Friday, December 28, 2012

The Election and Nuclear Power:

A Cautiously Positive Outlook

Although many in the industry feel that nuclear power fares significantly differently under the Democrats and Republicans differ significantly--and indeed, from time to time, some of the rhetoric makes it sound like that should be the case--I have never been convinced that it was.  I was therefore gratified that some of the major analyses I saw shortly before and shortly after the election support my view.  Although it may seem now that the election was ancient history, I waited in hopes of seeing more analyses.

To date, I have seen two analyses that are of particular note.  Both come from the pages of American Nuclear Society (ANS) publications, although both express the views of individuals.  One article is by Linda C. Byus, a columnist on finance for Nuclear News, the flagship publication of the ANS.  (This publication is available to ANS members only on the ANS website.  See page 23.)  

In the November issue of the journal, which was published just prior to the election, she expressed her view that there was bipartisan support for nuclear generation.  Her main messages were that 1) nuclear power generation is not a political priority for any party in the US today, 2) although theree may be some philosophical differences in the measures each party is willing to support, the overall campaign positions of both Presidential candidates were quite similar, and 3) the key determinant for the future of nuclear power in the coming years will be the economic recovery, as it will serve as a catalyst for energy demand growth.    

More recently, Jim Hopf provided a post-election outlook for nuclear energy in the ANS Nuclear Cafe.  In it, he covers a variety of issues and points out how the views of the Obama Administration are favorable to nuclear power in some ways while not so favorable in other ways.  For example, he projects that actions on Yucca Mountain will continue to be influenced by Sen. Harry Reid.  On the other hand, the Administration's views on climate change could ultimately lead to carbon dioxide restrictions, and that could help nuclear power.  He also notes that the Administration's views are unfavorable towards some energy sources that are viewed as alternatives, or competitors, to nuclear power--for example, coal.

Indeed, the energy landscape is very complex, so even the expressed preferences of one Party for or against nuclear power are often overtaken by other issues, including the environment and the economy.  Therefore, I expect that the overall prospects for nuclear power will continue to be positive.  Growth will be slower than was projected at the height of the Renaissance--but some of us always projected it would be.  Even Marvin Fertel, the CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, always cautioned against over-optimism.  The key, as Linda Byus says, will be the recovery of the economy.



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Grid Costs:

Leveling the Playing Field

I was pleased to see a new study from the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) comparing grid costs of different technologies.  I was pleased both because the issue is an important one, and because I used to work at the NEA, and I'm glad to see them tackling this subject.

The report, Nuclear Energy and Renewables: System Effects in Low-carbon Electricity Systems, addresses the way variable renewables and so-called dispatchable energy technologies (specifically coal, gas and nuclear) interact in terms of their effects on electricity systems.  The premise of the study is that all power generation technologies cause system effects.  In particular, since they are connected to the same grid and deliver power to the same market, they exert impacts on each other. For example, dispatchable technologies need to be brought in or cut out to balance variable input from renewables.

We have long known that, but this study quantifies the effect.  The study examines the case for six technologies: nuclear, coal, gas, onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar.  It finds that the dispatchable technologies have system costs of less than $3 per MWh, while the system costs for renewables can reach up to $40 per MWh for onshore wind, $45 per MWh for offshore wind and $80 per MWh for solar. Currently, these costs are usually not acknowledged.  Rather, they are are absorbed by consumers through high network charges and by the producers of dispatchable energy through reduced margins and lower load factors.

The report recommends that system costs be made transparent in order to ensure that they are fully considered in future electricity planning.  The value of dispatchable low-carbon technologies in complementing the introduction of variable renewables needs to be recognized, and measures are needed to ensure that nuclear power and any other low-carbon dispatchable technology remains economically viable.  (No other such technologies are included in the study, but presumably, hydropower would be another such source.)  The study also recommends the development of load-following capabilities and other options to improve the flexibility of low-carbon dispatchable technologies in the future.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Seventy Years of Controlled Fission:

Another CP-1 Milestone

The December 2, 2012 seventieth anniversary of the first controlled chain reaction in the Chicago Pile 1 reactor passed with very little comment.  That is perhaps a sign of the passing of time, or of the familiarity of the technology.  Just as people today find it hard to remember a time before cell phones or the Internet, perhaps they feel that nuclear power has been around forever.

But indeed, this month marks a very important anniversary.  When I researched the milestones of nuclear power for my book a couple of years ago, the events at CP-1 were probably among the few that were truly unambiguous.  Even the other milestones most of us take for granted turned out to have challengers:  The first electricity production at EBR-I on December 20, 1951?  Well, yes, but there was a some electricity produced at Oak Ridge (albeit much less) on September 3, 1948.  "First city in the world to be lit by atomic power" in Arco, Idaho July 17, 1955?  Well, maybe first city briefly powered entirely by the atom, but the first electricity supplied to the grid was on June 27, 1954 at Obninsk, Soviet Union.

All these claims and counterclaims do not take away from any of the achievements, and all of them were important stepping stones to the nuclear power we enjoy today.  However, the first controlled fission chain reaction seems to stand alone.  To recall the words of Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon, it was a "giant step for mankind."


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks:

Nuclear Power Progress

On this Thanksgiving Day, I have only a moment to reflect on the past year and think about giving thanks.  Most of my thanks, of course, is for family and friends, and for health and well-being.

But I also want to reflect on some positive developments in the nuclear field:
  • Despite the severity of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, there are still likely to be very few health effects from the releases of radiation.
  • Although some countries have used the Fukushima accident to try to reject nuclear power for the future, in most of the world, the public and the policy-makers continue to recognize the need for continued development and use of nuclear power. 
  • In these countries, the industry is using the lessons learned from Fukushima to further strengthen the safety of operating reactors. 
  • There is indeed a Renaissance taking place in nuclear power deployment, at the very least, in countries like China and India.
  • The U.S. continues to recognize the need to develop new nuclear technologies, and this week has seen the award of a long-awaited contract for small reactor development.
With that, let me wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving!


Friday, November 16, 2012

Nuclear Power Education and Training:

Fit for KINGS

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a brand new education and training venture for the nuclear field.  Since I don't think the school is widely known yet, I thought it might be useful to describe it.

Korea's KEPCO International Nuclear Graduate School, or KINGS, opened its doors just about a year ago.  Situated on a brand-new campus in between the Kori and Shin-Kori units near Busan, the school now consists of two new buildings, a dormitory and a classroom/administration building, about 50 students, and about 15 faculty members. 

At present, most of the faculty and students are Korean, but they have a number of students from such countries that are building or contemplating nuclear reactors, including the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Malaysia, Vietnam.  South Africa, which already has operating reactors, is also represented in the student body.

The permanent faculty presently includes one American, Jay Z. James, who (among other positions) previously ran his own consulting firm for over 20 years and taught in Berkeley's Nuclear Engineering Department.  KINGS has also had several visiting faculty, including myself, teach for short terms.

All classes are conducted in English.  The students are all young professionals who have completed their academic training and have worked for a few years.  Thus, they bring with them a basic engineering education and some practical experience in the working world. 

The focus of the school is intended to be hands-on and practical, so the 2-year curriculum includes a mix of nuclear engineering courses and courses on such topics as project management, operations and maintenance, and plant economics.  The intent is also to take advantage of being on the campus of an operating reactor facility.

As far as I know, what the school is seeking to do is unique.  While there are shorter courses focused on practical training, I don't know of any other program that offers such a combination of the practical and the academic in such an in-depth, extended program.

