Friday, April 18, 2014

More NIMBYism:

My Livelihood, but Not My Backyard!

I am beginning to see more and more instances of NIMBYism (NIMBY = Not in My Backyard).  It's an observation I made before, but once again, what I am seeing is not limited to nuclear power.  Far from it.  Some of the recent objections, in fact, make it clear that the concerns aren't even necessarily about safety and clean air.

The most recent instances that have popped up in my news sources are particularly interesting, as one involves Japan, where much of the population now opposes nuclear power, and another comes from Texas and has a very interesting twist. 

Someone brought to my attention an article in a Japanese newspaper saying that the local population in an area targeted for the installation of a solar power plant is objecting on the grounds that this is a resort area and the plant will "wreck the scenery."   The article discusses how the local government is trying to derail the plan, and also mentions other places in Japan where the local population is objecting to planned solar installations.  This, despite the fact that much of the Japanese population is against the restart of the nuclear power plants and believes that renewable energy sources can be built to replace the lost power. 

This concern by the local population mirrors a similar situation in California a couple of months ago, where the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to put 1 million photovoltaic panels on land they own a few miles from the infamous World War II Manzanar Japanese-American internment camp.  Japanese-American organizations and National Park Service officials have expressed concern that the installation will compromise the isolated nature of the site, which is part of the understanding of the experience of the internees that they are trying to convey.

The most interesting news item, however, was the one from Texas, where the residents of a very upscale neighborhood of multimillion dollar ranches are suing to block the construction of a water tower, to be used in part for hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") near their neighborhood.  The tower, the lawsuit claims, "will create a constant and unbearable nuisance to those that live next to it" due to noise and traffic hazards.  What makes the suit newsworthy is the fact that one party to the suit is Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corporation and a "zealous advocate of the US shale boom" and the use of fracking!

While some of the details of the positions of the various protagonists are unclear to me (he already lives near some oil and gas wells and he claims not to object to the use of the tower for fracking operations), the fact that he is a party to the lawsuit is certainly sending a mixed message.

And these are not the only stories that have come to light of local residents objecting to new installations in their areas, even if they are in favor of the technologies and want to see them installed--somewhere else.  I still recall the fight a few years ago over the plans for a offshore wind farm opposite the Kennedy compound in Cape Cod

I fully realize the importance of keeping some unspoiled land, the value of preserving important parts of our historical heritage (both positive and negative), and I even understand the expectation that people who buy expensive properties have that they have a "right" to preserve what they bought.  I also understand the rights of the poor not to have all the negative parts of our infrastructure dumped on them, and of those in heavily populated areas not to have infrastructure further encroach on their limited space.

But despite all of this, everyone wants electricity on demand, 24/7 and in whatever quantities they want, and they want it at a reasonable price.  So I find myself very frustrated. 

Japan is a small, mountainous country with a high population density and a long history, so siting almost anything is bound to impact views, interfere with recreational activities, or be near populated or historical areas.  The places that have the most land available for solar or other space-intensive activities are just the places that we would like to see preserved, whether for their beauty or for their history or for the wildlife they harbor.

I sometimes wonder if all these NIMBY objections will ultimately point to an advantage of nuclear power.  Nuclear power plants require far less space than renewable power plants, and many of the advanced plants and smaller plants being contemplated today, in addition to being more passively safe, can be constructed partially or completely underground, thus further reducing their impact on the scenery.

Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but in the long run, it would be very good if people begin to realize that nothing is "free," and that we need to balance a lot of conflicting interests and requirements to develop appropriate solutions to meet our energy needs.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

External Hazards at Nuclear Power Plants:

A New Study

I recently learned of a report from the European Commission on external-hazard related events at nuclear power plants.  I will caution that, to date, I have read only the summary of the report, so my observations are based on what is in the summary.  

In light of Fukushima, everyone has been sensitized to the fact that an external event has the potential to trigger a serious accident at a nuclear power plant.  For the Fukushima event, the external events were an earthquake and a tsunami.  However, those who follow event reports at nuclear power plants also know that there are a variety of other ways that the external environment can impact nuclear power plant operations, including severe weather events, floods, and the clogging of intake pipes.  For that reason, a report such as this can help provide some perspective on the kinds of accidents possible.
This report provides some useful pie charts showing the percentages of different kinds of accidents in the data base of the IAEA-OECD/NEA Incident Reporting System (IRS), as well as pie charts for the same types of events for French reactors and for German reactors.

