Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year Reflections:

Year-End Stocktaking--And New Year's Resolutions

As we ring out 2009 and the first decade of the current millenium, it is useful to take stock of where we are. Certainly, by almost any measure, the last couple of years have been exciting ones for the nuclear industry. After a long period of stagnation in many parts of the world, the past new years have seen 1) a high expectation for new orders by a number of utilities in the United States, 2) significant expansion of nuclear power programs by China and other countries, 3) indications of interest by several dozen countries that have never had nuclear power, 4) a turnaround by several countries that had phased out nuclear power or were planning to, and 5) a great improvement in public perception towards nuclear power in the US and around the world.

These are certainly heady times. However, I think all of us know there is much work ahead to make the promises a reality. Therefore, we should all be making these resolutions:

1. We should not count our chickens before they hatch. I don't think any of us really expect that every expression of interest will result in new power plants. We would all be happy to see a fraction of the current possibilities realized. However, if we crow about the numbers too much, others will perceive it as a failure when some of the potential orders inevitably drop off.

2. We should not rest on our laurels. Getting people interested in nuclear power is not the hard part. After all, its very real benefits should sell themselves. Delivering is the hard part. We need to make sure the new round of projects succeed.
3. We should not make promises we can't keep. There are several ramifications to this. I'm thinking most of all of the limits to the speed of growth. We need enough trained people to do the job well. We need enough industrial capacity to deliver the very specialized components. We should offer realistic projections of what we can do today, and how fast we can grow the industry. (As an aside, given the incredible growth in the early days of nuclear power, I'm an optimist on the possibilities. Even granted that the world isn't the same today, I think we can grow rapidly if the conditions are right. I just believe we can't promise that today.)

4. We should provide the public with simple, but reasoned--and accurate--arguments. I realize that the opposition engages in industrial character assassination--often supporting their opposition to nuclear power with seemingly concrete numbers that have little substance behind them. I realize that we are told that engineers fall into the trap of TMI--here meaning "too much information"--all too often. However, we are not going to win the public over by simply copying the same tactics others use. They have already gained some traction. We really have to refute those arguments--but in terms the public can understand. And, even more important, we have to present our own case--again, clearly, simply (but not simplistically), and most of all, accurately.

5. We should not fight ourselves. Of course, we all think the particular technology we are working on is the best one, and when I am not hearing about nuclear versus renewables, I seem to hear nuclear people bad-mouthing each other's technologies. Areva versus GE plants, small versus large plants. There are likely markets for multiple options, so we should not focus on any one option. Rather, we should work together to give all the options a chance in the marketplace.

6. We should face our own faults, and do something about them. Truly, we have had many bumps in the road to nuclear power development in the past. Many of them were due to reasons outside our control. Others were hard lessons learned, but we think we have learned them. Still, we continue to see cost overruns and schedule delays. We usually explain those away--at least among ourselves. It is my observation that, outside our community, people aren't buying it. Even if there is a good reason every time, we have stumbled so many people don't trust our cost and time projections any more. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, but we have lost credibility in this arena, and we need to gain it back. We need either to provide more convincing justification for why some of the recent problems were truly out of our control--or better still, we need the first few new projects to be success stories.

And with those thoughts in mind, a happy, healthy, prosperous New Year--and new decade--to all!


Sunday, December 27, 2009


No Room at the Inn for Anything

I viewed with mixed emotions the recent news that Diane Feinstein is introducing legislation to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert from construction of solar and wind power plants. On the one hand, it is occasionally nice to see some technology other than nuclear power picked on. On the other hand, if you can't put solar collectors in what is arguably the ideal location for them, what are our prospects for accomplishing anything?

Thinking about the NIMBYism involved here reminded me of a list I started compiling from various sources some time ago of all the variants of "not in my backyard." I offer that list today as my gift of the season:

BANANA = build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone
(can also be read as: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything)
CAVEs or CAVEmen = citizens against virtually everything
GOOMBA = get out of my business area
GOOMBY = get out of my backyard
LULU = locally unwanted land uses
NANA = not anywhere near anyone
NIABY = not in anyone's backyard
NIMC = not in my constituency
NIMD = not in my district
NIMEY = not in my election year
NIMBY = not in my backyard
NIMFOS = not in my field of sight
NIMFYE = not in my front yard either
NIMO = not in my ocean
NIMTOO = not in my term of office
NITL = not in this lifetime
NUMBY = not under my backyard
NOMH = not on my horizon
NOPE = not on planet earth
NOT = none of that
NOTE = not over there either
PIITBY = put it in their backyard
WIIFM = what's in it for me?

You will notice that there are far more of those sentiments than there are of the other kind:

IMBY = in my backyard
KIIMBY = keep it in my backyard
YIMBY = yes in my backyard

I'd welcome any additions if anyone knows of other such acronyms/initialisms of either persuasion.

More than that, but tougher, it would be nice to find a solution to this growing problem, but I'm afraid that will be far more difficult.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen--Next Steps:

Is There a Win-Win in the Financial Commitments?

I will leave it to others to analyze the success or failure of the Copenhagen conference. However, now that the dust has begun to settle, I want to focus on one issue that I think did not get enough attention during the conference--that is, the issue of how the financial support from developed countries to developing countries can be implemented.

Even here, I don't want to address the entire issue of financial support. I do not want to debate whether it is a wealth-transfer mechanism, and if so, how much money the developed countries should pay and whether China should be a beneficiary. These are truly important questions, but I have no special insight to offer.

The neglected area that I want to address is whether we can make the financial commitment--whatever the amount and whatever countries are involved--work for the developed countries as well as the developing countries.

In particular, it seems to me that we can use the financial assistance we provide to developing countries to benefit the industries of the developed countries at the same time. Rather than handing out money--which sometimes results in disastrous misuse of funds anyway--shouldn't the governments of the developed countries purchase products from their domestic companies and send those products abroad? Shouldn't money provided by the US be used to put US technology in the developing countries, whether that technology is nuclear power plants, or solar collectors, or windmills?

I would think the populations of the developed countries should view the demands of the developing countries far differently if the financial support is structured so that it also contained an opportunity for us to foster the development and growth of new domestic energy-supply industries. And it might also help change the viewpoint of China, which would like to be a supplier nation.

True, the financial support the developing countries want must cover costs other than hardware alone, so the entire package cannot be spent this way. Still, a large fraction of it could be.

And true, the developing countries will want to develop some of their own capabilities. This idea doesn't preclude that possibility, but that may come later and through different mechanisms. If the developing countries are truly serious that they need financial support to help them reduce their emissions, then they should welcome the chance for a quick start using technology from developed countries. And they should realize that it is still the developing countries that are going to suffer the most from climate change in the years ahead.

I can conceive of several different ways a financial program such as this might be implemented, each of which may have some pros and cons. However, the first step is for the developed countries to recognize the opportunity that should exist in the "demands" from the developing countries and to proceed with that thought in mind in further discussions on this subject.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

China and Nuclear Power:

Too Much of a Good Thing?

We all applaud the ambitious Chinese nuclear power development program, which is breathing new life and new energy into the prospects for nuclear power worldwide.

But amidst the rejoicing, we have to worry just a little. In the safety arena, we are fond of asking, "How much is enough?" For rapidly escalating new-build programs, an appropriate question might be, "How much is too much?"

