Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nuclear Power after Fukushima:

New Directions?

At the end of each year, I like to take stock of the past year and to try to guess what it may mean for the year ahead. This year is a complex year for doing that. While there have been many good signs this year--the start of construction of the first UAE reactor, a variety of licensing actions in the U.S., and progress in several other countries--the year has, of course, been dominated by the accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Japan.

Much of the discussion so far has focused on what the implications of Fukushima are in the near term. I have been trying to read the tea leaves as to what the accident might mean for the longer term future of nuclear power--that is, after we have implemented any modifications to existing reactors and to reactors currently under construction or in the planning pipeline. I have written and spoken on this subject in several venues in the last few months. Most recently, an article I wrote for the ASME Mechanical Engineering journal on "Nuclear Power After Fukushima" was published. (I understand the link to the ASME website may not be maintained, so if clicking on the title fails to bring up the article, as an alternative, I have posted a PDF of the article on my personal website.)

While I have no reliable way to predict the future, I have seen repeated references to the fact that some of the more advanced designs now on the drawing board would not have been vulnerable to the main problems that plagued the Fukushima reactors. This has led me to believe that the accident could give additional impetus to what was already a growing interest in advanced reactor technologies and/or small modular reactor (SMR--also sometimes "small and medium reactor") designs.

Some of the characteristics that seem to be of particular relevance include the use of coolants other than water and the ability of some reactors to continue to be cooled by natural circulation. These two factors alone would make the long-term loss of cooling water and offsite power much less important, and could also allow siting away from tsunami--or flood--prone coastlines or river shorelines. (I mention non-water-cooled technologies only to illustrate a point, and note that there are water-cooled SMR design concepts that should also have less vulnerability to Fukushima-type events.)

On the other hand, of course, these reactors are still on the drawing board, and I am very mindful of Admiral Rickover's famous quote about paper reactors vs. real reactors. To paraphrase: a reactor (or, for that matter, any other complex technological device) that is still under development always looks perfect; it is when you start to build it that all the problems materialize. (But do look up the original quote--it's so much better!) Much more work remains to be done to demonstrate that the advanced reactors will perform as anticipated--and even more importantly, that we do not introduce new vulnerabilities. The Mechanical Engineering article discusses some of the issues in greater detail for those who are interested.

One interesting side note about the issue of the journal in which the article appears is that this is a special issue, and the topics for the articles in the issue were selected by "crowd sourcing." Using that process, the subject of advanced reactors was identified as one topic of reader interest. I was pleased to learn of that interest and to contribute my thoughts on the subject, and particularly on how the Fukushima events might shape the development of such designs.

With that, I'd like to wish everyone all the best for the New Year! See you back here next year!


Friday, December 23, 2011

The NRC in Happier Days:

My Personal Experience

As we continue to hear of the dysfunction within the NRC, some may wonder about how the agency has operated in the past. Indeed, so far, the only comparisons I have seen to the past are of other times when the agency did not work at its best. This tends to leave the impression that the agency's performance ranges from poor to miserable. That is not the case! Since I worked as a technical assistant to a Commissioner for 4-1/2 years in what, in retrospect, was a very good time, I thought it might be useful to recount how well the NRC can function.

I began working for Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers in late 1987, a few months after he became a Commissioner, and continued to work for him until mid-1992, around the time his first term ended. During that period, there were 3 different Chairmen:

• Lando Zech (chairman from 7/1/86 to 6/30/89),
• Kenneth Carr (chairman from 7/1/89-6/30/91), and
• Ivan Selin (chairman for his whole tenure, from 7/1/91 to 6/30/95).

Also during this time, there were a total of 5 other Commissioners:

• Tom Roberts (8/3/81 to 6/30/90),
• Fred Bernthal (8/4/83 to 6/30/88),
• Jim Curtiss (10/20/88 to 6/30/93),
• Forrest Remick (12/1/89 to 6/30/94), and
Gail de Planque (12/16/91 to 6/30/95).

(Official bios for all the past Commissioners can be found on the NRC website. The extra link to Commissioner de Planque was my tribute to her after her death last year.)

In a career that has included several jobs truly exceptional positions, I can honestly say that working in the office of an NRC Commissioner was one of the best jobs I've held. Part of this, of course, was because Commissioner Rogers was a great boss. But environment is also always important, and part of what made the job such fun was that the atmosphere among the Commissioners at the time was generally co-operative and respectful.

Looking back, I am almost amazed to recall how little party affiliation mattered in our day-to-day activities. I could go into the office of any of the other Commissioners and feel they were open and honest in sharing information and viewpoints. The Commissioners did not always vote the same way, but we did not have the number of 4-1 splits that we have recently seen. And when the Commissioners disagreed, it was not necessarily along party lines and there was no animosity. As a technical assistant, I spent a fair amount of my time working with the other offices to try to assure that we understood their viewpoints and they understood ours, and to look for ways, when possible, to accommodate all the critical interests. Even when we couldn't work everything out, the discussions were always based on solid technical grounds, and the interactions were always civil.

It is true that the atmosphere among the Commissioners has changed over time, and I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that I'm saying that everything used to be perfect. I think there was a time before I joined the Commission staff that things hadn't been as good. I know there was a time in the late 1990s when things deteriorated pretty badly. That history keeps coming up as a comparison to the present Commission. But most other times, and certainly most of the time between the late 1990s and the present Commission, my understanding is that the Commission functioned very much as I experienced it.

I do not know for sure what characteristics help lead to a co-operative Commission versus a dysfunctional one. During most of my tenure as a Commissioner's assistant, the Chairmen were ex-Admirals. Admirals clearly know how to lead and how to get people to work together for a common goal. That kind of background has to be helpful. Commissioner Rogers was a former university President. If anyone has to deal with a diverse assortment of individuals with strong views and a sense of independence, it is probably a university president. But other successful NRC Chairmen and Commissioners have come from diverse backgrounds.

So there is no one formula for success, and I would be hard put to be able to recommend how to "fix" the current problem. A commitment to change among the present Chairman and Commissioners may be enough to turn the tide. However, that will be difficult. There is clearly a lot of ill will to overcome, and it will be a long time before all the parties will really trust that any change will last.

My main concern at the moment is that the important work of the NRC not be compromised by the internal conflicts that have come to light among the present Commissioners. I hope that, whatever decisions are made, that is the foremost consideration.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nuclear Power History:

A Major Anniversary

Yesterday and today, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of the very biggest milestones in nuclear power history--the dates the EBR-I produced the first usable quantities of electricity ever generated from a nuclear fission reactor. I already noted this event in my blog on other December milestones in nuclear history, and many news items and blogs in the last 24 hours have been covering the milestone events of December 20 and 21, 1951.

To recap the events briefly, on December 20, 1951, the EBR-I was hooked up to a steam engine which was used to light four 200-watt light bulbs. The iconic photograph of the four light bulbs graces many a story of nuclear power history. Arguably, though, it is the event of the next day, December 21, 1951, that really launched nuclear power generation as a practical energy source--the reactor output was used to supply power to all the electrical equipment in the entire reactor building. While this achievement could not be captured in as convenient a visual image as could the four light bulbs, it truly raised the demonstration to a practical level.

In my mind, this transition to the realm of practical application is what makes today's anniversary such a big milestone in nuclear power history. The demonstration of the fission reaction at CP-1 at Stagg Field in 1942, the other milestone that looms large on the nuclear power landscape was, after all, "simply" proof of a scientific principle, not in itself a practical application. In fact, it had been spurred by a wartime effort to develop a weapon, and the earliest applications, as we all know, were weapons. A large infrastructure had been created in that process, but it had remained largely focused on military needs, and it operated largely in secret. The generation of electricity by a nuclear reactor 60 years ago this week first opened the door to civilian applications.

