week was an eventful one in the nuclear field.  The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission held its annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC) on March 8 through 10, and the 5th anniversary of the Fukushima-Daiichi accident fell on March 11.  Since I have already read some excellent blogs on 3-11, as the Japanese sometimes call it, I will focus my attention on the RIC, and in particular, on a session near and dear to my heart.  (All RIC sessions were recorded and should soon be available on the NRC webcast archive.)

As I have previously reported, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of NRC's Principles of Good Regulation.  NRC started its celebration of this milestone with the internal seminar covered in my earlier blog.  They continued the celebration with a technical session at the RIC.  The session was chaired by Mike Weber, Director of the NRC Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, and included speakers addressing the PGR, as they have come to be called, from a variety of perspectives. 

The first two speakers were Tom Wellock, the NRC historian, and Kenneth Rogers, who was the Commissioner responsible for proposing that NRC develop a set of principles and for directing their development.  Tom Wellock put the PGR in historical context--noting events of the time and the evolving view of regulation, as well as how the concept of the PGR has spread.  Commissioner Rogers described some of the internal processes and debates behind the PGR, and also spotlighted some places where similar sets of principles have taken root.

The third speaker was Maria Korsnick, currently the COO of the Nuclear Energy Institute.  She gave the NRC high marks for independence and openness, but said that the principles of efficiency, clarity and reliability need more work.  Particular areas for improvement that she cited include better prioritization of regulatory actions and more accurate and transparent cost-benefit analysis.  She also had messages for the industry, saying they need to be more accountable in explaining how they would implement NRC requirements.  Overall, she concluded that NRC is "justifiably internationally renowned." 

The next speaker, Diane Curran, an attorney who has represented citizens groups against the NRC, had a different view.  She critiqued the implementation of the principles of openness and transparency.  On openness, she seemed to suggest that NRC may hold open meetings but is not necessarily making them easy for the public to attend, and is not necessarily listening to the public.  On the principle of independence, she seemed to suggest that it was wrong of the principles to equate licensees and the general public in this principle, as the interests of the public are paramount.  (The principle states:  "All available facts and opinions much be sought openly from licensees and other interested members of the public.  The many and possibly conflicting public interests much be considered.  Final decisions must be based on objective, unbiased assessments of all information, and must be documented with reasons explicitly stated.") 

The final speaker, Joseph Klinger, from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, gave a state perspective.  He said that, 25 years ago, he saw isolation between the NRC and the states.  This isolation has largely disappeared.  He attributes the change to the PGR.  He felt the NRC really excelled in openness and transparency.  He also said that Illinois had embraced the same principles.  He noted that the 37 Agreement States are responsible for most of the regulation of radioactive materials, and thus collaboration between NRC and the states is critical.  He particularly cited the importance of collaboration to achieve efficiency, one of the five principles. 

References to the PGR were not confined to this session.  They were mentioned in Chairman Stephen Burns' welcoming letter on the first page of the RIC program, and again in a one-page summary of the NRC on the third page.  And they were raised repeatedly by Commissioners, NRC managers, and others throughout the conference.

Later, speaking to someone from NRC in the hallway between sessions, I learned that one of the non-US attendees in the audience at the session on the PGR (the RIC had attendees from 33 countries this year) noted that he thought that it was good to have something like the PGR, and he intended to bring the idea back to his country. 

It was interesting to see the mix of positive and negative comments.  While the compliments were, of course, good to hear, I think the criticism is also important to hear.  While we may individually debate whether we agree with the comments, positive and negative, they all reflect how the NRC and its action appear to the various stakeholders.  Like all lofty, aspirational goals, NRC will never be able to declare victory and rest on its laurels.  There will always be times when it didn't meet the goals perfectly, and even when it does, there will still be room for improvement in the future.  

I like to reflect back on the period, 25 years ago, when I worked in Commissioner Rogers office and helped develop the PGR.  Little did I know then what impact it would have.  It is nice to see that it thrives today, and if anything, its influence is growing.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

Combatting Air Pollution:

A Role for Nuclear Power

We have all gotten so caught up in the climate change discussion in recent years, that we have nearly forgotten that fossil fuel emissions have been an issue for a very long time.  We used to worry about air pollution.  A recent article noting that air pollution kills over 5 million people a year worldwide suggests we still should think about air pollution. 

It's not hard to guess why air pollution was pushed off our radar screens--it is generally a more localized phenomenon, so maybe you don't think about it if you live far from major cities or industrial centers.  And in some areas, a big contributor to air pollution is from automobiles, which perhaps diverts attention from the fossil fuel power plants.

So perhaps it seemed like climate change was a more universal issue.  But focusing just on climate change has led to debates about whether climate change is real.  And in some circles, focusing on climate change has diverted attention to discussions of ways to slow climate change by geoengineering schemes such as injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, or by sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or by adaptation strategies such as seawalls.

Of course, arguments can also be made that this or that portion of air pollution is due to other causes--transportation, the use of coal, wood and charcoal to cook and to heat homes in some countries, etc.

However, looking at the two issues together makes a compelling argument that fossil fuels are a key contributor to two very important environmental concerns--air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  Therefore, we should try to get away from the single argument about climate change, and instead address both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously.

In the long term, this means a number of things.  In the developing world, this means moving away from wood, charcoal and coal for home heating and cooking.  All over the world, it means turning to clean sources of electricity generation--nuclear power and renewable energy.  It also means moving away from the use of petroleum for transportation.  And that, in turn, may mean yet greater demands for electricity, and therefore, greater demands for electricity from nuclear power and other clean energy resources.

The bottom line is that, if we look at energy sources and effects holistically, the case for turning to clean energy sources becomes even stronger.  And the resulting growth in demand for these sources means that we will have to exploit all clean energy sources at our disposal. 

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