It is interesting to note that the percentages of some of the types of accidents differ significantly.  The reasons for this are not completely clear.  It may be due in part to differences in environment in individual countries that might, for example, make the nuclear plants of one country more or less vulnerable to clogging of intake pipes.

I should note that the report says that it does not address earthquake hazards, as they have already been addressed in other reports.  I also note that the report doesn't separate different types of events within a class of events.  For example, they say they have taken tsunamis into consideration, but there is not a separate category for tsunamis.  Rather, they are considered a type of flooding event.  While this may be reasonable in terms of the similarity of most of the consequences, given the post-Fukushima concerns about tsunamis, it might have been useful to see a more explicit breakout of such events within the flooding category.

A key conclusion of the report is that, for the IRS database, the main external phenomenon affecting nuclear plant operation is extreme weather conditions. The next most frequent phenomena affecting nuclear power plants are water intake fouling (mostly of biological origin) and lightning.  (The most frequent events were different for France.)  The external hazards, in general, had no severe actual impacts on nuclear safety based on the events reported to the IRS database.

The authors also observed that, where events had previously occurred, corrective actions had often been taken, and those corrective actions noticeably reduced the effects of a recurrence of the event.  This reinforces the importance of studying events, such as they have done, and of making sure the lessons learned have been assimilated.  Such studies can also help assure that the money and effort spent on corrective actions go toward changes that will reduce the recurrence of events with the greatest potential consequences.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fukushima and Safety Culture:

A Complex Issue

An article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in recognition of the anniversary of Fukushima has brought new attention to the concept of safety culture and how it may differ between organizations.  The article compares the fate of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station operated by Tohoku Electric Power Company to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.  The article, which is based on a research paper from the University of Southern California, concludes that, despite a lot of similarities between the two sites (age and type of nuclear reactors, strength of earthquake, height of tsunami), the Onagawa site fared much better than the Fukushima site.  The article attributes this to differences in safety culture in the two companies.

The article and the longer research paper present an interesting thesis, but years after the fact, it is very difficult to sort out all the details behind the differences in the decisions of the two companies that produced the different outcomes.  In reality, the situation is very complex. 

As I reported almost 3 years ago, one of the factors that really caught my attention in the early reports following the accident was the fact that the height of the hill on which Fukushima Daiichi was built had been lowered!  This issue has been a continuing source of discussion over the last 3 years and is addressed once again in the new study.   Had they not cut off the top of the hill, the reactors would have been above the height of the tsunami.  How could they have made such a decision? 

The first article I saw reporting that the hill had been lowered noted that one possible factor in the decision was that it would allow the base of the reactors to be built directly on solid bedrock to mitigate any earthquake threat.  While that sounds like reasonable justification, other evidence cited in the same article suggests that the final decision was based on a cost-benefit calculation of the operating costs of the seawater pumps.  (Although it is not mentioned, presumably, there are alternatives for earthquake mitigation, perhaps more costly as well, that would not have required lowering the height of the site.)  And, we must remember that the decision was approved by the regulatory authority at the time. 

In fact, a little over a year after the accident,  the Japanese government's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that "This was a disaster 'Made in Japan.'"  The report explains:  "Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

So, is the problem "Japanese culture"?  Perhaps.  But the article on the Japanese report notes that American culture is almost the opposite, yet the US has had its share of industrial accidents, many of which reflect similar types of technical misjudgements and institutional arrogance.

Is the problem "TEPCO culture"?  Maybe, but Fukushima Daini, which was also a TEPCO site,  survived almost unscathed.  Were the details of the challenges different, or was the subculture at the site different?

As is the case for most industrial accidents, there were many contributing factors to the Fukushima accident.  One can look at the situation and postulate a number of points, from the construction of the plant to the initial management of the accident, at which a different decision or a different action might have prevented, or at least drastically reduced, the magnitude of the accident.  One can look at both TEPCO's decisions and actions, and those of the government. 

Just as it is difficult today to understand fully the underlying motives for decisions made by TEPCO during the construction of the Fukushima plants, it is also true that there may be factors other than safety culture alone that led to the survival of the Onagawa site.  However, even if that is the case, it is clear that there were some significant differences at the two sites, and therefore, that there are lessons that can be learned.  The caution is that these are not the only lessons that need to be learned, and TEPCO is not the only entity that needs to absorb the lessons. 


