Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Year-End Reflections:

A Quick Review

The end of the year is always a good time for stepping back to think about what has happened and what lies ahead, so at the risk of adding to lots of other reflections, wishes, and predictions, I will offer my own, both personal and on a broader level.

On a personal level, my really big accomplishment this year was the completion and publication of my book, Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development, which I described in an earlier blog. I have never been one to have a list of 101 things to do before I die--perhaps I've been afraid I'd accomplish all 101 things, and then what?--but I have certainly had an unwritten and unnumbered wish list in the back of my mind, and writing a book was always one of the items on that virtual list. Over the course of the last few years, the nearly constant drumbeat of 50th anniversary celebrations made me think that this might be an appropriate topic. So for me, this book on nuclear milestones is a career milestone as well. In recent days, I've been gratified to see some very nice reviews on LinkedIn (accessible to members) and Amazon that suggest that other people agree that this is a timely topic--and that they like my treatment of the topic.

On a broader level, a lot has happened in the past year. I hesitate to try to write a list because I will inevitably leave out something important. Instead of trying to do that, I looked at my blogs over the past year to see if there were any patterns to what I'd covered. Now, my blog doesn't pretend to be a news publication, so there are certainly topics I didn't cover, and what I covered clearly reflects my personal interests. Still, in most cases, the items were spurred by one or more items in the news, so in a sense, my coverage may suggest some trends. Among them are the following:

Principles of Good Regulation: This one is both personal and broader. I have been very gratified to hear and read presentations by some of the current NRC Commissioners, especially Commissioners Svinicki and Ostendorff, highlighting the importance of NRC's Principles of Good Regulation. From the personal point of view, as I reported in an earlier post, I was heavily involved in the development of these Principles when I worked for Commissioner Kenneth Rogers at the NRC some years ago, so it is very gratifying to see that it is so highly regarded. I was also very pleased to discover that the "promotion" of the Principles by the Commissions is reaching audiences abroad, and I recently provided a summary of the Principles for a Japan NUS website.

Small modular reactors (SMRs): I had three or four blogs on SMRs during the past year. There is a growing interest in these reactors, both for small grids in developing countries or remote areas, and even for larger applications (in multiples). There are a number of designs being promoted and many claims being made, so much so that the anti-nuclear community, which had been rather silent on this issue, is waking up and beginning to realize that people may think a small reactor is just about as cute and cuddly as a windmill. (Yes, yes--I realize that not everyone thinks a windmill is cuddly--I mean my statement in both the serious and the sarcastic sense.) Some of the more thoughtful of the discussions on SMRs that I covered included one on an IEEE article and another on a CSIS meeting.

Nuclear waste: This certainly has been a significant year on the nuclear waste front, so I also blogged about this topic several times. Perhaps my most interesting post on this topic was on DOE's decision to withdraw its application for Yucca Mountain and NRC's initial response. I also covered the establishment of the Blue Ribbon Commission and some recommendations on how it should approach its assignment.

Global warming: With the Copenhagen conference having taken place in December 2009 and the continued concern and debate about global warming, I probably hit this topic in one way or another about half a dozen times. The blog on this topic that resonates most strongly at the moment is one on a conversation I had with Lew Branscomb in February where he bemoaned the use of the term global warming because of the doubt it raises in people's minds whenever we are blanketed in snow. Since this winter has already caused a number of snow-related disruptions, both in the U.S. and in Europe, it is timely to remember this discussion.

Other energy alternatives: If anything has surprised me about the topics I've covered in the last year, it is how many times my blogs have not been about nuclear power at all, but rather, about other energy alternatives. Sometimes my coverage has been spurred by articles that seem to compare nuclear power to other alternatives in overly simplistic ways, other times it is because I have been struck by how often decisions seem to be made without thinking ahead--i.e., where there are unintended negative consequences of what appeared to be good ideas. One example that stands out in my mind was on the use of LEDs in traffic lights. They were supposed to save energy, but because they were so efficient, they didn't emit much heat, and therefore, didn't melt the snow in winter, thus causing accidents and fatalities.

The most interesting thing I observed when I went back through my old posts--and which I have not previously commented on--is that I talked much more about wind power than about solar power. It seems to me that wind has emerged as the darling of the renewable movement. Solar power is beginning to be recognized as being land intensive, requiring a lot of water, and having several other drawbacks. Wind is regarded as having less of a footprint. Therefore, it kept recurring as a subject in the news, and I kept covering it. Still, as one of my posts noted, the jury is still out on the actual land requirements, and as another post noted, the comparison is not straightforward.

Between wind, other energy sources, and global warming, I spent a fair amount of time on topics that were not explicitly about nuclear energy. But we live in the bigger world, and as a practical matter, we must understand and react to the pros and cons of other energy technologies and of issues, such as global warming, that concern the public. Therefore, I felt and still feel that these topics were relevant to the readers of my blog. The comments I've received on several of these topics suggest that others feel the same way.

So much for looking back. Looking ahead is always harder. I can say with great confidence that I will not write another book in the coming year. (Not that I don't want to. It's just that it will take me time to gear up to do that again.) I can also say with great confidence that there will continue to be plenty to write about in my blog in the year ahead, both on nuclear power and on other related topics.

A lot of the nuclear-related topics are ones where the emotion has sometimes outweighed the reasoned discussion. One of the reasons I started this blog was that I was seeking complete, factual assessments of nuclear power and the alternatives--the kinds of analyses that tried to figure out the unintended consequences ahead of time, that tried to extrapolate the impacts as demand grows, etc. In that regard, I have appreciated the comments from readers who have helped provide a more complete perspective.

So much as I normally hate New Year's resolutions, I think this is one that I can keep: I resolve to continue to try to add a reasoned voice to the important discussions on nuclear power and other energy-related issues in the year ahead, and I hope to continue to discuss these issues with others who share that interest.

Until then, though, I want to wish everyone a happy, healthy New Year. See you next year!


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More on Wind Farms:

A Complex Picture

While I did not intend to have two consecutive posts on wind power, two things have happened since my last post that compel me to follow up. In the first place, I had more comments on this post in a shorter time than on most of my other posts, so there is clearly an interest in this topic. Furthermore, one point was raised in these comments to which I wanted to respond. Second, another news article came out since that posting claiming a positive effect of wind on cropland! As a result, I decided that I really do need to follow up on my last post.

All of the comments I received on my last post were of interest, but two raise a question in my mind that I cannot answer at this point. Both noted that the computations of land use for wind and nuclear power in my previous post neglected to include the land required for mining uranium. This point is well taken. A full comparison of technologies needs to account for all the impacts of both.

In trying to look more broadly, I see two points that need to be considered:

First, the windmills of today are not the romantic structures of old Holland. They are advanced, complex structures that use "exotic" materials. In particular, they use neodymium, a rare earth, to make a lightweight generator. Rare earths also need to be mined. At present, I have seen only a few statements about the amount of rare earths needed--it is of the order of one or two tons per wind turbine. The original context in which I saw this estimate focused on the supply issue, as China has about 95% of the world's output of neodymium, according to the accounts I read. I do not have any information on the land use requirements, but surely, if we are incorporating land requirements for mining uranium, we also need to incorporate the land requirements for mining rare earths for wind turbines.

