Thursday, May 30, 2013

Washington Internships for Students of Engineering:

The 2013 Season Kicks Off

2012 WISE Interns on Capitol Hill
Some readers may remember that I once wrote a post about a technology policy internship program called the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering.  The acronym for this program, conveniently, is WISE, and so the interns often call themselves the "WISE guys."

When I wrote that post in early 2012, I told readers that I had a long-time involvement with the program through the American Nuclear Society (ANS), which is one of the sponsors of the program.  Little did I know at the time, but a little more than a year later, I was selected to be the "faculty member in residence" for the 2013 season.

The program starts next Monday and runs for 9 weeks, until early August.  During that time, I will arrange for the 14 rising college seniors in the program to visit a number of government agencies and other organizations in the Washington area, and will supervise them in the research on a technology policy topic and the preparation of a research paper.  I will be aided in that effort by mentors from the 7 engineering Societies, including the ANS, who collectively sponsor and manage the program.

I anticipate that I may find some interesting fodder for this blog in my work with the WISE interns this summer, so I thought I'd use this post as an introduction.

I will preserve the anonymity of the interns, in this blog and in any others I do on WISE, so I will not provide names or other identifying information.

The 14 students come from 13 schools in 11 states.  They have already identified their tentative research topics.  A majority of the topics have something to do with energy use--either energy supply (nuclear power and natural gas), energy demand (biodiesel fuel, fuel cells, and other transportation-related options, and energy efficiency in homes), and energy transmission (smart grid).  Two topics are on water management, and one each is on telecommunications, radioisotopes, and technology for the disabled.

I cannot tell at this point what the summer will bring, but I suspect that I will watch the interns learn a lot about technology policy, and at the same time, I will learn a lot about how the upcoming generation deals with their first exposure to live "inside the Beltway."  If I have some interesting observations, I'll be sure to share them.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Nuclear Engineers:

Unusual Career Options

I've always told people that I thought a nuclear engineering education was a very broad and versatile background for a large variety of careers.  Indeed, I have known people with degrees in nuclear engineering who ended up far from the fold--in other science and engineering fields or in the financial sector.

Until recently, however, I had not heard about Paul Chrisman (a.k.a. Woody Paul), a country western musician with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from my own alma mater, MIT.  Recently, when flipping through my alumni/ae magazine, that deficiency in my own education was corrected.

It turns out that Woody Paul is a long-time and very successful singer and fiddler for the group known as Riders in the Sky.  And true to my perhaps chauvinistic view of nuclear engineers, he is remarkably successful at what he does.  Evidence of his recognition includes two Grammy awards, and most recently, induction into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame.

I was very pleased to learn that he is still high on science and engineering.  You don't hear of many musicians who say they are fascinated with entropy!

So next time someone insinuates to me that engineers are boring or out of touch, do I have an answer for them!


Friday, May 17, 2013

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority:

An Op-Ed in the Nikkei Newspaper

I recently had the pleasure of being asked to provide my views on Japan and its new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) for publication in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the leading business newspaper in Japan (published by Nikkei, Inc. - home of the famous "Nikkei average").  The article was translated into Japanese and published on April 19, 2013 (page 29).  I just received permission to post the English language version in this blog.  It follows below:

The Independence of NRA and its Regulatory Activities

Both in Japan and in the U.S., a stable, safe and affordable supply of energy is essential for economic growth and individual well-being. Accordingly, it is important to assure the availability of a variety of energy sources, even in the U.S., which is now enjoying the benefit of abundant shale gas at low cost.  Therefore, nuclear power is a key part of the U.S. energy portfolio. In Japan, which lacks domestic resources, nuclear power has played a significant role in the stable supply of energy in the past. However, since the Fukushima accident, all nuclear power plants in Japan except Ohi nuclear power plant Units 3 and 4 have been shut down. This has resulted in a considerable increase of fossil fuel imports, rising power generation costs and the largest ever trade deficit (outflow of national wealth).

Prime Minister Abe’s new cabinet, inaugurated after the Lower House Election in December last year, places top priority on Japan’s economic recovery, and thus seems to emphasize restarting the nuclear power plants. Indeed, Prime Minister Abe stated in his first policy speech to the Diet at the end of February that the nuclear reactors should be permitted to restart if their safety is verified. For restarting, safety verification by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which is a newly formed independent regulatory organization, is required, and the process for restarting operation is expected to begin after the new safety standards are established and come into effect as scheduled in July. The Nuclear Regulation Authority thus has a key role to play.

On the other hand, viewed from the U.S., there does not appear to be a consensus among Japanese people; there are very diverse opinions regarding the activities of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, its independence, and the way it should communicate with stakeholders, and also the principle of the new standards. In view of the crucial role that the Nuclear Regulation Authority will play in Japan, I would like to discuss nuclear regulation from the perspective of the longstanding experience of the independent regulatory authorities in major economies, focusing on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as an independent nuclear regulator.

