Friday, March 19, 2010

Another Sign of the Nuclear Renaissance:

Growing Student Interest in Nuclear Studies

Ever since my own days in college, I have been following with some interest trends in student enrollment in various subjects. I have watched enrollment in aeronautical engineering rise and fall with the changing fate of the SST (supersonic transport, for those too young to remember) and the space program, enrollment in business programs rise with the explosive growth of the dot com era, and enrollment in environmental engineering rise with the emerging interest in climate change.

To put it briefly, just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money is," students flock to certain fields because that's where they think the jobs will be.

This juxtaposition of thoughts is certainly not intended to condone robbing banks! Nor is it intended to insult the way students choose fields. On the contrary, in the case of the students choosing career paths, to me it reflects the ability of college-age students to take a long view when making such crucial decisions.

Thus, I was pleased to have an opportunity this week to visit Virginia Tech and to meet with professors and students involved in the new nuclear option there. What is particularly remarkable to me is the rapid growth of student interest over a very short time period. The program started only a couple of years ago, and there are now over 200 students who are connected in some way with the new nuclear option. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that Virginia Tech doesn't even offer a degree as yet. That must be approved by the State of Virginia. Therefore, the students pursuing this option will, at present, receive a degree in another field of engineering and will get only a certificate in nuclear engineering. Needless to say, the current faculty is overwhelmed and the school is recruiting new faculty for the program.

I am aware that this trend is mirrored in other schools around the country, and perhaps around the world. This is the first time I have had an opportunity to see it firsthand.

One other element of the Virginia Tech story really struck me. I am currently completing a book on milestones in nuclear history. When I looked at educational programs, I learned that Virginia Tech had one of the early nuclear programs in the early 1950s. (It didn't quite make the cut to be included in the book, as other university programs had preceded it. However, it was among the leaders in establishing such programs.) Like many other academic programs around the country, it was phased out in the mid-1980s. Thus, the revival of a program at Virginia Tech is truly a sign of a renaissance of interest in the nuclear field.

I should not neglect to mention that the rebirth of the Virginia Tech program has been helped significantly by a grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This award was one of a number of grant awards in several categories administered by the NRC that are clearly having a significant positive effect on the ability of universities to meet the growing demand for trained nuclear engineers.

If student interest is any indicator, the coming generation is optimistic about the future of nuclear power. That should be an encouraging sign for all of us.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Principles of Good Regulation:

A Little History

I just spent much of the past week at the annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC) put on by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Rockville, Maryland. This is the 22nd year the conference has been run, and it has gotten bigger and better every year. Registration this year topped 2700, and attendees came from all over the United States and the world.

While many blogs could be written on the different sessions and discussions held at the meeting, I'd like to focus today on one theme that was of particular interest to me--that is, references by several speakers during the meeting to the importance of NRC's Principles of Good Regulation.

The first to convey this message was NRC's Executive Director for Operations, Bill Borchardt, in his remarks during the opening plenary of the conference. After commenting that this year marks the 35th anniversary of the NRC, he stated that the Agency "remains dedicated to the Principles of Good Regulation."

In the final plenary session the same day, Commissioner Kristine Svinicki expanded upon this theme. She read the five principles aloud to the audience, and discussed their importance and relevance to the Commission's activities. Reading the full text of the Principles reminded the audience not only of the Principles themselves (Independence, Openness, Efficiency, Clarity, and Reliability), but of key points in the explanations of each of these Principles.

The following day, Brew Barron, President and CEO of Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, raised the Principles yet again during a panel discussion on operating new reactors. In reference to a question on improving the amendment process, he cited Commissioner Svinicki's mention of the Principles of Good Regulation and opined that these provide direction to take the time to get the amendments right, and then they "should be dependable."

The repeated references to the Principles of Good Regulation was of particular interest to me because I had, shall we say, more than a passing involvement in their formation.

The real credit for the concept of the Principles of Good Regulation belongs to Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, for whom I worked at the time. About 20 years ago, during one of our staff meetings, we were discussing how NRC viewed its role and how it was viewed by others. In the course of the discussion, Commissioner Rogers said that he thought NRC needed to articulate the key principles that should guide its behavior.

