Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Safety Culture:

Trains and Boats and Planes...
and Nuclear Power Plants

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in an event in Chicago where I gave a presentation that focused in part on safety culture for the nuclear power industry.  When I proposed this as a topic, I had in mind not only commercial power plants, but also several other recent events, both in the US and abroad, where weaknesses in safety culture appear to have caused or exacerbated an incident.

The incidents I had in mind included the radioactivity releases at the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in February of this year that appear to be related to mistakes in packaging of the waste, and the revelation in 2012 and 2013 of the falsified documentation for nuclear power plant components in South Korea.  On the non-nuclear side, I might have considered the Takata airbag problems, the General Motors ignition switch problems, and the sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea in April that resulted in the deaths of about 300 people, many of them high school students 

My presentation time was limited, so rather than try to present an exhaustive list of incidents, I focused instead on the fact that there is often an element of safety culture evident in accidents and incidents, even when they seem to have another immediate cause (one example being the Fukushima accident in Japan).  I also emphasized the need to learn from these events.  Although I recognize that no individual or institution likes to "air its dirty linen in public," I pointed out that hiding mistakes is usually unsuccessful, and further erodes public confidence when the truth comes out.  And even though not every event provides useful lessons for everyone, I noted that there are certainly lessons to be learned throughout an industry, and sometimes, even lessons that are transferable from one industry to another.

I had put safety culture in the back of my mind when I boarded a Frontier Airlines plane the next evening to return home.  We boarded about 20 minutes late, but the announcement said that they hoped to make up the time.  I thought nothing of that, either, as I know they often "make up time" in the air.  (I'm a bit suspicious that they build in extra time on the published schedule to cover short delays, but that's another story.)  We pushed back from the gate, and then the plane stopped.  We wait.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, an announcement from the cockpit informed us that the tip of one wing had hit a barbed wire fence and was entangled in the barbed wire!

In the 4+ hours it took to have someone come to inspect the situation, have someone else come to cut away the barbed wire, pull the plane back to the gate, and have us wait until another plane arrived and was serviced, my traveling companions and I had ample time to discuss the situation.  We still don't know for sure what happened, so anything I say is pure speculation, but almost anything I can imagine seems to me has an element of safety culture.  The fence presumably didn't jump out at the plane.  So...Were they rushing things a little to try to make up for the delay?  Was there a miscommunication?  Was the job in the hands of someone inexperienced?  Was that corner of the airport badly designed?

To be fair, there are far worse things that could have happened than to be delayed 4 hours while safely on the ground.  And to be fair, the other problems I encountered in my dealings with the Frontier Airlines staff that night had nothing to do with safety (lack of information from the pilot on what was going on for the 2-1/2 hours we were marooned on the plane, snarky stewardesses, ground personnel who promised food and drink vouchers but then rescinded the promise, and who also sent people to another gate to recharge their electronic devices but then said they would not be making boarding announcements on the PA system).  However, the event brought home to me that even seemingly simple actions can go badly awry, and that some aspect of a failure of safety culture is often involved. 

As I started thinking about writing this post, I realized that my comments were reflecting on both boat and air travel.  At that point, the old Dionne Warwick song, "Trains and boats and planes" came to mind, not for the meaning, but just for the title.  I at first tried to rephrase the title as "Nuclear power plants and boats and trains," but that just doesn't have the same ring.  I then realized that my presentation had left out at least one fairly recent train incident I could have mentioned--the derailment of a train carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in July 2013 that left over 40 people dead and leveled half the town.

Another country, another technological area, but once again, a problem fundamentally caused by a series of actions, many of which, at their core, reflected insufficient attention to safety.  The message, I hope, is not that such incidents are inevitable, but rather, that each such incident should lead to corrective actions that reduce or eliminate the possibility of a recurrence.  And to sharing the knowledge gained so that others don't suffer the same failures.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Nuclear Power and Election 2014:

What Lies Ahead?

The 2014 election results are in, with a big win for Republicans, so the speculation has already started about a number of issues, nuclear power among them.  While I don't usually publish blogposts two days in a row, as a long-term "Inside the Beltway" resident, I feel compelled to weigh in.