First of all, let us consider the necessity of communication. How does the need to communicate affect the independence of a regulatory organization? In the case of the NRC, the standards a regulator should meet are outlined in a document titled “Principles of Good Regulation”, which clearly states, “independence does not imply isolation”.  Therefore, the NRC focuses on equal and transparent communication with all parties in order to make fair judgments and considers the views of all stakeholders along with facts they present. These opinions include information not just from the utilities, but also from research institutes, the national government, local governments and non-government organizations (NGOs). Furthermore, communication is not just a matter of receiving public comments. The NRC (like all other U.S. Federal agencies) documents and publishes its analyses of all public comments received in response to NRC requests for comment, as well as in response to all petitions. This practice provides a public record of how the NRC has considered and addressed concerns raised by all interested parties. This is partly because the way in which NRC explains its response to public comments is subject to court review if a decision of the NRC is appealed to a court. Courts are not safety experts, so NRC’s judgment is respected as that of a specialist organization. Moreover, anyone can gain access to most of the information available to the NRC through a freedom-of-information request. Thus, close communication between the NRC and stakeholders has been established by assuring transparency and equality. It is desirable that similar practices would be made a rule in Japan as well.

Secondly, there must be a high degree of technical competence among the roughly 4000 employees at NRC to support independence. The NRC is required to make judgments “independently” as a specialist organization, irrespective of any political, economic, or other interests.  Even the President may not override the safety decisions of the NRC.  The NRC makes its judgments based on all the technical information it receives from all sources, including the public comment discussed above, and on its own review and analysis of the data. When making a judgment, the NRC may use or adopt ideas that originated from utilities and external expert committees, but only after NRC conducts its own review to confirm that any outside analyses or recommendations meet NRC’s requirements, and only after it explains that review. Therefore, to maintain independence, it is important to have sufficient technical competence to understand opinions, information and advice given by others, to analyze them, and to make its own decisions. Needless to say, it is essential for Japan’s NRA, which has about 500 employees, to improve the expertise of those employees and to increase the number of employees.

Thirdly, I would like to consider what constitutes “an appropriate level of safety standards.”  What does an appropriate level mean?  The NRC continually reviews and updates its regulations based on insights gained from various events and from new knowledge and findings, and in addition, adheres to Principle 5, “Optimization of Protection” of the Safety Standards set out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, the highest safety level is not necessarily achieved by providing all possible countermeasures. As an analogy, if an airplane were to be fitted with every conceivable safety feature, the increased weight could cause problems during a flight, and the airplane might actually be less safe.  Or, the cost of a very tiny improvement to safety could be so high that it would not be economical to operate the plant. When imposing new regulations, NRC performs a risk-informed analysis, to assure that the resulting regulation maintains an appropriate balance between the costs and the benefits. Such a balance can be also found in United Kingdom in the concept of “ tolerability of risk”.

Let me expand upon this point to consider a fourth point, that of NRC’s shift of safety regulations from “prescriptive (or deterministic) regulation” to “performance-based regulation”. There are two fundamental approaches to regulation:  prescriptive regulation that specifies the exact measures a licensee must take, versus performance-based regulation that provides targets to be achieved by safety measures and allows the licensee to propose how to meet the targets. This distinction is important, as there are often several means of achieving safety targets, and different measures may be optimal, depending on the detailed configurations and other characteristics in each plant. In recognition of this, NRC has been shifting the emphasis of its regulations.  Although prescriptive regulation still exists, the NRC is gradually moving in the direction of risk-informed, performance-based regulation in order to make the best use of the efficiency, originality and ingenuity of the regulated utilities in maintaining safety. The move toward risk-informed regulation is a logical extension of an older rule, known as the “backfit rule,” which applies to requirements for modifications in existing power plants. A similar rule was recently introduced in Japan. Under this rule, the NRC requires a modification to an existing facility (i.e., a backfit) “only when it determines…that there is a substantial increase in the overall protection of the public health and safety or the common defense and security to be derived from the backfit and that the direct and indirect costs of implementation for that facility are justified in view of this increased protection.”  These commitments of the NRC to safety regulation, based on scientific analysis and rational logic, may serve as a useful reference to Japan.

NRC, of course, is not perfect.  There are some who are very critical of almost everything the Agency does, and there are many others, including sometimes Commissioners and staff of the NRC itself, who acknowledge NRC shortcomings on particular activities.  Still, the NRC maintains these principles as the standards toward which it strives, and the Agency is widely regarded around the world as the “gold standard” for nuclear regulation.  The NRC is not the only regulatory organization to adopt these kinds of principles; France and the UK, among others, also function as independent and highly transparent regulatory organizations.