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Public Comment on Japanese Reactor Restarts:

What are the Pros and Cons

The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recently announced its intention to hold public hearings and request public comments before restarting any reactors in Japan.  This has caused a lot of consternation, since it seems it will cause yet additional delay in a process that has already gone on longer than a lot of people have hoped.  The concern about the public meeting/comment process has been expressed in newspaper editorials and elsewhere.

Among the arguments against such public hearings are that they aren't required.  Some also point to other countries, such as the US, where public comment may be required for new regulations and for new reactors, but not for the restart of reactors that have been shut down.

In truth, however, the situation is very different in Japan than it is in the US.  In Japan, local jurisdictions must give their approval for the restart of a reactor after it has been shut down.  At the moment, public opinion in Japan is very divided, and it is safe to say that a majority of the population, particularly those around existing plants, would like to see the reactors near them stay shuttered.

While holding public hearings and requesting public comment doesn't necessarily win everyone over, it seems to me that an open dialogue between the NRA and the public could help alleviate the concerns of the public and perhaps win over some local mayors and governors who are now opposed to the restarts.

Added March 30:  After publishing this blog, I realized that NRC Chairman Macfarlane had made a statement in her remarks at the NRC Regulatory Information Conference on March 11--the anniversary of the Fukushima accident--that address this very point:  "I believe that when we demonstrate that our decisions reflect the best available information, and when we demonstrate openness to external interlocutors, it enhances public confidence."

However, for the public interaction to have the desired effect, the NRA will have to assure that the public comment is not just an exercise in checking off boxes.  If they hold public meetings, they will really have to lay out in detail what they have done and how all the known concerns that were raised by the Fukushima accident have been addressed, and why the changes they have made are sufficient.  When questions are asked at those meetings, they will have to be sure their responses provide specific answers, not just vague reassurance.  If they ask for written comments from the public, they will have to respond to the comments and explain how they have addressed the concerns.  If the comments raise any new issues that are valid, they will have to address these issues.

[In the United States, the provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as decisions by courts, require that government agencies provide such explanations in response to written comments from members of the public.  This is not the case in Japan at present.]

Hopefully, all of this can be accomplished without too much further delay, but it seems to me that, as long as Japan has the requirement for local authorization for restarts, the time spent will be worth it if it helps assure local governments that the modifications made to the plants will really prevent another Fukushima-like event.


Friday, March 21, 2014

New Director-General for the OECD/NEA:

USNRC Commissioner Magwood to Take the Post

It has just been announced that NRC Commissioner William Magwood will leave the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take the position of Director-General of the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency in September.  That position is being vacated by Luis Echavarri of Spain, who is retiring at the end of April after having served as the DG of NEA since 1997.  (There is no word yet on who will serve at acting DG between April and September.)

The NEA's current membership consists of 31 countries in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region.  Together they account for approximately 90% of the world's installed nuclear capacity.  The NEA's scope of work covers issues related to both nuclear regulation and development, and Magwood has substantial experience in both areas.  Prior to becoming a Commissioner of the US NRC, Magwood served as the Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology of the US Department of Energy, and before that, he worked in industry.  He also knows the work of the NEA well, having chaired its Steering Committee while he was at DOE.

NEA has had only 6 DGs in the more than 55 years of its existence, and it has been so long since an American held the position that I find many of my colleagues assuming that Magwood will be the first American to hold this position.  That is not the case.  Howard Shapar held the position from 1982 to 1988.  Shapar had also come from the NRC, in his case, from the legal office.  In addition, Sam Thompson served as acting DG between 1995 and 1997.  Thompson had come from State Department, and was serving as the Deputy DG when the DG position was vacated.  A full list of the previous Directors General can be found in the historical review of the NEA and its committees that I prepared for the 50th anniversary of the organization in 2008.

Magwood is taking the helm of the NEA at an interesting time in its history.  It will be the first change in leadership in 17 years.  During that time, several new countries have joined the NEA.  The program of work of the agency has always been a delicate balancing act, as the member countries have different interests.  Since Fukushima, the number of countries in the organization that have rejected nuclear power has grown.  At the same time, the Fukushima accident identified new needs for international coordination and exchange, especially among countries that continue to use nuclear power.  In addition, the global economic situation has put pressure on the budget.  Thus, Magwood will face some interesting challenges as he begins his new assignment.

Magwood will be leaving the NRC before the expiration of his term (June 30, 2015).  Since Commissioner George Apostolakis' term expires June 30, 2014, this will create two vacancies on the Commission in the coming months.  Commissioner Apostolakis has not announced officially whether he wishes to be nominated for a second term, but some sources suggest that he is interested in continuing to serve on the Commission. 