First, as everyone knows by now, the election put the Republicans in the majority in the Senate, so, for the last two years of Obama's presidency, he will face a Republican majority in both the House and Senate.  Many people see Republicans as stronger supporters of nuclear power than Democrats and therefore are anticipating a number of positive actions from Congress for the nuclear industry.

However, it is not clear how much of a change the new Republican majority will really bring to the nuclear industry.  For one thing, nuclear power isn't the only issue on Congress's agenda.  In fact, it isn't even the main issue.  Some of the favored causes of the Republican majority are likely to be trumped by an even greater favorite cause--the budget.  Therefore, it is not clear whether the Republican support for nuclear power will really translate into more funding for advanced nuclear R&D or more loan guarantees for new projects.  I wouldn't rule out some boost, but under the current fiscal environment, I wouldn't count on it either.

Another issue we often forget is that many Republicans come from states with very strong fossil fuel interests.  These states have been chafing under the increasing pressure to implement measures to reduce carbon emissions--the so-called "War on Coal."  Nuclear power has already been suffering from the current low prices of fossil fuels, and the new congressional lineup is unlikely to do anything that would favor any technologies over coal, oil and gas.  In fact, as Jim Conca points out in his blog at Forbes, nuclear power doesn't have any significant constituency.  It doesn't have a state leading the charge for uranium, like West Virginia, Texas, and Pennsylvania do for coal, oil and natural gas, and it has a much smaller total number of employees than the fossil industry has.

The Republican majority may have more influence on the regulatory side than on the operational or R&D sides, but even there, the crystal ball is still a bit foggy.  Sen. Harry Reid certainly loses his position as Senate Majority Leader.  Whether or not he can snag the position as Senate Minority Leader is still up in the air.  If he does get that position, he can still exert some influence over White House nominations.  However, there is a good chance that he will not get that position.  If the Senate Democratic membership sees his political stance as contributing to their downfall, they may turn to someone else who they think can rally more support in the next election.  That decision remains to be made.

Even if Reid does become Senate Minority Leader, though, the Republican control of the Senate means that it will be much more difficult to appoint someone to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) who has a strong agenda on a particular issue, such as Yucca Mountain.

Whoever becomes Senate Minority Leader, we will still face the fact that there will be two Democratic Commission positions to be filled during the coming two years.  Indeed, action on these positions should start almost immediately.  Chairman Allison Macfarlane just announced that she will step down from her position on January 1, and the recent appointment of Commissioner Jeffrey Baran expires on June 30, 2015.  (That appointment was only to the remaining term of the position vacated by Commissioner Bill Magwood.)

(When Baran was appointed, I remember thinking that it was curious that he was appointed for a term of less than a year.  In the past, when such short time periods were involved, individuals were often nominated and confirmed for the following term at the same time.  I wondered at the time whether there were factions that wanted to see Baran in action before agreeing to a longer appointment.)

Historically, the positions on the NRC have not been the President's or the Senate's highest priority.  However, if neither position is filled, on July 1, the NRC will operate with a 3-member Commission, 2 of whom are Republicans.  Normally, the Administration would be likely to try to avoid such a lineup, but if there are no real "hot-button" issues before the Commission, the Administration may not want to expend its political capital on the NRC.  And since the two vacancies are both for Democratic slots, it would not be possible to "pair" the appointments (i.e., nominate a Democrat and a Republican together) as has become the practice in recent years.

The next position of a Republican to be filled will be that of Commissioner Bill Ostendorff.  His term ends June 30, 2016.  It is possible that all appointments could be delayed until then, but that would introduce a serious risk of the NRC having to operate with a 2-member Commission.  While that has happened before, it is an undesirable situation, and there will be some pressure not to allow that to happen.  I believe that Ostendorff is well respected.  However, the presidential election will be looming by that time, and that has often slowed appointments in the past, especially if a change in the party controlling the White House is anticipated. 