But we should not forget all the developments that took place between 1942 and 1951. A number of small reactors of different types were built and operated in an all-out research effort, and multiple enrichment and reprocessing technologies were tested.

I have already spoken of some of these other milestones in my book, Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development and in other blog posts. The purpose of raising the subject of history once again here is to remind readers of one of the most fascinating things I learned from writing that book--the EBR-I, important though it is, was not the first attempt of the nascent nuclear community to use, or to try to use, the new-found fission process for civilian applications.

There were, in fact, two important efforts that preceded the events at EBR-I, both of which took place at the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge. The first of these was the use, on August 2, 1946, of a nuclear fission reactor to generate radioisotopes for peaceful applications. The second was the generation of a very, very small amount of electricity from the reactor on September 3, 1948. It was just enough power to light a flashlight bulb, so did not have the practical significance of the EBR-I demonstration. Nevertheless, it was the first proof-of-principle of the use of a reactor to generate electricity.

(A third civilian development that preceded the EBR-I was the use of a reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory, sometime in 1951, to demonstrate the principle of boron-neutron capture therapy. However, this technology never achieved the practical use that radioisotope production and electricity generation achieved.)

The purpose of highlighting these earlier achievements is not intended in any way to diminish the significance of the EBR-I achievement. Rather, it is to point out how many people and institutions contributed to the early development of nuclear power, and the number of small steps--and missteps--that it took to get us where we are today. It is something to think about as we celebrate this important milestone in history.


Japanese Nuclear Regulation:

A Growing Chorus of Concern

[I am reposting this blog entry, which was originally posted about December 2, 2011, with apologies to those who have already read it. I just discovered that Blogspot somehow lost the original post, and further, that this material was posted on another site under someone else's name.]

I was pleased to receive a message a few days ago from a long-time Japanese friend, Professor Yoshiaki Oka, pointing me to an article he’d posted on ” Building a Mechanism for Regulation of Nuclear Power” in Japan.

I had seen Professor Oka in early November at the American Nuclear Society conference in Washington, DC, and I knew then that he was preparing some material on this issue. During the course of that meeting, he spoke to a number of conference attendees, including me, to discuss the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission operates and other related matters.

In my discussions over the past few months with Professor Oka, as well as with a number of other people in the Japanese nuclear establishment (both government and industry), it has become clear that the Fukushima accident had raised concerns about the way nuclear power was regulated in Japan. In a past blog, I had reported on the earliest expressions of concern I had seen emerging from Japan following the accident.

Now the chorus of voices seems to be growing. Professor Oka has written a very comprehensive and eloquent argument for profound change to the Japanese system. He has made a number of the same observations that I have discussed in previous blogs, fingering concerns such as the lack of technical expertise in the nuclear regulatory organization, and the influence of what he calls the highly integrated “nuclear power village” over the regulatory structure in Japan. He also points to the heavy reliance in Japan on the expertise of external groups, and contrasts that with the high level of technical expertise on the staff of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He has identified some 170 such external commissions!

Professor Oka notes that these characteristics are not unique to the nuclear power area. Rather, they are “deeply rooted” in Japanese culture and in the way the government-industry interface operates in all areas. As such, the kinds of change he is calling for will clearly be difficult. Nevertheless, he sees a compelling need to make such changes and, in particular, outlines some of the characteristics of the way the NRC operates that he would like to see adopted in Japan.

On a personal level, I was particularly pleased that Professor Oka cited the 5 NRC Principles of Good Regulation (independence, openness, effectiveness, transparency, and reliability) in his article. As I have previously noted in a blog on the history of the Principles of Good Regulation, when I worked for Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, he pressed NRC to adopt such a set of principles, and I was assigned to help develop them.

Professor Oka’s publication joins a growing number of experts in Japan and around the world who are looking at the broader issues arising from the accident and trying to address those issues. A recent news item reported that an independent commission looking into the accident is due to release its interim findings on December 26. The report aims to go beyond explaining how the accident happened. It is expected “to explore the social and historical background to how Japan reacted to the crisis and offer insights into how else the disaster could have been handled.” The hope is to start a national debate on how Japan should deal with nuclear technology. It is also noteworthy that the report will be reviewed prior to publication by a group of international experts. These include Dr. Richard Meserve, former chairman of the NRC and now president of Carnegie Institution.

While that report is not yet out, it is clear from the description that a significant focus will likely be on issues like Japanese nuclear power regulation. It is a hopeful sign to see that so many prominent experts appear to be identifying some of the same issues regarding the nuclear power enterprise in Japan. Although there is a large distance to be traveled between identifying a problem and solving it, widespread agreement on what the issues are is a very crucial step. Therefore, it is encouraging to hear the rising chorus of voices in Japan pointing to the same concerns.

[Regular readers of this blog may wish to know that I amended 2 recent posts that discussed the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency to add a mention of a review draft of a document I produced several years ago documenting the first 50 years of the history of that agency.]


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Energy and Wildlife:

A Complicated Relationship

This week has seen more than the usual number of news items about energy and the the animal kingdom, and I thought it would be fun to put them together.

The first and by far most unusual story comes from Japan, where wild monkeys are being outfitted with special collars containing radiation meters, GPS receivers, and data recorders to allow for more detailed data collection on the radiation levels from Fukushima fallout in remote mountainous and forested areas.

Take away message: Wildlife is helping assessing the impact of the Fukushima accident.

The second story is similar to ones I'd heard before. The cooling water from nuclear power plants has been beneficial to a number of species. In the past, most of the stories I'd heard were of species, like shrimp, that are food sources. But in this case, the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida has proved a haven for an endangered crocodile species. In particular, the cooling canals have been adopted by crocodiles as nesting sites, and Florida Power's management of its cooling canals has been credited with a significant rebound in the population of crocodiles in South Florida.

Take away message: Nuclear energy is helping wildlife.

The third story is not as cheerful. Again, it is not a new story. As the idea of wind power has captured the imagination of the public, stories have begun to emerge that wind turbines are detrimental to a lot of the airborne segment of the animal kingdom. While it's not new, the latest article I've read on the dangers of wind power to wildlife points out that new guidelines about to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could "create another challenge" for the wind industry.

Take away message: Wind energy and wildlife have a fraught relationship--wind turbines kill birds and bats, and rules to reduce these kills may hamper wind power development.

Perhaps my "take away" messages are an oversimplification. There are cases of fish being sucked up into the intakes of nuclear plant cooling systems and being killed, but there are, as noted, cases where the outlet water has supported aquaculture. I have heard of no such plus-minus for wind turbines. There are said to be some promising ways that wind farm operators can reduce fatalities, but they are still speculative. In the meantime, the role of the monkeys in assisting with radiation monitoring in Japan and the role of Turkey Point in helping rebuild the crocodile population in Florida are real.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Meltdown at NRC:

Contemplating the Outcome

This week, like so many others, I watched two important hearings: the hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the rift between the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, and the other four NRC Commissioners; and the hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which had been scheduled to address the NRC's task force report on the Fukushima accident, but which also ended up addressing the issues between the Commissioners.

Whatever anyone may think of any of these individuals, it is a sad day for the Commission and the nuclear industry that the situation has deteriorated to the level that the four Commissioners felt compelled to bring their concerns about the Chairman's leadership to the White House, and that the Congress had to hold hearings to air this topic.

I'm sure there will be many reports on this hearing, so I will not cover the hearing itself. Rather, in the last few days leading up to the hearing, I've observed that everyone in the nuclear industry has become a political pundit, so without analyzing every single claim, I will just try to list all the viewpoints circulating about the situation, the individuals involved, and what President Obama will/won't/should/shouldn't do in the wake of the revelations.

