Sunday, July 17, 2016

From Fusion to Poetry:

Bridging Different Interests

I always enjoy learning about people whose careers take unexpected turns, so I was delighted to read a story in an MIT publication about a nuclear engineering major who is now the poet laureate of Hawaii

When I was much younger, I dabbled in poetry myself.  Although nothing ever came of it for me (well, OK, I did win a minor award in an undergraduate poetry writing contest), I was always perplexed when people laughed when they learned that I liked both science and poetry.  Not only did they find it contradictory, they apparently found it funny.

From my own perspective, it gave me a chance to exercise different interests and think about different things.  And maybe I thought that the idea of being creative transcended the particular area of endeavor.

I never really lost my interest in poetry, but for me, it was never more than a hobby, and over the years, I found less and less time to pursue it at all.  So, I don't claim to be a poet.

But I have to admire others who manage to pursue more than one passion, and who even manage to marry the two.  Thus, I was fascinated to learn about how Steven Wong (now called Kealoha), MIT Class of '99 and nuclear engineering major, has ended up as the first poet laureate of Hawaii, and how his work melds science and art.

In fact, he now has a show, complete with musicians and dancers, that starts with the Big Bang, includes dancers building the periodic table with disco moves, portrays human evolution and migration across the planet, and looks at climate change and the future "through the lens of science."

This sounds fascinating enough for me to try to look for an opportunity to catch the show.  What an excuse for a visit to Hawaii!


Friday, June 24, 2016

Women at ACRS:

Another Step Forward

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just announced the appointment of 4 new members of its Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS).  They are:  Margaret Sze-Tai Chu, Walter Kirchner, Jose March-Leuba, and Matthew Sunseri.   Their bios can be found in the above NRC news release and will not be repeated here.

What is particularly noteworthy about the new appointments is that it will be the first time there will be more than one woman serving on the Committee at one time.  Margaret Chu joins Joy Rempe, who is the only other woman to have served on the ACRS since its inception in 1947 under the Atomic Energy Commission.

I have had the privilege of knowing both of these women.  Joy Rempe has been serving with distinction on the Committee since 2003.  Margaret Chu joins the Committee after a distinguished career, and I know will bring a lot to the Committee as well.

Not mentioned in this announcement is the fact that the former Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste and Materials (ACNW&M) had a female member long before the ACRS did.  The first--and only--woman to serve on the ACNW&M (which began in 1988 as the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste, or ACNW) was Ruth Weiner, who at that time was at Sandia Laboratories.  Ruth Weiner, who I also have had the privilege of knowing, served with distinction on the ACNW&M from 2003 to 2008, when it was disbanded and its responsibilities absorbed into the ACRS.

While I like to celebrate the successes of women in the field and am delighted to see a step forward, I have slightly mixed emotions in this case.  I have to scratch my head and wonder why it took so long to appoint a woman to either body, and why there are still only 2 women out of the more than a dozen members of the ACRS.  When you think about it, there have at times been two women serving as NRC Commissioners at one time, and that is a body of only five people.

With a growing number of women now in the technical workforce, I look forward to a time--hopefully, in the not-very-distant future--when it is no longer so unusual when a woman is appointed to the ACRS.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Too Cheap to Meter--Take 3

The Beat Goes On

I was delighted to find a message in my mailbox a few days ago from Thomas Wellock, the NRC historian, pointing me to his NRC blog on the frequently cited "Too Cheap to Meter" speech that has haunted the US nuclear industry for more than 60 years.  I was pleased because this was a subject of longstanding interest to me, and I had previously written on the topic.  In fact, my blog had elicited so many thoughtful comments that I did a followup to reflect and respond to some of the comments.  I was grateful both that he had remembered my interest, and that he had done some more definitive research into the issue than I had previously seen.   

For those who may not recall, the phrase was uttered by Lewis L. Strauss, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in a September 16, 1954 speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York.  For years, that phrase has been interpreted by many as a promise that fission power would make electricity free, a promise that, by implication, the nuclear industry has failed to meet.  Others have countered that he might have been talking about fusion, rather than fission.

Tom's blog addresses the various comments and records he has unearthed that help us delve into what Strauss might have been thinking about.  He recounts the evidence I had cited that Strauss was aware of a still-secret fusion program.  However, he also finds several bits of evidence that I had not seen before that suggest that Strauss was very bullish, and outspokenly so, on fission power at the time. 

