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.