These comments come from private correspondence, private conversations, mainstream publications, and to some extent, from the hearings. Some of the statements are factual, some are opinions. Of the latter, I agree with some and disagree with others, but since I don't want to assume the mantle of political pundit myself, will offer only a few factual comments, and let the reader decide on the statements.

• Chairman Jaczko is way out of line and should step down or be forced down.

• Chairman Jaczko is the only Commissioner protecting the American public and should stay on as Chairman.

• The four Commissioners who sent a letter to the White House outlining their concerns are dragging their feet on safety and engaging in a witch hunt against Chairman Jaczko.

• The four Commissioners who sent a letter to the White House outlining their concerns are exposing a serious risk to public health and safety from the continued renegade actions of Chairman Jaczko.

• Sending a letter to the White House was a timid gesture. All four Commissioners should threaten President Obama that they will resign if Chairman Jaczko is not removed as Chairman immediately.

• The President should move Chairman Jaczko to a position in another agency and replace him with one of the current commissioners. [Note that the President can remove Jaczko as chairman, but cannot remove him as a commissioner.]

• Even if Chairman Jaczko were to leave the Commission altogether, in the current environment, it would be difficult for President Obama to get a nominee confirmed by the Senate for the vacant position. [Probably true.]

• All 5 commissioners have degrees in some field of physics or engineering and have previous experience working on various kinds of nuclear issues from different perspectives.

• Of the 5 commissioners, only Commissioners Magwood and Ostendorff have management experience.

• Of the 5 commissioners, only Commissioner Ostendorff has operated nuclear facilities.

• Commissioner Magwood is the leader of the "coup" against Chairman Jaczko. [In the Senate hearing, Commissioner Magwood said that he didn't know how that allegation had arisen.]

• Commissioner Magwood is the heir apparent for the chairmanship. [In the Senate hearing, Commissioner Magwood said that he had no designs on the chairmanship.]

• Environmental groups opposed Commissioner Magwood's original appointment because he has strong and long-standing ties with industry--including his previous employment and his close relationship with industry during his tenure at the DOE. [Commissioner Magwood denies having close ties with industry and points out that the work of the DOE office he headed is mainly focused on advanced nuclear technologies.]

• Commissioner Magwood worked as a consultant for TEPCO (licensee for the Fukushima plants) prior to joining the NRC. [This is true, but the last time I checked, the NRC doesn't license or oversee plants in Japan, so it's hard to see the relevance of this.]

• The President would not appoint a Republican as Chairman. [While it's not done frequently, the President certainly can appoint a Republican, and from time to time, Presidents do appoint individuals from the opposite party.]

• The President will not do anything until after the election because he doesn't want to lose the Nevada vote.

• The President will not remove Jaczko as Chairman because Senator Reid is making Jaczko's continued tenure as the NRC Chairman a condition for supporting President Obama's initiatives in the Senate.

• Since the Yucca Mountain issue is now off the table, removing the Chairman won't affect the Nevada vote.

• The President doesn't need the Nevada vote anyway.

• Things will be smoothed over for now and the status quo will be maintained, but things won't really change and there will be another flare up soon.

• The system is broken and can't be permitted to stay as it is.

If I've learned anything at all about politics from living "inside the Beltway" for lo, these many years, it is that decisions are often made for reasons that fall completely outside the sphere I follow. This decision may well be influenced by election politics, the situation in another agency, or any of a number of other considerations. Therefore, I will not venture my own guess. But I will be watching eagerly to see how this is handled, and how the Commission operates in the weeks and months ahead. And whether one or more of the above predictions come to pass.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nuclear Power Anniversaries:

Celebrating Many Milestones in December

Last Friday, December 2, Will Davis, who blogs at Atomic Power Review, reminded all of us that December 2 was a very important anniversary in the history of nuclear power. December 2, 1942, after all, was the date that controlled fission was first achieved at Chicago Pile 1. Will also noted the curious fact that December is a month with many other nuclear anniversaries as well. Indeed, I had noticed that myself when I was writing my book, "Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development," so I thought I might be able to add something to the story, even though I'm a few days late for the December 2 anniversary.

As Will notes, and as the ANS Nuclear Cafe also observes, the 3 events we probably cite the most in the development of nuclear power all occurred in December. In addition to CP-1, on December 2, 1942, the other key events include the first generation of usable quantities of electricity at the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 on December 20-21, 1951 (making this upcoming December 20 the 60th anniversary), and the start-up of Shippingport on December 28, 2957. Will's blog on the historical December events has some fascinating old illustrations of Shippingport and of Fermi-1.

What many people don't know, and what I discovered learned only in writing the book, was that there were a number of other important milestones that occurred in the month of December. The full list of early milestones profiled in the book that occurred in December (with the previously mentioned ones highlighted in red) are:

• December 2, 1942: First controlled nuclear fission (at CP-1 in Chicago)
• December 19, 1942: First demonstration of reprocessing (bismuth phosphate process at Oak Ridge)
• December 26, 1944: First industrial scale reprocessing (bismuth phosphate process at Hanford)
• December 25, 1946: First reactor outside North America (F-1 in the Soviet Union)
• December 1950: First "swimming pool" type reactor (Bulk Shielding Reactor at Oak Ridge)
• December 20-21, 1951: First generation of useful quantities of electricity (at EBR-1 in Idaho)
• December 3, 1956: First use of thorium in a reactor (BORAX-IV in Idaho)
• December 23, 1956: First purpose-built reactor to provide electricity for a site (EBWR at Argonne)
• December 18, 1957: First peaceful commercial reactor (Shippingport in Pennsylvania)
• December 20, 1957: First peaceful multinational project (Eurochemic for reprocessing, in Belgium)
• December 17, 1967, First electricity from a pebble bed reactor (AVR in West Germany)

Will also identifies the first criticality of the N.S. Savannah as being in December 1961. These are certainly not all of equal importance, and of course, there are important events that happened in other months of the year. Still, it is striking that so many key events took place in the waning days of the year. I do not know why this seems to be the case. Perhaps some conscious, or even unconscious, effort to reach certain goals before the year was out. Whatever the case, I would echo Will and others in recognizing that this month


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Energy Planning:

What's Reasonable?

I was startled to see an article recently about Japan's plans to revise the country's energy policy. I knew that Japan had stated its intent to revise its energy plans. The surprise was not that fact, but rather, the time period proposed. Japan's new Trade Minister, Yukio Edano, stated that they would form a panel under the energy advisory committee to "probe a road Japan will take over the next 100 or 200 years."

One or two hundred years??? I have seen 5-year plans, and 10-year plans, and in certain areas of endeavor, I have seen plans 10- or 20- or even 50-year plans. But 100 or 200 years?

Two-hundred years ago, 1811, I'm not sure everyone thought the United States would exist in 10 years, let alone 200 years. And none of the technology we take for granted today was even remotely near to being developed.

One-hundred years ago, early automobiles were on the road and the Wright brothers had demonstrated flight, but I don't think too many people would have believed that either automobiles or airplanes would become major modes of transportation. And nuclear power? The use of the word nucleus to refer to the center of an atom hadn't even become standard terminology yet.

A little more than 60 years ago, my father tells me he built a TV from an RCA kit, and it was the very first one in his neighborhood. People used to crowd around our kitchen table to watch with fascination whatever limited programming was available on the small, flickering black-and-white screen. Who would have guessed that a TV would come to be considered practically a requirement for modern living, and that most households would have multiple TVs, and that they would have large, color images and hundreds of channels of programming?

It was just 60 years ago that the EBR-I put electricity onto the grid. Look what's happened to that technology in 60 years.