Second, I can envision that different types of land should be treated differently in comparing energy technologies. I'm sure this will prove a controversial statement, as all land has value to someone, but I think a case can be made for comparing the use of similar types of land--say farmland--as long as other impacts, be they to the land, air, or water, are considered somewhere. In that sense, it was not completely wrong to compare the footprints of wind and nuclear power on farmland. What was wrong of me was to leave the reader with the implication that the footprint of the generating facilities was the only footprint these technologies had on land.

Perhaps when I wrote the post I had in the back of my mind the picture that appears at the top of this post, which was someone's mocked up photo of what an area might look like with a nuclear plant vs. wind turbines. This one is particularly egregious, as it shows wind turbines covering only the same acreage that a nuclear plant would occupy, neglecting the fact that those few windmills would produce far, far less power than the nuclear power plant. A different issue, to be sure, but it seemed to me that there might be several layers of misunderstanding in the public's minds--not only does this picture not represent equal levels of power production, the windmills that seem almost to vanish in the distance in the picture really have a bigger footprint than the picture implies. (Something also makes me think that something is wrong with the perspective here, but the other shortcomings of the picture overwhelm the artistic shortcomings.)

In that regard, and in the interest of trying to tell the whole story, a recent report on the work of researchers at Ames Laboratory and the University of Colorado claims some potential benefits of wind power on crops, such as keeping them cooler during the day and warmer during the night due to the air turbulence from the wind turbines. The turbulence could also help dry moisture on the plants, thus reducing the chance of fungal infections, as well as reducing the effects of frost, thus increasing the growing season. Both effects should increase crop production. I note that the article says that the effects haven't been proven yet. If true, they could offset the land use I mentioned in my previous posting. That depends, of course, on whether these early indications are borne out by further research, and what the magnitude of the effect is. This article did not address effects on livestock at all.

The comparisons of energy technologies are complex and multidimensional. I truly doubt that we are going to find a technology that is "best" in every category. In the end, society will have to make choices based on which impacts it is willing to accept to have the benefits of reliable, affordable electricity.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wind Farms:

The Real "Footprint"

This is one more in a series of pieces I am writing to try to examine non-nuclear technologies under the same microscope usually reserved for nuclear technologies.

I have been puzzled in the past about conflicting claims regarding the "footprint" of wind farms. A recent report and some very astute analyses by some colleagues of mine has opened my eyes. For wind farms, it seems, things are not as they first appear.

The argument made by wind advocates is that wind farms take hardly any land at all. They can be sited in the middle of farmland, and their only footprint is the small base of each tower. Crops or livestock can surround them. That certainly seemed plausible, so I have not fully understood the criticisms that the footprint of a wind farm was really much larger than the area occupied by the towers.

Let me hasten to point out that this post will address only wind farms sited on farmland. It will not address the special environmental and scenic implications of wind turbines on mountain ridges, and it will not address implications of offshore windmills. These have their own issues. I cover here only the "real" land use implications of windmills on farmland.

The report provides some numerical data on the real land use of wind farms. However, it errs in its comparisons to nuclear power, because, as a colleague has pointed out, they fail to factor in the megawatts per unit acre generated by a nuclear power plant compared to that from a windmill. Adjusting for the generation per acre makes nuclear much more land efficient--up to about a factor of 10 or more, depending on which end of the stated range you use for each. (The observation is from Margaret Harding in a communication and to my knowledge is not available on a website.)

She and others have noted other farm-related implications of windmills on farmland:

• The land requirements for rights of way to access the wind turbines.
• The added difficulty of operating large tractors and combines around the bases of turbines (probably resulting in an effective loss of the land immediately surrounding the towers).
• The sensitivity of livestock to the noise and light from wind turbines.
(There are anecdotal reports of reductions in milk production by cows.)
• The difficulty and danger of crop dusting, which is causing crop dusters in some areas to refuse to work around windmills. The net result is either application of pesticides by less efficient (and more petroleum-intensive) methods, or reduced crop production per acre.

Some of these reports are anecdotal, so clearly, this is another case where we need more facts. I doubt that these factors would rule out the use of wind farms on agricultural land. However, the ultimate findings could affect how much we can really expect such wind farms to penetrate the nation's farmland, where they can be sited with least impact, and what side effects we would have to tolerate, and perhaps, how to minimize them.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

OECD Nuclear Energy Agency:

At a New Crossroads?

A recent news item has reported that the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) just gained a new member country, Poland, but at the same time, has been informed that one of its earliest and most active member countries, the United Kingdom, intends to leave the agency as a budget-tightening measure within their government. As a former Deputy Director-General of the NEA, I felt that I might be able to shed some light on what these membership changes might mean.

First, the loss of one member and the gain of another is not a zero-sum game. Poland is just starting its nuclear power program while the UK has had a long and active history in nuclear power. The UK has contributed greatly to NEA over the years through its membership in the NEA's standing technical committees and in important positions on the NEA staff. Perhaps most important, the funding for the NEA is provided by its member countries roughly in proportion to the sizes of their economies. Since the UK is a bigger economy than Poland, the financial contribution of Poland will not be equal to that lost from the UK. Rather, the budget for the Agency will have to be reallocated among all the remaining members, resulting in a slightly higher cost for each of the other member countries.

I should emphasize that UK's decision has so far not been formally confirmed. Countries usually have to give international agencies significant notice of intent to withdraw membership, so this announcement could be viewed as a way of keeping options open as the UK budget evolves. The announcement was made verbally by UK representatives at a recent NEA meeting, and NEA was told that a formal letter would follow. So far, the letter has not been received. In the meantime, those from the UK who have been involved with the NEA are trying desperately to find alternatives to continue their membership in the Agency. These measures could include support from a different UK agency or agencies. Other measures are also being discussed.

There have been previous cases where member governments have questioned the value of their NEA memberships or encountered budgetary problems supporting the NEA. In at least one case, the member country that questioned the role of NEA was persuaded of its value to them and retained its support; in another case, the country's budget obligation for the NEA was indeed transferred from one agency to other agencies within the member country. Therefore, it is too soon to write off the UK as a member of NEA.

However, there may be some differences in the environment this time that may make it more difficult for the NEA to survive unscathed. The first issue, obviously, is that we are in the middle of a world-wide economic recession. Several of NEA's member countries, including Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, are in worse financial shape than than is the UK. If they see the UK questioning their membership in the NEA, surely that will raise questions within their capitols. Furthermore, the fact that all the member countries will see a budget increase at a time when even a constant budget may be a strain may set off alarm bells among the remaining members.

Secondly, one of the values of the NEA has always been that it included almost all the major suppliers and users of nuclear power. For many years, Russia was the only major nuclear power country that was not in the NEA. However, with the growth of nuclear power in other countries, especially China, and with a number of new countries poised to begin using nuclear power, NEA will no longer hold that position. While the NEA reaches out to non-member countries by involving them as "observers" on their technical committees, that involvement has generally been limited, and may not be a sufficient solution for the future.

It has always been difficult to explain the different roles played by NEA and IAEA in the nuclear power area. While the two agencies really try hard to exploit the different strengths and advantages they each have, one of the major differences has always been that the NEA is a much smaller organization, but still included the countries operating most of the world's nuclear power plants. As this situation changes, it may be more difficult to convince member governments that both agencies are needed. Since IAEA is the more inclusive organization and has the important non-proliferation role, a choice between the two agencies would always favor IAEA.