The program should be particularly valuable for the students who come from countries planning nuclear programs, as this may be their first exposure to actual facilities and to many of the non-academic aspects of running a nuclear power program.    

While the program is in its early phases and is not yet at its full anticipated size, the school anticipates expanding its staff and faculty over the next year or two.  Given what I observed in my short time there, it is well on its way to becoming a recognized element in the spectrum of education and training available to individuals in the nuclear profession.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Energy Production and Paper Cups:

Measuring the Impacts

I was traveling through Harrisonburg, Virginia a couple of weeks ago and stopped for lunch with my husband at a local barbecue joint.  I ordered a glass of iced tea with my meal.  When the iced tea came, I saw some text on the side of it.  Now, I have always been a voracious reader, and I can't tell you how many times I've sat at the breakfast table and read cereal boxes and the like, so although I just expected advertising or something, I simply had to read the text curling around the cup.

The iced tea was in a foam cup, and the text explained that paper cups produce 148% more waste by weight than foam cups.  Sounds good, right?  Except that the last time I checked, landfill is limited by volume, not by weight, and paper cups are thinner than foam cups.  Furthermore, paper is biodegradable, and foam generally is not. 

Admittedly, advances are being made in foam products, and some are biodegradable, but the cup didn't boast of being biodegradable.  I can't be absolutely sure, but after touting its weight advantages, I would have to believe it would have broadcast its biodegradability as well--if it were biodegradable.  But it didn't.

So what does this have to do with energy production?  Too often, I have seen promoters of various energy sources treat their products the same way--picking out the positives without presenting the whole picture.  Thus, we hear about how much wind or solar capacity has been built, but we aren't told that the fraction of power supplied by these sources is much smaller than the built capacity.  We also hear about how solar or wind or nuclear energy produce no greenhouse gases, but we aren't always told that each of these produces some other forms of waste.  We hear that natural gas or "clean coal" is cleaner than oil or regular coal and is produced domestically, but we don't hear how they compare to nuclear or solar or wind power, and we don't hear that very little of our electricity is generated from oil-fired plants. 

I could go on.  But this is no different from all the other things we use in our daily lives--paper versus plastic bags, genetically-modifed versus non-GM crops, electric cars versus gasoline-powered cars.  And foam cups versus paper cups.

The point, as always, is that every source of energy has multiple dimensions, some very positive, some negative--and some that can potentially be overcome with further technology development.  Yes, this makes it complex and problematical to compare sources.  Yes, it means that there is no one perfect source that we should rely on completely.

The "right" energy solution, and the "right" solution for almost everything else we use, is likely to involve a mix of options, and is likely to create continual pressure to reduce the downsides of each of these technologies.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Nuclear News:

Some Positive Signs

I have become so accustomed to hearing about Fukushima, or more recently, about the trials and tribulations at some US nuclear power plants, that I have almost forgotten that there is a lot happening in the nuclear world, some of it very encouraging.  This week seems to have had more than the usual share of promising reports.  What is even more encouraging is that they come from a number of fronts.

In the US, Southern Company got a go-ahead from the USNRC to change the concrete mix in order to counter a problem discovered with the rebar in the building basemats for Vogtle 3 and 4.  In addition, Uranerz received a permit from the State of Wyoming to begin drilling deep disposal wells for in-site mining at its Nichols Branch uranium mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.  These reports follow closely on the heels of a public opinion survey that showed that public opinion in the U.S. in favor of nuclear power is again increasing.

Around the world, there are more positive signs.  The World Nuclear Association publishes a weekly digest of news, and this week's list includes the following headlines:
  • China flags return to new nuclear plant approvals
  • Canadian reactor returns to service after four years 
  • Brits remain positive re nuclear power
  • Queensland to allow uranium mining after 23 year ban
  • New uranium mine go-ahead in South Australia.
(Please note that the link to the October 25 weekly summary will change when next week's summary is issued, but the individual stories on these and other news items will be moved to the WNA archives.)

Of course, all this news does not obscure the fact that the nuclear industry continues to face serious challenges, both in the U.S. and abroad.  However, it does suggest that there is a broad base of support for nuclear power in many parts of the world, and that the industry is forging ahead on a number of fronts.  


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Real Waste Problem:

Not Just a Nuclear Problem

A relatively new blog (at least to me) from "a couple of MIT engineers" has had several interesting posts lately.  Today, I want to comment on one that analyzes the waste streams from solar versus nuclear power

While most public attention focuses on the waste from nuclear power plants--it is dangerous, it lasts for hundreds of thousands of years, and we "haven't solved the problem of where to put it," some of us have long noted that it is not only nuclear power that produces wastes.  ALL sources of energy do.

The MIT post points out a number of facts that are useful in comparing the waste streams from nuclear power plants versus solar power plants:

•  The volume of waste from solar plants is many times that from nuclear plants.

•  Much of the waste from nuclear plants is not really waste.  It can be recycled.

•  The cadmium and lead wastes from solar power plants are poisonous.

•  Unlike nuclear power wastes, where the radioactivity decreases over time, the poisonous chemical wastes from solar power plants last forever.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with the last argument.  It is true, but on the time scales involved for the decay of radioactivity, the reality is that both waste streams need to be sequestered for a very long time.

While both nuclear and solar wastes can potentially be recycled, the blogpost notes that recycling solar panels requires a substantial amount of energy, while recycling used nuclear fuel results in a net energy gain.

These observations demonstrate that ALL energy sources have downsides.  Even energy sources that are often thought of as natural and benign in fact have their own environmental impacts.  This does not mean that we should not use solar power.  Likewise, the existence of nuclear wastes does not mean that we should not use nuclear power.  The point is that we all need to understand that no energy source is completely clean or safe.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Emergency Preparedness:

The Role of Nuclear Power Plants 

I was not surprised to read a recent article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about the findings and conclusions of a report from the National Academy of Sciences on emergency preparedness, particularly with regard to the link between nuclear power plants and the emergency preparedness of surrounding communities.

In particular, the report found that there was a strong and positive link between the effectiveness of emergency response measures taken during the floods in Cedar Rapids in 2008 and the emergency response preparedness at the Duane Arnold nuclear power plant nearby.  (Downloads of the Academy report, "Disaster Resilience:  A National Imperative," are available at the National Academies Press website.)

This is not at all surprising.  The fact that emergency response preparations are required for a nuclear power plant means that the community has prepared and rehearsed for an emergency.  It means that plant, city, county and state personnel have the training and equipment and facilities needed to handle a disaster.  It means that people have been assigned responsibilities and have drilled together and practiced what to do.

In the end, it often doesn't matter what the nature of the disaster is.  All disasters have some elements in common.  Information about the nature and extent of the problem needs to be obtained and assessed.  Appropriate authorities need to be notified.  Instructions need to be provided to local personnel, as well as to members of the public.  If evacuation is needed, provisions have to be made for schools and hospitals.

Mike Goldberg, director of Linn County Emergency Management, reported that, during the flooding in 2008, “Everybody came in and sat down at their usual table with their usual phone and usual maps and usual equipment,” he recalled. “It was just not a radiological event. It was a flood event. But they did the same mission.”

In fact, this is not the first time that the emergency response preparations for a nuclear power plant have been implemented for a totally different kind of emergency.  When I worked at NRC, I recall one incident where a truckload with a hazardous chemical spilled on a highway in an area that had a nuclear power plant nearby.  In that case, too, the preparations for a nuclear emergency proved to be very applicable and helpful for handling the emergency response for the chemical spill. 