And just think of all the gadgets that we now can't live without and how they have evolved, even in just the last couple of decades: the telephone--and then the cell phone, and then the smart phone; large computers in laboratories--and then the computer on every desk at home and at work, and laptops and tablets in every briefcase; etc.

So, had we made a 200-year plan in 1811 or a 100-year plan in 1911, what would we have assumed for our energy sources and our energy demands in 2011?

I know that a country like Japan can't completely shift its energy patterns in a very short time-frame, and therefore that a 20-year plan, or even a 50-year plan, won't show the "final" outcome that some may wish to see. Nevertheless, it is really not meaningful to present the public and the decision-makers with a plan that spans such long periods of time. Even if such a plan is reviewed and readjusted periodically, it does not contribute any more certainty to have a 200-year plan than it does to have a good 20-year plan.

I would urge Japan to adopt a shorter-term plan that can be adjusted to respond to new developments and new issues. What if some new consumer technology ramps up electricity demand a lot more than we anticipate today? What if rare earth limitations restrict today's plans to build windmills? What if climate change significantly alters wind patterns, or cloud cover, or river flows, or sea level? What if fusion is developed in the next 50 years?

The panel may not be able to show the complete transition they would like to show in a period of a few decades, but whatever they do propose is likely to be more realistic and achievable. It seems to me that it is far better to have a short term plan that is realistic for the period it covers and that is periodically revisited to look ahead to the next few decades and extend as the potential needs and opportunities become clear, rather than presenting the public with a long-term plan that can only be regarded as pure fiction after the initial couple of decades.

While this may seem like a distinction without a difference--after all, in either case, the plans need to be revisited--the difference is that it is dishonest to tell the public that the problem is solved by a plan that extends such a long time and I expect that such dishonesty will eventually cause the public to lose faith in the plan altogether. A short-term plan can have an aspirational goal, but it should not be in terms of specific technologies so much as it should be in terms of broader objectives, such as reduced CO2 emissions. More importantly, the initial plan should acknowledge that it addresses only the first increment of the process of getting there.

I realize it is tempting to be able to show the public that the government has a plan that provides a complete transition. But such a plan would not, in the long run, provide Japan any better prospects than a shorter-term plan with a solid basis.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Support for Nuclear Power:

The Bright Spots in the News

While the negative news always gets the most attention, several recent news items suggest that opinion on nuclear power is not as bleak as the headlines sometimes suggest. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, it is nice to reflect on some recent positive news items.

A couple of months ago, the Japan Times conducted a post-Fukushima on-line survey asking which route is the most viable for Japan: sticking with nuclear power, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, biomass, or a mix of these, but with reduced reliance on nuclear energy. The survey has now closed, but the results are available (at least temporarily) on line.

Out of the 4149 votes cast, the percentage saying to stick with nuclear power (16%) is actually higher than solar (10%), geothermal (10%), wind (3%), hydropower (3%), or biomass (1%). The highest response (58%) is for a mix of the above, but with reduced reliance on nuclear energy. In light of the events in Japan this year, I would regard this response as a strong indication that the public recognizes the issues. While they are understandably shaky about nuclear power at the moment, they are realistic enough to understand that it needs to be a part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. What is particularly interesting is that they place sticking with nuclear power significantly above any single alternative. This response seems far removed from the news items that focus on the small numbers of protesters.

I do recognize that there are questions they did not ask in the survey. They did not ask whether Japan should rely on a mix of those other alternatives, but without nuclear energy; they did not ask whether Japan should rely on a mix that included more fossil fuels (or, in fact, that included any fossil fuels). I don't know why they didn't ask such questions, and I will not speculate on what the answers to such questions might have been. Whatever the flaws of the survey, I still find it compelling that nuclear power received a significantly higher vote than solar or wind power, which are so often touted as total solutions to our energy needs, or to geothermal power or biomass in a country that has a lot of both.

(To see the actual numbers, click on the hot-link above, then click on the beginning of the survey question described as: "As outlined in a recent series, Japan is being forced to weigh its options for sources of energy. Which route do think is the most viable?", dated 2011-09-30 - 2011-10-21. Clicking after the first 3 words takes you to the series they cite. I do not know how long the Japan Times leaves the surveys up.)

Several prominent individuals have also spoken out, either in favor of nuclear power, or against the uncritical acceptance of renewables.

A couple of weeks ago, the Dalai Lama toured the area of Japan affected by the earthquake and tsunami. To the surprise of many, the Dalai Lama said that nuclear power needed to be considered in the future. To me, the most important part of his message was that people should look at the issue "holistically." “Just to look at it from one side then to make a decision is not right,” he said. He recognized the role of nuclear power in helping address the needs of people in developing countries, and the fact that solar and wind energy are too inefficient to meet these needs. His message was very balanced, as he noted that the nuclear industry needed to look at the potential risks holistically as well.

More recently, Britain's Prince Philip blasted wind farms as being a "fairy tale." This comment, of course, was not about nuclear power, but about a technology that is often cast as a viable alternative to nuclear energy. While his history of outspoken remarks may make some wonder how seriously his comments will be taken, it was clear that his opinion was based on the need for back-up capacity. I should also note that his remarks were apparently targeted towards land-based wind turbines.

Even discounting the remarks of Prince Philip--after all, they are at odds with the official policy of the UK government, which has committed to building more wind farms--the news holds a message for me. The positive results of a public opinion survey, even in Japan, and the rational voice of the Dalai Lama, who is often considered a source of moral judgment, suggest to me that there is growing recognition of the continued need for nuclear power.

With that, happy Thanksgiving to all!


Sunday, November 20, 2011


Are Both Needed?

Shortly after I published my post on Russia announcing its intent to join the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, I received the following message from a friend who follows my blog:


Your argument for the positive aspects of the NEA is persuasive. However, you have not addressed the separate issue as to why is is necessary to have both organizations, the NEA and the IAEA. The NEA seems too closely allied with OECD, which, despite the membership of South Korea, is still seen as a European-only organization with all the "old (read irrelevant) Europe" baggage associated therewith.

-[name removed]

P.S.: Even though I am an non-Nuc, I still love your stuff.

Since he has chosen not to post his comment directly to my blog, I have respected his apparent wish for anonymity and removed his name, but left the rest of the comment intact.

First, I want to assure him that his comments are always welcome, either privately or to the blog. I am delighted to have readers with a variety of perspectives--including readers who are outside the nuclear field, and readers who are from outside the US. The real purpose of a blog is to try to share perspectives with a variety of people, and I'm pleased that he is a regular reader.

Second, I want him to know that he asked an excellent question. It is a question that has been debated from time to time in capitals of several of the member countries, the United States among them. And I am sure it is an issue that will continue to be debated. The question is a very perceptive one. He should not feel that he is a second-class citizen in this venue simply because he works in a different field.

There is, indeed, overlap between the two agencies. My friend is far from the first to wonder if the functions couldn't be consolidated into one organization. Naturally, whenever that question has been raised, the assumption has always been that any consolidation would absorb the activities of the NEA into the IAEA, which is much larger and has a much broader mission. After all, all members of the NEA are already members of the IAEA.

So far, every time the issue has been considered by the government of one of the NEA members, the outcome has been to decide to continue funding that country's membership in the NEA. There are several reasons for this:

• The IAEA was founded as an organization to help assure the peaceful use of nuclear energy by helping support countries in their efforts to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Therefore, a large portion of the IAEA's resources is spent on efforts aimed at emerging countries. This is important, but it tends to create a different focus than exists in the NEA, where the emphasis is more on mutual support among equals to assure the safe use of nuclear energy.