In the past, I think having both agencies has been useful. NEA, with its smaller membership, has been able to develop a number of programs that IAEA has adopted and expanded to more countries. I am, of course, hopeful that both agencies will continue to have different and complementary values to their members and to the global nuclear power community. However, I do see significant challenges ahead for the NEA in assuring that outcome.

[For anyone interested in the history of the NEA, I prepared a document, available as a review draft, covering the first 50 years of the agency as background for the celebration of that event several years ago.]


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The ANS Conference:

Talking Nuclear Progress

A lot of the nuclear blogging community was at the recent American Nuclear Society conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, and some of my fellow bloggers are both more prolific and faster publishing news than I am, but now that I am back from the meeting and the dust has more or less settled, I thought it might still be useful to summarize my overall impressions of the meeting.

The first and most obvious observation is that this meeting is far larger than meetings have been for many years. The final registration for the meeting was over 2150! It was not many years ago that meetings were half that size. This alone speaks volumes to me. It suggests that there is renewed interest in, and enthusiasm for, nuclear power. This interest and enthusiasm is consistent with the upbeat theme of the meeting, "Nuclear Progress!"

The second observation is that there were more younger people at the meeting than there have been in the past. A number of them participated in sessions I attended, and provided thoughtful contributions. For many years, the number of under-30 members and meeting participants remained very small, so it is refreshing to see more new and youthful faces in the audience.

A third observation is that there is a growing interest in communications, including the use of social media. There were two sessions on communications presented as part of the technical program, one on "pro-nuclear advocacy" and the other on "credibility in a digital age." In addition, there was an early evening event for bloggers and participants in ANS's social media group to get together to exchange views, and a late afternoon session another day to discuss what messages ANS and its members should try to bring to the new Congress.

Several speakers, including Marv Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Craig Piercy, ANS's Washington Representative, spoke about the recent national election and the new Congress. Both speakers expressed cautious optimism. While many signs bode well for the nuclear industry, the continuing concern about the Federal budget deficit makes predictions difficult.

Technical sessions covered many of the usual topics, but there is a noticeable interest in topics related to the future of nuclear power, such as "infrastructure development in support of the nuclear renaissance," "nuclear energy growth in emerging markets," and regulatory and other issues related to small modular reactors (for example, emergency planning requirements). In addition, the opening plenary highlighted the significant developments taking place in some of the other major nuclear power countries, including Japan, Russia, France and Canada.

The talk in the halls was also interesting. With the meeting in Nevada and the recent activities in Washington on Yucca Mountain, questions about whether Yucca Mountain is dead and what the Blue Ribbon Commission is going to recommend were on everyone's mind. There is continuing interest and concern about China's very ambitious nuclear power development plans--where will they get sufficient trained staff? how strong is their regulatory oversight? The ANS conference participants didn't seem to be a heavy gambling crowd, and I saw very few people I knew when I walked through the casino, but that didn't stop people from making soft bets on how many new reactors there are likely to be in the next 10-20 years, and where they are likely to be built.

In short, it was an exciting meeting with lots of new developments discussed, and all the participants I spoke to seemed happy to be there. And if they stayed away from the gaming tables, they went home richer instead of poorer.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference:

Not Even a Hurricane Could Stop Us

The 17th Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference (PBNC) took place last week in Cancun, Mexico. I had wondered how successful the conference might be, considering the still fragile state of the world economy, the slowing of some nuclear projects in the United States, and the proximity of the meeting to the upcoming American Nuclear Society meeting. To add to that, as I departed for Mexico, I was keeping a wary eye on Hurricane Richard, which was ominously skirting the area south of Cancun. I was also a little worried that the distractions of the sea and surf might detract from the business of the meeting.

Thus, I was pleased to see a very good turnout for the conference when I arrived in Cancun. While I am sure that some people played hooky at one point or another during the conference to take in a round of golf or a dip in one of the conference hotel's many pools, the meeting provided an excellent forum for an updated discussion of nuclear developments and activities in countries around the Pacific Basin, and occasionally elsewhere. About 300 people from 24 or 25 countries attended the conference.

The Korean industry was out in force, with strong sponsorship of the conference and a coordinated display by five companies in the exhibit hall under the banner "Power of Korean Nuclear Industry." The Korean model did not go unnoticed by some of their competitors, and one of the Japanese plenary speeches referred to the new International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan Company (JINED) as creating a "Team Japan" like the "Team Korea" we were seeing at the conference.

Several of the plenary sessions focused on the themes of "the role of nuclear energy in addressing environmental concerns," "drivers of nuclear energy," and "challenges of nuclear energy" and featured the views of the countries of the Pacific Basin and international organizations on these important issues. Other plenaries addressed other important themes, such as "regulation security and safety," "new reactor construction," "radioactive waste," and "communications." Technical sessions provided more detail in these and other areas.

It would be too much to identify all the plenary speakers, but (perhaps because I have been involved with all these organizations) I would like to note that plenary speakers from the United States included Joe Colvin from the American Nuclear Society, Shane Johnson from the Department of Energy, and Margaret Doane from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Speakers from Australia, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, and Taiwan made plenary presentations. In addition to the Pacific Basin countries, one plenary session included a regulatory perspective from South Africa, and Latin America was also represented. One disappointment was the lack of reports from some of the countries considering or starting nuclear programs, such as Vietnam and Thailand.

In response to questions, the conference organizers announced that they would be posting presentation materials from some of the PBNC sessions on the conference website. As of the date of this posting, selected talks from both plenary and technical sessions on Monday through Wednesday were posted on a special link for presentations.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Small Modular Reactors:

Why Size May Make a Difference

A few weeks ago, I published a post that was primarily a report on a meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on small modular reactors (SMRs). As I was completing the post, I came across a publication by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), an openly anti-nuclear organization, that reiterated some of the same points made in the CSIS presentations, and added others. I did not try to do a complete review of the IEER piece, which raised other issues as well, but simply noted that it had just been published and that it seemed to raise some of the same arguments.

My point in summarizing the CSIS meeting was not to endorse those views, but rather to point out that, for the first time, people are beginning to look at SMRs analytically. In some cases, the voices we are hearing are from responsible organizations that are seriously trying to anticipate problems better than we have done as a society in the past and to address them at the outset rather than scrambling to fix them later. In other cases, anti-nuclear groups who have, perhaps, been caught a little by surprise at the traction SMRs have been getting, are now mobilizing to attack this new vision of nuclear power.

Since I only came across the IEER article at the last minute, I mentioned it solely to note that it raised some of the same safeguards and security concerns that were raised during the CSIS meeting. I meant to come back at some point and explore some of the other concerns the IEER raised, particularly about cost and safety. Fortunately, Charles Barton beat me to it, and on his blog, has provided a number of counterarguments to the IEER positions. Since he is more of an expert than I am in this area, I'm quite pleased to have his analysis available to cite. He specifically addresses the IEER arguments on safety, pointing to historical records of safety performance of past and existing small reactors, novel safety measures in some SMR designs, the evolution of safety measures and practices with operating experience, analytical reasons for having or not having containment, and the experience of the airline industry in mass manufacturing and safety. He also takes on the IEER assertions about SMR costs, noting that they have been selective in their arguments, as well as their claims about SMRs and waste, pointing to the benefits of some of the advanced fuel cycles, particularly Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors and Denatured Molten Salt Reactors.