I should also note the impact of all of this on the position of NRC Chairman.  Most readers will know that the designation of the Chairman is at the sole discretion of the President.  However, the President can select only among the Commissioners who have been confirmed by the Senate.  Thus, presuming that no new Commissioner is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate before January 1 (and I think it would be almost impossible for that to happen), the President may only select from among the sitting Commissioners.  He may name the individual Chairman or Acting Chairman.  Although he can appoint any of the four Commissioners (Stephen Burns was just sworn in as Commissioner as I was writing this the morning of November 5), the likelihood is that he will turn to one of the two Democrats.  Most people feel that Commissioner Burns will get the nod because of his greater experience, but it is not yet clear whether he will become Chairman or Acting Chairman.

So, as usual in Washington, despite the decisiveness of this election, we are still faced with a number of uncertainties in how significant the election will prove to the nuclear industry.  The election seems to promise some changes, but to what extent they will be realized will depend on decisions still to be made and on external factors that are not yet completely clear.  Things may become a little clearer as the consequences of the election begin to play out in the Senate leadership positions and in other actions.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Atmospheric Carbon:

The Plot Thickens

This week, the news carried several important items regarding carbon in the atmosphere, and by happenstance, I stumbled upon an additional items, so everything seems to be pointing me towards that as a topic for this blog.

Probably the biggest item to hit the streets was the fifth assessment report, or Synthesis Report, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The biggest soundbite to emerge from this report is that the IPCC calls for zero carbon emissions by 2100.  However, perhaps the most interesting element of the report for the nuclear community is that the report effectively says that a combined approach using all technologies is the best way to achieve this goal.  While it may be possible to meet the goal without one or more technologies, the cost of doing so will increase.

This, of course, fits in with what many responsible leaders have been saying for a long time, and reinforces the need to continue to develop and deploy a variety of energy technologies to meet future needs.

Perhaps coincidentally, this week also saw the release of a report that looked more closely at non-CO2 emissions and their behavior.  (The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is co-authored by researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, IIASA, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.)

In particular, there had been some thought that limiting methane and soot emissions might be easier than limiting carbon-dioxide emissions and might limit the need to reduce CO2 emissions.  However, this study shows that reducing these emissions results in smaller benefits for long-term climate change than previously estimated.

The message here is a very mixed one, as a reduction in soot and other emissions would still improve the air quality, and would therefore yield benefits for human health and agriculture and near-term climate change, even if their contribution to long-term climate targets is less than previously presumed.  Also, other research has indicated that simultaneous and coordinated action on air pollution and climate change is more efficient, in terms of cost, than addressing each separately.

Finally, I was visiting Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) recently and picked up a copy of their latest journal, the Spring 2014 issue of Argonne Now.  Thumbing through the magazine, I found an interesting article that looks at different kinds of carbon particulates in the atmosphere, particularly "brown carbon" and "black carbon."  The article, which has the intriguing title, "The Volcano of A Hundred Thousand Mouths," appears on pages 26-29 of the print edition.  Because the PDF shows a two-page spread, the article is on pages 15 and 16 of the PDF.  (If you have an interest in future issues of their publication, ANL offers free subscriptions.)

Brown carbon comes largely from lower-temperature, smoldering fires, while black carbon comes from hot fires, such as from coal plants and car-engine combustion.  Although there is a lot more brown carbon in the atmosphere by mass, it can't trap heat as well as black carbon and therefore, has been largely ignored until recently.  Now, however, it is being recognized that brown carbon can be a significant factor in how aerosols affect the Earth's climate, and renewed attention is being given to this factor.

Taken together, the articles are a reminder of the huge complexity of the environment and what humankind is putting into it, and that the problems associated with fossil fuels extend beyond CO2.  All of this makes finding a realistic solution that much more difficult, but it also reinforces the importance of improving our understanding of the interactions of all energy-producing technologies with the environment as we move toward a new energy mix.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Grid and Solar Power:

Getting the Incentives Right

One of the biggest problems in the energy industry today seems to be setting the incentives to achieve what we'd like to the maximum extent possible without introducing other problems.  I just found an interesting article on some incentives for solar power that are having unintended consequences, so will focus on that.  The problem is really broader than just solar energy, but the article provides a good case study for how good intentions can produce suboptimal results. 