A recent New York Times article spelled out some of these concerns. China has acknowledged it doesn't have a sufficient inspection force and has asked for help. China has a recent history of scandals in the food, drug and toy manufacturing industries. There is an ongoing corruption scandal in the China National Nuclear Corporation, and an apparent attempt to hush it up.

I don't think all is lost. I participated in one of the early trips to China after it began to open up to the West. In 1983, I went to China with an American Nuclear Society delegation to discuss with them their plans--at the time--to start their first nuclear power plant. I recall being worried when I discovered the poor maintenance in some of the hotels in which we stayed. I was particularly concerned that the plumbing in my hotel rooms didn't always work. What was a reactor, I thought, if not a lot of plumbing?

As it turns out, the performance of Chinese reactors has so far met world standards. I can probably conclude that the Chinese put their best efforts in the most critical areas. I can also attest to the fact that the hotel plumbing worked a lot better on my second trip to China.

Yet, the idea of a rapid ramp-up remains worrisome. What will happen if the inspection ranks are spread too thin? Will they really slow progress, or will they do a cursory inspection and cross their fingers? Will the culture that seems to pervade other industries take hold in the nuclear power area?

As much as we might applaud the ambitious aims of the Chinese, it behooves us all to make sure that the goals don't obscure the need for careful attention to detail in the construction and operation of these plants. I'd rather see the Chinese program move forward more slowly if that would help avoid the kind of misstep that could stop the progress of nuclear power elsewhere in the world.

It seems that one of the big hangups at the Copenhagen conference which is now in its final days is the demand by the developing countries for financial support from the developed countries. I have been watching this debate with growing concern. Without getting into the arguments for and against this demand, it does seem to me that there are some areas in which support from the developed countries can be a win-win. This might be one of them. Selected assistance to China to help it increase its regulatory force would be a small price to pay if it helps assure that the Chinese plants are built and operated to the highest standards. Active involvement by developed nations might also help assure that the safety culture that seems to be operative in the Chinese nuclear industry so far is retained and strengthened.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference:

What is the Real Issue?

Recent revelations about the alleged fabrication of data on global warming have raised high-profile objections to US participation in the Copenhagen climate change conference.

This would be an unfortunate reaction on many levels.

Of course, the recent discoveries of possible fraud are disappointing and we need to understand what the facts really are. However, the discussions do not need to stop while the incident is being probed. While the initial trigger for the Copenhagen conference was the growing concern worldwide about global warming, global warming is only one reason that we should be engaged in an international dialogue on energy and environment.

Therefore, the US position should be driven by the bigger picture rather than by this news. Here are some of the key reasons:

1. Global warming can't be ruled out

I'm not a climatologist. Then again, neither are most of the people who are denying the reality of global warming. So we're on equal ground. While I can't claim I fully understand all the climate models, I understand that the global environment is incredibly complex. It is therefore difficult to extrapolate long-term global trends from a few years of data or data from a small part of the globe. What is compelling to me is not any single study or model or set of data, but the fact that, in recent years, I have seen a lot of different kinds of data that suggest that there are already effects warming trends occurring--Arctic ice melting, changes in insect and animal populations, etc.

Are there other interpretations of the data I have seen? Possibly, but global warming can't be ruled out as one possibility. Do the changes prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the changes are the result of anthropomorphic carbon emissions? Probably not, but anthropomorphic effects are a plausible contributor. If the changes are natural, will reducing man-made carbon emissions make any difference at all? It can't be proven, but since we do know that carbon dioxide has an atmospheric warming effect, it is possible that it might help.

2. Carbon emissions today may be only the tip of the iceberg

The stark reality is that, whether you are measuring carbon emissions or energy use, the largest contribution today comes from a small portion of the world's population. This has been the situation for a number of years because the countries that lacked energy largely lacked money as well, and therefore, couldn't buy or produce more energy.

However, this situation is on the verge of changing rapidly. Two very populous countries, China and India, are becoming economic powerhouses and are now beginning to increase their energy use. China has already surpassed the United States as the world's biggest carbon emitter. Yet, they still use only a fraction of the energy per capita that we do. Therefore, their energy use--and carbon emissions--are likely to increase a lot more. A large fraction of India's population still has no access at all to electricity. Therefore, the potential increase in energy use in India is staggering. There is still further potential for increased demand from other parts of the world, particularly Africa. These may develop more slowly, because most other less-developed countries do not yet have the economic clout that China and India now have, but the potential is surely there.

Therefore, I have to wonder: Even if we believe that current levels of carbon emissions have little or no effect, are we sure that several times the current levels of emissions will still have no effect?

3. Costs are going to increase anyway

One of the main objections to taking measures to reduce global warming is that such measures will increase the cost of energy and that the increased cost will have an effect on our economy. I again risk straying into a field outside my own--this time, economics--but it seems very clear that the increased demand in China, India and perhaps elsewhere is already beginning to create pressures on the supply of energy (and other) resources.

Couple to this the fact that much of the world's oil comes from a politically unstable part of the world, and that countries controlling scarce resources have been known to use threats to the supply as a weapon. The increased demand for these resources, and the expectation of dwindling supplies of oil and gas, could make it easier for such countries to invoke threats of embargoes in the future.

What does this mean for Copenhagen?

In my view, all of this means that the Copenhagen conference is about much more than stemming global warming. It is at least as much about finding ways to address the growing demand for energy around the world. It is about the recognition that our energy use has consequences, and that a coordinated international plan can help meet the needs and manage the consequences.

Does this mean that we may have to make commitments at Copenhagen that will increase the costs of energy for us in the future? Possibly, but the increase in cost may, in the long run, be less than the price we will pay for business as usual.

Therefore, I think it behooves us to engage in this discussion thinking not only of the global warming issue, but also of the issue of how the world is going to be fueled in the decades ahead, and the role of the developed countries in shaping the energy future. Global warming should be one consideration in the decision process, but so should adequacy and diversity of supply, sustainability, and a variety of other considerations. All options should be on the table, including carbon sequestration and new transportation fuels, renewables and nuclear energy, conservation and efficiency. All countries should participate, each according to its history, its economy and its current energy use.

Footnote: This post was originally published earlier in the Copenhagen conference. I edited it slightly a day or two later and mistakenly, did not republish it. Unfortunately, it may be a little dated now, but I hope it is still useful. I apologize for any inconvenience.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Post-Thanksgiving Reflections:

Celebrating the Benefits of Energy

I don't know if it was the L-tryptophan in the turkey, the wine I drank with it, or the fact that I was on the road or with family most of the past week, but somehow I could not muster the time or energy to post something during the Thanksgiving holiday. So on the theory "better late than never," I thought I'd share some thoughts that were inspired by the bountiful holiday table and the true intent and spirit of the holiday, which, believe it or not, is not to overdose on turkey and stuffing! Rather, it is to reflect on what we have to be thankful for. While this is ordinarily a very personal and private reflection for me, this year, it seems to me there are some thoughts that I must have in common with a lot of my professional colleagues.