There will surely be much more said about all these issues before a plant is ever built, but it is good to start getting both sides of the arguments out on the table early.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Yucca Mountain:

A View from Some Experts

The long-standing debate over Yucca Mountain has recently taken a new turn, with action by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down its review, and objections by Members of Congress and others to that decision. Articles in the press and elsewhere have detailed most of the issues, including views on the legality of the action and the confrontation it is causing within the Commission.

Among the actions reported, former NRC Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers has written to the Commissioners and the NRC Inspector General on this matter. His action appears to be related to a recent article he co-authored. Whenever issues such as Yucca Mountain are debated, it is a good idea to recall the history of the issue. The article that he co-authored does so. Therefore, I'd like to take this opportunity to step back and report on that article.

Specifically, the fall issue of the National Academy of Sciences publication, Issues in Science and Technology, carries an article on Yucca Mountain that is well worth seeking out in a library, if you do not have a subscription. (Because it is a subscription publication, I can't link to it.) Co-authored by Luther Carter, Lake Barrett, and Ken Rogers, the article lays out systematically what the issues are and what they think needs to be done.

The authors are all very well qualified to write on this subject. Luther Carter is a journalist who has written extensively on the subject of nuclear waste, Lake Barrett formerly headed the Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, and as noted above, Ken Rogers is a former Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (In the interests of full disclosure, I worked for Ken Rogers for his first term as an NRC Commissioner.)

I will not try to recap all the points made in this article. I will simply note that it covers a number of important points in the long and convoluted history of the Yucca Mountain program, from the early days where three sites were being characterized, to the recent decision by the Administration to terminate the program. It also looks ahead to the decision the NRC needs to make and the role of the Blue Ribbon Commission in addressing waste issues.

The authors have done a considerable service in putting together this history and analysis of the issues and past actions. Despite the fact that many of us have been following this issue for years, pieces of the story have gotten lost over time. For example, most of us know that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 called for the characterization of 3 sites, but that the 1987 revisions to the Act narrowed the scope to just one site, Yucca Mountain. The lore that has built up over this decision is that the State of Nevada was not politically powerful at the time.

This may in fact be true, but the article indicates that decision was also based on the results of the first round of studies, which had identified the Yucca Mountain site as superior to the other two candidates. On this basis, they conclude that "a more tentative or contingent congressional choice of Yucca Mountain would almost certainly have survived an impartial technical review, so in our view the hasty adoption of what soon came to be known as the 'screw Nevada bill' was as unnecessary as it was politically provocative."

The authors conclude by expressing great concern over how "the reputation of the NRC as an independent, trustworthy overseer of the civil nuclear enterprise" may be affected by the way it acts on this matter and expressing the hope that they "reassert the NRC's dignity and independence by upholding their own Yucca Mountain licensing board."

I hope that the points made in this article will be well publicized as the debate proceeds.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nuclear Power Plant Design Contest:

Can Appearance Help?

Several news items in recent weeks have reported that John Ritch of the World Nuclear Association has organized a design contest to come up with a more attractive design for a nuclear power plant. He asserts that "Many plants look little more inspiring than a 100-year-old flour mill. We can and should do better."

He may have a point. I sometimes think I am hearing as many objections to the appearance of the industrial facilities that we depend on as to concerns about health or safety. Certainly, we have seen that people object to windmills marring the unspoiled crests of mountaintops, or the dramatic expanses of ocean. No one likes the look of power lines crossing the landscape. And whenever someone wants to write an article with an anti-nuclear bias, they illustrate it with a photograph of ominous cooling towers casting their shadow over the land, despite the fact that cooling towers are not unique to nuclear power plants.

This concern over appearance is not limited to energy sources. My husband, Mike Marcus, is an expert in wireless telecommunications policy, and he finds that one of the major objections to the cell-phone towers we on which we have come to depend to connect us instantaneously and everywhere in this wireless age is the fact that they are, frankly, ugly projections sticking up in our suburban landscapes. Some have tried to disguise the towers in the form of fake trees, which somehow never seem to match the native flora of the area. Mike has called for a similar contest to design more attractive cell-phone towers.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and I know as many people who think windmills are beautiful as I know who think they mar the landscape. Nevertheless, most people, given a choice, will pick the unspoiled shoreline over the one with cooling towers and buildings with pipes jutting out. And yes, many will succumb to NIMBYism--these things are OK, but not where I can see them--but most, I think, will agree that, whenever possible, a less intrusive profile is better.

Now, I don't think anyone thinks that appearance is the only issue. People will continue to worry about safety, particularly for nuclear power plants, but also for cell-phone towers, high-power transmission lines, and most of the other infrastructure that supports the services that society wants and needs, but whose presence they don't want to see or acknowledge. So, solving the problem of appearance is not the only need.

Still, I recall an old ad that said, "Good taste costs no more." There is no reason why much of our infrastructure needs to be quite as unattractive as some of it is. If designed right from the beginning, many facilities could be made more attractive for minimal additional cost.

And in the case of nuclear power plants, some of the options on the table for future designs might actually work hand-in-hand with efforts to make the sites more attractive. Plants that can be sited underground and plants that need no cooling towers automatically remove some of the visible evidence of a plant's existence. There is still a need for other infrastructure above ground, but the visible footprint should be smaller and less intrusive.

So I wish John Ritch and the World Nuclear Association well as they engage in this new effort to develop more attractive nuclear power plant designs. For those wishing to enter the contest, the contest rules indicate that the deadline for submissions is December 1.

Finally--a reminder that my new book is out. See my earlier post for details, or click on the link to the right to order.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Nuclear Power Milestones:

The Story of Nuclear Power Technology Development

I have been holding my breath for several weeks now. My first book, Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development, was due to be published. I have just received the first copies, so I can finally exhale.

While there have been many histories of nuclear power, most focus on the weapons program and the larger-than-life personalities that helped initiate the nuclear age. In approaching the history this way, a lot of nuclear developments and breakthroughs get short shrift. This book tries to tell the history of nuclear power primarily through the stories of the many technological developments.

Writing the book has turned out to be a revelation for me for me in more ways than one. I really thought I knew what most of the "firsts" were, but as I probed, I found more and more firsts. Ultimately, what I thought would be a couple of dozen "firsts" turned into a list of about 80.

Some facilities and events that I have always thought were firsts have proved not to be. There was a demonstration that used a reactor to produce electricity (albeit only a tiny trickle of 1/3 watt) several years before the 4 light bulbs were lit by the EBR-I in 1951. There was a reactor that put power on the grid in the Soviet Union before it happened in the United States in 1955. There were several small reactors connected to the grid in the United States in the year before Shippingport, a "large" reactor for its time, began operation in 1957, as well as another "large" reactor that began operation in the United Kingdom.

I was equally impressed by the number of important dignitaries of their day who presided at key events such as dedications of nuclear facilities. I was able to get photographs showing kings and queens and US Presidents dedicating new nuclear plants, and even a Pope discussing a new nuclear organization with its founders.

I could say much more, but perhaps the rest is best left for readers to discover for themselves. The book can be ordered by clicking on the icon in the column on the right of this page.

For those who have a further interest in history (as I seem to have these days), I have also done some research on the history and accomplishments of the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency, where I used to work. A review draft of my findings is available.

