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.