Obviously, having a nuclear power plant in the neighborhood is not the only way to prepare for an emergency situation.  Most communities have some vulnerabilities, whether it be to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or chemical spills on highways, so all communities would do well to prepare for such incidents.  However, in practice, the more specific and stringent requirements imposed for nuclear power plants are a powerful spur to assuring that the necessary plans for an emergency are developed and maintained--usually at levels well beyond that for other potential emergency situations.  This preparation often goes unrecognized--at least until and unless a non-nuclear disaster occurs.  Thus, it was interesting to see such recognition in the case of the Cedar Rapids flood. 


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nuclear Power and Costs:

A Surprisingly Complex Issue

I have been reading quite a few articles lately about the costs of nuclear power.  Not surprisingly, they are all over the place.  Some articles cite the high costs of continuing to operate nuclear power plants.  Others cite the high costs of abandoning existing nuclear power plants.  The truth is not always easy to ferret out.

While I can't, in a single essay, fully analyze all the points raised in all the articles, I think it is useful to look at some of the articles and some of the points that have been made.  This blog is my first humble attempt to do that.

The first report I'd like to look at is an argument that maintaining nuclear power at 15 or 20% of the 2030 total energy mix in Japan would actually have a marginally higher cost than phasing it out completely.  This statement comes from a Japan Times report on a speech by Softbank CEO and renewable energy advocate Masayoshi Son.  Since this assertion seemed contradictory to me, I tried to look at a few of the factors mentioned in the news article.  The article indicates that Son mentioned the insurance costs in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, the costs related to running a nuclear power plant past 40 years, decommissioning costs, and what to do with the nuclear waste.

Now, I must say that the question of how future insurance requirements for nuclear power plants in Japan will be treated is a great unknown.  I have seen no reports on the subject, so consider it an unknown at this point.  However, the other costs that Son mentions surprised me.  The usual assumptions with regard to operation beyond 40 years is that most of the costs of the plant are sunk costs and the continued operating cost is very small.  True, sometimes upgrades are necessary for longer-term operation, but these are normally a very small fraction of the cost of a new nuclear power plant--or for that matter, a very small fraction of the cost of building any kind of replacement power.  Decommissioning and waste disposal will be required whether the plants are shut down today, in 2030, or beyond that.  There may be some marginal differences (yes, more waste will be generated), but they should be relatively small.  They should not be sufficient to make an earlier shutdown of nuclear power plants a more cost-effective option.

On the other side of the equation, the article does not report Son as making any estimates of the cost of replacing existing facilities with new renewable power plants.  Every cost study I have seen indicates that there is a very substantial cost for any replacement power generation facilities, and particularly for solar or wind power plants.

Some measure of the cost of ending nuclear power completely was provided by the Japanese government, which estimated the cost of ending the use of nuclear power in Japan by 2030 at $637 billion for the replacement power needed, and estimated that would nearly double the monthly energy bill of the average Japanese household.  Once again, there is insufficient information in the article to allow me to confirm quantitatively that the numbers make sense, although qualitatively, they do fit my assertion that the costs of building solar and wind replacements would be large.

One article tried to represent both sides of the story--the Japanese government's case that ending nuclear power will be costly, and the anti-nuclear side's case that energy use can be cut.  The article had one quote that households will use 60-70% less electricity by 2030 than they do today, and therefore, would actually have lower electricity bills!  Having lived in Japan, I can tell you that the price of electricity is already much higher than the price in the US--and that Japanese already use far less energy than Americans do.  That may be no surprise, but I will add that the difference is not merely one of wasting less.  Life in a Japanese apaato (the Japanese word for apartment) is far less comfortable and less convenient than life in the average American home.  I was actually told by my utility company that I could not have air conditioning on even in one room and run the washing machine at the same time if I also wanted to keep the refrigerator and some lights on!

Of course, more can always be done to improve the efficiency of energy use, but I doubt that the average Japanese household will be able to reduce energy use by 60-70% in the next 18 years without huge sacrifices.  And without at least some heat and air conditioning, I would predict that one of the consequences will be an increase in the death rate among the ill and elderly.

In the US, the Business Council of Westchester pegged the cost of closing Indian Point at $11.5 billion.  In that case, the estimated impact on electric rates is only 6.3%.  Again, it is hard to get to the bottom of these numbers, but clearly, the loss of one nuclear power plant in a region is not the same as the loss of all nuclear power plants in a country.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Japan's Decision on Nuclear Power:

A Good Sign?

Somewhat to the surprise of many, the Japanese government recently announced its decision on the future of nuclear power in Japan, and it wasn't the total phaseout by the 2030s that had previously been proposed.

Some view the turnaround as a capitulation to Japanese industry, which had been against the phaseout.  Others see the decision as still vague, leaving a climate of ongoing uncertainty.

Alternatively, the decision might be viewed as an example of what the late President John F. Kennedy dubbed "profiles in courage"--doing the politically unpopular thing out of a conviction that it is the right thing to do.

Others would say just the opposite.  Since the announcement was accompanied by ambiguous wording that the government would still take the phaseout goal "into consideration" in further deciding the energy future of the country, what might initially appear to be an act of political courage could actually be an attempt to straddle the fence and attempt to appease both sides.

We cannot know what the inner thinking is of the decision-makers, so it is hard to make a convincing argument about what motivated the Japanese government to make this decision, but they certainly were aware that a decision to shutter all nuclear power plants in the country was fraught with danger for Japan.

After all, many observers, both inside and outside Japan, predicted a rather dire future for a Japan without nuclear power.  Predictions are not facts, of course, but reasonable analyses of the cost and feasibility of replacement power, and the consequences of severe power shortages, present a compelling argument for, at a minimum, allowing a longer period for the possible operation of nuclear power plants and incorporating more flexibility in making decisions about Japan's energy future.

Thus, while some characterize the actions of the Japanese Cabinet as caving in to industry, it is encouraging that the Japanese Cabinet appeared to recognize all voices and perspectives in arriving at its decision, and at least for now, has balanced the emotional response of members of the public with the reasoned analyses of experts.

This is not to say that we can, at this point, predict how the rest of this saga will play out.  As has been pointed out many times, the tenures of recent Prime Ministers have been remarkably short.  Even absent that, there is a long road ahead for Japan.  The new Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to establish new rules and needs to review each of the currently shut down plants before authorizing restarts.  The strong public sentiment will continue to be an issue.  All these signs point to continued uncertainty.

Nevertheless, the Japanese have at the very least put off making a decision that might have sent their economy into a strong downward spiral.  


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Need for Multifaceted Energy Solutions:

Words of Wisdom from Marv Fertel

I was very pleased to see a recent opinion piece on US energy policy from Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute.  Too often, the proponents of each technology find themselves in the position where other energy technologies feel like competitors.  When this happens, there is a perceived need to "defend" one's own turf--to point out why it is better than the alternatives, or why the comparisons offered by others are not valid.

I don't deny that it can be important to correct erroneous information or unequal comparisons, when they are presented to the public.  But it casts the dialogue in a negative, one-sided manner, when the truth, as many of us recognize, is that we need a diverse portfolio of energy alternatives to meet our growing needs for energy, and our parallel environmental and security requirements.

