Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Fiestaware: Understanding Radiation


Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a blog on Fiestaware when I noticed that the Post Office had issued a stamp honoring the man who had designed the original Fiestaware line (Frederick Hurten Rhead).  My tone was a bit lighthearted, as one color of classical Fiestaware was made with a uranium glaze that gave it a distinctive orange color, so it had become something I personally enjoy collecting and using.  (Well, collection may be a bit exaggerated, but I do have a couple of pieces, and I also have a couple of pieces of Vaseline glass, a product that similarly used uranium to color glass.  And for any other would-be collectors, I do want to note that the Fiestaware that is in production today doesn't use that glaze.  You have to look in antique shops.)

 

I did not think I would ever have a reason to revisit this subject, but yesterday's news featured an article about a school at which a hazmat emergency was declared because a student brought in a small sample of uranium-containing classical Fiestaware!  The first thing that has me scratching my head is that the student brought it in because they were demonstrating the use of a Geiger counter.  A Geiger counter needs a little radiation to show it's stuff!  Duh!  The second thing that struck me about this story is the profound ignorance that still surrounds anything with the "r word"--radiation.  

 

 People seem to be able to put other risks in perspective, but whether because of history, because it is invisible, or for any one of a number of other reasons I have heard, people do not seem to be able to understand even the basics of radiation.  This clearly is one factor that has dogged the nuclear power industry for its entire existence.

 

 I wish I had a magic answer to this dilemma, a way to educate people and to make them understand what they should fear and what they do not need to fear.  But it is clear that, as we continue to try to educate the public on the safety of  nuclear power plants, we need to keep in mind that we should be sure the educational tools cover things more basic than the nuclear power plants, in particular, the radiation from not only the nuclear plants, but from even such innocuous items as an antique orange plate.

 

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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Jill Biden's Title

I was as appalled as most people when I heard the news the other day about Joseph Epstein's opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal advising Jill Biden that she should not insist on being addressed as "Doctor."  Aside from the obvious fallacy of his argument--that a Ph.D. is not a real doctor--and aside from the clear sexism, it was a sad reminder of how slowly things change.

 

As a woman who holds an earned doctorate in engineering, I have had my share of experiences with people addressing me incorrectly.  In one memorable incident early in my career, a colleague and I were meeting with a client.  The client addressed me as Mrs. Marcus, but called my colleague Dr. Bxxx.  To my colleague's credit, he saw the irony of the situation--I had a doctorate, but he did not! 

 

And that is just one story. When I get together with my former classmates, we can share stories of such slights for hours on end.  Still, that was over a generation ago, and I truly thought we had moved on from those days.  

 

It is truly discouraging to discover that this kind of mindset is still prevalent, and that anyone has the gall to express such a viewpoint so publicly.  I can only hope that this affront to Doctor Jill Biden and the uproar that followed will end up being the trigger to true change.


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Thursday, April 16, 2020

COVID-19 and Essential Services:

A Reminder of What's Important

As we get used to the "new normal" of living with the specter of the novel coronavirus looming over us, we are being reminded of all the things it takes to maintain our lives and well-being.

Some of these are obvious, and are the kinds of people that we've always known were essential.  Doctors.  Nurses.  EMTs.  And everyone else in the medical field staffing the hospitals and emergency rooms, and administering life-saving procedures.  Police.  Firefighters.   Military personnel.  All those who are always on the front lines when there are emergencies in our cities and towns.

Others are visible, but are people we never used to think about when the word "emergency" was uttered.  People who stock shelves and operate cash registers at pharmacies and grocery stores.  Kitchen staff at restaurants serving our new take-out-only world.  Gas station attendants.  Delivery personnel.  People who clean the grocery stores, pharmacies, and other establishments that are still open.  People who collect our trash.  People who repair our infrastructure.  People who gather and report the news. 

Many others are working behind the scenes.  We never see them, but our dependence on them has become more and more obvious as we have moved into crisis mode.  The farmers and distributors who grow, process, and ship our food.  The factory workers employed at factories being retooled to provide the ventilators and masks needed in this health crisis.   And yes, the toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  The truck drivers who deliver the food and goods we need.  The people who answer the phones of the services we call.  The government workers who continue to assure that essential services continue to be supplied to the American public, and that health and safety oversight is maintained.

And, last but not least, the people who assure that our power plants keep working, and that the power we so desperately need, especially during these difficult times, continues to be available.  Power to run our hospitals.  Power to run our factories.  Power to keep our homes well lit and at a comfortable temperature.  Power that enables us to operate all the technology that is helping us continue our work, keep in touch with each other, get needed medical advice, and so much more.

