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!

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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.

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Science and Policymaking, Part II:

What Policymakers Need to Know about Scientists

In my previous post, I excerpted 20 points from an article in The Guardian that tried to give scientists advice on what they needed to know about policy-making in order to be more effective in working with policymakers.  That article was actually inspired by an earlier article in The Guardian that tried to explain scientists to policymakers.  So, although I know most of this audience consists of scientists and engineers, I thought you might find it interesting to see how others explain our work.  Once again, I present only the bullet points (complete with the original spelling) and urge the reader to go to the original article for further explanations.

With that, here are the recommended 20 things policymakers should know about scientists:

1. Differences and chance cause variation

2. No measurement is exact

3. Bias is rife

4. Bigger is usually better for sample size

5. Correlation does not imply causation

6. Regression to the mean can mislead

7. Extrapolating beyond the data is risky

8. Beware the base-rate fallacy

9. Controls are important

10. Randomisation avoids bias

11. Seek replication, not pseudoreplication

12. Scientists are human

13. Significance is significant

14. Separate no effect from non-significance

15. Effect size matters

16. Data can be dredged or cherry picked

17. Extreme measurements may mislead

18. Study relevance limits generalisations

19. Feelings influence risk perception

20. Dependencies change the risks 

Once again, the comments provide some different perspectives, and perhaps my own list would be a little different.  But overall, I think most of the points are valid, and they should provide food for thought for all of us.

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Science and Policymaking, Part I:

What Scientists Need to Know about Policymakers

I was just pointed to a rich mother lode today--a trio of articles on what the various actors in science and technology policy need to know about each other.  Since I am a scientist and engineer who has worked in the policy area for a long time, the articles struck a chord and I wanted to share them here.  I suspect my audience is mostly other scientists and engineers, so I'll start with an article on what scientists should know about policy-making

Note that these articles were published by a British publication, The Guardian, so a few of the particulars pertain to the British government system.  However, the points the author makes are largely valid for any democratic government.  A few details may need to be changed, but the overall points apply.  Also, I'm sure we can all quibble about the details, and some of the commenters to the original article have taken issue with the relative importance of different issues, the order, whether some duplicate or contradict others, etc.  You can read the comments and draw your own conclusions.  I personally found that most of the points resonated, and perhaps will provide food for thought to others as we all continue to struggle with the interface between science and policy.  I perhaps thought the 20 points enunciated in The Guardian article could have been boiled down to a smaller set of points, but that is a small quibble.

I will highlight here the 20 points the original article in The Guardian makes about what scientists need to know about policy-making.  For the detailed discussion of each of the points, as well as for the comments, please see the original article.  In subsequent blogs, I will highlight the other Guardian articles, which provide similar thoughts on the other participants in policy-making.

1. Making policy is really difficult

2. No policy will ever be perfect

3. Policy makers can be expert too

4. Policy makers are not a homogenous group

5. Policy makers are people too

6. Policy decisions are subject to extensive scrutiny

7. Starting policies from scratch is very rarely an option

8. There is more to policy than scientific evidence

9. Economics and law are top dogs in policy advice

10. Public opinion matters

11. Policy makers do understand uncertainty

12. Parliament and government are different

13. Policy and politics are not the same thing

14. The UK has a brilliant science advisory system

15. Policy and science operate on different timescales

16. There is no such thing as a policy cycle

17. The art of making policy is a developing science

18. 'Science policy' isn't a thing

19. Policy makers aren't interested in science per se

20. 'We need more research' is the wrong answer

I will be interested in how the experience of others supports or contradicts these points, either in the US or elsewhere, but overall, I think most of these points are useful to keep in mind for those of us who engage with policy-makers.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Nuclear Waste:

A New Path Forward?

I was just wrapping up a post a couple of weeks ago and reflecting on how, most of the time, people don't want new infrastructure, be it a windmill or a factory, and yet they don't want to lose infrastructure either, even if other people consider that infrastructure dirty and polluting.

I was thinking specifically of coal mines, which arguably have often damaged the landscape and affected the health and safety of their workers, but I also recall cases where people fought to save industries in their communities, even when the industries spew pollution over the local residents.  I was toying with introducing a new acronym to the world to highlight the fact that there is a counter to NIMBY.  I thought of something like Keep Our Old Pollution Spewing Industries, or KOOPSI, and was envisioning sayings, like "oopsis follow KOOPSIs" or "KOOPSIs lead to oopsies."   

But I knew even as I was thinking about this that it was too simplistic.  If there is a KOOPSI attitude, there are certainly exceptions.  Witness people who have continued to argue against nuclear power plants in a region, even when they have operated safely for decades, and brought jobs and prosperity to their host communities.  So, I held off from publishing my whimsical new addition to the world of acronyms.

So, imagine my surprise, just after I hit the publish button, of opening a message in my mailbox that led me to an article about Loving County, a county in Texas that is thinking of offering to take the nation's high-level radioactive waste!

Of course, this is only an initial thought by a few people.  It doesn't mean we've solved the country's HLW problem.  It doesn't even have the full backing of the 95 residents of the county, and it seems to be for storage, not permanent disposal.  But the most interesting fact in the article was that there might be other sparsely populated counties in the deserts of the Southwest that see some benefits to the jobs and funds that would come with such an enterprise. 

But it just shows that, just as there are exceptions to KOOPSI, there are also exceptions to NIMBY.  In the end, in most cases, it boils down to jobs and the local economy.  That should surprise no one.  But if the old adage that the exception proves the rule is true, if we accept NIMBY, we have to accept KOOPSI, too, so I hearby introduce this new acronym to the world.