Therefore, I was delighted to see that Marv Fertel, perhaps the most prominent spokesperson for the US nuclear industry as a whole, has published a very thoughtful essay on why we need a diversified mix of all energy technologies.  Since I cannot improve upon his words, I will provide some key quotes below, but I urge readers to click on the original essay:

"...the United States can and should pursue a bold and aggressive energy policy animated by a low-carbon, diversified portfolio of electricity generation, one that meets forecasted demand growth with technological innovation, reliability and environmental responsibility.  It must realize additional gains from efficiency, demand site management and conservation while recognizing that an ever-growing thirst for electricity will require innovative sources of producing or capturing energy."

"...we must continue to build additional nuclear energy to partner with other low-carbon sources like wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower." (emphasis added)

"...we should pursue an energy policy that balances our environmental goals and one that seeks to limit our exposure to imported sources."

Marv goes on to talk about both current nuclear power plant technology and the potential benefits of advanced reactor technologies and small reactor designs.  What I particularly like about his essay, is that he succinctly summarizes all the many demands on our energy sources--a sufficient and reliable energy supply, responsible environmental stewardship, limited exposure to external disruptions.  He asserts that the way to address that is with a broad portfolio of options--improvements in energy efficiency, grid reliability, demand side management, and conservation, and technological developments in fossil fuel extraction, nuclear reactor designs, renewable energy sources.  

He warns that achieving the needed mix won't be cheap or easy, but that it is important to the future of the United States.  And, I would add, to the world.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Agneta Rising:

A New Head for the World Nuclear Association

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) recently announced that Agneta Rising will become the Director-General of the Association starting January 1, 2013, taking over from John Ritch.

I had previously reported on John's intention to leave that post.  In my earlier post, I noted that John Ritch took the helm of the WNA when the organization morphed from the Uranium Institute to its present incarnation.

John brought a tremendous amount of energy and vision to the organization, and deserves a large share of the credit for making it the important and influential force it is today in the global nuclear community.  I said then, and I reiterate now, that he will be a tough act to follow.

If anyone can fill John's very large shoes, it is Agneta.  The metaphor of a "rising star" seems appropriate for Agneta in more ways than one!  She comes to the position with a distinguished background herself.  She is currently Vice President Environment at Vattenfall AB in Sweden, and has worked in various other positions in Vattenfall since 1980.  Within Sweden, she has served on several government boards and advisory groups on nuclear matters.

Agneta is also well known on the international scene, having served as president of the Swedish Nuclear Society, the European Nuclear Society, and as a founder and president of Women in Nuclear (WIN), an organization with members in over 50 countries.  She has also been associated for a number of years with the WNA and its predecessor, the Uranium Institute, having served as chairman during the transition. 

Although it's been several years since I've seen Agneta, I got to know her 10 or 15 years ago through some of our mutual interests in nuclear professional society activities, so I personally know that she brings a great deal of enthusiasm to her work, and has an outstanding ability to work with other people.  Her selection is an excellent choice that will help continue and further develop the important work of the WNA.

I wish John the best in his "retirement"--although, knowing John, I suspect he will not stay retired for long!--and I wish Agneta the very best as she takes over this key position in the global nuclear community.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Agneta Rising (Correction Noted):

A New Head for the World Nuclear Association


This post was originally published the morning the World Nuclear Association (WNA) announced that Agneta Rising will become the Director-General of the Association starting January 1, 2013, taking over from John Ritch.

However, subsequent to publication, I discovered an error in the URL that I could not correct.  Thinking that the error might make it more difficult for people to find the post, I reposted the content on September 14 with a corrected URL.  I apologize for any inconvenience.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Future of Nuclear Power:

Riot versus Reason

I must confess that some of the recent news from the nuclear world has me conflicted, as they seem to pit my belief in democracy against my belief in the importance of reliable energy supplies for today's economies.

The German public didn't want nuclear power, so German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously supported increasing the use of nuclear power, did a sudden U-turn and promised a phaseout.  The Japanese are, quite understandably, concerned about the safety of nuclear power in Japan, and officials from the Prime Minister on down seem to be near paralysis in addressing the issue of the future of nuclear power in Japan.

These countries are democracies.  If the will of the public is to close nuclear power plants, they should be closed, we have been told.

Now, conceptually, I'm all for having politicians heed the will of the public.  However, there is a BIG difference between leading and following.  Today's politicians seem to have lost sight of that fact.  There is a BIG difference between doing what is really right and doing what is necessary to stay in office.  Today's politicians seem to have forgotten that distinction.

What has happened to the idea of statesmanship?  Of "profiles in courage"?

It seems to me that leadership carries with it the responsibility to make decisions that are sometimes unpopular.  In a democracy, that means that a leader must also be a teacher.  He or she must explain and justify the reasons for a decision.  They must be solid reasons.  They must stand up to counterarguments. 

The latter is not always easy.  In the case of energy supply, there are those who insist that we can replace coal and nuclear power with solar and wind power, quickly, reliably, economically, and with no environmental impacts.  It is not difficult to understand why people want to believe that, and might not be eager to analyze the claims too closely.  After all, wouldn't we all like perfect solutions to all our needs?

It is precisely because the assertions seem so seductive that it takes hard work to counter them.  Unsupported assumptions must be exposed.  Facts refuting them must be expressed in terms that the general public can understand.  It takes effort to explain what the impediments are to any quick transitions--and what the implications are for slower transitions.  It takes time to get the public to understand that all systems have environmental impacts--and to try to compare very different impacts.  It takes patience to make it clear that there are serious consequences to intermittency--and to convey an understanding of what that will mean to individuals and to industries.  

But the failure to educate the public leads directly to the situation we are seeing now in Germany, and to the direction in which Japan seems to be going.  When Germany's phaseout plan was announced, many experts pointed to the enormous obstacles ahead--the need for storage or fossil-fueled backup power for solar and wind installations, the need for grid enhancements to move the electricity from the windy regions to the industrial regions, etc.  Not a problem, the solar and wind proponents assured the public.  The will of the public, the Germany politicians said.

Now, we are seeing the predicted costs and difficulties of Germany's energy transition beginning to emerge.  This outcome was predictable, but it was not fully explained to the German public.  The resulting burning of lignite, of course, has ramifications beyond the borders of Germany, so should be a concern to us all.  Now, we are assured that Germany will catch up and will meet its carbon reduction goals anyway.  No one explains just how that will happen.  And the German politicians are remaining silent.

In Japan, we see the threat of a near-repeat of the same scenario.  It truly seems that Prime Minister Noda knows in his heart that keeping the nation's nuclear power plants shuttered is bad for the country.  He has supported the restart of two units, despite considerable opposition.  He has fought against promising an early exit from nuclear power.  Yet, the pace of restarts is glacially slow, the promised creation of an independent regulator has been delayed, and the pressures against nuclear power are growing

The outcome of failing to restart Japan's nuclear power plants is clear--more fossil fuels will be burned in a country that already has serious air pollution problems in some areas; the economy will be severely affected as industries fold or jobs are moved offshore; the health of the elderly and infirm will be affected by living without sufficient heat or air-conditioning.  But these are slow and incremental effects, and the public is largely in denial, so is swallowing specious arguments that Japan is managing and can continue to manage seamlessly, or maybe will minor inconveniences, without its nuclear power plants. 

So, yes, the will of the people is important.  But the first step in a democratic process is education.  The will of the public must be informed by the cold, hard facts.  I believe if people understand the true costs of giving up nuclear power--in terms of their individual and national well-being--we might see a very different dialogue than we are now seeing in some countries.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

More on Reid and Magwood:

Other Takes on the Story

It's been an interesting week for me since I published the post about Senator Harry Reid's comments on Commissioner Bill Magwood.  One commenter said I was "too civilized."  I'm not sure I've ever been accused of that before!

