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.