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.