Someone else contacted me and suggested that I had missed a couple of plausible scenarios.  If Obama is reelected, he will presumably want to reappoint Chairman Allison Macfarlane.  However, since Macfarlane will come up for reappointment without anyone to pair her with, positive Senate action can't be presumed.

Maybe my observations of the Washington scene go back too far!  Pairing nominations is not required, and historically, the practice has only started in relatively recent years.  Since a nomination can be held up by a single Senator, it would not take much to stall a nomination that comes in alone.  One consequence of our increasingly dysfunctional Congress is that nothing seems to get done without essentially "bribing" the other party by dangling something--or someone--it wants. 

If the Senate does not act, Obama's options will be limited.  If he can't push Macfarlane through, he probably can't get anyone else nominated either.  If he is left to choose from among the current commissioners, there are two other Democrats on the Commission, and word is that Commissioner George Apostolakis is not interested in the chairmanship.  That would leave Commissioner Magwood.

Of course, Obama could demonstrate a bipartisan spirit, and appoint Commissioner  Ostendorff as chairman.  Although he is a Republican, he has a reputation for being fair and balanced.  Historically, nuclear safety has not been a highly partisan issue, so it should be possible for someone of the opposite party to take the helm at NRC.  But, if Obama's wish to renominate Macfarlane is thwarted by the Senate, will he be in the mood to reach out to a Republican?

It is noteworthy that Senator Reid could not stop Obama from appointing Magwood as Chairman.  That action does not require Senate confirmation.  One therefore wonders if Reid's statement is really a message to the President.  If the Senate Majority Leader feels so strongly about Magwood, will Obama want to risk his ire by appointing Magwood as Chairman?

But I come back again to wondering about the timing of Reid's message.  If that was his objective, might it be better to deliver the message after the election?  Or, better still, shortly before Macfarlane's appointment ends.  In answer to this, my friend speculates that maybe Reid is also trying to send a message to Macfarlane.  Although her history seems to suggest that her views on Yucca Mountain are aligned with Reid's interests, he may be worried by her balanced statements that she will look at everything anew.

It is still not clear what he can accomplish regarding Macfarlane by making the comments he made about Magwood.  Maybe he is concerned that she will gain Republican support, and he wants to remind her of the power he wields.   

So, there are even more possibilities than I thought of before.  All still speculation, of course.  The only thing that seems certain is that, if Obama is re-elected, the issue of the chairmanship come July 1 could--dare I say it?--go nuclear.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reid, Magwood, Jaczko:

The Saga Continues

Those of us who live and work "inside the Beltway" can sometimes get a little smug in our conviction that we really understand how things work around here.  Recent events, however, are leading me to question my own sense of certainty about my understanding.

The first blow to my feeling that I "know the ropes" came last December, when the news went public that four of the Commissioners at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had written a letter to the White House complaining about the behavior of its then-Chairman, Gregory Jaczko.  I don't want to go so far as to assert that this event is unique in the history of the Republic, but in the more than six months since that incident, I have not been able to find anyone who can point to a comparable incident.  After all, this letter was endorsed by all of Jaczko's peers on the Commission, by both Democrats and Republicans, and was not a closed-door intervention, but rather, was a message to the very top of the Administration. 

With the departure of Jaczko at the end of June and his replacement by Dr. Allison Macfarlane as Chairman, I would have thought that the story had come to a logical conclusion.  Not so.  In recent days, I see that the issue is still simmering.  In the first place, Jaczko's friends and former Senate colleagues put on a farewell-cum-fundraising party for Jaczko, to help him pay off the legal expenses he incurred defending himself against the charges brought against him, and have now established a website to collect additional funds.

For those who may wonder why he needed legal support, since he was not sued and had no court appearances, I know from my own past, when I worked for the government, that I frequently got advertisements for insurance that would cover legal costs that might be incurred in defending oneself against accusations of wrong-doing.  (And in fact, agency guidance always recommended hiring legal counsel in such cases.)  Therefore, the fact that he had an attorney was probably prudent of him.  The fact that he did not carry the insurance was surely a mistake.  The fact that his colleagues are publicly raising money for this purpose is an unseemly postscript to this unfortunate affair.

And yesterday, I discovered that the saga has still not ended.  In a piece published in Huffington Post, Senator Reid made a strong attack on Commissioner Magwood, accusing him of lying and calling him various unflattering names.  Again, I can't confirm that this is completely unprecedented--and I do know that Senators and Congressmen sometimes resort to name-calling--but this incident certainly has some unusual overtones.  Name-calling is usually reserved for members of the opposite Party; Senator Reid and Commissioner Magwood are both Democrats.  Name-calling usually occurs in the heat of the battle; this battle would seem to be over, with Jaczko ousted and a new Chairman--in fact, one who was Reid's choice--installed.

In fact, the biggest question my friends and I have been debating in the past day or so is:  Why now?  The end of the article suggests that Reid "wasn't looking to eviscerate Magwood and would have kept his concerns private if he hadn't been asked."  That seems disingenuous to me.  Surely, a Senator could respond to such a question by saying that this chapter is closed.  After all, it is hard to imagine a likely scenario where Magwood could be appointed Chairman of the NRC.  If Romney wins the election, he will appoint a Republican.  If Obama wins, Macfarlane will most likely stay in her position.  There is a hint in the final sentence of the article that Reid might be trying to assure that Magwood is not nominated for any other position.  One wonders if that means that something along those lines has been floated?  Or if he is posturing to help Obama in the State of Nevada? 

So this whole episode appears to be lingering long beyond what we'd all expected.  At this point, I don't suppose it is any special "inside the Beltway" wisdom or insight to say that it seems that the saga is not yet over, but the only thing most of us can do now is to stay tuned. 


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Decommissioning Fukushima:

The Need for an International Effort

I have been hearing mixed signals about how the decommissioning of the damaged Fukushima units is likely to proceed.  On the one hand, I have seen several reports in the news indicating the interest of various countries, and of private firms in those countries, in participating in the decommissioning of the units.  The sense has been that the collective effort of experts around the world would be helpful in forging new solutions to address the unprecedented scale of the needed clean-up effort, and that the entire international nuclear community would benefit from the knowledge gained by working on this effort.

On the other hand, I have also heard whispers that the Japanese government was not prepared to open its doors to foreign involvement.  Whether because of embarrassment or because of the hope that Japanese firms might gain a commercial edge around the world by being the sole beneficiaries of the lessons to be learned from cleaning up from this accident, there has been concern that this project might remain off limits to the international community.

Therefore, I was heartened to see a recent publication from Takuya Hattori, President of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), arguing strongly that the Fukushima decommissioning project be conducted openly, transparently, and with international involvement.  His key thoughts are:

1.  We are all "in the same boat."  Because many countries use nuclear power, once an accident occurs somewhere, its effects do not remain domestic.  

2.  Japan has a responsibility to the world.  Many countries have indicated that they will continue to use nuclear power, so Japan has a responsibility to release relevant information to help contribute to improving the safety of nuclear facilities worldwide.

3.  Japan has appeared to the world to be reluctant to cooperate.  Immediately after the accident, Japan didn't provide enough information to the world, leading to concerns that Japan was concealing information.  Following that, although many countries offered help or suggestions, Japan has not been prepared to respond properly.  Hattori-san indicates that Japan was not organized to receive input and hadn't decided who was responsible.  This has led to further criticism that Japan is not transparent and not willing to cooperate with the international community.