Our power, of course, comes from a variety of sources, all of them needed, but in times like this, our nuclear plants are especially valuable, as they can operate for long periods of time without refueling.  We should keep in mind that, at some sites, keeping the staff safe and available to provide the nation with much-needed power means that some staff are living on site, away from their loved ones. 

Right now, it is difficult for anyone to see what the world will look like when the COVID-19 crisis ends.  Much will return to the old "normal," I'm sure.  There will also be some changes.  Unfortunately, some establishments that are shuttered may never reopen.  Maybe more people will continue to work from home.  There is much speculation, and only time will tell.  But I hope that, even when things are back to normal, we remember the services that kept the wheels going during the current crisis--the people, the network of services, the factories, and the power plants.  They are the hidden, but critical, elements that keep our society functioning. 

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Monday, April 6, 2020

The "We are Westinghouse" Ad:

What Were They Thinking?

Normally, I'm the kind of person advertisers hate.  And if they don't hate me, it's only because they don't know that I have a remarkable ability to read a newspaper or magazine from cover to cover and never even notice the advertisements.  Just like I can tune out the sound of my neighbor's lawnmower, or the annoying spiel I get when I'm on hold waiting for some service to answer my telephone call, or the background noise at a restaurant.

However, in the March 2020 issue of Nuclear News, the two-page spread on the inside cover caught my eye.  It displays the slogan, "We are Westinghouse."  It features 22 people (23 if you count the guy cut off at the right edge), all wearing AP1000 polo shirts.  And only one of them is a woman!

That is about the same ratio of men to women that I faced when I was a freshman at MIT, and believe me, that was quite a few years ago!  I had thought the world had changed a lot since my first year at MIT, but this spread made me wonder.

I did some digging, and I am happy to report that this photo doesn't seem to be representative of Westinghouse.  Other photos show a higher representation of women.  And the current leadership of Westinghouse includes 2 women who are executive vice presidents.

So why, then, did Westinghouse pose a picture with 23 men and one woman?  And why did they select that shot to represent who Westinghouse is?  What makes this even more puzzling is that this photo is being used as part of their recruiting strategy.  What message does this send to potential job candidates?  Or, for that matter, what message does it send to any member of the public who sees this ad?

Obviously, I can't answer these questions.  Personally, I always place more importance on actions than on "eyewash," so the fact that they have women in their leadership means more to me than a photograph.  Nevertheless, in this world, image and presentation mean a lot, and I find it hard to understand what motivated Westinghouse to choose the photo they chose as a representation of who they are.  It could be a setback to them in their efforts to portray themselves as being at the cutting edge. 

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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Coronavirus and Nuclear--Take 2:

A Second Cancellation

It may seem somewhat parochial to write about the coronavirus from the perspective of meetings for the nuclear community, but when you think that, just a few weeks ago, the news seemed very far from most of us, thinking in terms of personal impact drives home just how quickly and aggressively this brand new phenomenon is changing all of our lives.

In the beginning, most of what we heard was about things that were happening in Wuhan, China, where a new disease, quickly dubbed COVID-19, was causing illnesses and deaths.  At first, the numbers seemed relatively small, but the concern quickly grew, and quarantines and cancellations began to be announced.  But again, they were initially remote from most of us.  However, slowly, the disease seemed to be spreading--to more people and more countries--and the announcements hit closer to home.

The first announcement that affected my personal plans was the postponement of the Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference (PBNC) originally scheduled for April in Cancun, Mexico, that I wrote about in my last blog only a week ago.

I could not have guessed when I wrote that blog that I would see another cancellation of a nuclear event only a week later.  On Thursday, March 5, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a notice that they were cancelling the annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), originally scheduled for next week. 

NRC's official notice states that, "In recent days, a number of organizations and presenters have changed their attendance plans, with indications that others would reach similar decisions in coming days."

Once again, this is an understandable, but disappointing turn of events.  The NRC's RIC has become one of the most important nuclear conferences.  It always draws a wide attendance from all over the U.S. and from a number of other countries, and it provides an excellent overview of a variety of nuclear regulatory and related issues.

While the PBNC announced a postponement of their meeting (until October), the NRC has cancelled the meeting outright.  The next RIC will be held in March 2021.

Of course, these 2 meetings are very small events compared to some of the large and well-known meetings and events that announced cancellations in the last couple of weeks, so I am not trying to imply that there is something special or different going on with regard to nuclear meetings.  And of course, many people around the world are enduring far more serious consequences of this disease than the cancellation of a meeting--deaths, illness, quarantines, worry, economic impacts, school closures, and so much more.  It is just that, as I said, the news always seems more real when it starts affecting our individual lives and our plans. 

So, for all the more serious reasons, I hope that a way is found to beat back this modern-day plague.  But I still can't help but miss this spring's RIC and PBNC. 