He threw out a few ideas, which became the basis for the document we eventually developed, and assigned me the job of completing and fleshing out the details. The process of developing the document represented collaboration at its best. Not only did I meet frequently with the Commissioner to discuss various ideas and nuances, but I also met with assistants for each of the other Commissioners, as well as with some senior NRC managers, to iron out differences in points of view.

One important objective Commissioner Rogers and I had for the document was to clarify that regulatory independence did not mean that we should operate in a vacuum. We had seen too many cases, both within the staff and outside, of people who thought that independence meant isolation. We tried hard to find the words to describe what we thought independence should mean.

We also thought it was critical to assure that NRC focused its attention in the right places, and that its regulations helped licensees focus their attention in the right places, so we gave a lot of attention to finding language that would emphasize the linkage regulation should have to the potential risk, and that would clarify how resource requirements were to be considered.

We were aware that one major industry concern was that NRC's regulations were a moving target. We tried to address this concern by enunciating the idea that NRC should seek stability in its requirements, and that there must be sufficient justification for change. In the process of developing the key points of the document, we also sought to address other considerations, such as the need for timely action, and the importance of openness and clarity.

Every word and phrase was the subject of discussion. Which items rose to the top as key principles, and which words were explanatory. How much explanation was needed to get the point across. What could be misinterpreted if we didn't quality it. All the other offices took this project seriously, raising valid points and making valuable suggestions. In the end, I worked with Commissioner Rogers to synthesize everything we had heard.

Most of the basic ideas in the Principles of Good Regulation were not completely new to the NRC. Qualities such as independence and openness had long been considered objectives of Agency performance. However, the explanatory statements helped focus attention on the most important performance measures and helped assure that everyone understood all the goals in the same way.

The principles were adopted by the Agency in late 1990 or early 1991. Posters were printed with the complete text of the Principles and they were distributed widely within the Agency. However, slowly, as people moved offices and as people moved on, I saw fewer and fewer of the posters, and heard the Principles mentioned less and less often. While I was convinced that they did become part of the Agency culture, I sometimes wondered if very many people knew of the document or its exact words.

Thus, I was delighted to hear so many prominent references to them at the recent RIC. Pride of authorship aside, I think they did help serve to focus the attention of NRC staff on what behaviors were critical to being good regulators, and what balance was necessary to provide regulation that was efficient and effective. They also put the rest of the world on notice as to what should be expected of NRC.

Of course, following such principles is, and always will be, a work in progress. I'm sure that people inside and outside the Agency could point to times within the last 20 years where NRC fell short. However, to a very large extent, I think, the promulgation of a set of Principles of Good Regulation has helped the Agency focus its efforts, and has helped those outside the NRC understand better how NRC should operate.

Thus, even if I had had nothing to do with the creation of this document, I would have been pleased to hear the comments at the RIC. Having helped produce the document, hearing it discussed nearly 20 years later was even more of a pleasure.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thomas Pigford:

His Legacy for Us

Dr. Thomas H. Pigford, another icon in the story of nuclear power development, died this past week. Dr. Pigford is well known to many in the nuclear profession for his long and productive career, and for the number of important and lasting contributions he made to the nuclear field.

Of all his many accomplishments, I would like to focus on one that may, at first, seem very small. In reading the obituaries summing up his life's work (for example, the obituary in the New York Times), I was particularly struck by a comment he made as a member of the commission that investigated the accident at Three Mile Island:

“Every technology imposes a finite degree of risk upon society, both in its routine operation and in the occurrence of accidents,” he wrote. “The essential question is the trade-off between the risks and the benefits."

How true that was in weighing the effects of that accident and how true that is today.

This is a statement made 30 years ago that is still not sufficiently understood today by members of the public. Yes, those of us with technical training and experience understand the statement, but the larger population seems not to understand. We still hear concerns about the risks of nuclear power plants as though there were no risks at all from other technologies.

I do not know what risks were on Dr. Pigford's mind when he made that statement, but I would go further than health and safety risks and point also to the risks to national security of relying on resources from unstable parts of the world.

In thinking these last few days about Dr. Pigford's legacy, it seems to me that his work isn't done. Maybe this is something we in the nuclear field already all know and do, but reading his words from a generation ago has reminded me that, when we talk to others outside our profession, we need to continue the challenge of putting into context the risks and benefits of all technologies.

As we mourn the passing of another of the great early figures of nuclear technology, we can honor his memory by trying to further the public understanding of this very important message.