4.  Decommissioning needs the united wisdom of the world.  Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi will be a major, long-term effort (30-40 years) requiring new R&D on working in highly radioactive environments and removing melted fuel.  It should proceed as rapidly as possible.

5.  There are parallels in other disciplines for such international collaboration.  Hattori-san specifically cites as an example the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which invited research proposals internationally to study asteroid samples brought back to earth by the unmanned spacecraft, Hayabusa, in June 2010, and selected the winning proposals through the use of an international committee. 

With that as background, Hattori-san proposes two specific actions:

A platform for international R&D should be established.  Hattori-san suggests bringing resources from around the world to a common forum to be discussed openly so that appropriate technologies can be identified for the Fukushima decommissioning efforts.  The forum should be open to the world, but he mentions particularly the cooperation that has already been offered by the US, UK, France, Russia, and Canada.  Existing international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA) should be used, but Japan should take the initiative to get this effort started.  

An international decommissioning research center should be established.  Hattori-san proposes that an international base for R&D be established in Fukushima, close to the plants.  The purpose of this center would be to develop new tools in robotics and other areas that will be useful not only for Fukushima, but for the other reactors around the world that are already shut and awaiting decommissioning, as well as for currently operating plants and even future plants as they reach the ends of their lives.  He sees such a site as fostering both cooperation and competition, of supporting current human resource efforts for the nuclear enterprise, and of contributing to the restoration and revitalization of the Fukushima region.

JAIF is an industry organization and is not the government, so the fact that the President of JAIF has offered this vision does not make it an accomplished fact.  Still, the logic for having some sort of effort along these lines is compelling, and with a model from another field, one hopes that his suggestions will get a receptive hearing from the halls of Kasumigaseki. 


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fitness for Duty, Redux:

Drug Testing Run Amok

Sometimes the most interesting information doesn't come from the news media, but from the private experiences of individuals.  One reader, Tom Clegg, posted two fascinating tidbits of information in response to my recent blogpost on fitness for duty.  Since I'm never sure that early readers of a post go back and find the comments, I thought it was worthwhile for me to provide his comments in a new posting.

As readers of the earlier post will remember, I highlighted the case of poppy seeds, which can provide a false positive for opium in the first-level (and cheaper) drug test.  I thought my own experience was amusing.  I was told that it would be advisable if I didn't eat poppy seed bagels. I decided that I wasn't going to let my employer tell me what to eat and what not to eat, so I vowed to eat only (or at least, mostly) poppy seed bagels from then on.  (And I do so to this day.)

Well, based on Tom's reports, I can only say that I was lucky I was never called for a random drug test after eating a poppy seed bagel.  Tom offered two stories.

The first was the experience of a colleague:

Years back a coworker of mine at Indian Point ate a poppy-seed bagel for breakfast.He got picked that day for a random drug test. He came up positive on the test. He was sent down to Brooklyn to be examined and evaluated. Found out it was because of the poppy seed bagel. Con Edison made him sign a paper where he promised never to eat poppy-seed bagels. If this sounds odd to make matters worse they still sold poppy-seed bagel in the cafeteria!

 The second was his own experience:

Now I will tell you my experience with random drug testing. I have a commercial drivers license. When the laws on CDL's changed backed in the 90's. I got picked for a random drug test for the DOT. Even though I worked at Indian Point nuclear power plant at the time, I was still given the cheaper random drug test. I had eaten a poppy seed bagel that morning. The test came back positive. I had to go down to Brooklyn be examined by a doctor checking between my fingers, behind my knees,between my toes for needle marks. I was asked questions and had to submit to another drug test before it was discovered that it was a false positive. The thing is when ever I go to another nuclear power plant to help out for an outage. The question always comes up, Have you ever tested positive on a drug test? To which I have to answer yes. Then I have to fill out a form and explain it over and over again. No matter how many times I have worked at the same plant it happens all the time.

In my previous post, I was commenting on Canada's very recent adoption of a fitness-for-duty rule, and I opined that the US had gone down that path years ago with little disruption.  Tom has opened my eyes to some problems that I hadn't known existed. 

Usually, in cases such as these, the solutions don't seem that difficult, and I find it hard to fathom why fixes aren't made.  The occasional expense of a second-level test seems to me to be fairer than telling people they can't eat certain foods for the duration of their employment.  (Especially if they keep serving poppy-seed bagels on site!)  It is one thing to tell them they can't do something that is illegal anyway, or that would be dangerous (even if legal), but it is quite another to start to forbid normal, harmless activities.  And one would think that questionnaires about past drug test results could focus on what the end result was, not the intermediate step that we know is sometimes wrong.

Although sometimes the "institutions" seem to clam up and be unwilling to make changes, there is some hope.  When I read Tom's stories, I thought about airline security and the similarly absurd stories we've been hearing over the last few years.  It's taken some time, but recently, TSA has made some moves to modify the rules.  It may seem to be too little, too late to many frequent fliers, but they are taking steps in the right direction.  Maybe there is also hope in the drug-testing arena.

I can only say that I am sorry to hear of the difficulties Tom and his colleague have faced because of a requirement that has a valid purpose.  If anyone reading this has a hand in preparing the rules and procedures for drug testing anywhere, I hope they will consider these stories and use them to create a more rational approach to drug testing rules in the future.  I can also hope that Canada benefits from the "lessons learned" in the US and develops the rules and procedures in such a way that they don't have the same problems. 


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Allison Macfarlane:

A New Face at the NRC

There has been much discussion in recent weeks and months, first, of the sometimes acrimonious interactions among the Commissioners at the NRC, and later, of the nomination of Allison Macfarlane, as a Commissioner and Chair of the NRC.  As of yesterday, we have a new Commission--Macfarlane has replaced Gregory Jaczko as a Commissioner and as Chair.  Macfarlane was sworn in yesterday as the 33rd individual to serve on the Commission since the NRC was created in 1975.

It is hopefully a time for healing within the NRC.  While many of us don't know much about Macfarlane, it is hard to imagine that the situation that has existed will continue.  What has been troubling to me is the number of negative comments I've heard about her even before she was confirmed.

Right now, I think the best course of action for all concerned--the other Commissioners, the NRC staff, licensees, and interested observers, is to give the new Chairman and the new Commission a chance.  Obviously, there will be some break-in period while Macfarlane gets to know her new job and establishes her working relationships with her fellow Commissioners and the NRC staff.

Hopefully, that will not be a long period, as the NRC faces a lot of issues.  Hopefully, Macfarlane will be able to restore to the Commission some of the spirit of collegiality that has distinguished it in the past.  And hopefully, Macfarlane will embody the true spirit of the Commission and review the issues before the Commission objectively and impartially. 

Macfarlane must be aware of the fact that she may not have much time.  She has been appointed to fill the remainder of Jaczko's term, which gives her exactly one year (to July 1, 2013).  If Obama loses the Presidential election this fall, she will certainly not stay on as Chairman (although she could be appointed for another term as a Commissioner).  If Obama wins, she may be reappointed, both as Commissioner and as Chairman, but whether she is reappointed may depend on what she is able to accomplish in the coming year.

In the meantime, those who have had their doubts about Macfarlane should give her the same chance they want her to give to the issues before the Commission--a fair and balanced review. 