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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Coronavirus Hits Nuclear Event:

A Major Nuclear Conference is Postponed

I should have known that, in our highly interconnected world, the recent coronavirus outbreak would start hitting in unexpected places.  COVID-19, as it is officially called, originated in Wuhan, China, a place that not many people I know have ever visited.  So initially, it seemed remote.  A serious disease, to be sure, but, I assumed, not one that most of us had to worry about.

Pretty quickly, though, that perspective was shattered.  More people than I'd guessed did visit Wuhan, and people from Wuhan traveled to other places as well, so the disease started to appear in spots all over the globe.  Furthermore, with so many manufactured products coming from China, reports of impacts on numerous industries began to surface.  This was followed by rumblings that there would be effects on the stock market--effects that we saw realized in the past few days.

And then, the impacts of the virus hit even closer to home.  We learned that one of our relatives was on the Westerdam, the Holland America Line ship that wandered around the Asian waters for days trying to find a port that would allow them to land.  Even though, as it turned out in the end, the one report of a case of the virus on that ship was false.  Our relatives are home safely now, but not before enduring a lengthy and uncomfortable ordeal.

But still, it was only February, so events that were scheduled to take place a couple of months from now were not on my radar screen.  Thus, I was not prepared for a message from the Mexican organizers of the upcoming Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference (PBNC) that was scheduled to be held in Cancun in late April.  The message proposed to the Pacific Nuclear Council (PNC), on which I serve, that the conference should be postponed.  Surely, I thought, this outbreak would be contained and everything would be fine by then.  However, the PBNC specifically focuses on countries in Asia and the Americas, and with the number of cases still growing in China and South Korea, and with speakers and attendees needing to make travel plans, it became clear that the success of the conference was in jeopardy.  A number of potential speakers and attendees might not even be able to leave Asia.  Others might be exercising caution and restricting all foreign travel.

Clearly, the appropriate thing to do was to postpone the conference, and the organizers did so.  The new dates are October 18-22.  The place is the same (Cancun, Mexico).  Hopefully, the virus will have been contained by then and the conference will be able to take place and will be a success.   In the meantime, the conference organizers have extended the paper submission dates, so I'd like to encourage people to consider submitting papers and to plan to attend in the fall.  It is one of the major international nuclear conferences, and attracts attendees from around the Pacific Rim and elsewhere.  The resort venue is an added attraction.  I commend the Mexican Nuclear Society for their decision to postpone the conference and wish them a highly successful conference in October.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Fessenheim 1, RIP:

Another Reactor Closes

The news today comes as no surprise.  Fessenheim 1, France's oldest operating nuclear power plant, was disconnected from the grid this past weekend, completing 42 years of operation.

This action is a consequence of a decision made under the administration of the former French president, Francois Hollande, to limit the nuclear share of the national electricity generation mix to 50% by 2025, and to cap nuclear power generation at the level that existed in 2014.  That decision clearly meant that France would have to shut down older reactors as any new reactors went online.

I want to emphasize that the age of the reactor was not the primary reason for the shutdown.  Yes, it is the oldest reactor, and yes, when the U.S. first licensed reactors, they were only licensed for 40 years.  But the U.S. law has since been changed, and nuclear power plants have demonstrated that, with proper maintenance and upgrades, they can continue operating safely for more than 40 years.

At the time the French law limiting the share of nuclear generation was passed, Electricite de France (EDF) was in the process of building a new nuclear power plant at Flamanville, a 1650 MWe EPR.  The completion of the unit has been delayed a number of times--which also delayed the closure of Fessenheim--but is now nearing completion.  However, somewhat surprisingly, Fessenheim is being closed a couple of years before Flamanville is expected to go into operation.  The grid operator has offered assurances that the gap between the closure of Fessenheim and the opening of Flamanville will not affect the security of France's energy supply.  The grid operator points to the commissioning of a new combined cycle gas plant, the development of renewable energy sources, and new grid interconnections with the U.K. and Italy.

Nevertheless, I think a lot of people would agree that shutting Fessenheim before Flamanville opens is a short-sighted decision.  France is in the process of closing its remaining coal-fired power plants.  Therefore, any further delays in the commissioning of the Flamanville plant, or any other unexpected closures of other plants, could threaten the security of France's energy supply.  

And while past performance may not necessarily provide an accurate prediction of the future, it is no secret that the construction of the Flamanville reactor has experienced numerous delays.  The plant was originally scheduled to go into operation in 2013.  If the current plan to begin operation in 2022 is achieved, that is still a 9-year delay.  

Now that France has made this decision, I of course hope they are able to maintain the current schedule for the start-up of the Flamanville plant, and that nothing happens to threaten France's energy supply.  But, even though I loved living in France, I'm sort of glad I'm not living there now.  Just in case!

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