On a more serious note, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future recognized that the problem with Yucca Mountain is that it did not have the support of the local community from the outset, and any new process had to start with inviting interested communities.  The possible offer from Loving County, Texas seems like the first small step in that direction. 

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Friday, August 15, 2014

EPA's Proposed Rule:

Some of the Complexities

There has been a lot of discussion since early June, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposed rules for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.  I have previously commented on the possible ramifications of this rule for nuclear power.

Since that time, there has been a lot more discussion on the possible implications of the proposed rules.  While I think there will be still more analysis, I thought it would be worthwhile to summarize some of the new information here.

One study comes from MIT, and emphasizes the importance of a multi-pronged approach to reducing carbon emissions.  While their study doesn't explicitly address the EPA's proposed rule, they do address some of the same issues.  According to the authors of the study, source-specific regulations are an important element of emissions reduction, but they provide only partial coverage and must be combined with other measures to have the desired impact.

The authors favor a price-based policy, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.  This is a contentious area, but one argument they make is that source-specific regulations force action in particular areas, while ignoring cheaper options that may be possible, such as reducing overall energy use or cutting emissions from industry.  They also say that, “Using targeted emissions policies can actually encourage emissions increases in other areas.”  When costs to the consumer drop (such as with fuel economy standards), there is a tendency for consumers to increase their usage.

Another study comes from a joint effort of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and National Security Program and the Rhodium Group (RHG).  On July 24, CSIS hosted a presentation in Washington to present the preliminary findings of this study.  This study looked explicitly at the EPA rules and assessed what changes to the electric power and energy production systems in the US are likely to occur under the EPA’s proposal, as well as what the price, demand expenditures and other impacts may be.  Their full report is due out in October, but in the meantime, you can view their 1 hour 10 minute oral presentation by clicking on the image below:



Unfortunately, there are a couple of spots where the audio fades for a moment, but overall, this session provides an interesting glimpse into some of the state and regional considerations that are likely to be involved if the EPA rules are adopted.

 If nothing else, these two studies illustrate the complexity of this issue, and emphasize some of the elements we should be looking at closely to be sure that the proposed rules have the desired effect and avoided unintended negative consequences. 

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Energy Policy and Disruption:

Managing Change

Two items hit my mailbox yesterday, both of which relate in some way to the issue of the disruption that can be caused by technological transitions.  Therefore, although I addressed issues related to the evolution of energy technologies only a few weeks ago, I decided there were more dimensions to the problem that merited further examination.

The first of the two articles actually doesn't relate specifically to energy supply and demand.  However, it points out that the concerns about disruptive technologies are not limited to the energy arena, and are not limited to the historic changes I gave as examples in my last blog.  The more modern example that I can cite is the possibility of robots replacing human labor in more and more ways.

This is not a blog about robots, so I won't dwell on this, but we all know that we have been interacting with increasing frequency with machines instead of humans (think ATMs instead of bank tellers), and we can all see still more such interactions in our future (think driverless cars).

In the article, Vint Cerf, who is considered one of the fathers of the Internet (and who I've had the pleasure of meeting) is quoted as saying, "Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case.  Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices."  This is probably true, although it may be difficult for people whose jobs are affected to take the long view.

The second article is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and includes a graph showing that mining and related activities constitute a large part of the economies of several states.


This graph reveals a dimension I had not thought about too much before, and that is how profoundly some of the anticipated changes in our energy supply might affect some states.

Up until now, my thinking has been much like Vint Cerf's thinking--I assume that new jobs will replace the old ones, and I have regarded that as the main consideration.  I have always realized that argument is not as simple as it sounds.  At a minimum, people will need to be retrained for the new jobs.  There are also issues of whether the pay will be the same, whether the working conditions will be as attractive, etc.  In addition, people may need to move for the new jobs, and although we are a mobile society, moving is disruptive, especially if you feel you are being forced to move against your will.

But, what I hadn't thought about was to what extent there might be a large net migration of jobs out of some states.

At first glance, today's situation does not seem that different from technological and other transitions made throughout the course of history.  The types and distribution of jobs have not remained static in the past.  If they had, we would have remained mired in the Stone Age. 

And as job opportunities and other things have changed, people have moved.  That is also nothing new.  The United States was shaped by people who moved for better opportunity (or for other reasons, but this is not a sociological blog), whether it was out of other countries and to the US, or from the East Coast to the Midwest and West.

These moves have had profound consequences.  Cities prospered or declined due to the fortunes or misfortunes of the industries they harbored and the movement of people to or from their jurisdictions.

In the past, I don't think people could predict these transitions well, and both individuals and municipalities struggled as a result.  What is different today is that we understand better what the potential impacts of various actions and decisions may be.  And we have the time to act.  We will need to replace existing coal and other fossil fuel plants with cleaner technologies, which costs money and takes time.  This should allow time for individuals and states to adapt.

States and companies can continue to challenge new requirements--that, after all, is the American way--but they should also be looking to help promote other uses of coal products and cleaner coal technologies, to attract the development of replacement energy technologies, and to attract other industries.  When they lobby the Federal government, they should not simply fight all change, but they should lobby for ways to make the changes work for them.

I realize that this is easier said than done, and not everything states may try will succeed.  It may, therefore, seem easier just to try to keep things as they are, but that is a temporary solution anyway.  The argument for preserving jobs is a powerful one, but it is up against a more powerful argument of effects on public health and the environment.  Change is inevitable, whether it comes sooner or later, and the states and companies that anticipate that and start to position themselves will stand the best chance of surviving the transition--and perhaps even of improving their lot. 

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