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fukushima Accident Report:

"Made in Japan"

The long-awaited report from the Japanese Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission is out.  While I have not been able to read it completely (and I believe only portions are available in English at present), one item that has gotten a lot of attention so far is the statement by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the panel, that the accident was "Made in Japan"--that is, that it was a product of Japanese cultural tendencies.  Specifically, he states:

"Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the programme'; our groupism; and our insularity.  What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan'."

These are observations that have long been made by people outside Japan, myself included, so the conclusions come as no surprise.  (Some of my comments on this blog site include:  a number of blogs I wrote in the first 6 months after the Fukushima accident, and a report on comments by Professor Yoshiaki Oka I prepared somewhat after that.  What will be important is how the government and industry react to these observations.

As Japan begins to grapple with addressing these concerns, it would be well to keep several points in mind:

1.  These traits are "cultural tendencies," not laws of nature.  All countries have some traits that we would call "national" or "cultural" traits--Americans are "cowboys," British are "stiff upper-lipped," French are "arrogant."  The list goes on and on.  But when you get to know individual Japanese, or Americans, or British, or French, you realize that these characteristics vary widely over each population.  For every stereotypical national trait, I can probably find an exception among the people I know. 

2.  These cultural tendencies are not all bad.  Each tendency is very appropriate at certain times and places.  Societies need a certain degree of obedience to function.  A group mentality can help a civilization survive.  Cowboys represent the "pioneering spirit" that served America so well in its early days, and still is beneficial in many ways to this day.  I hope this statement by Professor Kurokawa, does not cause the Japanese to feel that they have "bad" characters.  

3.  These traits are not all good either.  Any personality or cultural trait taken to an extreme, or applied in the wrong environment, can backfire.  In the US, we tend to laud the pioneering spirit, the "can do, go it alone" attitude.  In a nuclear power plant, however, rules and procedures must be followed.  I'm not a sociologist, but I know that in Japan, the "groupism" and "obedience to authority" arises from the historic agricultural economy, and is beneficial in many ways.  However, individuals sometimes need to stand up and confront authority.

4.  All nations and all organizations struggle to find the right balance.  The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was founded to assure separation from development and promotional functions and to assure "independence."  However, when I worked for Commissioner Rogers at the NRC, a number of us had begun to feel uncomfortable with the fact that some of the staff and management felt that "independence" should almost be a wall between the regulator and the licensee, and that any direct communication between them was inherently bad.  It was that concern, among others, that prompted Commissioner Rogers to instigate the preparation of NRC's Principles of Good Regulation. The very first of the Principles of Good Regulation, independence, is described as follows:

Independence does not imply isolation. All available facts and opinions must be sought openly from licensees and other interested members of the public. The many and possibly conflicting public interests involved must be considered. Final decisions must be based on objective, unbiased assessments of all information, and must be documented with reasons explicitly stated.

I have previously commented in more detail on both the Principles of Good Regulation and on the issue of independence as it might apply in Japan.

5.  The changes needed are fundamental and won't be easy.  In the past, there have been several reorganizations in Japan intended to address problems that were previously observed.  These have involved both the government agencies and the research and development institutes that serve them.  After one such reorganization, a very senior official in that organization commented to me that "We have changed the name, but nothing has really changed."  This was some time ago and was the private comment of one individual, so I do not want to blow it out of proportion.  However, at the time, I sensed that this was a widespread attitude.

Cosmetic changes were really not enough at that time, and perhaps in the long run, helped contribute to the situation Japan faces today.  Cosmetic changes certainly will not suffice today and in the future.  The Japanese government must make profound changes in the way the different parts of the government communicate and coordinate, and in the way that the regulator coordinates with the licensees.  The lines of authority must be drawn in a way that differs from how they have traditionally been drawn and how they may continue to be drawn elsewhere in the government.  Embedded practices, such as amakudari (which I previously addressed, and on which I also issued a post highlighting some comments made on the first blog), that may hamper the ability of the regulator to operate independently, must be addressed, but doing so has profound implications on basic personnel practices.

Japan seems to be making a promising start with its plans for regulatory reform.  However, many details of these plans have not yet been finalized, so it is difficult to comment further at this time.  In addition, just establishing a new organization will not be enough.  The implementation plan must assure that the fundamental changes are really made, and that the reorganization does not turn out to be just another case of changing the name of the organization.      

6.  Maintaining a new culture is a continuing process.  Even beyond the implementation phase, the kinds of changes Japan needs include fundamental behavioral changes by the individuals in the system.  Some undoubtedly go against the cultural traditions that all Japanese grow up with.  For example, children are taught that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."  That message provides a powerful disincentive to speaking up when someone sees something wrong.  The "rules of the road" for staffers of nuclear power plants and nuclear regulatory organizations needs to be a little different from the rules for the prevailing culture.

Once again, this is equally true for other characteristics in other cultures.  I have written in the past about what I called the "eraser mentality" in Japan--a tendency I saw to try to cover up errors.  We have seen that tendency in reports on some of the smaller accidents in Japan in the past.  Although I focused on this trait in Japan, perhaps because I saw it there in a more exaggerated form, this is a human tendency.  Who among us, after all, has not been tempted to try to deny that they did something wrong, especially if they thought they could get away with it?  In the US, I know that creating and maintaining an environment that encourages people to own up to mistakes is an on-going process and requires actions at every level.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fitness-for-Duty at Nuclear Power Plants:

News from Canada

A few weeks ago, I ran across a news item saying that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission was considering a random alcohol drug testing requirement for anyone with unescorted access to sensitive areas of a nuclear power plant.   

The news surprised me, because we instituted this policy in the United States years ago.  In fact, the rule was promulgated while I worked for Commissioner Kenneth Rogers at the NRC in the late 1980s, so I remember the discussions very well.

Although there was a great deal of concern about the drug-testing program at the time, to my knowledge, there have not been significant problems with it.  One of my biggest concerns had been the chance of false positives.  When the NRC implemented the program for its licensees, it also implemented an internal program.  I remember being told that foods with poppy seeds could cause a false positive.

The technical solution, of course, was a more sophisticated test that could distinguish everyday poppy seeds from their close cousin, opium.  However, in a briefing to those of us who were going to be in the random drug-testing program, an over-zealous staffer told us that, if we were subject to random drug testing, it would be advisable if we did not eat poppy seed bagels.  (And by the way, poppy seed bagels are hardly the biggest problem.  The number of poppy seeds on a poppy seed bagel pales in comparison to the number of poppy seeds in the poppy seed cakes that are popular among German-Americans and others.)  Well, I for one was not about to have my employer tell me what to eat and what not to eat.  Before that briefing, I happily ate any kind of bagel.  Ever since then, however, I choose poppy seed bagels whenever I can! 
All kidding aside, I am aware that cultural differences and other factors have caused countries to respond differently to concerns about the use of alcohol and drugs on the job.  While in that same position at NRC, I accompanied Commissioner Rogers on a trip to France.  One day, we were flown by helicopter to see a facility outside of Paris.  After the visit, we were flown to a restaurant in an old mansion on a large country estate.  The helicopter landed, and we were greeted on the patio with canapes and a glass of wine.  As I looked around, I noticed that the helicopter pilot and co-pilot also had glasses of wine in their hands!  Later, I asked what the rules were.  At the time, it was legal in France for a pilot to drink--but if there was an accident, he'd have the book thrown at him!

Fortunately, there wasn't an accident on our helicopter flight back to Paris, and fortunately, I guess, I was never drug tested at NRC after eating a poppy-seed bagel.