For me, what we have to be thankful for is how much better our lives are than the lives of people in the days of the Pilgrims. In the 1600s, life was tough. A summer's yield from local farms could be wiped out by droughts, or insects, or fires, and a long, cold winter could lead to starvation. Water for everyday needs had to be hauled from streams or town wells. Disease was rampant. Homes were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. All of life's basic needs--food, water, firewood--required long hours of hard labor. The Pilgrims who came to the shores of the New World never again saw or spoke to the families and friends they left behind. Even letters were infrequent. The great chasm created by the Atlantic Ocean largely remained until almost modern times. My own ancestors, who came to the US about a hundred years ago, never returned again to the lands from which they had come. And it did not take an ocean to separate people. Early settlers who traveled more than a few hundred miles seldom, if ever, saw their families again.

How much different life is today! Advanced technologies, including energy technologies, help assure an adequate supply of food and water, of heat and electricity, of transportation and telecommunications. They have given us more freedom, comfort, and pleasure. They allowed me to travel hundreds of miles to be with family for a few days, and permitted us to enjoy a dinner with ingredients that came from many places.

While I am thankful for these things, I recognize that there are still problems. The comforts we enjoy are using up resources and dirtying the environment too fast and too much, and are not yet shared by all the world's people.

But another thing for which I am thankful is the ingenuity and creativity humankind. When I think of the profound changes in the way we live that have been accomplished in just a few hundred years, and the rapid pace at which they have changed even in my lifetime, I am confident that we can address the problems we face. The same creativity and ingenuity that led to automobiles and airplanes, telephones and television, computers and the Internet, satellites and nuclear power plants can surely improve on these same technologies. That same creativity and ingenuity can invent cleaner transportation fuels and electric power plants, smarter electrical grids, more efficient appliances, and technologies that are accessible to the developing world.

I realize that is a tall order. Not every technological development is successful, replacing existing systems is costly and takes time, and we sometimes find that fixing one problem makes another worse. Nevertheless, I am confident that we scientists and engineers have the capability to find solutions. It is therefore my hope that, some future Thanksgiving, my reflections will look back on today in wonder at how much further we will have come.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Public Opinion:

Growing Public Support for Nuclear Power Increasingly Recognized

I normally don't like to post a message simply to report a news item in the major media, but I had to sit up and take notice at a front page story in the Washington Post this morning noting the growing public support for nuclear power plants around the world. While we in the nuclear field have been seeing this trend for some time now, it has been piecemeal, and the change in attitude has been less apparent to the general public. I can't even count how many times in recent years I've had a conversation with someone that starts with them indicating that they think there is no interest in nuclear power or nothing happening in the field. I then recount the countries that are building new plants, the countries that are thinking about starting nuclear power programs, and the new programs and activities in the United States. With this article hitting the front page of a major newspaper, I hope that I won't have to do that as much from now on!

One caution to anyone using the article. It is probably apparent, but in case you haven't looked closely, the table showing number of nuclear power plants and percentage of electricity from nuclear power includes only OECD countries. It omits several countries with a large number of nuclear power plants, including China, India, and Russia, and a number of other countries with smaller numbers of plants.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

ANS Conference:

New Energy for Nuclear Energy

I've now had a day or two to reflect on the recent American Nuclear Society Winter meeting held in Washington DC last week. If the meeting was any indication, there is certainly new energy in the air for nuclear power. The conference, as those who have ever attended an ANS conference will know, sometimes seems like a three-ring circus, with multiple parallel sessions, industry exhibits, a raft of committee meetings for those involved in governance, and many friends and acquaintances to catch up with. No one person can capture all that goes on in the conference, and indeed, after every meeting, I eagerly await the issue of Nuclear News a couple of months later that summarizes some of the sessions I was unable to attend.

So rather than report the nitty-gritty from those sessions I chose to attend, I'll restrict myself to some general observations that I think suggest the changes I see happening:

• First, and perhaps most obviously, the attendance at the meeting was up. The final number of registrants was just over 1600, almost double the attendance at the beginning of this decade, if my memory serves me right.

• Not incidentally, the number of exhibitors has increased substantially. I spoke to the exhibit coordinator, and he said the available space was virtually sold out. I also asked some of the exhibitors how the show was going for them, and everyone I spoke to seemed pleased.

• The Young Generation-Nuclear group has continued to gain in numbers and level of activity. A major initiative at this meeting was a day of visits to Capitol Hill on the last day of the meeting. I attended the kickoff for this event, and was pleased to see the turnout and the enthusiasm. One of my initiatives when I was ANS president had been to try to encourage more of this kind of grassroots activity among the membership, and I am glad to see that more members now see the value of this kind of activity.

• Perhaps the most interesting development came at the very beginning of the meeting. I was surprised to see that the final program showed 1) such a long list of speakers, and 2) so many prominent speakers. No fewer than 10 speakers were listed. Three of them were very high level government officials: NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, DOE Secretary Steven Chu (via video), and DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, Warren F. "Pete" Miller. Three were current Members of Congress: Senators Jeff Bingaman and Lamar Alexander, and Representative James E. Clyburn. One was a former Member of Congress, Senator Pete V. Domenici. There were also three non-government speakers: Michael "Mike" J. Wallace (Vice Chairman and COO, Constellation Energy), and the General Co-Chairs of the conference, Carl Rau (President, Bechtel Nuclear Power) and Mark H. Ayers (President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO).

As an old Washington hand, I just knew that among all these high-level people, there would be some no-shows. In Washington, when you invite speakers of that ilk, you must always be prepared for the unexpected crisis that will pull your speaker away. I assumed that was why the organizers had so many "extra" names.

How wrong I was. Not only did every one of these speakers show up, one additional Senator showed up! Senator Jim Webb joined Senator Lamar Alexander in announcing that they were introducing bipartisan legislation on that day, "The Clean Energy Act of 2009," to invest in nuclear energy development. I do not know how if such major legislation has been rolled out at an ANS conference before, but I know that it hasn't happened often.

My second concern had been that, if all the speakers showed up, we might be there through lunch, but once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Every one of the 11 speakers kept to the time, and we finished the opening plenary on schedule. Kudos to all the speakers and organizers for that almost unprecedented performance!

The meeting, of course, covered much, much more, but suffice it to say that, from the opening plenary session, to the exhibit hall, to the buzz in the hallways of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, the mood of the ANS conference has changed. As someone said in one session, "A few years ago, we were talking about decommissioning. Now the talk is focusing on new nuclear power plants."


A Nuclear Song Revisited:

Lyrics to "Neutron Doodle"
By Request

I'm pleased to see that news of the posting of the song "Neutron Doodle" on YouTube, mentioned in my November 14 posting, has spread. As a result of a posting on Rod Adams' blog, Atomic Insights, one of his readers requested that the lyrics of the song be posted. I'm happy to do so. (ANS members may find the lyrics to all the contest songs, as well as MP3 audio downloads, on the ANS Song Contest page.)

Neutron Doodle
John McCoy (First Place)
"The atom's indivisible"
So said some physics factions
Bold Lise Meitner said "Not so!"
And wrote of chain reactions.

Want to split a nucleus?
Neutrons sure are dandy.
Mind the criticality
And keep some boron handy.

Enrico Fermi went to work;
He built a graphite pile.
The source of energy he found
Will last for quite awhile.

When you need 'lectricity
Uranium is dandy
When the fossil fuels run out
It's sure to come in handy.

The atom helps preserve our food;
It sterilizes suture,
Kills cancer cells. Who can say what
It will do in the future?