• Because of the different focus, the work of the NEA is not as affected by political posturing as is the work of the IAEA. (I hasten to add that this is not to say that the NEA membership is in agreement on everything. In particular, several countries within the NEA are against nuclear power. However, this is a very targeted difference of opinion. Fundamentally, the countries of NEA are not seeking to wipe each other off the face of the earth, as is the case for some of the IAEA countries.)

• Because of the much smaller membership of the NEA, it is easier to come to consensus, and therefore, projects can often move forward faster.

Obviously, having two organizations involved in the same area of effort is not an ideal situation. It creates a strong risk of duplication, and pressure within each organization to grab any new "turf." There have, over time, been cases where the co-operation between the organizations has been less than perfect. They never get too far out of line, however, because the government accountants in each country have sharp pencils (excuse the slightly old-fashioned image here) and are eager to ferret out any duplication and use it as justification for wielding the budget axe. One of my on-going jobs when I was at NEA, in fact, was to negotiate with IAEA over areas where there was common interest in order to carve out logical and non-duplicative niches for both agencies.

As to the Euro-centric focus, you've hit another nail on the head there. That is an issue with which the OECD is currently struggling. However, I must note that the OECD is not completely Euro-centric. Non-European members include Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand (a member of OECD, but not of NEA), Canada, Mexico, the United States, and in the last year or so, Chile and Israel (both have joined the OECD, but not NEA, at least as of now). There are also several former Iron Curtain countries in the membership. It is true that the expansion from 30 to 34 countries was was a painful compromise for OECD, with Estonia and Slovenia added to assure that the addition of countries outside Europe did not appreciably dilute the European influence. So it is true that the European influence within OECD, while not absolute, is carefully being maintained at about current levels.

What is more important than geography, for both the OECD and the NEA, is the significance of non-OECD countries in the spheres within which each organization operates. (Note: NEA is part of the OECD, but we can discuss it separately because it is funded separately by the member countries and operates as a "semi-autonomous" agency.) Until recently, the OECD nations held most of the world's wealth, and were responsible for most of the world's commerce. Until recently, the NEA nations operated most of the world's nuclear power plants. Therefore, the perspective of the OECD and NEA memberships in their respective areas were indeed the perspectives of the dominant countries. Today, the OECD and NEA predominance in both of these areas is diminishing rapidly. That is why it is so important for these two organizations to find a way to include some of the most important "emerging nations" in their deliberations.

Membership is always the most difficult hurdle, especially for the OECD, which considers its members to be "market-oriented democracies" and wishes to limit new members to the relatively small circle of countries that could make such a claim. While that characterization could be debated for some OECD countries, both in the past and even today, a further valid point is that both organizations benefit by remaining relatively small. Therefore, instead of increasing membership, both organizations have long-standing practices of including selected non-member countries in activities of their committees, in meetings, and in other activities as an alternative means of accommodating other important viewpoints.

In addition to the kind of past involvement by Russia and other countries that I mentioned in my previous post, NEA serves as the Secretariat for several dozen research projects. Many of these include non-NEA member countries as participants and have done so for years.

So, as a somewhat long answer to your question, I would say that most people who have worked with the two organizations have come to see the different values each brings to the table. Is having two organizations a perfect system? No, of course not. It requires on-going attention by the management of both organizations. Would something be lost if the two organizations merged? Yes, most close observers think so, but it is an important question, and one that I am sure will continue to be debated.

[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.]


Friday, November 18, 2011

Russia to Join NEA:

An Important Step

Recent news articles have highlighted Russia's intention to join the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since I used to work at the NEA as the Deputy Director-General, I have more than a passing interest in this development.

In fact, one of my last assignments in that position was to head the NEA delegation to Moscow in 2006 to negotiate a joint cooperation declaration that was signed just before I left the agency in 2007. I was very proud to learn that this declaration was cited in one article as being a precursor to the current move to membership. (Alas, the article in which this information appeared is a subscription publication.

During my tenure at the NEA, and in the years since then, concern has been raised about the continued relevance of the NEA in a world where an increasing number of nuclear power plants will be built in countries outside the NEA's membership. At one point, OECD/NEA countries accounted for 85% of the world's nuclear power capacity. That percentage is expected to drop rapidly in the future.

Having Russia join the NEA as a member helps address this concern. Obviously though, the concern will remain, because the biggest builders by far of new nuclear power plants are expected to be China and India, neither of which are NEA members. However, China was also beginning to participate in some NEA activities by the time I left the agency.

Those who are not too familiar with the differences between the NEA and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may wonder why it is important for NEA to continue to exist. Yes, IAEA membership does include Russia, China, and India--as well as the many smaller countries who are beginning to consider building nuclear power plants. It is difficult to go into all the differences in a short space.

Suffice it to say that the smaller membership of NEA, including, as it now does, most of the countries that have significant nuclear research and development activities, and that have years of experience operating nuclear fleets, is able to work efficiently and effectively on common issues associated with nuclear power. The NEA and IAEA have developed a generally co-operative pattern of working together that has, a number of times, facilitated the incubation of new products within the smaller membership of the NEA, then disseminated them to the larger membership of the IAEA.

Therefore, it is a significant move forward to have Russia join the NEA as a fully participating member. In the longer term, it will be valuable for NEA to increase the involvement of other major players on the nuclear stage, but for a variety of reasons, I expect that other relationships will prove harder and will take a longer time to mature.

Given my background in the NEA, I can't resist making one correction to the subscription article that reported on this development. The article said that Russia would be the first country to join the NEA without first being a member of its parent body, the OECD. This assertion is not true. It is a little-known fact that South Korea joined the NEA before joining the OECD. South Korea joined the NEA in 1993 and did not become a member of the OECD until 1996.

In fact, although it is unusual (South Korea, until now, was the only country that had joined the NEA before joining the OECD), the NEA charter does not require countries to hold membership in the OECD in order to join. This flexibility may stand it in good stead as it seeks to remain a body that includes most of the world's nuclear power operators.

For those who are interested in more about this matter or other matters of NEA history, I have produced a short history and accomplishments of the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency. A review draft of my findings is available.

[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.]

Note: Following the original publication of this post, I wrote a followup post in response to a question on the need for both the IAEA and the NEA.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Lighter Side:

Cartoons and Odd Statistics

A couple of items crossed my desk in the past week or so (or more accurately, crossed my computer screen) that I cannot resist mentioning, although both are a little off my usual themes.

The first item is a wonderful cartoon by Tim Newcomb that a fellow blogger, Meredith Angwin, has gotten permission from the artist to publish. I just recently met Meredith in person for the first time at the recent American Nuclear Society meeting in Washington, DC, although I have been following her blog on Vermont Yankee for some time. Rather than copy her and get permission to publish the cartoon myself, I thought I'd simply refer readers to her excellent blog. The cartoon picks up on one of my pet peeves--that is, the fact that people who don't want nuclear power because of its perceived risk also don't want fossil fuels because they are polluting, or windmills because they despoil the natural landscape, or solar power because it is too expensive. And yet, they want all the benefits of ample, reliable supplies of affordable energy, and they don't want to give up any nice-to-have "toys" that use energy. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Tim's cartoon is far better than my narrative. You gotta see this one!