But I was most pleased that Tom provided a link to the entire original speech.  Previously, I had seen only the famous excerpt in which he talked about electricity being too cheap to meter.  While the speech doesn't answer the question definitively, of course, it does shed a little more light on his statements, at least for me.

In the first place, the speech does talk extensively about recently declassified work on fission.  For this reason alone, it is not unreasonable for someone to conclude that everything in the speech relates to fission.  He does not mention fusion (which, of course, he would not do if it was still classified).

But the most telling thing to me is that, early in the speech, he alludes to knowing what his audience would like to hear, and he says, "This, of course, involves forecasts, and the Commission as a serious governmental body ought not to indulge in predictions.  However, as a person, I suffer from no such inhibition and will venture a few predictions before I conclude."

If this statement does nothing else, it makes it very clear that Strauss thought he was speaking for himself, and not for the Government.  This may sound quaint to us, in this day and age, when even the most casual remark by a government official can be blown out of proportion--and government officials have, consequently, become exceptionally careful about their public statements.

I couple this with the actual language of the paragraph in which he uses the phrase "too cheap to meter," and I think about how many of his other predictions have come to pass: 

Transmutation of the elements, unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered--these and a host of other results all in 15 short years.  It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.  This is the forecast for an age of peace.

Yes, we enjoy more power today than in 1954.  Yes, we have faster airplanes and a longer average lifespan.  But even though most of the developed world no longer faces famine, there is still widespread famine in the developing world; travel under the seas has not become widespread; and there are many diseases that we have not yet conquered.

So, in the end, we are still left to guess what Strauss really had on his mind 62 years ago.  Certainly, he thought he was speaking for himself, and he made it clear that his views did not represent the position of the AEC.  Clearly, he was thinking much more broadly than just fission or fusion reactors, as some of these visions don't involve electric power at all.  And very obviously, none of the visions he outlined have been fully achieved.

But after 62 years, it seems to me it is time to recognize that a prediction is not a promise, that a personal viewpoint is not a government commitment or a yardstick by which to measure an industry, and that the time is long overdue for us to refresh our visions for the future based on what we know today and not try to make judgments based on the predictions of one individual made long ago.



Friday, May 20, 2016

Positive Signs for Nuclear Power:

Views from ANS Officers

This week, the Washington, DC local section of the American Nuclear Society had the unusual pleasure of hosting both the ANS President, Gene Grecheck, and the ANS Vice-President/President-Elect, Andy Klein.   What was particularly interesting is how many positive signs both speakers highlighted during their presentations.  They did acknowledge that all was not rosy, but overall, their comments reflected the fact that a lot of positive things have happened in the past year or so.  Taken one at a time, we sometimes don't realize that there are some changes on the horizon.    

Gene kicked off the session by stating that over 2 billion people in the world today have zero access to electricity, so talking about reducing demand globally is not meaningful.  He also noted that, while the Germans boast about shutting nuclear power plants, Germany's per capita CO2 emissions last year were higher than those of the US.   

I have been particularly interested in how the international market seems to be evolving, so I was quite interested when he shared with us some discussions he had at the COP21 with the leaders of some of the developing countries poised to buy nuclear power plants from Russia.  Gene said that they acknowledged to him that they don’t like the idea of being dependent on Russia.  However, their countries need power now, and any problem that may happen with the Russians will be after their term of office!  This seems like a reverse riff on the NIMTOO (Not In My Term of Office) mantra, that in the United States, has usually been interpreted as politicians delaying decisions on nuclear power plants (or other controversial infrastructure) until they get out of office.

While Gene did not shy away from pointing out recent negative events (nuclear power plant closings, low natural prices, counter-productive pricing mechanisms in the electricity market), he also noted a number of events in the past year or so that had at least some potential positive impacts for nuclear power:  COP21, EPA's Clean Power Plan, Wisconsin’s repeal of their nuclear power plant moratorium, the efforts of the New York Public Utilities Commission to assure the continued operation of some of their nuclear power plants, and recent high-level events in the United States, including the White House Nuclear Summit last November and the DOE Summit this week.

Andy Klein picked up on the positive theme in his remarks, noting several groups that have had  pro-nuclear events and messages, including Third Way, Breakthrough Institute, and others.  He noted that the message from some of these groups is particularly persuasive because they are not perceived as being part of the nuclear industry.  