In medicine and industry
Radiation's handy,
In smoke detectors that are found
In homes throughout the land-y.

Utilities built lots of plants;
They light the homes of millions.
Tons of pollutants they've forestalled?
Why, that must run to billions!

For cleaning up the atmosphere
Nuclear is dandy!
It can bring us true blue skies
With clouds like cotton candy.

Accidents dealt us a blow
It's sad to tell the story.
But someday soon we'll build again
And rise to greater glory.

Everyone needs energy;
Nuclear is dandy.
Save, clean and affordable,
It's sure to come in handy.

Energy for great and small,
That's what the atom can bring.
We'll work until we reach that goal,
And on that we'll all sing:

Nuclear! It's everywhere!
Nuclear! It's dandy!
Working all around the world
For folks in every land-y.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Congress and Nuclear Power:

A View from the Hill

I recently attended a very interesting and entertaining ANS Washington DC local section lecture by Matthew Milazzo on his experiences as an ANS Congressional Fellow this year. The experience led me to think that this blog might be a good place to plug the value of such an experience--to the individual involved, to the US Congress, and to the entire nuclear enterprise.

I was initially inclined to skip the lecture. After all, I had other things to do that day, and furthermore, I had worked on the Hill myself, so I wondered if what he had to say would seem "old hat" to me.

I couldn't have been more wrong about the latter. It helped, of course, that Matt was an entertaining speaker and had interesting visuals. It helped even more that he was a keen observer and had a true--and current--insider's view. Matt works for a Senator. I had worked for Congressional Research Service, a little known branch of the Library of Congress. In that capacity, we served all the Members of Congress and all the Committees--House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, senior members and junior members. While that gave me a very broad view of what was going on, I didn't normally have "inside" access to any office. Matt does. Furthermore, my experience was some time ago. While not too much has changed about the way Congress works, at least a little bit has changed. In part, for me, the talk reminded me of old memories of my days on the Hill, but in part, it gave me yet another take on the intricacies of this institution.

But most of all, Matt's remarks reminded me of the sense I felt, when I worked on the Hill, that more engineers ought to work in public policy in general, and for Congress in particular. It is a well-known fact that very few members of Congress are scientists or engineers. It is a little less known, but still true, that very few of their staff members are scientists or engineers. And yet, it is the members of Congress, supported by their staffers, who make all the decisions on technical issues that affect the technical community--and that affect the entire country. It is the Congress that sets the budgets for Federally-funded research and development. It is the Congress that sets the policies that guide energy use and climate change.

For these reasons, the Congress desperately needs people with technical knowledge. It is true that Congress gets inputs and advice from many sources. The nuclear industry, just like every other industry, has a significant lobbying effort to get their voice heard on the Hill. Congress frequently invites experts from industry and the national laboratories to testify in hearings. Technical people write letters. And Congressional Research Service, where I used to work, has a cadre of experts available to answer questions and provide analyses for all Members of Congress.

That is not enough. It is really helpful to have people in the congressional offices, helping the Members of Congress with their day-to-day work. It is also helpful to have more scientists and engineers who really, really understand how the political process works and how to get things done.

Fortunately, some of the Representatives and Senators who have been most engaged in technical issues have hired staff members with technical backgrounds. The staffs of the technically-oriented committees also include people with technical backgrounds.

These staff members are still a small minority, and in my opinion, a fraction of the number of technical staff Congress really needs. Matt is helping to fill that gap through his participation in a one-year fellowship sponsored by the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and coordinated with a program run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This program is supported by about 30 professional societies, covering the spectrum of technical interests, and includes an orientation on the intricacies of congressional and government activities, as well as placement in a congressional office. The professional societies provide financial support for the assignment (although it has been my experience that some employers believe the experience is so valuable that they may voluntarily make up any difference between the fellowship stipend and the employee's normal salary).

Individuals who participate in this program have an opportunity to contribute to the legislative process, and gain an understanding of the process that is often helpful to them for the remainder of their careers, as well as helpful to their professions. As Matt's very entertaining presentation showed, it isn't always an easy assignment, but it is an important one. I'd like to encourage people who are curious about such an assignment to look at Matt's presentation on the ANS Washington, DC Section website (as of this writing, it has not been posted, but soon should be).

For those who are interested, AAAS provides a general discussion of their Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program. However, each professional society administers its own program. The ANS program is called the Glenn T. Seaborg Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship. The ANS Fellow for the coming year has already been selected, but it is not too soon to be thinking ahead for 2011. I should close by noting that nuclear professionals with backgrounds in other engineering disciplines, such as mechanical or civil engineering, may qualify for fellowships from those societies as well.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Nuclear Song:

The Saga of a Song

I am pleased and proud to announce the posting of the song, "Neutron Doodle," on YouTube.

"Neutron Doodle" is the brainchild of Kevin McCoy of Areva and his musical group "Tritium." It was the winning song in a contest I organized for the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in 2002, during my term as president of the Society.

Credit for the idea of doing this actually belongs to my husband. He had noted many times that, in 1941, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bonneville Power Administration commissioned Woody Guthrie to write songs in support of building dams that could produce affordable electricity for millions of people. Perhaps the most famous of these songs was "Roll on Columbia."

Documentary about Woody Guthrie and BPA

Why, my husband kept asking me, doesn't the nuclear industry get some famous singer to help promote nuclear power? Why didn't I try to do something. I had the usual array of excuses, and for a long time, that was the end of that.

When I was elected president of ANS, I thought I saw my opportunity. I didn't have any connections with famous singers, but I thought I'd take another Woody Guthrie song, "This Land is Your Land," and tweak it a little bit to say "These Plants are Your Plants." It was a good idea, but I didn't have copyright authorization to use my lyrics and Woody Guthrie's music together, so couldn't perform the song publicly.

On to Plan B. I asked ANS to arrange a contest among the members to write an original song, or to write lyrics for a song whose music was in the public domain. I was pleased and surprised at the amount of talent and interest displayed by the members. I convened a committee, and they selected Kevin's song from among several outstanding submittals. The lyrics of all the songs (including "These Plants are Your Plants") and MP3s of the contest songs are on the ANS website. (This link is available to ANS members only.)

Recently, with the advent of new technology, others have also had the idea that songs and videos can help to spread the message about nuclear power. As a result, I contacted Kevin and he agreed to post his song on YouTube. I encourage everyone to log in to YouTube and watch the video. I think you'll agree he did an outstanding job. I also encourage anyone with the talent and interest to write and post their own songs.

Note added subsequent to publication of this post: In response to a request, I posted the lyrics to Neutron Doodle on November 21, but I later realized that it may be difficult to find the posting without a link, so this postscript provides the link.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gas Pipelines:

Update and Correction to a Past Blog

It has recently come to my attention that some information I quoted from a briefing I attended may be wrong. On October 20, 2009, I reported that a speaker had indicated that the steel required for a gas pipeline from Canada to the US would require more than a year's worldwide supply of steel. The speaker did not provide the analysis supporting this, and I must confess that I do not know much about pipelines and I did not try to reproduce the number myself. I have now learned that another blogger and his readers have analyzed the statement and found it to be wrong.