The New York Times just published an article called, appropriately, "How Grid Efficiency Went South."  The article covers some of the same ground we've been hearing a lot about recently, namely, the negative pricing that nuclear plants have suffered in some markets when demand is low and renewable energy sources are producing too much electricity.

More interestingly, though, the article points to another problem I had not seem discussed before--namely, that the rules for buying solar power that is input to the grid by private solar collectors create an incentive that results in less total energy production than could be generated.  Namely, the incentives create a discrepancy between what is best for the owners of the solar panels and what is best for the overall energy supply.  Most solar panels, the article explains, are oriented to the south so they catch the maximum amount of solar energy as the sun transits from the southeast to the southwest during the course of the day.  That generates the most energy, and therefore, earns the owners the most money.

Sounds good, right?  Well, maybe not so much.  The article points out that the greatest demand is often in the afternoon, when the sun has heated the world up and more air conditioning is needed.  By then, the sun is hitting solar panels at an oblique angle, and they are generating less electricity.  To maximize production, the panels should be oriented in a more westerly direction, so they have more output when the demand is higher.  However, that would result in a somewhat lower total generation, and under current pricing rules, a somewhat smaller income for the owner.

(The article did not address seasonal variations.  In winter, the demand for heating would be less in the afternoon when the atmosphere has heated up.  However, most home heating is supplied by natural gas or oil.  Therefore, the heating season is probably not really relevant in this case.)

One can't blame the owner of the solar panel for wanting to maximize his or her return.  The problem is that the incentive plan that was set up was too simplistic.  More is usually better.  It is also simpler.  But it doesn't produce the maximum value overall.  There are, of course, solutions to this problem.  Just as electricity use can be priced according to the demand levels, so too, can electricity supply.  Of course, the transition will not please those who have already installed their solar panels. 

While this is a solar issue, it demonstrates some of the complexities we seem to keep missing when we put new rules in place.  In a broader sense, it relates to the issues we discuss for nuclear power because the same kinds of short-sighted policies apply in other areas that do affect nuclear power.  The negative pricing that I mentioned above is one such policy, but there are others as well that we have addressed in past blogs and will continue to address in the future.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Water and Energy:

                       A Close Connection

Several recent items brought home for me the very close linkage between water and energy.  In particular, one study suggests that coal and nuclear power plants are vulnerable to climate change.  The study predicts that rising temperatures could exacerbate the problems we have seen in recent years with plants having to shut down because cooling water temperatures were too high.  Specifically, they predict that electricity production could be reduced by between 4 and 16 percent between the years 2030 and 2060 due to increasing temperatures.

The authors of the study drew the conclusion that this might mean that electricity production might have to shift from coal and nuclear plants to natural gas plants, which use less water.  They appeared to jump to this conclusion without considering other options, including the use of cooling towers and the use of advanced nuclear technologies that don't rely on water for cooling.  I have seen other suggestions that more plants in the future could be sited in coastal areas, thus having access to the oceans, which would not heat up the way confined bodies of water can.

Of course, I have to agree that each of these solutions faces challenges, but so does the greatly increased use of natural gas.  The point is that there is a potential concern in the future and we need to begin to think about ways to address it.

What was even more interesting to me, however, was another article that crossed my desk, this one saying that water is also an issue for some renewables.  The article reports that solar thermal farms that are more "financeable" also potentially use billions of gallons of water.  Since some of these projects are being sited in desert areas, that could become a significant problem.  They mention one project in Nevada that would require about 20 percent of the area's water supply.

Once again, this is not a dire projection of doom and gloom.  The article identified solar technologies that use less water.  These include a technology that places mirrors on towers, producing high-temperature steam, and using a dry cooling method.  They indicated that photovoltaics require water "only" to clean the panels.  However, I understand even that can be significant, as dust can reduce the output of a photovoltaic array significantly.  Further, they say that photovoltaic arrays are typically more expensive and less efficient than solar thermal farms.  For photovoltaics as well, research continues on ways to improve the efficiency and to clean the panels without water.