In any event, I want to assure our neighbors to the north that the flap over drug testing came and went in the US nuclear community, everyone adjusted, and the world is still safe for poppy seed bagels!


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Russia Joins NEA:

Completion of a Process

About six months ago, I wrote about the plan for Russia to join the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.  I am delighted to report that the process has been now completed and Russia is a full member of NEA.  The accession becomes effective January 1, 2013, but all the paperwork has now been completed.

As I noted in my previous earlier post, this move makes Russia only the second country to become a member of NEA without being a member of the OECD.  The first country to do so, South Korea, subsequently became a member of OECD, so at present, Russia is the only non-OECD NEA member.

(The reciprocal situation is different.  There are several members of the OECD that are not NEA members:  New Zealand and Poland are long-time OECD members that have opted not to join the NEA; and the OECD has several new members--Chile, Estonia, Israel and Slovenia--that are not members of NEA.  It will be up to the individual countries and the NEA whether any of them join NEA in the future.)

As I also previously indicated, the accession of Russia, with its active nuclear power development program, will be useful to NEA as it tries to address global international nuclear issues.  The move to have Russia join the NEA has its roots in a joint cooperation declaration signed in 2006 while I was at the NEA, so I am very pleased and proud to see this effort come to full fruition.

It will also be important for NEA to continue to forge closer relationships with other major nuclear countries, such as China, as NEA continues its efforts to assist  countries in maintaining and  developing the bases for the safe use of nuclear power.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Restarting Japan's Nuclear Reactors:

Growing Support?

The recent news from Japan indicates that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is moving closer to restarting the first of Japan's nuclear reactors.  His initiative is still in progress and continues to face opposition, but he has made an unusually urgent plea for restart of the reactors and painted a bleak picture of what might happen if no reactors are restarted. 

Not only are Japan's current living standards at risk, but he also lays out the concern about national security and the need to avoid relying too heavily on oil and natural gas from the politically unstable Middle East.  To those who believe that Japan is getting along just fine without nuclear power, he points out that the summer months, when the demand for electricity will reach its peak, still lie ahead.

Local leaders are beginning to come around, but ominously, some are responding narrowly to the concerns about summer demands by saying that the Ohi plant, the first targeted for restart, should operate only for the summer--at least until Japan revamps its regulatory oversight, a process that is still underway.

A related blog by Yoshito Hori, one of my friends in Japan, points out some of the reasons that Japan appears to be surviving without nuclear power, and why the appearances are wrong.  He points out that some companies are buying their own generators.  This is a very expensive proposition, and the money for those purchases is draining wages, profits, and expansion plans.  He also reiterates a concern we've heard elsewhere, that companies are trying to move more of their production capacity offshore, resulting in the hollowing out of industry.  He also notes other measures being taken, such as adjusting factory schedules.

I would add one important action to Hori-san's blog--that is the increase in the use of fossil fuel plants.  The additional use of fossil fuels this past year has already had a measurable effect on air pollution, and will likely result in increased illness and deaths, especially among the elderly and those with chronic diseases.

Hori-san's blog reminded me of a dilemma I have faced during most of my career:  How does one measure the accuracy of predictions?  In my first job out of college, I was doing some long-range planning.  I applied for a position in another organization and was challenged by the interviewer, "Why is it that the predictions you long-range planners make always seem to be wrong?"

The question took me by surprise, and I probably mumbled an answer that wasn't very good, but the question stuck with me over the years, and I finally figured out what I should have said.  It is human nature to try to prepare for a situation and to make adjustments.  Therefore, for example, if you predict a monster hurricane that could kill a million people in coastal communities and they evacuate and no one dies, was the prediction faulty?

What is happening in Japan is a less extreme version of the same phenomenon.  People and companies are being warned of potential power shortages, so they are making all the adjustments they can.  Some are fairly small things, like shedding coats and ties.  Others are relatively minor inconveniences, like making do with less lighting.  Still others involve various kinds and degrees of individual and corporate sacrifices--changing work schedules, cutting back work hours, delaying growth plans.

These shift the dynamic.  We don't see the predicted energy shortages, or if we see them, they are far less than the original predictions, so the original prediction looks "wrong."  There are effects on people's lives and on the economy, but it is often difficult to make a one-to-one correspondence between the shuttered nuclear power plants and some of these consequences.  There are spurious events, such as the abnormally cool weather in Japan last summer, that provide misleading "evidence."

Hori-san's blog ends with a stark vision of the two choices facing the nation--to learn from the accident, restart the plants whose safety is validated, and in parallel, develop a new long-range energy strategy, or to leave the plants closed and to see the national wealth drained. 


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Selecting NRC Commissioners:

What are the Job Requirements?

It may seem somewhat of an irony that the rules for selecting the leadership of the NRC are different from the rules for selecting staff.  While the NRC prides itself on the academic qualifications of its staff and the high level of experience of those in line management, Commissioners are not selected by the same rules.

With the nomination of Dr. Allison Macfarlane to be an NRC Commissioner and Chairman of the Commission, the discussion of qualifications has been opened once again.  Concerns have been expressed because her doctorate is in geology, not in nuclear engineering, and because she has no management experience.

Are these valid criticisms?  What should the academic and experience requirements be to be an NRC Commissioner?  To be the Chairman of the NRC?

Let's look first at the technical qualifications.  If you look back over the history of the NRC, we have had Commissioners from a variety of backgrounds.  Some, but not a majority, have been nuclear engineers.  Many, but not all, have been scientists.  Some have been attorneys.   Some of the Commissioners who were not trained as nuclear engineers worked on nuclear issues on Capitol Hill.  Others did not.  A few Commissioners have been businessmen from totally outside the nuclear field.  Most Chairmen have had management experience, but some have had none.   

Most of us who have watched the Commission for many years can probably point to the Commissioners and the Chairmen we thought did a great job and the ones who we thought weren't so great.  I daresay if we each looked honestly at our own lists, the names on them would not all be nuclear engineers.  They would likely be a mix.

What is it that has distinguished the ones we thought were great?  It is that they were smart and thoughtful.  They were objective and open-minded.  They were safety-focused and realistic.  They took the trouble to develop an understanding of the technical issues, they listened to all points of view, and they were willing to work with the staff and the other Commissioners to arrive at sound decisions. 

A nuclear engineer can do those things, but so can a physicist, a chemist, an attorney, or an English major.  Or a geologist.

As a nuclear engineer myself, I do, of course, like to think that nuclear engineers can do a better job than others.  Certainly, it has to be helpful.  But I am hard pressed to say it is necessary.  NRC's work spans many technical disciplines, not all of them reactor-related.

What is more relevant than her academic discipline is whether Dr. Macfarlane has the ability to review all issues before the Commission fairly and objectively.  She comes into the job with positions on several issues that may not be in line with those of the other Commissioners.  What is relevant is how she is likely to handle those issues. 

The other issue that has been raised is Dr. Macfarlane's lack of management experience.  This certainly is a valid concern, but it may not be the make-or-break issue.  What may be more important, particularly in the current environment, is her interpersonal skills.  Since I do not know Dr. Macfarlane personally, I can't comment on those.

I have deliberately chosen not to take a public position on this nomination because I do not believe that I have all the facts.  While there are certainly other individuals who could have been selected for this position and who would not arouse the same degree of concern, that is a moot point.

The focus at this point should be on assessing whether Dr. Macfarlane can act fairly and impartially on all issues that may come before the Commission.  A geologist should be able to do that.  The question is--Can this geologist do that?