The statement and my uncritical acceptance of it points out what I believe to be a major problem we are all facing in discussing energy alternatives. The issues are numerous and very broad, so no one is an expert in all areas, and it is too easy to rely on someone on the basis of position or reputation. I regret if my quoting of the statement has misled anyone, and hope that, by referring you to the other blog that I can correct whatever damage has been done.

I will redouble my efforts to try to check the facts before I post something in the future--or, if I am unable to do so, at least to ask my readers if they can confirm or counter anything I report. One hope I have for this blog is that, by putting our collective heads together, we can come up with the real truth behind the assertions we hear for various technologies.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Irradiated Cheese:

Cheese and Nuclear Energy

I don't know why it is that I keep coming back to cheese as a theme, when the overall topic is nuclear energy. (See my previous essay for the JANUS series in this blog or on the JANUS website.) Maybe it's because I like cheese. Whatever the reason, a recent article from MIT called "Against the Common Gouda," discusses some concerns of cheese-makers about US rules on cheese production. This article reminded me of a past initiative of mine. Although it is not about nuclear power per se, and although it was unsuccessful at the time, it is probably of interest to the same community, and it may be time to raise the issue again.

The issue, for those who may not be familiar with it, is that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that either pasteurized milk be used for cheese made and sold in the US, or that cheese made from unpasteurized milk be aged for at least 60 days before it can be sold. The concern is that cheese that is unpasteurized and not aged can carry a bacteria known as listeria that can cause illness in humans.

By contrast, some other countries do not require either pasteurization or aging of their cheeses. In particular, France does not have these requirements, and I think most people would agree that, when it comes to cheeses, the French know their stuff. Those of you who have lived or traveled in France know that there are a number of soft, fresh cheeses that are either not available here--or if they are, the pasteurization required here has made them a shadow of what they could be.

Now, in the first place, one can question the need for the rigid US rules. In the three years I lived there, during which time I had the pleasure of eating many fresh cheeses, I did not see reports of massive illness due to the consumption of unpasteurized cheeses. In fact, I didn't see any reports of illnesses. The French--and as the MIT article relates, many artisanal cheese makers in the US--believe that careful attention to cleaning of the equipment used in cheese making makes the process safe and hygienic.

Furthermore, the small population that may be particularly susceptible are taught the risks and behave accordingly. Female friends in France told me that pregnant women in France know that they are not supposed to eat unpasteurized cheese. The entire population is not denied because the cheeses may present more of a risk to pregnant women. Just as Americans are not denied access to wine just because pregnant women should limit their consumption of wine.

But where, you might ask, does nuclear energy come in to this picture? Well, the listeria can also be killed by irradiation. So, to paraphrase a famous quote, pregnant women could have their unpasteurized cheese and eat it. However, the same FDA that doesn't allow the sale of unpasteurized/unaged cheeses also does not permit cheese to be irradiated.

About 10 years ago, when I was president of the American Nuclear Society, I tried mightily to address this issue. I hoped to serve irradiated, unpasteurized/unaged cheese at one of our receptions. First, I had to confirm that irradiation would not change the taste or texture of the cheese. For that, I enlisted the help of some friends in France, who had some cheese irradiated and convened a small group of experts to taste the cheese. Alas, I could not join them! However, they reported to me that they felt the irradiated cheese had the same taste and texture as the unirradiated cheese. So, there was success on the French side.

However, when I turned to the FDA to seek permission to import the cheese, I was rebuffed. I initially requested just a one-time exemption, knowing that a full rule change would take more time. Even that was rebuffed. I then turned to Congressman Joe Barton, who had an interest in this issue. He and his staff made heroic efforts to get the FDA to change its position, but to no avail.

That was 10 years ago. Perhaps now, with the increasing interest in artisanal production of foods, the situation might be different. The MIT article didn't mention irradiation as a possibility at all. In fact, I might imagine that small-scale farmers and cheese makers might initially be turned off by the idea, as it might seem counter to their idea of more "natural" food.

However, the use of irradiation would address a lot of concerns: What if all producers do not consistently maintain the high level of cleanliness required? What if we do not manage to educate all pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems? Irradiating fresh cheeses can address those concerns, and open the US market to a broader and more interesting array of cheeses. As one who misses some of the cheeses I ate in France, I would like to encourage all those involved to reconsider the use of irradiation for cheese.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fears about Energy Policy:

What I Find Scary:
Reflections for Halloween

As Halloween approaches, I inevitably start thinking about scary things. Things that are scary to other people--and things that are scary to me.

I am well aware that nuclear power is scary to a lot of people. They think of the bomb. They think of the movie, "The China Syndrome." They think of Chernobyl. Or, they think about all the hype they've heard over the years about accidents, and radiation, and frogs with two heads.

I don't find nuclear power scary. I chalk that up to my education, experience, and a good dose of common sense. However, I have my own fears, fears that I think are justified:

I am scared when I think of about the possibility of global warming and some of the problems it can cause the world. I understand that the effects won't be uniform, and that some may even benefit, but I have heard enough about the potential changes to severe weather phenomena, water availability, crop production, and the spread of some diseases to worry about a future in which global warming is unchecked. I have been to the Maldives and seen a whole country that could be submerged.

I am scared when I see everyone pointing the finger at everyone else, as that will quickly lead us to inaction. True, the developed world is responsible for most of the past CO2 emissions, so they bear some greater responsibility. However, 97% of the future increase in CO2 emissions is expected to be from developing countries, so they have a significant responsibility as well. Their commitments might be different from those of the developing world, but should be no less binding.

I am scared when I think about the fact that fear and ignorance may cause our nation and the world to make foolish or shortsighted decisions, and that these decisions will force unwanted and unnecessary hardships upon us and upon future generations. I am scared of a future where bad decisions made today will cost us the comforts and conveniences we enjoy today.

I am scared when I see blind faith that some technology has all the answers, even when the evidence is already mounting that no single technology has all the answers. I am scared when people insist that there is "an answer," when my technical training makes it very clear to me that there is no simple or easy answer. When people say the answer is wind, even though wind doesn't blow all the time, or the answer is solar, even though the best places for solar plants is far from people, or the answer is biomass, even when that requires cutting down forests.

I am scared when I see unreasoning objections to other technologies. I am scared that some people cannot conceive of accepting nuclear power under any circumstances. When they cannot face their fears and learn the facts. When they cannot understand what is being done today and what can be done in the future to assure nuclear power plant safety and security. When they cannot accept the fact that nuclear power can help assure adequate energy for the world at a minimal environmental cost.

(And just for the record, I understand that some of the shortcomings of wind and solar and biomass can also be addressed by advanced technologies or other innovative methods. My fear is that this is not widely recognized, and that we are turning to these technologies as some sort of of panacea. My fear is that we aren't being realistic about what they can and cannot achieve. My fear is that society thinks it can discard a proven technology for an unproven one.)

So, on October 31, when the little ghosts and goblins and witches and werewolves ring my doorbell, I will be worrying about the dialogue that is going on today about global warming and about energy alternatives, and wondering about what kind of future we are building for them.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Energy Infrastructure and Energy Politics:

Energy and the Real World:
Views from an Insider

I recently attended a very interesting talk by Marvin Fertel, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. The presentation was to an audience of Washington, DC-area local section members of the American Nuclear Society and covered a broad range of topics of interest to the nuclear community. Working in the world of politics as he does, he brings to his thinking a realistic, pragmatic perspective that is often missing elsewhere.