The second item is a report on a study that shows that, in highly industrialized countries like the US, on average we generate less CO2 per capita as we get older! As a baby boomer myself, my first thought was, "Now there's a benefit of aging that I'd never thought about!" It makes some sense, of course. Initially, as people become empty nesters, many of them indulge in personal travel they'd put off while raising a family and paying college tuitions--and their per capita energy use rises temporarily. However, in the longer term, many of them drive less and move into smaller residences. This finding points out that we cannot simply multiply a single rate of energy use by the entire size of the population. That may make some difference from a policy and planning standpoint. However, the reduction was not that dramatic, and it strikes me this could change over time as people stay healthier and more active to older ages (I hope!), or as modern, energy-consuming technology is used more and more to maintain the lives and activities of an aging population. So I don't want to make too much of this fact. Perhaps the greatest message is that the study shows--once again--how complicated the supply and demand picture really is.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Japanese Nuclear Power Regulation:

Addressing "Sloppy Inspection Procedures"

I haven't blogged about the situation in Japan in some time now. The situation at the Fukushima site has somewhat stabilized, and Japan has begun the long and painful process of recovery. Along with so many others, I have been watching this process. It has reached a stage where there is not as much, day to day, where I feel I can add some special insight.

Recently, however, some new revelations published about the Japanese inspection process have spurred me to return again to the post-Fukushima issue. The article in question, entitled, "Sloppy inspection procedures threaten Japan's nuclear safety regulations," was a very interesting analysis in the Mainichi Daily News detailing differences between Japanese inspection procedures and practices and those of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The article indicates that Japanese inspectors have had a practice of essentially copying material for their inspection reports from the companies they are inspecting. It includes a somewhat frightening quote by someone at the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES), which operates under the jurisdiction of the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The quote essentially rationalized that it didn't matter that the JNES inspectors essentially just repeated the same steps the plant operators had developed.

The article also cites the observations of a Japanese visiting professor at the University of Tokyo who had worked for the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI--now called the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI) in the early 1990s and had been assigned for almost two years to the NRC.

(As an aside, his assignment is part of an excellent program run by the NRC. In addition to bringing Japanese government officials to the NRC, this program has also brought a number of government engineers from emerging nuclear countries to the NRC to participate actively in NRC inspections and technical reviews, and in so doing, to learn practices that they can bring back to their own countries.)

It is very telling that a junior Japanese government employee saw and recognized the differences between US and Japanese procedures and practices. Other Japanese employees were assigned to NRC and must have made similar observations. Nevertheless, the system did not change. I have previously speculated on some of the differences that I believe are responsible for the way the Japanese nuclear regulatory system has worked, and will not repeat those discussions here. Suffice it to say that there are no real surprises in what is now being publicized so widely. These were issues that were known for a long time, both by outsiders and by insiders.

While I am sorry that it took an accident of this magnitude to spur a serious effort to change, one should view the past practices in context. These deficiencies are not unique to the Japanese nuclear program, but rather, as I have previously discussed, are strongly embedded in the culture and institutions of the country. Changing culture and long-standing institutional practices is neither easy nor painless. Clearly, when things were going well, it was impossible to generate any pressure to make the necessary changes.

The task ahead is no easier now, but by the same token, it is no longer possible to deny that the deficiencies exist and must be addressed. A number of initiatives are being started that appear to be serious efforts to raise the bar on how nuclear power is managed and regulated in Japan. This is as challenging a task, in its own way, as are the physical tasks of stabilizing the reactor and decontaminating the surrounding communities. While success at this point is not a given, the concerted efforts being started look promising.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Google's Latest Doodle:

Recognition of Marie Curie

Although today is a busy day for me and I had not intended to divert my attention to my blog, I couldn't resist noting that Google has recognized Marie Curie's accomplishments in a "Google Doodle" today, on the 144th anniversary of her birthday on November 7, 1867.

As the earliest and still most preeminent woman scientist in the nuclear field, she certainly was an inspiration to me in choosing my career, and I know she has similarly inspired other women as well. There are many articles and books that cover her stellar career, as well as the challenges she faced at a time when women were not accepted in the professional world. I will not try to write my own summary here, but rather will refer the reader to the summary of her career on the Nobel Prize page, the site referenced above, the Wikipedia site, and others.

For me, what is most important is the model she provided for all those who followed her. The fact that she managed not only to succeed, but to excel, in the academic and professional environment that prevailed in her day continues to awe me. Despite the fact that I faced some challenges in my career, they pale in comparison to what Dr. Curie and other early female scientists faced. I can't even begin to contemplate how I would have fared in the world and times in which she lived.

Therefore, I am particularly pleased at Google's choice of today's doodle--and I am charmed by their choice of the 144th year (12 x 12) instead of waiting for something more "traditional," like the 150th.

One reason for the urgency of producing this blog is that the Doodle will grace Google's search page only today. For those who read this entry today, enjoy the doodle as you look for more history of this icon of nuclear science. For those who read this entry too late to see the doodle in its original setting, I have copied it above.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Could Wind Energy Increase Global Warming?--

The Startling Results of a New Study

An e-mail a few days ago from a long-time friend (I don't say "old friend" anymore!) alerted me to some new work he's done that I think has the potential to stir up a firestorm. Herb Inhaber has made a career of investigating conventional wisdom and poking holes in it--some may remember his past work on the comparative risk assessment of different energy sources--and now, it looks like he's done it again!

Herb's latest work looks at wind generation and comes to the counter-intuitive conclusion that increasing the use of wind energy could actually increase carbon dioxide emissions instead of decreasing them! The logic behind his analysis is the same as the reason automobiles get better mileage when driven on highways than in stop-and-go city traffic.

If the wind blew all the time and back-up power was not needed, of course the carbon emissions would be reduced. But according to Herb's analysis, every time back-up gas turbines are ramped up and down, they generate more CO2 than when they are operated alone at full power. The result is that much of the expected environmental benefit of wind power is lost.

The same logic applies for solar generation, although my own experience is that the wind usually varies more than solar insolation does, so I would expect the effect to be smaller for solar energy.

I should make it clear that I have not personally tried to analyze every step of his analysis. I'm certainly not an expert on the performance of gas turbines, so am unable to comment on the relative efficiency of gas turbines in different modes of operation. Nevertheless, it is significant that Herb cites data from the United States and several other countries that appears to support his argument.

Therefore, it appears there is enough evidence in this study to spur a very close look at the growing assumption in the minds of the public and many policymakers that global warming can be significantly reduced by converting to a greater use of solar and wind power.

Herb's full article on his research is available for purchase from Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. A good summary of the Inhaber study has been published in the blog, Brave New Climate.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

US Industry Response to Fukushima:

A Status Report

On October 12, 2011, Anthony Pietrangelo, Senior VP and CNO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), made a presentation to the Washington, DC Section of the American Nuclear Society (ANS). The talk was entitled "US Industry Leadership in Response to Events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant." I have tried to make it a practice to provide summaries of nuclear- and energy-related events in the Washington, DC area that I attended--at least when I find something worth reporting--and I want to continue that practice by providing some highlights of Tony's talk. (I should note that part of my delay in publishing this post was that I waited until the ANS Section posted the viewgraphs. This is the first chance I've had to publish my post since the viewgraphs went up.)

Tony started the meeting by noting that, even outside the concerns about Fukushima, nuclear plants in the US have faced an unusual number of natural challenges this year. He mentioned the tornadoes in the path of Browns Ferry and Surry, the flooding at Ft. Calhoun, the earthquake near North Anna, and the hurricane that swept past a number of nuclear plants.

He also provided some statistics on NEI's outreach in the aftermath of Fukushima. Among their activities were a conference call with hundreds of financial people and a hundred-fold increase in the number of hits on their website.

The bulk of his talk discussed some of the activities and plans of 3 key industry groups: NEI, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Key facts about the activities of these groups are highlighted in his viewgraphs.