While the article didn't mention it, wind produces electricity without the need for cooling water.  But as I've indicated in other posts, there are other issues associated with wind.  Therefore, wind has a role in the energy mix, but as with every technology, there are tradeoffs.  

The point of this discussion is not to conclude that we have no options.  The point is to recognize the issues associated with the water needed to produce electricity and the possible trends, and to assure that growing constraints are considered as new technologies are developed. 

On a larger scale, of course, water and energy are linked at a more fundamental level.  Just as it takes a lot of water to produce electricity from most sources, it also takes a lot of energy to produce clean water, more so in places where water for human consumption needs to be extracted from seawater. 


Friday, September 12, 2014

Wine and Radioactive Decay:

An Interesting Mix

I had not expected for find a wine-related topic to blog about again in a nuclear forum (an early blog of mine reported on the effects of red wine in helping protect against radioactivity), but I have just found yet another connection between nuclear science and wine.  A technical paper reports on the work of a nuclear center in the Bordeaux region of France (the Centre d'Etudes Nucleaires de Bordeaux-Gradignan, or CENBG) in using measurements of gamma decay to date wine.  Although this work seems far removed from their main mission, which was to measure the mass of the neutrino, I guess it was only natural for a nuclear research center in the middle of one of the most famous wine regions in the world to try to apply their tools to the main industry of the area.

The paper notes that wine contains very small, but measurable, amounts of cesium 137 from weapons testing.  Thus, the amounts of the isotope in wines can be used to determine the vintage of fine wines and to protect against fraudulent claims about the vintage.  For example, a 1930 vintage wine should not contain cesium 137.  Since the gamma radiation from the decay of cesium 137 passes through glass bottles, the test is has the additional advantage that it is a nondestructive one and doesn't require tampering with expensive, old vintage wines.  (The article emphasizes that the amounts of cesium 137 in the wine are negligible, so wine lovers need not worry on that account either.)

The authors of the study point to other possible applications in the future.  The gamma spectrometer used is very sensitive and may be able to detect a range of isotopes.  Since soils in different regions vary in composition, the distribution of isotopes in a given bottle of wine may be able to identify whether it is from Bordeaux or Burgundy--or Napa Valley.  However, the paper concludes that the work has not yet been done to validate this concept.

It sounds like an area of research that I would enjoy--in more ways than one!


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Science and Policymaking, Part III:

What We All Need to Know about the Public

The astute reader of the last two blogposts (on policymakers and on scientists) will notice that the missing link in this story is the public.  Sure enough, there is a 3rd article on what both scientists and policymakers need to know about the public.  This one has only 12 points.  Again, I offer the headings for the 12 points and leave the interested read to pursue the explanations in the original article:

1. There is no such thing as ‘the public’

2. People are perfectly capable of understanding complex issues and technologies

3. People want to be able to participate in decisions around policy involving science and technology

4. People are not ‘anti-science’ or ‘anti-technology’

5. People can be experts too

6. People may ask questions which do not occur to experts

7. People are not necessarily interested in science and technology per se

8. People know that policy-makers and scientists are human

9. It is important for policy-makers and scientists to be clear about when they are telling and when they are listening

10. Public deliberation can help reduce the risks that proposed policy will fail

11. Re 10 above, public deliberation can also help give confidence to policy-makers

12. There are many different and valid ways of engaging people

As I read through this last group, I was struck by one point that made me shake my head and say, "Well, I know some people who are anti-science."  (Actually, I don't think I know of anyone in my immediate circle, but I do know they exist.)  This made me realize that the whole set of points in all three articles lumps people together too much.  We can all identify people who are anti-science as well as people who are pro-science, so perhaps a lot of these should read "Not all people are anti-science," etc.  The first of these lists, on what scientists need to know about policymakers, did say that policymakers are not a homogeneous group, but they didn't carry over this caveat into the other lists.  So, yes, I could tweak all of these, and I offer this to you with the caveat that none of these 3 groups are homogeneous, but I still think there is a lot of food for thought for all of us in these lists.