Perhaps his most important take-home messages to me were the difficulties of introducing any new energy technology on a large scale, and the fact that the "friends" and "enemies" in the nuclear business do not fall into neat slots. Both of these are observations I've made myself, but he had some facts that were new to me.

First, he pointed out that all new technologies require substantial changes in infrastructure to realize the often optimistic projections. The vision of an electric automobile in every garage, for example, is dampened by the reality that many more transformers would be needed on suburban electrical grids. Taking carbon emissions from coal plants and sequestering them somewhere requires pipelines. He made the sobering observation that it will take 30-40 years to make any large-scale changes in our energy sector. If we have only 10 years before we reach the tipping point for climate change, he observed, we out to be talking about adaptation strategies rather than about mitigation.

Taken in this light, it is not surprising that he also recognizes that there are limits to the rate at which we can build new nuclear power plants. He didn't go into detail on all the limitations, but we've heard them before--licensing, competing demands for commodities like steel (see my blog dated ...), manufacturing capability, skilled workers on site, etc. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that we can ramp up reasonably quickly to create a substantial new-build program in the United States. He sees a ramp-up period in the next 8 years in which 4 to 7 new plants could be built, but by 2030, believes there could be 45 new plants on line in the United States, with at least an equal number in the pipeline.

Mr. Fertel also spoke about the perceived Democratic-Republican party split on the nuclear issue. He feels that the issue of climate change is not a partisan one, and he sees growing support for nuclear power in the public arena and in the Administration. He pointed out some recent positive actions by the Obama Administration, such as "fixing" the loan guarantee program, which the previous Administration had not done. And in fact, shortly after the meeting, the nuclear community saw further evidence of the Administration's views on this issue when Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that he will push for billions of dollars in new loan guarantee authority for new nuclear power plants.

Mr. Fertel's slides are available on the ANS Washington-DC Section website. They contain some other interesting background. He also made some other interesting observations, which I hope to bring into future posts.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

LNG and Gas Pipeline Requirements:

Nuclear is Not Alone

Sometimes, to hear the stark projections, you might think that nuclear power plants are the only energy systems that will require large amounts of construction materials, or that have limited numbers of suppliers. Since most of us focus more on one technology than on another, we may not be aware that other technologies have real needs, too.

I attended a very interesting presentation at the Canadian Embassy recently by Jason Tolland, Counsellor for Environment and Energy at the Embassy. The audience was a group of MIT alumna/ae and the topic was the Canadian-US energy relationship. Naturally, there was considerable discussion of Canada as a significant source of uranium, particularly for the US. But the majority of the discussion covered Canada’s role as a source of oil and gas. Since this was an area that was less familiar to me, I learned a number of interesting facts from his talk. The facts emphasized to me that the supply issues associated with nuclear power also exist for other technologies.

Perhaps the two most important takeaway points were the following:

• Liquified natural gas (LNG), considered an attractive source of energy for some applications, requires storage in large tanks. To my surprise, I learned that there are only two companies in the world that can supply the tanks. That sounds an awful lot like the case for large reactor pressure vessels, doesn’t it?

• Even more surprisingly, to me, is what he told us about the planned 1220 kilometer MacKenzie natural gas pipeline from the Northwest Territories. He noted that the total steel requirement for that pipeline would exceed the annual world production of steel. Of course, it wouldn't be built in one year, but that's still a staggering amount of steel, and is bound to have an impact on availability and prices of steel for other purposes.

Although natural gas is a fossil fuel, its greenhouse gas emissions are considerably less than those of coal or oil, so natural gas and LNG can be expected to be used in the future at least as much as they are at present, and most likely, more, as we transition to lower-emitting fuels. Therefore, the demands of these options should be of interest to all of us. Of course, as I expect to be the case for reactor pressure vessels, one would hope that rising demand would spur an increase in supply. Nevertheless, there is certainly a potential, both for the growth of these energy sources to be slowed, and, more importantly, for them to have impacts on other energy supply technologies—and indeed, on any large construction needs.

One further comment from Jason Tolland is of interest, particularly for the nuclear community. When he showed graphs of the energy sources for electricity supply, he noted that Canada considered that most of its electricity was produced using renewable resources. He commented that, unlike the United States, when Canada uses the term renewables, they include nuclear power and hydroelectricity.

Now, there's an interesting idea!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Should We Have a Nuclear "CSI"?

Nuclear "CSI", Anyone?

It has been observed many times that nuclear scientists and engineers do not necessarily connect well with the public in conveying facts about nuclear power. From time to time, we are told that more emotion is needed, not less. More passion, not passivity.

While I am personally more persuaded by facts than by flashy presentations, I can understand the point. The average person who hears someone like me who carefully qualifies all her statements to make sure they are absolutely correct may come away hearing the caveats and not the conviction. They want to hear “safe” or “unsafe,” not “safe enough.” Not “safe if built and operated properly.” Not “safe compared to coal.”

The concern about how nuclear power is viewed was raised again at the recent World Nuclear Association annual symposium by Alain Michel, who has had a distinguished career in Belgonucleaire. He has raised the idea that a TV series with a nuclear power plant as a backdrop might make nuclear power seem more familiar to everyone. He draws an analogy to currently the popular Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) series on crime solving. Another similar area might be those series focused on solving medical problems.

While the idea seems intriguing, there is a fundamental difference between these series and anything I could envision that would involve nuclear power plants. In crime series investigations, the protagonists are solving an incident that happened outside their community. In medical series, the protagonists are fighting a disease, also something from the outside. Occasionally, a segment will show the protagonists fighting to fix a mistake made by one of their own—a cop gone bad, or a doctor or nurse who inadvertently helps spread a disease. But that is the exception to the rule. The policemen and the doctors are usually the knights in shining armor saving members of the public, or at least getting them justice.

It is hard for me to see a series with nuclear as the backdrop operating the same way. True, scientists and engineers could be the knights in shining armor that save the day when there is a problem. However, wouldn’t the setting for the show have to have a serious incident every week to fuel the drama? If so, what would that do to the perception of nuclear safety? And since many, if not most, incidents and accidents have a human element as part of the causal chain, would we simply have nuclear engineers who are villains (wittingly or unwittingly) versus nuclear engineers who wear white hats? So wouldn’t half the engineers and scientists look like bad guys?

It should not be forgotten that most of the dramatic presentations that have used a nuclear power plant as a backdrop—or as the main element—have showed nuclear power in a bad light. “The China Syndrome” is the most famous example. “The Simpsons” may not have made nuclear power into evil incarnate, but they certainly portrayed nuclear power plant employees as bumbling idiots.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see a series portraying nuclear power in a positive way. I know lots of people in the industry who I think are knights in shining armor, who bring the world advances in nuclear medicine, nuclear power, and other applications. But their work seldom involves high drama. You don’t really have a child dying in a hospital bed while nuclear scientists develop and deliver a new radioisotope on the spot. Even if you manage to make one episode based on that premise (I must confess that, with most of the world’s radioisotope production shut down, you could possibly have one episode along those lines), it would not be something that could be repeated weekly. In nuclear power plants, it seems to me that the dramatic possibilities are even more limited.