When there are two vacancies from opposite parties, the pairing allows for some balancing of viewpoints, at least theoretically.  However, this time, the two positions being vacated are both held by Democrats.  Furthermore, of the three Commissioners remaining, two are Republicans.  The makeup of the remaining Commissioners will increase the political pressure to fill the vacancies quickly.  At the same time, given the ongoing politics of Yucca Mountain, the selection of an individual for Magwood's position (presuming that Apostolakis is renominated) is likely to be fraught.  Senator Harry Reid will seek a candidate who is opposed to Yucca Mountain, while others will oppose a very biased selection.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Technology Risk:

The More Things Change...

I was taking advantage of some wintery weather days a few weeks ago to try to go through some of the boxes that have been accumulating in my basement for the last...well, I'm ashamed to admit it, the last 20 or 30 years...or so.  As I changed jobs and moved around, files were brought down to the basement "until I have time to go through them."  All I can say is that anything that reaches my basement seems to have a remarkably long half-life!

Having finally reached the point where something really had to be done, I dutifully carted up the first Xerox box worth of papers.  It turned out to be a box of papers on risk issues, mostly dating from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. 

To put the contents of that box in context, I should mention that, in the early 1980s, I worked for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the US Library of Congress.  Among other issues I handled in those days was the at-that-time emerging issue of risk assessment and management.  While risk assessment was not new in the nuclear field or for the aircraft industry, the Congress at that time was grappling with the issue of how technological risks should be considered by government agencies.  As a result of that work, my interest in risk went far beyond the confines of nuclear power.

Therefore, when I left CRS and joined the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I continued to work, on and off, on risk-related issues, and I continued to squirrel away news items and scholarly papers on a variety of risk-related issues and notes from meetings I attended on the subject, as well as a few papers of my own from that period.  Going through them years later was like opening a time capsule.

First, there were the issues that seem to have been resolved, one way or another, and have disappeared from the dialogue.  When was the last time you heard about Alar, a plant growth regulator that was claimed to be carcinogenic and was banned in 1989?  Does anyone remember the Tylenol poisoning that led to tamper-proof caps on foods and drugs?  Who even debates the effects of secondhand smoke any more? 

More interesting, though, were the issues that don't seem to have changed one bit.  Most of the nuclear issues fall into that category.  I found papers on the health effects around Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, radiation and hormesis, BEIR V, and radon in homes.  I found one interesting map that tried to attribute changes in SAT scores to radioactive fallout from weapons testing (the map appeared in an article that debunked such theories).  I found discussions of childhood leukemia around operating nuclear power plants.

Some of the non-nuclear issues also seem to have a remarkable persistence.  Food issues, such as the use of artificial sweeteners and the pros and cons of natural foods, were in the news.  The question of whether electromagnetic fields caused cancer was being bandied about the press.  The concern about global warming was already on our radar screens (although, in those days, the term climate change wasn't used).  One pundit even asserted that he thought that global warming would counterbalance the nuclear winter.

Nor have the "generic issues" associated with risk assessment and management changed much.  How should different risks be assessed?  What are the ethics of making decisions based on cost-benefit analyses?  How can risk be communicated to the public?  What does the incidence of cancer in test animals mean for human beings?  How do different countries approach risk issues?  Why don't regulations always have the desired effect?  (For example, some analysts noted that people would drive more as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards were raised and the cost of driving decreased.)  How can over-regulation be prevented?  I saved one amusing spoof that detailed a slew of hypothetical dangers of pencils.

I suppose that I ought to look at all of this and come to some profound conclusion.  I guess the conclusion is probably in the eye of the beholder.  I know some will see persistent over-regulation.  Others will come to the opposite conclusion, bemoaning how entrenched interests always seem to delay the implementation of protective requirements.

I can find cases to support either conclusion, but on the whole, I think this walk back into history simply proves how complex and multifaceted many of these technology risk issues are.  Risk issues are resolved, but usually very slowly, and new events and new evidence can delay resolution, or even reopen closed issues.  These facts, of course, do not give regulators a free pass for moving slowly or being overly conservative, but they do point out the difficulties regulators face in assessing such difficult issues.