To me, some of his most interesting comments were his relatively positive views of the response from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the public. Among his observations were the following:

• Since March 11, 2011, there have been 5 license renewals at US plants, including Vermont Yankee, Palo Verde, Prairie Island, and Hope Creek

• There have been 2 power uprates (increases in the maximum power level at which the reactor is licensed to operate)--Limerick and Point Beach

• Final Environmental Impact Statements (FEIS) have been completed on 7 new reactors in Georgie, South Carolina, Texas and Maryland

• The Final Safety Evaluation Report (FSER) has been issued for the ESBWR

• Construction-related activities are taking place at Watts Bar, Vogtle, and V.C. Summer

• Public opinion, while down somewhat, is still favorable to nuclear power.

One interesting observation he made is that the NEI has shifted the focus of its public relations efforts. Early on, they focused on safety, but more recently, had been focusing on the environment, cost, and jobs. They have now shifted back to a focus on safety.

Tony fielded a lot of questions during the Q&A session that followed his talk. I can't go into all of them, but he pointed out some of the differences in procedures and requirements for hardened vents for US BWRs versus for those in Japan. Some of the questioners were particularly concerned that the industry initiative could get ahead of the NRC and that NRC might later impose additional, or different, requirements. Tony indicated that they were working closely with the NRC and wouldn't be getting too far ahead.

Tony also noted lessons learned that have been implemented in the industry in response to past events that he thinks will serve us well in responding to the Fukushima experience. In particular, he noted that some of the equipment intended to respond to a 9/11 type event could also be used for natural disasters. He referred to the current approach as "symptom-based and event-informed," in contrast with the historic event-based approach. The symptom-based approach facilitates such actions as using "9/11 equipment" to respond to, for example, a station blackout triggered by some other type of event.

I'm sure we will be hearing much more about the industry activities in the weeks and months ahead. From what was presented at this meeting, it looks like the industry is off to a very good start.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Energy Resource Wars:

Is a New Round Emerging?
I was never very good at history in high school. I much preferred the physical sciences, where I could derive most of the answers to test questions, as opposed to subjects like history, which required a lot of rote memorization of names and dates. I survived only by learning a few tricks. For example, I noticed that my teacher always had a question on the causes of each war we studied, and I noticed that disputes over resources were almost always among the top causes. Thus, every time the question came up on the cause of any war, my first answer was always resource disputes. It never failed!

Thus, I suppose I should not be surprised to notice that the countries of the world are still bickering over resources today. While the disputes have not yet led to open warfare--and I sincerely hope they don't--the saber-rattling should alert us to the risks the world faces by relying on energy sources which are limited in supply and unevenly concentrated around the world.

There are not one, but two, such conflicts brewing around the world. Both have been developing over the past few months and both involve disputed claims of sovereignty over offshore gas and oil fields. One involves the new offshore gas fields discovered in the Middle East. The dispute threatens to exacerbate already existing tensions between Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Greek Cypriots. The second involves the offshore oil fields in the South China Sea. This one has India and Vietnam pitted against China, with the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia also making claims. China is clearly staking out its territory in the South China Sea, and Israel is doing the same in the Mediterranean.

At one point a couple of months ago, articles on both disputes hit the press on the same day. While I'd seen other news items on each dispute, seeing them both in the news the same day really drove home for me the fact that, as we focus on the relatively recent concern about global warming from fossil fuels, we have tended to forget the long and painful history of international conflict over access to critical oil and gas resources.

These disputes make it painfully clear that the historical battles over fossil fuels have not disappeared. In fact, they may be reaching a new and dangerous phase. Admittedly, some of the reasons for the rising conflicts between countries in these areas go beyond oil and gas resources. They including fishing rights and shipping lanes in Asia, and both recent and long-standing political issues in the Middle East. But oil and/or gas deposits are growing factors in each case.

Unfortunately, these kinds of spats are likely to continue for a very long time. There is no way to replace existing and future demand for fossil fuels quickly. However, the more slowly we move to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the more such international conflicts will escalate.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Radium in the Basement:

Unexpected Finds from Fukushima Radiation Searches

It was almost a moment of comic relief to me. After all the stories from Fukushima, especially the stories about pockets of high radiation levels being found far from the plant site, I read a story about an anomalously high radiation reading in Tokyo that turned out to be Radium-226 for luminous paint!

And the story hit somewhat close to home for me! The material was found in an abandoned home in Setagaya Ward, which is the part of Tokyo in which I lived when I spent a year there in 1998-1999. It was not in my immediate neighborhood, but close enough to get my attention. The material was found under the floorboards of an unoccupied house. The owner, a 90-year-old widow who vacated the house early this year, has no idea how it got there. Her deceased husband was an office worker and had nothing to do with radioactive materials. (Storage under the floorboards does not have the somewhat sinister implications it often has in US culture. Japanese houses have no basements and are built with crawl spaces under them. In small buildings with limited storage space, the space under the floorboards is often used for storage.)

The source of the material and the reason it's there is still a mystery. So far, no one is implying the house was broken into while vacant. The bottles are old, and the authorities are busy estimating the dose the woman would have received assuming they had been there a long time.

Of course, the comic relief was temporary. Like other cases where radioactive materials have found their way into the public domain, this could have had much more harmful consequences. What if someone had bought the house and had children sleeping just above the material? It is an accidental piece of luck that a search for radiation hot spots from Fukushima turned up this stash and possibly prevented the exposure of innocent people.

But after all the stories of radioactive contamination, and hot spots unexpectedly far from the reactors, it was a nice piece of news to hear that the search led to a discovery that might have prevented a smaller tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Coal versus Gas:

No Clear Cut Winner

In the past few years, the "conventional wisdom" has been that switching from coal to natural gas for power production would benefit the environment. Not only does burning gas reduce particulate emissions, it also reduces CO2 emissions. Most sources acknowledge that natural gas is not as clean as nuclear power and renewables in terms of CO2 emissions, but having been promoting that option as an interim step, allowing the faster draw down of coal power plants.

Now, a report has come out that says "it ain't necessarily so"--switching from coal to natural gas would actually do very little to reduce global climate change. This report takes me back to a point of view I've expressed several times in this blog and elsewhere--the chemical and physical interactions involved in all our power sources and their interactions with the environment are incredibly complicated, and we cannot make long-term policy decisions based on simplistic models of the world.

I'm not a climatologist, so I can't say for sure if someone is going to come along in the next day, or week, or year and debunk this entire analysis. However, my point remains the same. Simply measuring the amount of CO2 generated in a bench-scale test of coal versus natural gas doesn't take into account all the emissions of both energy sources and all their interactions with the environment.

In a similar vein, I just ran across a letter in a recent issue of Science that challenged claims that electric-powered automobiles wouldn't reduce emissions because of the need to generate more power from electric power plants. The letter claimed that there was still a net savings because electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines and because electric vehicles obtain some of their power from regenerative braking. Again, I haven't done the math, but it makes sense to me that one can't project the net emissions without taking such factors into account.

So, what does this mean for energy policy and planning? I think we need to keep pointing out the following:

• There are no perfect solutions. Every option has some benefits and some drawbacks.

• Simple comparisons are apt to miss important factors.

• What your mother told you at the dinner table is right--"Everything in moderation."

In short, we need a mix of energy sources. We can't simply replace coal with natural gas so we can wait it out for renewables to be perfected, as some recommend.


Monday, October 3, 2011

These Plants Are Your Plants:

A Nuclear Song

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about a nuclear song called Neutron Doodle. In it, I alluded to an earlier set of lyrics I had written, but the only link I gave for the lyrics was to a member-only American Nuclear Society site.

Recently, I was reminded of both songs by a thread I was following in a LinkedIn group I belong to that was talking about the potential value of a nuclear song in helping shape the image of nuclear power.