I’d be happy to learn that I’m missing something, and that there could be a dramatic series based in a nuclear facility that did not scare the public more than it educated them. I’d be interested in any thoughts on how Alain Michel’s goals could be accomplished.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Prospects for the Nuclear Renaissance:

The Future of Nuclear Power:
Reading the Tea Leaves

I recently came across an interesting article in Nuclear Engineering International that led me to a report entitled “The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009,” commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and prepared by independent consultants, Mycle Schneider, Steve Thomas, Antony Froggatt and Doug Koplow. The report purports to explain why the anticipated “nuclear renaissance” is not going to happen.

Some of the points they make are valid and have been recognized by others in recent years. The demand for energy is increasing rapidly worldwide, and many projections show that, even with very aggressive nuclear construction programs, it will be difficult to maintain the nuclear proportion of the total energy supply. The article mentions concerns about supply chain constraints, workforce issues, and the international financial crisis. These are all real issues. Some, such as supply chain and workforce, are being addressed. Others, such as the financial crisis, will surely have an impact on nuclear construction—as they will on other large industrial projects.

However, some of the statements in the article are problematical and undercut their own arguments. For example, it notes that the difficulty of maintaining, or even increasing, the number of nuclear power plants is substantially reduced if operating lifetimes could be significantly increased beyond 40 years, on average, but concludes that there is currently no basis for such an assumption.

That’s funny. The NRC has licensed more than half of the operating nuclear plants in the US for an additional 20 years beyond the 40-year period of the initial license, and continues to receive and process applications for most of the remaining US nuclear power plants. Furthermore, they are beginning to discuss the possibility of a second license extension. While this concept is still in its early stages, it makes it clear that the negativism about operating lifetimes is exaggerated.

The article also mentions some of the difficulties of implementing nuclear power in countries that do not yet have it. Again, anyone would acknowledge that there are substantial hurdles for such countries to overcome. However, the article does not acknowledge all the options that may be available. For example, it cites grid capacity as a potential issue for some countries. That is very true for a large plant (of any type), but there are some promising technologies for smaller reactors currently being developed. The article also mentions issues specific to individual countries. In most cases, these are not insurmountable obstacles.

In addition, the article does not mention a number of positive trends, such as the aggressive nuclear construction programs in India and China (although the report covers construction projects).

As that famous philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said, “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” I know I quote him all too often, but it is true, and it is difficult to say it better. The nuclear renaissance may be slowed by the recession and nuclear power may not be achieved in every country now thinking about it. However, the fact that the road ahead is difficult doesn’t mean it is impassable.

The report should be viewed as a warning of some of the challenges ahead, not as a prophecy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

CO2 Emissions and National Interests:

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

With the negotiations looming on the issue of global greenhouse gas reductions, the nations of the world are beginning to sound more and more like squabbling children. Understandably, each is posturing to obtain the best deal possible. This issue goes way beyond nuclear, of course, but nuclear power can be an element of the solution. However, you wouldn’t know it to hear the statements coming out of some parts of the world.

China and India, with their huge populations, are quickly moving to the top of the polluter list on a national level as their economies continue to grow. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, 97% of the increase in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 will come from the developing world. China and India will be a significant part of that.

Yes, they quite rightly point out that their per capita emissions are currently very low. No one can deny that, and no one can deny the rights of the people of the developing world to enjoy the same comforts and benefits that the developing world has enjoyed. But the way countries are debating future restrictions reminds me of the squabbles of my childhood, when my mother told me to clean up my room, and I replied that my brother hadn’t cleaned up his room. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” she would tell me sternly, and I would clean up my room.

Of course, she would make make my brother clean up his room, too, but not as a precondition for my action.

My mother's message is one that could well apply in the global arena today. The developed world must surely do more—a lot more—to reduce their own emissions. But it will gain us nothing if we reduce CO2 emissions from developed countries only to replace them with CO2 emissions from the developing world.

In this regard, the recent reports of China's position in this matter are encouraging. They now agree that they should make significant cuts in their emissions. Many details remain to be worked out, such as how much, how firm a commitment they will make, and what assistance they want from developed countries in order to achieve this objective. Still, it is good to see this step forward, and it would be encouraging to see India follow suit.

The world is where it is today in large part because we didn’t know better at the outset. When total emissions were small, they were easily handled by the atmosphere. As they grew, and as our understanding of the world grew, we very slowly became aware of what was happening. Now that we do understand, the developed world must do more.

But there is no need for developing countries to repeat the mistakes of the past. Throughout human history, each generation has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors. The developing countries need to heed the lessons of history and follow a more environmentally sound path to development.

The next round of international climate negotiations should put measures in place to strongly and equally discourage all countries, developed and developing, from adding new fossil-fired plants to the electricity grid.

Instead, at least for new generation, the nations of the world should all turn to low-emitting electricity-producing technologies, although the specific choices of low-emitting technologies will vary with the particular circumstances of each country.

Looking first at the addition of new energy sources, the developed nations of the world have the most options, and should exploit all of them. Nuclear power already plays an important role in a number of developed countries, and can and should play an increasing role in meeting future baseload needs. Some countries are also increasing their solar and wind generation capacities. At present, they generally pay a premium to do so. Even so, solar and wind cannot realistically meet all new energy needs. For a variety of reasons, it is desirable for developed countries to add a mix of low-emitting technologies.

China and India, too, will benefit from using a mix of nuclear and renewable technologies. Both China and India already have strong nuclear programs and should build on those. In general, nuclear technology is cost competitive with other options, so there would seem to be little justification for adding fossil fuel burning sources instead of adding nuclear generation. Both these countries also have substantial possibilities to implement solar and wind technologies. While these technologies are more expensive in many applications, costs are coming down and they may be competitive in some applications.

The situation for other developing countries will vary considerably, depending on the national grids, population distributions, and other factors. A number of developing countries are considering nuclear power. While the nuclear power option is not viable for all countries, and the hurdles (including investment) to starting a nuclear power program are significant, it is an attractive option in some cases. Countries that do not have the resources or infrastructure to start a nuclear power program admittedly have fewer options. However, many of these countries also have limited grids and sparse or remote populations, and local energy generating technologies may fit their current needs.

The next international climate-control agreement reached should build in mechanisms, as the Kyoto Protocol did, that give the developed countries some incentive to provide assistance to developing countries. However, the new mechanisms should include all technologies that achieve reduced emissions. With appropriate mechanisms, there should be no excuse for developing countries to add yet more fossil-fired plants to the world.

Getting rid of existing fossil-fired plants may well be another story. I would have to agree that it will be difficult for countries that are rapidly expanding their electricity supplies to simultaneously close operating fossil-fired power plants. Here, the developed countries should indeed do more than the developing countries to replace existing stock.

Another interesting situation arises in the case of countries with small populations, but large per capita emissions, such as Australia. Australia has actually overtaken the United States in per capita emissions, at least according to some reports. Although their contribution to emissions as a country is small, using that as a justification seems inappropriate for a developed country. In particular, it seems odd to me that a country with such huge resources of uranium is not looking to nuclear technology to curb its own emissions. Australia is beginning to think along these lines now, and I would encourage that thinking. Needless to say, Australia, with its small population and large landmass, and located where it is geographically, also has substantial possibilities to employ renewable technologies.