He also discussed advanced nuclear technologies and small modular reactors, and their potential benefits, although both he and Gene were careful to note that more needs to be done to prove such technologies.  His comments about the start of the NuScale reactor were particularly interesting.  He credits DOE's Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) with helping get the project started, but he points out that, like many large research projects, the initial efforts were not without some glitches.  Since he will undoubtedly be telling this story to other audiences during his coming term as ANS President, I will not share all the details here.

Andy ended his discussion of advanced reactor R&D by showing the wide assortment of projects underway outside the United States involving different countries and different nuclear technologies.  Unfortunately, there was not enough time in the session for him to describe those in any detail, but the shear number of initiatives makes it clear that there are still a number of countries and organizations committed to developing the next generation of nuclear power.  

The two talks were followed by a brief Q&A, with both speakers addressing the questions.  During the Q&A, Gene made one particularly interesting observation.  He noted that there is an imbalance in the requirements on utilities when they build a power plant versus when they close one.  When a utility wants to build a power plant, they have to address all its impacts--the environmental impacts, the impacts on the community, etc.  They are not permitted to build or operate the plant until they demonstrate compliance with requirements and receive approval.  But when they want to shut a plant down, no approvals are required.  Shutting a power plant certainly has impacts on the environment (due to replacement power), on the local economy (employment), etc., but there is no requirement to address them.  It is the utility operator's economic decision.

Both speakers concluded with optimistic messages.  Gene's final slide read, "The world needs nuclear, and nuclear needs ANS."  Andy repeated that, and laid out some of his plans for ANS in the coming year.  Both Gene and Andy encouraged the active involvement of the nuclear community in ANS as a way to contribute to the positive message about nuclear power.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Nuclear Firsts, DNFSB, and More:

A Month of Personal Milestones

April was a pretty exciting month for me.  While I usually don't blog about myself, two of the three "milestones" in my personal life have a nuclear connection, so I thought it was worth sharing some recent news.

First, my father turned 95 early in the month--and was even able to travel to my house for a visit.  While there is no direction connection to things nuclear, I think that's a pretty special milestone and deserves a mention.

The second event was that my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development," was published as an e-book and is available on Amazon.  I should note that it has been significantly updated, with a chapter covering Fukushima, and with the tables and other information updated to reflect recent plant start-ups and closures.  In addition, since the publication of the hardcover book in 2010, I have learned about a couple of firsts that I hadn't know about before, and I have added them in the updated e-book.

I'm pleased that I've already gotten good feedback on the changes.  I know that a number of nuclear engineering professors were using the hardcover edition in some of their classes, and I hope that the e-book will make the contents more accessible for students, researchers, and others.  I am also asked, from time to time, if the book is suitable for a non-technical audience.  I think it is.  The focus is on  the historical events themselves, and touches lightly on the technical underpinnings involved.

The final event of the month was the most exciting for me.  On April 28, President Obama nominated me to serve on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent organization within the executive branch responsible for providing advice and recommendations to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy defense-related nuclear facilities.

As some readers may know, this is a position that requires confirmation by a vote of the whole Senate.  Therefore, I am not yet serving in the DNFSB position and will not do so until such time as the Senate acts on my nomination.  I am currently beginning the process that will hopefully lead to a vote of confirmation by the Senate.

It is a great honor to be selected by the President for nomination to such a post, and of course, it will be even more of an honor to be confirmed by the Senate, so I am looking forward to undergoing this process in the weeks ahead.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Nuclear Energy and Politics:

It's Complicated

For years, the mantra has been that the Republicans are in favor of nuclear energy and the Democrats are against it, so if you're a nuke, "Republicans good, Dems bad."  I have always felt the truth was not so simple.  A recent article in the New York Times reinforces my viewpoint.  Even more interestingly, the author, Eduardo Porter looks at the issue from the point of view of climate change concerns.  But his conclusion is the same.  Basically, the political parties focus often focus on other issues, and things like nuclear power and climate change end up being "collateral damage."

The article notes that the liberal viewpoint criticizes conservatives for "climate change denial."  But, he notes that the liberals have their own biases that perhaps raise equal challenges for climate change measures being proposed.  Namely, many liberals are "anti-nuclear" and perhaps "anti-fracking" as well. 