This, I might remind you, is only the first of...again, I say with shame...many boxes of old papers, so next time we have a spell of bad weather and I have a chance to open another box of old treasures, I may have a report on another look into history, perhaps next time on a strictly nuclear issue.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Energy Diversity:

A Discussion on Capitol Hill

A few days ago, I was privileged to participate in a briefing on Capitol Hill on the subject of "the role of nuclear power in a diverse energy portfolio."  The meeting took place on a snowy Washington morning, with the worst of the storm arriving right during the rush hour.  As I passed one car that had spun out and was teetering on an embankment on the side of the road--and this was not even on a high-speed highway--I wondered about whether I was going to have any audience once I got there.

I needn't have worried.  I don't know whether it was the topic, the continental breakfast, or workaholic Washington, but over 60 people showed up.  The meeting was co-hosted by the Global America Business Institute (GABI) and the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI).  Lee Terry, a Congressman from Nebraska and Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, opened the proceedings.  Rep. Terry pointed out that his Subcommittee deals with a variety of energy resources and he was convinced we needed them all.

The first speaker was Dr. Pete Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and the US Department of Energy (DOE).  He gave an excellent overview of the extensive and varied work of the Office of Nuclear Energy.  The briefing was packed with information on the different programs of the Office.  I will not try to capture his remarks in detail here, but the DOE/NE website has summaries of the various programs run by that office.  Pete not only spoke about their technical work, such as the work on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies, but also spoke about the international cooperation activities of that office and their support of university activities.  On a more general level, he emphasized that "no credible study" has shown that we can meet all our energy needs with renewables, and he noted his concerns about the marketplace signals leading to shortsighted decisions.

I followed up with some thoughts on why we need energy diversity.  Knowing that analogies can be faulty, it was with some trepidation that I offered an analogy between human nutrition and our energy "diet," so I was gratified to see some vigorous nods from people in the audience as I laid out my case.  I noted that humans have a variety of nutritional needs, but many, if not most, foods that can help us meet these needs also have some negatives:  meat supplies protein, but also contains cholesterol (which itself is both a good and bad nutritional element); red wine has health benefits, but too much alcohol is bad; fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, but a lot of fish has mercury (not a natural characteristic, to be sure, but something we need to deal with in dietary space just the same); I don't know of any "bad" elements in most fruits and vegetables, but those alone can't meet all our nutritional needs.

Likewise, I ticked off some (although I am sure not all) of the characteristics we need in our energy supply, likening them to "nutrients":  a supply that is adequate, affordable, reliable, secure, safe, clean, and able to meet both baseload and peaking demands.  I then noted the various types of "dietary" downsides that had to be considered:  cost, air pollution, water pollution, wastes, land use, water use, accidents, ecological risks, etc., and emphasized that these factors had to be considered, not only for the fuel (mining, fabrication, and disposal) and the fuel "burning" for each technology, but also for essential non-fuel materials and other requirements for each technology (such as fabrication of photvoltaics for solar power and mining of rare earths for wind power). 

A few days before my talk, a colleague and fellow blogger, Michele Kearney, had passed on to me a presentation Prof. Richard Lester, head of the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Department, had made at last month's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago, addressing the role of nuclear energy in a diverse energy portfolio.  I liked one paragraph so much that I quoted it in its entirety, and I repeat it here:

Can we do this [note:  he had been talking about the needs our energy supply must meet] without nuclear?  The answer cannot be 'proved' in a mathematical sense.  But it's a matter of basic common sense that when you have a very difficult task like this, the more options that are available, the more likely you are to succeed.  And, if any option is taken off the table, the chances of failing will increase.  That's especially because no two low-carbon options are alike.  Solar, wind, geothermal, and  nuclear each have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Given the enormously varied nature of the energy system, this diversity is an asset.  And the value of this diversity is all the greater because, in energy, there are always surprises.  So, while it's an interesting exercise to think about whether a single option--e.g., wind or solar [note:  I might add, even wind and solar]--could do the trick, no serious strategy would advocate putting all our eggs in a single basket, especially given the magnitude of the stakes.
Richard Lester, "Can we solve the energy problem without nuclear power?" AAAS Symposium at the 2014 AAAS Conference, Chicago, February 15, 2014.

Finally, I picked up on Pete's theme about the misguided marketplace signals, both in the natural short-term nature of markets, and in the signals given by renewable energy mandates, and ended with the hope that there would be some moves to redefine the mandates to include all low-carbon energy sources, and to make other changes to help avoid some of the recent problems we have seen in the energy markets.

The meeting ended with a short, but lively Q&A session that may contain some nuggets for a future blog, and when the formal meeting concluded, some of us hung around for a while sharing more thoughts on this issue.  Fortunately, by the time I left Capitol Hill, the sun had come out, and getting home was easy.