That reminded me of the old posting, and when I provided it to them, I realized I ought to make the lyrics of my song more publicly available as well. So here they are:

These Plants are Your Plants

(sung to the tune of "This Land is Your Land," by Woodie Guthrie)
Lyrics by Gail H. Marcus
These plants are your plants
These plants are my plants
From their cooling towers
To their nuclear islands
From the U.S. Heartland
To its coastal waters
These plants were made for you and me.

As I was walking
That ribbon of highway
I saw before me
A smogless skyway
And sparkling waters
Were flowing my way
These plants are good for you and me.

The children were laughing
And people were singing
At all the wonders
The power was bringing
The lights were shining
And the bells were ringing
These atoms split for you and me.

And at the plant sites
The workers labored
To use the atom
To help their neighbors
With clean safe power
To fuel all nations
These plants bring joy to you and me.

These plants are your plants
These plants are my plants
From their cooling towers
To their nuclear islands
From Europe's vineyard
To Asia's water
These plants were made for you and me.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011


What it May Mean for Nuclear Loan Guarantees

In the immediate aftermath of the Solyndra bankruptcy, I had the sense that nuclear proponents saw the disaster in the solar industry as a vindication of the nuclear industry.

Not so fast! The fact that one solar project tanked is not going to convince die-hard fans of renewables that anything is wrong with renewable projects, and it is certainly not going to cause a rush to the nuclear side. There will be reasons cited by solar proponents (there already are) why this is an exception, one small blip in an otherwise sterling record.

And maybe it is an exception. I actually hope it is, because the other possible trend I see emerging from this meltdown is that is will give a black eye to all loan guarantees. Particularly in the current budget environment, where everyone is looking for easy places to cut, it will be very tempting to put loan guarantees on the budgetary chopping block. If a nice, safe solar project went bust, some may say, a big, complex nuclear project may be even more risky.

I am already seeing some possible fallout from the Solyndra failure. Although Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a supporter of loan guarantees (as well as a supporter of both the nuclear and renewable industries), she has reportedly told the renewable industry to expect greatly restricted federal funding. It's not clear just how much of this restriction is a consequence of the bankruptcy and how much is a general consequence of the budget discussions, but I think it will be difficult for Congress to cut loan guarantees for one industry without also cutting others. She is recommending to the renewable energy industry that they and other industry sectors work together to form a broad coalition.

While it is too soon to panic, the nuclear industry should not have its head in the sand either. In fact, the terms of the loan guarantee program for nuclear projects (in the form of large up-front fees) has caused some to reject the option anyway. If the nuclear renaissance is to continue in the United States, it is not too soon to begin to consider other options.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Blogs about Fukushima:

A Look at the Past 6 Months

It has occurred to me that I have reached a bit of a hiatus in blogging about the Fukushima accident and its aftermath. No doubt there will be more issues that arise in the future that will get my attention again, but for now, I thought it might be convenient to list the dozen and a half or so posts I have written in the first 6 months since the accident and to provide a very brief summary of each.

The Japanese Government and Transparency: Another Issue for Nuclear Reactor Regulation August 30, 2011. This post looks at the different rules that govern Japan and the United States with respect to keeping records of meetings between regulators and licensees and making these records available to the public.

Observations on Japan and its Nuclear Program: Not Anti-Japanese! August 18, 2011. In response to criticism from a friend that my posted seemed anti-Japanese, I tried to point out what I do admire about the Japanese, and to explain why it is important to note the features of the Japanese system that may have contributed to how the Fukushima events unfolded.

Japanese Regulation: The Elements of Independence August 11, 2011. In this blog, I recognize that, as Japan strives to create a more independent regulator, they need to be aware that there are really several different types of independence that are important in nuclear regulation.

Suggested Changes to the Japanese Nuclear Program: Guidelines versus Requirements August 5, 2011. This blog reflects the fact that the Japanese can't just take the existing model of another country and adopt it whole cloth. A new regulatory authority will have to operate within the Japanese system, and therefore any model used must be adapted to work in that system.

Nuclear Regulatory Independence in Japan: The Role of Technical Capability
July 24, 2011. In this post, I note that the Japanese government tends to be staffed primarily with generalists, and that it would be desirable to try to increase the number of technical specialists in the Japanese regulatory agency.

Fukushima and Coverups: Eraser Society July 22, 2011. When I lived in Japan, on several occasions, I saw people erasing or whiting out minor errors and I realized that it was an attempt to hide a mistake. I speculate that some of the reports we saw coming from the Fukushima accident may have represented a similar attempt to hide mistakes.

Considering the Fukushima Accident: Does Culture Matter?
July 18, 2011. One famous homily that children learn in Japan is that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." I raise a question about whether some engineers in Japan didn't stand up to authority when they should have because they were so carefully taught not to "stick out."

Post-Fukushima Findings: The Origins of the Problem begin to Emerge July 15, 2011. This post reports on news items about how some of the original construction decisions made for Fukushima Dai-ichi may have exacerbated the effects of the tsunami.

Nuclear Regulation: Finding the Right Balance June 17, 2011. While this blog was not explicityly about Fukushima, it was probably spurred by all the thinking I was doing about Fukushima at the time. It reflects on how difficult it is for the regulator to find the right balance between too little regulation and too much regulation.

Replacing Nuclear Power: And Other Fantasies
June 11, 2011. Although this post was about whether or not nuclear power could be replaced, it was spurred by the post-Fukushima demands by citizens in some countries that seem to suggest the citizenry thinks that it will be simple and quick to replace nuclear power with other sources of energy.

Nuclear Revival: A Scientific American View May 29, 2011. This blog mainly covers an article published by Scientific American prior to Fukushima, but also discusses a post-Fukushima editorial in the publication that proposes that reactor designs and regulatory processes should be improved in the wake of Fukushima.

Japanese Nuclear Regulation: A Call for Change May 13, 2011. I was pleased to see that some of my colleagues in Japan who are active in the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (AESJ) were the first to propose that the Japanese regulatory system needed fixing, and I summarized their first announcements on the issue.

Fukushima and Amakudari: A Problem with a Long History
May 6, 2011. In this blog, I discuss the fact that Japan has a system called amakudari, whereby government employees often move into positions in the industries they control. This system makes it very difficult to maintain the regulatory independence that is required for nuclear power.

Post-Fukushima: Some New Directions?
April 23, 2011. This post provides a summary of two of the early discussions of some of the specific changes that the United States might want to make to reflect the lessons learned from Fukushima.

Positive Views on Nuclear Power: A Small Bright Light in a Difficult Time
April 14, 2011. In the early days after Fukushima, I was pleased to see that the coverage of the accident was, in many places, more positive than I thought it might be, and this blog lists several articles that had appeared in the first few weeks after the accident.

Fukushima: The Devil is in the Details
March 27, 2011. In the first days and weeks after the accident, there was much concern about US reactors of similar design and vintage. Thus, I was happy to report on an article that identified some differences between the Fukushima reactors and the ones at TVA.

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident: Some Observations March 19, 2011. This was my first post about the Fukushima accident, and it covers my earliest observations.

Also: Nuclear Regulation in Japan after Fukushima August 2011, in the JANUS "Toward Post-Fukushima" Series (now renamed "Fukushima Reconstruction Support" and on a new website). This blog was written for Japan NUS (JANUS) for a series of essays from various experts around the world on different aspects of the accident and what it might mean in the future. I was pleased and proud to be asked to contribute to this series and used the essay to summarize my thoughts on nuclear regulation. Other essays in the series provide the insights of experts from around the globe.

(Finally, while not related to the Fukushima situation, I should note that I've also done a series of a dozen blogs on other nuclear topics for JANUS in the last year or so, all of which can be found at "Dr. Marcus' Room" on their website.  Note that this link and the link above were updated on November 21, 2015, as the original link has changed.)