The negotiations ahead are likely to be difficult, as every country understandably wants the best possible deal. However, every country needs to look deeply into its own situation and acknowledge what it can do. My mother’s other favorite admonition to me, when I wanted to do something that would be detrimental to me just to one-up my siblings, was that I was cutting off my nose to spite my face. Every country needs to realize that what brings them some advantage in the near term could harm us all in the end.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Red Wine & Radioactivity:

Wine, Women and Radioactivity

Today’s posting is a little off my usual subject area, but when I find something that combines several of my favorite interests—namely wine and things nuclear—I just can’t resist. A very interesting article from the medical side of the house finds that red wine, in addition to the other health benefits it’s alleged to have, helps limit the toxic effects of radiation therapy for women with breast cancer. Even more interesting was the fact that the effect seemed to max out at one glass of wine a day, a fact that should be reassuring to those who worry about cancer patients indulging in too much self-medication with wine. The effect has not been studied yet for patients, male or female, undergoing radiotherapy for other cancers. Furthermore, I did not find a postulated cause for the effect. While I would ordinarily be inclined to dismiss a finding for which there is no known mechanism, the data seem to show a significant difference in the incidence of radiation-induced toxicity, and there is strong evidence that the moderate consumption of red wine has other health benefits as well. That combination of factors makes a strong case for further research into this intriguing area.

À votre santé, everyone!

Friday, September 11, 2009

International Nuclear Power

Publication of Last JANUS Essay:
Nuclear Power in a Global Context

As I reported when I began this blog, I had previously posted five essays on the website of Japan NUS Co., Ltd. (JANUS). At that time, I had agreed with JANUS that I would prepare and post one more essay. That essay, "Nuclear Power in a Global Context" is now available on the JANUS website in both Japanese and English.

To complete the series on this blog, I have amended my first posting to include the essay and to indicate that the series is now complete.  (For previous readers of this blog, the links in this posting and the other blogs citing my JANUS essays have been updated, as the essays have migrated to a new site.)

I have also added a note to that first posting that I will repeat here. I am honored to have been selected as the first guest writer for the "Global Energy Essays" series of JANUS. I enjoyed the experience of writing those essays, and in fact, was largely inspired by that experience to start my own blog.

Currently, the JANUS essay series will continue with another guest writer.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

The New Team at DOE/NE:

Pete Lyons to Join
DOE Office of Nuclear Energy

I am pleased to report that the Department of Energy has announced that the Honorable Peter "Pete" B. Lyons, a former Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is about to be named the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy. Since this is "advance" news, it has not yet been well publicized, so I think it is worth reporting. Dr. Lyons will be joining the Honorable Warren "Pete" F. Miller, Jr., who was recently appointed Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy by President Obama. The two Petes bring to the Department formidable technical backgrounds and strong records of accomplishment. This combination bodes well for the Office of Nuclear Energy in its efforts to explore and develop advanced nuclear energy technologies and to help reenergize the nuclear industry in the years ahead.

Pete Lyons holds a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Arizona and a doctorate in nuclear astrophysics from the California Institute of Technology. He spent most of his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and served as deputy associate director for both energy and environment and for defense research and applications. In 1996, he came to Washington, DC to serve on the staff of Senator Pete Domenici and on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He was appointed a Commissioner of the NRC on January 25, 2005 and served in this capacity until June 30, 2009. It should also be noted that Dr. Lyons held a Republican seat on the Commission.

Lyons joins Pete Miller, who was confirmed by the Senate on August 7, 2009, as Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy. This is old news to most people, but since I didn't think about covering such news when I started this blog around that time, I'll take this opportunity to summarize his credentials. Dr. Miller has a bachelor's degree from West Point and master's and doctorate degrees from Northwestern University, all in nuclear engineering. Like Pete Lyons, he has served most of his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and has served as an associate lab director for math and physics, as well as for energy research. In the latter positions, he has been responsible for the work of over 2000 people. He also has held appointments at two different universities at different times in his career. Dr. Miller was nominated by the President to serve simultaneously as Assistant Secretary for Radioactive Waste, but that nomination has not yet been acted on by the Senate.

Both these individuals bring a wealth of experience to their jobs on a wide range of technical issues, and both also have considerable understanding of the political environment in which nuclear power operates. Their appointments are encouraging evidence of the expressed intention of the Administration to appoint individuals who are well qualified for the positions they hold, and to reach out beyond party boundaries. I know both Pete Miller and Pete Lyons, to varying degrees, and think very highly of both of them. I look forward with great anticipation to their leadership of the Office of Nuclear Energy.

[Photos: Pete Lyons' from NRC; Pete Miller's from DOE]

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Energy and Land Use:

Energy and Land Use

[Wikipedia Photo]

In discussions of new forms of energy supply, issues of land use are often ignored. Consequently, I was happy to see an article about a report by the Nature Conservancy that spells out the land use requirements of some of the options. The full report provides a more complete analysis. The report was written with the objective of analyzing energy legislation under consideration, but the quantitative information has broader uses.

Both the article and the report make it clear that options such as increased use of biomass and wind have significant implications for land use. In an era of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), and NOPE (Not on Planet Earth), the land use ramifications should be prominently considered.

The full report has helped clarify some issues that have always puzzled me. For example, claims of significant land use by windmills have sometimes seemed specious, as windmills can often be cited on farmland, which would appear to allow for dual use of the same land. Thus, from that perspective, land use would not seem to be a significant issue for windmills. However, the report notes that the full land impact takes into account more than the human uses of the land. The report estimates that the direct footprint of windmills is 3-5% of the total affected area. Fragmenting habitats and species avoidance behavior account for 95-97% of the total footprint. What is not clear is how this figure was derived and whether it applies to land that is already used for agricultural purposes. Even if the ratio is lower in some cases (as I believe would be appropriate for land already in use), it makes the point that the impact of a windmill exceeds its physical footprint.

In addition, I might add that many people apparently consider windmills unsightly, and increasingly, laws are being passed to restrict their siting. So far, these laws mainly have to do with concerns about destroying scenic, natural environments, and thus, prohibit siting on mountain ridges. The most recent example is legislation in North Carolina. However, some reports are beginning to emerge that attribute a variety of health effects to wind turbines. While I see no evidence that these claims are credible, they may result in increasing restrictions on siting. There are other options, such as offshore siting, but these increase costs and potential impacts on migratory birds.

The report also covers land use issues for other energy sources. In particular, an increased use of biomass for energy generation has potentially the largest impact on land use. It covers this scenario in some detail, and in particular, notes some of the interactions with food production requirements. Using land presently used for food production would not create new land use impacts. However, it is likely that other land would have to be devoted to food production, so the land use would increase in one way or another. The alternative--increased food costs and/or food shortages-have different, but equally undesirable, impacts.

The report gives less space to the energy sources that have the lowest land use impacts, but readers of this blog will be happy to know that nuclear power was the least energy-intensive energy source. Only energy efficiency measures had a lower land use impact.

As always, I would emphasize that no one measure can give us a true sense of the pros or cons of an energy technology. Nuclear power proponents should not react gleefully to the fact that wind is more land intensive or that it has its own detractors. But by the same reasoning, proponents of wind or solar power should not cast their technologies as the sole solution to our energy needs. Land use issues are only one of a number of issues that will have to be balanced to find an appropriate mix of technologies for the future.