While both the book and the report are correct to the best of my knowledge, in both cases, there are some gaps in the records I was able to find. If anyone has corrections or additions, I will incorporate the them in future versions, if any, of both the book and the report.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Small Modular Reactors:

A Discussion at CSIS

On September 29, I attended a two-part session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC that addressed several topics related to Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Although there has been a lot of dialogue on SMRs recently, I still thought it might be useful to summarize this meeting, particularly for those outside the Washington, DC area.

Audios of the presentations are available on the CSIS website, so I'll limit my report to a few very selected comments, both from the speakers and the audience, that particularly struck me for one reason or another.

The first part of the meeting featured a presentation by David Solan, Director of the Energy Policy Institute at Boise State University, and Steve Peterson of the University of Idaho on their recent study, "Economic and Employment Impacts of Small Modular Reactors." The study showed the very significant economic and employment impacts that would result from a substantial commitment to SMRs. The study was limited to electricity production, and it did not look at specific SMRs, but rather a "generic" SMR. Several different growth scenarios were studied, and a variety of measures of economic impact (jobs, sales, earnings, etc.) were calculated. Among the results shown were projections of up to 7,000 new jobs and $1.3 billion in sales for the manufacturing and installation of a typical reactor. Unfortunately, the study did not compare any of the results to projections for similar growth of conventional large nuclear power plants or for other technologies, such as solar or wind.

The second part was a panel discussion. The 3 panelists were:

- Edward Arthur, Director of the Center for Non-Proliferation Science and Technology, University of New Mexico
- Thomas TerBush, Nuclear Power Strategy, Communications and Technology Transfer, EPRI
- Sharon Squassoni, Director and Senior Fellow, CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.

The 3 panelists covered a variety of topics, including non-electric applications of SMRs, and predictions of what SMR technologies might move the fastest (LWRs due largely to regulatory familiarity with them). Highlights of the panel discussion were several comments, including some from the audience, on how to get a new technology started. In particular, two comments from the audience pointed to past experience, one noting that previously, demonstration plants were built and operated before they were licensed, and the other noting that when DOD develops new ships, they typically sole source the first-of-a-kind (sometimes to several vendors) in order to test and refine the technology before making multiple orders.

Sharon Squassoni noted that IAEA now indicates that 61 countries are considering starting nuclear power programs, although she expressed concern that a number of them are on the "failed state index" that the Foreign Policy and Fund for Peace jointly publish. She expressed further concern about some of the small reactor technologies that may be marketed, particularly the Russian floating reactors, which could pose security challenges, and the Indian pressurized heavy water reactors, which, if spread further, could be detrimental to safeguards. She also questioned whether we want to see repositories in all the potential nuclear countries for the waste they generate.

In answer to a question on whether the US needed to be marketing SMRs to have influence in the international arena, Ms. Squassoni indicated that she felt the US had influence whether or not it marketed a technology. However, her example was reprocessing, where I think many people would disagree. She also cited Title 5 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 as saying that the US should assist in the development of non-nuclear energy resources in developing countries.

Of course, this was only one 2-hour session on a topic that has received a lot of attention in many venues lately, so it did not cover all issues. In particular, it did not discuss specific SMR technologies in any detail, and there are significant differences among the technologies with respect to some of the areas raised during this meeting, such as economics, safeguards and security. Still, the selection of topics and speakers made it a significant addition to what will surely be a continuing dialogue on this subject.

Late "Newsbreak": As I was completing this posting, I learned that the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and Physicians for Social Responsibility have just published a critique of SMRs that raises several of the same points made by Sharon Squassoni in her remarks.

I am somewhat reminded of the comment about paper reactors, but I now conclude that a paper reactor can either be perfect or terrible, depending on the assumptions. Clearly, the numbers used in this study assume the worst case in every case. Nevertheless, the growing concerns about the potential weaknesses of SMRs will have ot be addressed.


Monday, September 20, 2010

E. Gail de Planque:

In Memoriam

I hate that I'm compelled to write another tribute so soon after I posted the one on Jim Ramey. In the case of Jim, I was recognizing someone who was a major figure in the field, but not one I knew personally. In the case of former NRC Commissioner E. Gail de Planque (NRC bio and more recent bio), who passed away on September 8 of complications of Lyme disease, the loss is personal.

Gail and I have been friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators since the mid-1970s. She preceded me in the ANS hierarchy, and helped me immensely in learning my way through it. Sometimes, one cannot be sure of which seemingly unimportant decisions or actions profoundly influence the course of one's career or life, but I am convinced that, more than once, Gail was behind an action that probably strongly influenced my career.

I was new to ANS and had a notion that a study was needed of the status of women in the ANS. I had no idea how to penetrate the ANS management labyrinth, but somehow, got authorization for a study, and in due course, it was distributed (in those days, by mail). To my surprise, I got a call from her. "What was I going to do with the results?" she asked. I hadn't thought that far ahead, and had no ideas. "This is what you should do," she told me. She laid out a plan for a special session, told me what I needed to do to get it approved, suggested speakers, and offered to co-organize it.

The rest, as they say, was history. After pulling that off successfully--with a good deal of help from her--I was asked to serve on a committee. I never knew if she suggested my name to the president at the time, or if (as I sometimes joked) the management saw that I had energy and ideas and thought they'd channel them in a different direction than I was heading. By the time Gail became president of ANS, she gave me my first committee chair position, and that certainly provided a direct stepping-stone to other ANS activities. Ultimately, some years later, I followed her footsteps as ANS president.

In the meantime, I had the opportunity to work with her in a variety of ANS activities. What always impressed me was how universally liked and respected she was, both for her technical capability and for her people skills. In one memorable meeting, she and I were espousing a position that was voted down. I was ready to fold up my tent--"you win some, you lose some"--but she kept arguing the case, and without polarizing the room or creating any ill will, there was another vote, and, lo and behold, our position prevailed!

Ultimately, she was asked to throw her name in the hat for an NRC Commissioner position. Since I was by that point, a long term government employee, she turned to me for information--on the QT--about the implications of her moving from a career position to an appointed one. For once, I was able to help her.

When it came time for her to move to Washington to take up her post, I was about to move to Japan for 6 months, so in a masterpiece of good luck and good timing for both of us, she was able to house sit for me while she house hunted for herself.

But perhaps the most enduring--and amusing--motif of our long friendship was our bemusement over how people continually mixed up the two of us. Over and over again, people would mistake us. At one memorable meeting in the late 1990s, one person asked her how it felt to have lived in Japan (I'm the one who had done that) while I was asked by another person how it felt to be a past Commissioner! As recently as this past November, someone came up behind me at an ANS meeting and said "Hello, Dr. de Planque."

Now, the confusion between us might seem understandable at some level, but when the layers were peeled away, it was still puzzling. Yes, we both used the same given name, and when we were in our twenties, we both had long, dark hair and were shorter than average (although she was taller than I am). Still, as she would always point out, there are lots of Jims and Bobs and Johns, and no one ever mistakes one for another. As we got older, her hair turned prematurely white, so physically, we certainly didn't think we looked alike. However, by then, we had both worked at both the NRC and DOE (although in a different order, a different DOE office, and different positions), had both served as ANS president, and in fact, she had lived in my house and used my phone number for 6 months. (Don't get me started on the confusion that caused after I returned and found myself responding "yes" when someone asked for Gail, only to figure out part way through the conversation that they meant the other Gail.)

