Friday, August 21, 2015

All of the Above:

A Matter of Common Sense

One recurring discussion we seem to face is what the mix of energy sources should be.  This discussion has become particularly important as the drive to reduce carbon emissions grows, and as the costs of renewable energy simultaneously seem to be plummeting.  That combination of factors has tempted some to envision a world powered entirely by the sun and the wind.

Many of us in the energy field have long tried to challenge such a scenario.  Experience has taught us that new problems often emerge as the use of a technology increases.  I recall many years ago reading a "look back at history" type of article that lauded the fact that those newfangled automobiles would solve the pollution problems created by horses in the city.  No one recognized then that automobiles would bring another type of pollution, and that, years later, we would spend time, money and energy to address that pollution.

Therefore, I was very pleased to see a very rational discussion of the issue entitled The Environmentalist Case against 100% Renewable Energy Plans.  The article draws a distinction between what is technically possible and what is optimal, thus transforming the argument from whether or not something can be done to whether it should be done.

The article also takes on the difficulty of achieving a 100% renewable power supply.  Although proponents of such a scenario cite various storage possibilities (as well as grid interconnections), the article points out that energy storage is not just a daily problem.  Wind patterns are seasonal, and there can be extended patterns of wind variability for other reasons.

In fact, shortly after I read this article, I saw some statistics from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) that graphically showed a 5-month period at the beginning of 2015 where the capacity factors of wind plants on the West Coast were lower than the average of the previous 5 years.  The EIA notes that capacity factors vary non-linearly with wind speed, so small decreases in wind speeds can result in much larger changes in capacity factors.

As a result of these variations, a huge investment in storage would be required in order to assure a reliable energy supply during extended periods of low wind speeds.  Yes, wind and solar mixes can complement each other, and yes, grid interconnections can bring renewable-generated electricity from far away, but each of these scenarios has costs and limitations as well.  Reliable baseload sources can do the same job much more efficiently.

The article also takes on some of the other, less technical, issues.  In particular, it notes the irony that eliminating nuclear power in favor of wind and solar energy requires much more transformation of the landscape to produce the same amount of energy, which draws opposition from other environmental groups, as well as from people who don’t want wind turbines marring their scenic views.

The article raises other points as well.  For example, it notes that all energy technologies are evolving, so the projected benefits of advanced solar or wind systems should be compared to the those of advanced nuclear systems and advanced carbon capture and storage systems, not to present technologies.  This is a point that I have found is often glossed over--by proponents of all technologies.

There are probably other points that the article could have made.  It comments on the small footprint of nuclear power plants compared to wind and solar plants, but not on the greater amounts of materials needed for renewable plants producing the same amount of power, and the environmental impacts of mining and manufacturing those.  Or of the need for specialized materials such as rare earths.  It mentions an allegation that mining uranium is energy intensive (and therefore, generates carbon at the front-end), but it doesn't challenge that assumption or compare the front-end energy demands with those for renewable energy sources.    

The article emphasizes that replacing some non-emitting sources with other non-emitting sources gains nothing environmentally, while adding a lot to the cost.  It concludes that the best option is a mix of energy technologies, noting that the optimal mix may vary, depending on location. 

In summary, the article makes a good start at looking at our energy mix holistically.  In particular, it helps make the case of why something that is technically possible (maybe!) is not necessarily the best path to pursue, and suggests how we should be approaching decisions on our future energy supply.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Nuclear Power and Human Factors:

A Close Connection

I was very pleased to read recently that the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD/NEA) has just increased its emphasis on the human factors side of nuclear power. In particular, NEA "has created a new division to support its member countries in their efforts to further improve the human side of nuclear safety." The new Division of the Human Aspects of Nuclear Safety consolidates activities in the areas of training, safety culture and public communications, and encourages greater focus on such areas within member countries.

In fact, I'm more than just pleased.  I'm very gratified.  One of my areas of personal interest for the last dozen or so years has been knowledge management.  Knowledge management includes issues associated with assuring adequate training and other actions to assure that knowledge is transferred effectively within an organization.  My personal involvement in this latter area began when I was in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and continued when I moved to the OECD/NEA as Deputy Director General from 2004 to 2007.  I therefore feel particularly pleased that the NEA has increased the attention it is devoting to training, as that will inevitably help with the knowledge management issues I tackled during my tenure there. 

In more recent years, I've become very engaged in explorations of the issue of safety culture as well, and have made a number of presentations in this area.  Safety culture is another important aspect of the enhanced human factors work the NEA says it will be doing, and I'm pleased to see that as well.  While both issues have been getting more attention at technical conferences and in other venues, and safety culture, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention since the Fukushima accident, I have still sometimes felt that work related to the human element was a footnote for many people in the nuclear field, and that a lot of engineers sometimes feel that you can completely engineer out the potential for people to affect the performance of a facility negatively.