Likewise, it has been my observation over the years that many advocates of nuclear power are also "fiscal conservatives" and therefore, are traditional against appropriating Federal funding for technological development.  Thus, in years when we've had a pro-nuclear Administration and/or Congress, the budgetary treatment of nuclear development has not necessarily been generous.

All of these observations are, of course, generalizations.  I personally know many people from both of the political parties whose views do not match the stereotypes I've noted above.  Hence, my liberal use of quotation marks.  My point is really that these issues are all complicated and have many factors.  People have biases and blind spots that sometimes cause them to end up undermining a cause they profess to support.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis is easier than the cure.  It seems to be difficult to get people to change preconceived biases, or to abandon positions they previously espoused.  And yet, people do change, and many of us probably know people whose views have shifted over the years--possibly in both directions.  I am hopeful that, over time, people will learn to understand better how their views on one issue may sometimes undermine their interests on another issue, and may moderate their positions accordingly.

In the meantime, I think those of us who feel that liberal equals anti-nuclear and conservative equals pro-nuclear should look closely at our own biases about the two ends of the political spectrum.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Energy, Economics and Correlation versus Causation:

Drawing the Right Conclusions

I recently came across an article that left me scratching my head.  Entitled "Economic development does mean a greater carbon footprint," it reports on a study by Max Koch, a professor in Social Work from Lund University in Sweden, and Martin Fritz from the University of Bonn in Germany, on the connections between growth, prosperity and ecological sustainability in 138 countries.  Professor Koch is quoted as saying that he conducted the study in an effort to test the assumption "that extensive investments in green production and sustainable consumption can increase economic growth without increasing the emissions of greenhouse gases."

That sounded like an interesting idea, so I read on.  They divided the world's countries into four groups based on their gross domestic product (GDP) per capita: poor countries, developing countries, emerging countries, and rich countries.  That's pretty standard, I thought.  But then they identified a category of 8 countries they called "overdeveloped."  These are countries in which the average annual income exceeds $50,000 (US) per person.  Five of the 8 countries in this group are identified:  the United States, Singapore and Switzerland, as well as "rich oil nations, such as Norway and Qatar."  Although the article didn't state the other three countries, it did include an infographic with a map that indicates the other 3 countries are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. 

Hmm, I wondered, seeing the word "overdeveloped."  That seems to have a bit of a negative connotation, as in "more developed than they need to be."  Is a bit of bias creeping in?   And given the diversity of these countries, should the same designation really apply to all of them--as opposed to, for example, most of the rest of Western Europe, which merely falls in the category of "rich countries."

But I read on.  They then looked at the prosperity of the different groups of countries according to several metrics: ecological sustainability, social inclusion and quality of life (including life expectancy, literacy rates and subjective well-being).  Their conclusion was that there was greater social inclusion and the quality of life as the countries became increasingly wealthy at the expense of environmental sustainability such as greater emissions and carbon footprint.

While they acknowledged in some sense that the GDP and the environmental emissions might be separable, saying, "We are not saying that it is impossible to separate economic growth from ecological issues," they nevertheless go on to say that there is "a clear connection between economic development and increased greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be ignored."

From this, they conclude that, because of the urgent need to reduce emissions globally, "the possibility of economic degrowth should be seriously considered"--in other words, that economic growth should be given less priority as a policy objective than has been the case.

I had to wonder about this conclusion on several grounds.  In the first place, I don't think that the study ever really made the projections that had been promised.  I could see what the emissions are today, but I could not see an analysis of how different levels of investments in some of the many possible options--nuclear power, renewable energy, biofuels, energy-saving devices, etc.--might affect economic growth--and environmental conditions--in the future.

In the second place, it is likely that that the greatest impact of trying to achieve environment sustainability by curbing economic growth would be to condemn the poorest countries in the world to continued poverty.  Yes, I suppose the conclusion implies that the overdeveloped countries may have to shave their own growth, too, but clearly, the impact on richer countries will be much more modest than the impact on the poorest countries.  In effect, the benefits of an improved global environment will accrue to all countries, but the poorest countries would bear a disproportionate share of the burden. 

Therefore, while the kind of data gathered in this study can be very useful, I believe that the authors have not looked at all the dimensions of the issue.  Given the seriousness and importance of the issue, I think that is a serious shortcoming of the study.  While I do not expect to find a solution that allows the world to "have its cake and eat it, too," I think far more exploration is needed of all the issues and options before we conclude that we need to move civilization backwards.