While we found it irritating, it was also amusing--and for me, rather flattering. So, like everyone else with whom she worked, I am terribly saddened at this loss and will miss her a great deal. But perhaps most of all, I will miss those cases of mistaken identity and the chance for us to caucus, like excited schoolgirls and bemoan the fact that no one could tell us apart.

Note added September 30: Since the publication of this posting, obituaries have appeared in both the New York Times and the Washington Post providing additional details about Gail de Planque's life and information about a planned memorial service. The links to the two notices are: Times obituary and Post obituary.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Women in Nuclear:

The Changing Landscape

This posting deviates from the usual discussions of technical and policy issues. As someone who started in the nuclear field when the number of women in the field were few and far between, I was delighted to read a recent article in the Boston Globe about women in high level nuclear positions. The article focuses most on nuclear security positions, but the trend is evident elsewhere as well.

One of my few claims to fame is that I was (to my knowledge) the first woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering. Someone else followed me a short time later. Today, I have lots of company. When I started at MIT as an undergraduate, the entire freshman class (all fields) was only about 5% women. Today, the freshman class is about 45% women. I won't even get started on the remarks thrown at me in the course of my career. One of these days, I may write a book about them.

In the mid-1970s, I did a survey of women in nuclear engineering (published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1975, but not available electronically). I truly thought that the field that had women making key contributions from the earliest days (think Marie Curie and Lise Meitner) would have been more inclusive. It wasn't. I still sometimes find myself the only woman in the room at meetings of senior level people and in specialized groups. At such times, I have fleeting thoughts that things have not yet changed enough. However, in most widely attended conferences and other gatherings today, the demographics look a lot different.

I think that having more women in the nuclear field bodes well for the field in more ways than one. Clearly, it is always good to have a larger pool of talented people from which to draw, and our pool has enlarged now that more women--and minorities--are entering the field.

But the nuclear field, in particular, has suffered from the fact that different segments of society have far different views of nuclear power, and in particular, women have consistently been less favorable toward nuclear power than have men. I can't help but think that having more women in the profession speaking at public meetings, having more women visibly working in the field, and having more opportunities in the field for young women starting their careers may help change this equation.

Of course, there are still hurdles. Another piece of news in the last few days, that women earned more PhDs last year than men, sounded like good news, but really contained a mixed message, as 80% of the engineering doctorates still went to men. Therefore, I was glad to learn that, this past spring, the American Nuclear Society's Northeastern New York Section participated in an annual event at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to encourage high school girls to pursue careers in technical fields.

I look forward to the day when the equal participation of men and women in technical fields will be so normal that no one will even write about it any more.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

James T. Ramey:

Remembering A Nuclear Pioneer

Nearly a week ago, the news carried an obituary for one of the early commissioners of the Atomic Energy Commission, James T. Ramey. I have been surprised not to have seen more tributes to his contributions than I have so far. Perhaps I can partially make up for that now.

Jim Ramey (second from the right in the photograph above) served on the AEC for more than a decade, from 1962 to 1973, during a period when nuclear power enjoyed great popularity and there were many plans for new plants. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to know Ramey personally, as I was just beginning my career as he ended his term on the AEC, and was not yet hobnobbing with the giants of the industry. Therefore, I can't offer any personal anecdotes or reminiscences in this posting.

Nevertheless, he was one of the people I kept hearing about and hoping I would meet someday. I never did have that opportunity, but when I saw the news of his death, I had an opportunity to learn more about him. In addition to the reports in the obituaries, his passing spurred me to do a little of my own research on him, and what I've learned from all the sources combined is impressive.

I won't repeat the stories about his background covered in the link to this posting, which are impressive in their own right. However, I think the best tribute I've seen is contained in one of J. Samuel Walker's comprehensive books on the history of nuclear regulation in the United States. In particular, his book, Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963-1971, describes Jim Ramey as follows:

"Ramey's experience with atomic programs, along with his knowledge, energy, and commitment, made him an active and influential participant in a broad range of AEC activities. From the time he joined the Commission, he took greater sustained interest in regulatory affairs than any other commissioner. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when opposition to nuclear power was becoming increasingly visible, he did more than any of his colleagues to reach out to nuclear critics in an effort to address their concerns and find common ground. His attentiveness to regulatory issues did not mean that he had curbed his enthusiasm for rapid nuclear development; one industry official described him in 1966 as 'industry's best friend on the Commission.' Rather, it suggested that he recognized more clearly than his fellow commissioners the intimate and inseparable relationship between safety questions and industry growth. He realized that a major nuclear accident would be a severe setback to nuclear progress, but he also worried that excessive regulation or public apprehension would have a similar effect. He guarded against actions that would impose what he viewed as unnecessary burdens on the industry or raise public fears."

Having served as a senior staff member at the NRC many years later, including for 5 years as an assistant to Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, I can only say that Jim Ramey had great foresight. The same issues that he understood and tackled, apparently before others did, are issues that continue to be important today.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Comparative Energy Risks:

Risks from Severe Accidents

The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has just published a new study entitled "Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources." The full report can be downloaded from the NEA's list of recent publications. It provides a very useful summary of trends in performance indicators and in the predicted severe accident risk from nuclear power operations. However, the most interesting section for most people will be the comparative analysis of the deaths from severe accident risks for different energy technologies.

The NEA report draws on a collection of data from the Paul Scherrer Institute, a research center with in Switzerland that has a strong background in the energy sciences.

The key comparative information is contained in the table and figures on pages 35 and 36. It should be noted that the table (shown below) deals only with immediate fatalities. For nuclear power, of course, immediate fatalities do not provide a complete picture of the accident consequences. The NEA report addresses this issue in the narrative analysis on the subsequent pages, using some conservative estimates for the number of potential latent fatalities. In the narrative analysis, the NEA report also attempts to discuss latent effects of other energy sources, such as effects due to fine particulate emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. Add Image
While it would have been nice to see some of the latent fatality data incorporated into the table as well, I do recognize the difficulties. The report does try to make some of these comparisons in the figures, as well as in the discussion. However, I am quite sure that many people won't read beyond the table.

Another notable observation from the data is the far different safety performance between OECD countries and non-OECD countries for most of the energy technologies. Although I am sure a country-by-country comparison would show a more complex picture (i.e., some of the non-OECD countries may have better safety statistics than some OECD countries), the data clearly show that for coal, oil, and hydropower, the performance of the non-OECD countries as a group seriously lags that of the OECD countries as a group. In the case of coal, they show that China has an even more dismal record than the non-OECD countries as a group.

With only one "severe" nuclear accident (the definition of a severe accident for this report is one with more than 5 fatalities) in the mix, one cannot make any direct comparisons. However, for me, it reinforces a concern that the entry of new countries into the sphere of nuclear power operators is not an unmixed blessing. As noted above, there are surely some non-OECD countries with high standards and good safety records in other areas, and these countries can undoubtedly develop a nuclear safety program to the high standards necessary for this technology. But there are other countries where the situation is very different. The supplier countries, together with the International Atomic Energy Agency, need to find a way to assure that the kinds of differences we see between OECD and non-OECD countries for coal, oil and hydro do not emerge for nuclear.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Responding to Nuclear Myths:

John Ritch Takes on the "Red Herrings"

Nuclear Energy Insider recently published an excellent synopsis of a speech given by John Ritch that I thought merited mention here. John, the Director General of the World Nuclear Association, spoke at the graduation ceremony of the Sixth Annual Summer Institute of the World Nuclear University on August 14 in Oxford, England.