I believe it is particularly valuable for safety culture to be addressed at an international level.  Since Fukushima, there is a growing recognition that there are some traits that have a societal connection--independence versus conformity, going along versus rocking the boat, etc.  There is less recognition that some of these traits are not all good or all bad.  Almost any human trait, carried to an extreme, has a downside.  There is also not enough recognition that individuals within a culture vary a great deal--and even more important, that people can be retrained to overcome behaviors they may have been taught.  What better place to deal with such issues than an international organization, where people of different cultures can have a chance to see how other cultures view issues of behavior at a nuclear facility, and can learn from each other?

I have had less personal involvement with public communications, although in some of my roles, particularly when I served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), I have certainly had a chance to see the important impact public opinion can have on nuclear power, how public perceptions can be distorted by biased reports, and how important timely, accurate public information can be.

I therefore applaud the direction NEA is taking, and look forward to them making important contributions in the future to human factors issues in the nuclear area, including training, knowledge management, safety culture, and public communications.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--July:

A Busy Month

Today, I continue my series of nuclear milestones of the month.  If May and June were slightly light on historical events, July more than makes up for it.  July is noteworthy in the US as the first reactor to supply power to the commercial grid.  It is also noteworthy for the number of nuclear milestones that took place outside the US, including in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, and the Panama Canal (although this was a U.S. project).  Two of the firsts are for major multinational institutions.

Key July milestones include:

July 1, 1959:  First reactor test in a program to develop rocket propulsion (Kiwi-A, Los Alamos, New Mexico)

July 5, 1961:  First military surface ship to operate using nuclear power (USS Long Beach, U.S.)

July 8, 1955:  First research reactor licensed to operate, and first reactor to operate under a license (Pennsylvania State University Nuclear Reactor Facility, State College, Pennsylvania)

July 9, 1967:  First gas-cooled heavy water reactor to supply electricity (EL-4/Brennilis, Finistere, France)

July 12, 1960: First non-governmental multinational organization for nuclear power (Foratom, Brussels, Belgium)

July 12, 1957:  First sustained electricity supplied off-site (SRE, Santa Susana, California)  [Power excursion July 13, 1959 led to shutdown.]

July 16, 1973:  First commercial-scale desalination using nuclear power (Aktau BN-350, Aktau, USSR/now Kazakhstan)

July 17, 1955:  First electricity to the commercial grid in the U.S. (BORAX-III, Arco, Idaho)

July 22, 1947:  First "large" reactor outside the U.S. (NRX, Chalk River, Canada)

July 25, 1966:  First nuclear power reactor to operate in Asia (Tokai-1, Tokai Mura, Japan)

July 29, 1957:  First international governmental organization for nuclear technology (IAEA, Vienna, Austria)

July 29, 1978:  First thermal power reactor to operate with full MOX core (Fugen, Tsuruga, Japan)

July 30, 1951:  First research reactor built by countries that had not engaged in weapons development (JEEP-I, Kjeller, Norway)

In addition, we have several firsts this month for which I was unable to find an exact date:  First boiling water reactor (BORAX-I, Arco, Idaho); first demonstration of a high-temperature gas reactor (Dragon Reactor Experiment, Winfrith, United Kingdom); and first floating nuclear power plant (MH-1A, Panama Canal).

As always, more information on all of these milestones, and more, is available in my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Climate Change and Science:

The Case for Greater Logic

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted some of the inconsistencies many of us have long noted between the concerns over climate change and the actions being taken--or not being taken--and added a few.

Eduardo Porter starts his discussion by asking whether America's efforts to combat climate change are going off the rails.  He then continues by saying, "environmental experts are suggesting that some parts of the [U.S.] strategy are, at best, a waste of money and time. At worst, they are setting the United States in the wrong direction entirely."

The point that came as the greatest surprise to me was that allowing the burning of biomass in power plants to help reduce consumption of fossil fuels produces 50 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal.  This seems contrary to all the discussions I have heard about the benefits of using biomass, and the article didn't provide enough detail to allow me to verify the statement independently, but at the very least, it suggests we may need to analyze the biomass option more thoroughly before we commit to it.   

The article also panned some energy conservation efforts, particularly weatherization programs, on economic grounds, saying that they cost more than twice as much as the energy savings they produce.  Furthermore, energy efficiency efforts worldwide are slowing, according to the article.

The concern is that a lot of the strategy for reducing carbon emissions relies on energy efficiency improvements and the use of biomass, so if these strategies are flawed, the U.S. and the world is unlikely to meet carbon-reduction goals.  The author doesn't mince words, saying that such strategies "are driven more by hope than science."  He bemoans the fact that ideological considerations are limiting the options, and are excluding potentially more viable options such as nuclear power.

While this article seems to focus perhaps a bit too much on concerns about biomass, the overall case it makes--that we need to be guided by science and not by unfounded phobias and unreasonable hopes--is a very important one.  As the U.S. and the world continue to make decisions on how to reduce carbon emissions, we cannot rely on preconceived biases or simplistic assumptions about the benefits or liabilities of any option. 


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.