John, who has had a distinguished career in Washington, DC and as the US ambassador to the United Nations organizations in Vienna, Austria--among them, the International Atomic Energy Agency--is an outstanding speaker, so it is no surprise that the excerpts of his speech published in the Nuclear Energy Insider hit the key issues head-on.

John terms the issues "red herrings." For readers who may not be familiar with idiomatic American speech, a red herring is a diversionary issue. John comments that "it sometimes seems that nuclear professionals are condemned to swim in a sea of these fish."

In his speech, John identifies 6 such issues:

1. Proliferation: He makes several points about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the role he sees that it has had in maintaining a generally stable nuclear weapons situation. He acknowledges the remaining issues, but the key point he makes, in my opinion, is that "these issues would exist with or without the global renaissance in peaceful nuclear power."

2. Operational Safety: Here, John cites the statistics, highlighting the 14,100+ years of reactor operating experience in the world today.

3. Affordability: John takes on the claim the claims that nuclear power is heavily subsidized by the government, noting that research support is not an operational subsidy, and pointing out that the fee required from operators for the loan guarantees actually bring revenues into the government. He acknowledges, however, that industry faces a challenge to reduce the capital costs of new nuclear power.

4. Waste: After noting the small volume of nuclear waste, he points out that this is a government problem, and that several governments--he mentions Finland, Sweden and Russia, among others--have made strides in addressing the issue.

5. Terrorism: He feels concerns have been exaggerated, and that any radiological device is likely to come from a source such as a hospital rather than from a nuclear power facility.

6. New Red Herrings: He cites 3--shortages of fuel, people, and key equipment. (In my view, this really makes 8 red herrings--and I could probably add a few more that I know of--but this is a very slight quibble.) John asserts that all 3 are not intractable problems--a combination of new ore discoveries and mining techniques, reprocessing, breeders reactors and the thorium fuel cycle will assure ample and affordable fuel supplies for a long time; and supply and demand will assure that the people and the manufacturing facilities will grow to meet the emerging needs.

The above provides only excerpts of the excerpts from the Nuclear Energy Insider, so John undoubtedly fleshed out some of these areas more than I am able to do here. I myself would have liked to see what else he had to say in several of these areas, particularly on terrorism. However, even in abbreviated form, his speech provides a number of points that are useful to keep in mind when you find yourself swimming in a sea of red herrings.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

When the Lights go Out:


A couple of weeks ago, the Washington area had what I hope is a wake-up call on the importance of a reliable supply of electricity in our lives today.

As was widely reported, a severe thunderstorm left a widespread power outage in its wake, and the ensuing recovery was slow. I myself was without electricity for about 50 hours--and some of the aftermath of the outage lingered several weeks longer, which is why I haven't written about this sooner. In any event, it reminded me of how totally dependent we are on electricity today, as if I needed such a reminder.

Of course, I hasten to say that this particular outage was not a problem of insufficient or intermittent supply, so some might say that it is not relevant to compare this situation to what might happen if some of our reliable baseload power sources are replaced by intermittent ones. Nevertheless, I think it is relevant to the degree that I could see how rapidly life deteriorated without electricity.

It may take a day or two for food in the refrigerator and freezer to spoil, but modern communications, from the humble telephone to the computer, all require electricity, so those were gone immediately. And the backup cellphone is only good until it needs to be recharged. Thank goodness I had a neighbor who needed a backup generator--for their tropical fish! (Hence the illustration for this posting.)

Others might say that human beings once lived comfortably without electricity, so we should be able to endure occasional outages. Or, that billions of people in the world still live without electricity, or with inadequate and unreliable electricity. True, but shouldn't our expectations be higher--for everyone?

The truth is that in the United States, just about everything in our lives is now dependent on electricity. Even the gas stove has an electric starter. Of course, you can still use a backup, but the assumption clearly is that we will have electricity 24/7. Or else, why has everything electronic that we own been designed with a clock that needs to be reset every time the power flickers?!

Of course, even with a generally reliable energy supply, we are still subject to the whims of nature, as the recent thunderstorm so spectacularly demonstrated. But that was (where I live, at least) once in over 30 years. This storm more than convinced me that I would not want this to happen--even for a couple of hours--every time the wind stopped blowing or every time we had a couple of days of heavy cloud cover.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against renewables. I think they have a place. My point is that every energy source has pluses and minuses. The intermittent nature of renewables is, in my view, a very big minus for those sources. So far, all the solutions I have seen will probably increase the cost of renewables to unacceptable levels, and will probably undercut the environmental benefits when you consider the environmental footprint of the backup sources. Baseload sources, including nuclear power, also have both pluses and minuses. However, on the scale of availability and reliability, there is no contest.

I may be spoiled by the fact that I've enjoyed the benefits of electricity, but I don't think it's wrong to want those benefits. After all, over time, hasn't technology, from the invention of the wheel onwards, lifted all of us from a world where most human beings lived short and brutal lives?

I just hope all the Washingtonians who were without power for days this summer remember this when it is time to make decisions that involve future electricity supplies.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Reactor Designs:

Comparative Assessments

With the proliferation of possible new reactor design concepts bombarding us recently, it is encouraging to see some efforts starting that can help us compare the claims of the competing ideas on similar grounds. The first such effort to come to my attention is a recent article in IEEE Spectrum. Amusingly, the article is titled "Reactors Redux" in the hard copy of the journal, and "Nuclear Reactor Renaissance" on the Internet.

Perhaps I've missed some other comparative assessments, but most of what I have seen to date are claims by the proponents of each individual technology. If I have seen independent analyses at all, they have been targeted toward a particular technology, and did not provide a sense of where that technology stood with respect to others. Since some of the new design concepts are very different from current operating nuclear power plants, it is really helpful to have assessments that compare technologies on more or less equal terms.

The IEEE Spectrum article is at least a start in the right direction. Unfortunately, it doesn't go as far as I would have liked. And quite a few other people share that view, judging by the comments. A more serious flaw, in my view, is that the article does not provide a clear rationale for why they picked the designs they picked. Did they judge these to be the best of the crop? Were these the ones for which they had the most information? It makes a difference. The comments help in identifying some of the other potential options.

One could also argue that this article does not do an in-depth assessment of every one of the technologies. Clearly, it would not be sufficient to make a decision among the options, but that was not its purpose. It does help the reader understand in general terms some of the major issues associated with each technology, including the very important issue of its status of development.

I am aware that there are now other such efforts underway, and the coming months should provide us more and better comparisons between competing technologies. In particular, I know that Ed Kee of NERA Economic Consulting is presently starting a study that should greatly exceed the scope of the IEEE Spectrum article--covering more designs and more issues at greater depth. That study should be a great contribution to the dialogue. There will hopefully also be other articles in general technical publications in the future.

Until then, this article at least starts to put things in perspective for those of us with insufficient time or energy to have probed the details for ourselves.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Highway and a Power Line:

The Difference is in Your Perspective

Dan Yurman, the publisher of the excellent nuclear blog, Idaho Samizdat, recently posted a message to a Social Media group mentioning how 1970s environmental groups in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, led the fight to stop the development of major new highways and road improvements. His point was that the environmentalists did so in an effort to stop suburban growth, loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, etc., but that the actual outcome was that the growth occurred anyway and that the main outcome was Washington's well-known impossible traffic jams.

His mention of the story, however, reminded me of another point, one based on a personal memory. I had recently moved to the Washington area then (and for those of you who are doing the math, I must have been 5 years old at the time!), and was living in Northern Virginia. My husband, who is an IEEE member, received a notice about an IEEE local section event featuring an executive from the local utility company as a speaker. Hoping to hear about their nuclear program, I joined him at the meeting.

For reasons that are unclear to me, the MC for the event, in addition to providing the usual information about the speaker's distinguished background and career, also wanted to share with us what a good, civic-minded citizen the speaker was. What he told us was that the speaker was leading a fight against a highway that had been proposed for the area, and that we all had him to thank for the fact that the highway was not going to come through our backyards.

Now, I would not have thought very much about this at all, as I really had no opinion at all about the highway. Indeed, I would long since have forgotten the whole evening except for the fact that, when the speaker took the podium, his main message was the need for more high-power transmission lines. In fact, he spent a fair amount of time bemoaning all the misguided citizens who were fighting his company because they didn't want one of those in their backyards. For some reason, he was totally oblivious to the irony of all this, but for my husband and me, it turns out to be the only thing we remember from that evening.

The message to me is clear. We need transmission lines, we need highways, we need green space. Everything has got to go in someone's backyard. Obviously, it's not easy to strike a balance, but it does seem to me that those of us in the business of energy supply should not turn a blind eye to the needs of transportation or other essential sectors. If anything, we should be taking a lead in helping to look at the picture in the broadest possible way. I was very interested to see that this was just the conclusion that Dan came to in recounting the results of the failure to build that highway.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Energy Sources, Pros and Cons:

No Free Lunch

Those of us in the nuclear business figured out a long time ago that there is no such thing as a perfect energy source. While the risks and shortcomings of nuclear power seem to have gotten most of the press over the years, as other energy sources are being promoted more and more, the downsides of those sources are also beginning to emerge.

I have been collecting some of the "newer" (at least to me) concerns about non-nuclear energy sources that I've seen mentioned in the press and elsewhere, and from time to time, I will share what I've collected. This posting will provide the first installment.

I hasten to say that I have not investigated every one of these concerns in great detail. Some, it seems to me, are most likely overblown. Others may not be very serious or may be easily overcome. Still, the very fact that concerns are emerging should, I hope, demonstrate to the general public that no alternative is entirely benign.

Environmental Impacts of Solar Arrays

I have already commented on the fact that environmentalists have expressed concern about the environmental impacts of solar arrays. The issue continues to crop up. In fact, I had a comment to a previous posting from a reader that he shares the concern about the impact of large solar arrays on the desert. I am not insensitive to this concern. I had really noted the argument because, at the time, I was surprised that environmentalists were coming out against a solar power project. The recent article explains that the environmentalists are just against large arrays. They support the idea of building rooftop solar collectors and backyard windmills.

The problem I see is that not everyone lives in a suburban neighborhood with a sun-drenched roof. We also have to meet the needs of large urban populations, people in tree-covered neighborhoods, industry, commercial buildings, etc. The proponents of roof-top collectors are silent on how to meet the needs of the entire population. In an effort, perhaps, to show they are open-minded, one of their arguments is that we shouldn't rush into building large solar arrays. We should should stick to rooftop collectors for now, and should study large arrays more before building them.

I scratch my head in puzzlement, because other projections I hear assert that we shouldn't launch new nuclear power projects because they take too long to build, and we don't have the time to wait. Hmmm....

Manufacturing Impacts of Solar Arrays

One issue that I've personally long wondered about has also finally surfaced, and that is the possible environmental impacts of manufacturing solar cells due to the toxic chemicals involved. The article reports that there is now a citizen suit in Spokane, Washington seeking to halt the construction and start-up of a chemical plant for silicon production. The suit alleges a history of permit violations, chemical releases and accidents by the company in the past.

Now, I am not going to defend any company that violates laws. Every company should be required to meet all applicable laws and rules, especially those affecting public or worker health and safety and the environment. No one wants an industrial neighbor with a bad track record, although in this case, it was unclear whether the citizens would be satisfied with a company with a clean track record. Knowing that manufacturing solar arrays is an industrial process like any other, and that it involves toxic chemicals, it strikes me that even a solar manufacturing plant operated by a company with an impeccable record might not be a popular neighbor.

If both the manufacturing facilities and the solar arrays are potentially going to meet strong public opposition, I again wonder what realistic solution will meet public approval.

Offshore Windmills and Marine Life

We have already heard many objections to windmills from an aesthetic perspective, and from the perspective of impacts on migrating birds. A more recent report is that the noise of offshore wind turbines poses a threat to porpoises. The article notes that there are ways to reduce the noise, but they are costly. Again, I'm no expert on the effects of noise on aquatic mammals, but I have heard enough concerns about Navy sonars and whale migrations to know that this is an issue. Nor do I have any quantification of the cost of reducing the noise to acceptable levels. The article relates to porpoises in the Baltic Sea, but one would have to assume that the concern would apply to many other locations.

• Solar Panels and Insects

Perhaps a lower level of concern is a recent report that solar panels can attract breeding water insects. The shiny black solar cells reportedly can attract water insects away from breeding areas. I am not clear on whether this is really likely to impact insect populations seriously, and whether there are any larger potential effects (mosquito control, for example) of concern. In fact, I might have thought the big problem is not the loss of insects, but perhaps reduced efficiency of the collectors if some of the surface is covered. Furthermore, in this case, there appears to be a relatively easy fix--applying white grids or other additions to the surface of the solar cells to break up the polarized reflection of the light that deludes the insects into thinking the solar cells are water and depositing their eggs there. However, such grids or other modifications come at a cost--they cover some of the solar cell surface and therefore reduce the solar energy generated by up to a couple of percent.

I report these problems not to suggest that we cannot use solar cells or offshore windmills, but rather to point out that even the sources of energy that people consider the most benign may have environmental problems, ranging from small, solvable ones to large, intractable ones.

I actually regard it as a good sign that people are thinking about these kinds of impacts now. At the very least, this recognition should help us plan for the future with a fuller understanding of the pros and cons and to make more rational decisions on what we are willing to live with. In the past, industrial developments of all kinds have often been implemented without adequate anticipation of environmental and human impacts, especially as the scale of deployment increased. If we have learned that lesson and now project and plan for such impacts in advance, be they to porpoises, or water-breeding insects, or anything else, I see that as an improvement.

Of course, there is still a chance that the concerns could stall needed progress altogether, and we could end up deferring or rejecting the tougher decisions and hope that a few solar arrays on rooftops will solve our problems. However, I am optimistic that most people, and particularly the decision makers, are beginning to realize that every source of energy has pros and cons, that no alternative is without some risk or some human or environmental impact, and that the risk of doing nothing could ultimately have far more serious impacts--on public health and safety, the environment, and the economy--than does the risk of implementing a robust mix of energy supply options. In fact, I dare to think that the growing recognition of the concerns related to the use of solar and wind technologies is beginning to put the risks and benefits of all energy technologies in perspective--and that, in turn, is continuing to raise the interest in nuclear energy for the future.