Furthermore, while nuclear operators have observed the NRC’s regulations, they have also voluntarily taken a number of actions to upgrade their safety performance, in some cases, beyond NRC requirements, after the accident at the Three Mile Island. It is particularly noteworthy that they have also shared their efforts with other utilities, as well as with other industries that face similar safety issues, and through collaborative activities under the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) to which all the nuclear utilities belong, have developed mechanisms and frameworks within the nuclear industry to enhance the effectiveness of their efforts industry wide. As a result, the availability of U.S. nuclear power plants has increased substantially in recent years, improving both economic efficiency and safety concurrently. Reportedly, the Japanese operators have recently started similar voluntary actions by reference to those US efforts and I hope that such measures will function effectively in Japan as well. Of course, it is not as simple as Japan performing regulatory activities following the example of the NRC because there are many differences in the culture and legal systems. However, I certainly believe that the regulatory activities in Japan can be made more successful by adopting the know-how that the NRC has cultivated in its long history of regulatory activities.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Differentiating within Energy Technologies:

Breaking Down the Monoliths

One of the problems that bloggers face is how to handle some of the comments we receive.  For me, most of the comments are easy to handle.  They either reinforce or expand upon something I said with additional information, or--equally important--point out something I missed or misconstrued.  Occasionally, they disagree with my view, but if the disagreement is thoughtful and constructive, I certainly publish them. 

In addition, I get a number of comments that say something like, "Great blog.  I really liked your comments."  What writer doesn't like to hear such accolades?  And to let the world know they have an admirer!  The first time I got a message like this, I didn't look very hard and I published it, only to have someone point out to me that the link that I'd neglected to check was to a website for bespoke suits, or something like that.

I now look more carefully, and anything with a link to a commercial product gets summarily dumped into the Spam box.

However, I recently received a comment that didn't quite fit any neat category.  It started with a comment that built on one of my recent blogs and expanded on one of my points, so I obviously wanted to post it.  But reading closely, much of the message promoted a specific product.

It was an energy-related product, and I thought long and hard about whether to post the comment.  After all, posting a comment with which I disagree doesn't indicate my endorsement of the comment.  By the same token, posting a message promoting a product doesn't necessarily represent my endorsement of the product. 

Nevertheless, in the end, I decided that posting such a message moved me into a gray area of commercialization that I wanted to avoid.  On the other hand, it still bothered me that I couldn't share the very important observation made in the comment.  Therefore, I decided to build a new post around that portion of the commenter's message.

The comment was made by Wilfred Sorensen on my recent post, "Renewable Energy and Reality: Growing Recognition of the Limits and Drawbacks."  The objective of that post was to note several recent studies that point out that, as we learn more, renewable energy appears not to be as green and clean as originally thought. 

The Mr. Sorensen added an important caveat of which we should all be aware--most of the technologies we speak of so glibly are not monolithic.  Let me quote the relevant part of his message:

I have to agree with most of what Dr. Marcus has to say which appears to be 'let's not hide the true cost of renewables'. I will suggest, however, that we recognize and promote those renewables that are cost effective and environmentally beneficial.

Overshadowed as it is by PV electricity generation, solar water heating is being all but forgotten despite its cost effectiveness. 

Now, I haven't really examined the economics of different types of solar energy systems myself, so I can't vouch for this statement.  My focus is more on meeting large-scale electricity needs.  But I heartily agree with his point.  There is not just one type of nuclear reactor, or windmill, or solar energy system.  Each technology variant may have different benefits and drawbacks.  Each may be useful in different places or for different purposes.  The only change I might make in his comment is that I would say that we should "recognize and promote all energy technologies that are cost effective and environmentally beneficial." 

When I write a post such as the one about the limits and drawbacks of renewable energy, I do not intend to tar all renewable technologies and applications with the same brush.  I really intend only to be sure that the record is balanced, that all energy technologies are compared in a fair and holistic fashion, and that energy decisions are made in a realistic and balanced way.  

Nor do I think there is one "right" solution to all our energy needs.  I personally do not believe the claims that we can realistically satisfy all our energy needs using renewable energy sources.  But I also do not believe that we should turn to nuclear power for all our energy needs.  For many reasons, in most cases, the best option is a mix of technologies.  It is a mix of large-scale electric power plants and small-scale backyard systems such as solar water heaters.  It is a mix of nuclear power plants and windmills.  It is a mix of PV systems and fossil fuels.   

As we consider the right mix of energy technologies for the future, we would do well to keep in mind that we ought to differentiate between different applications, and between different technologies within such broad categories as solar, wind and nuclear power.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Nuclear Power vs. Coal:

Comparative Estimate of Deaths

In recent weeks, I've seen several reports on energy issues that encourage me that people really are looking deeply at the issues.  I recently reported on one set of articles on some of the potential shortcomings of renewable technologies.  In this post, I'll talk about a report that nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives.  The news reports are based on a technical paper published by the American Chemical Society and authored by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen.
This report initially got a fair amount of attention because James Hansen has become well known as an advocate for reducing greenhouse gases (although an op-ed by Clint Wolfe in the Augusta Chronicle noted that the attention has largely been limited to technical publications, and it has not gotten nearly as much attention in the general press as Hansen's earlier studies on global warming received). The authors embarked on this study because they were concerned that the reaction to Fukushima was out of proportion to its impacts.  The study compared both fatalities and greenhouse gas emissions from the entire fuel cycle for both coal and nuclear power.  (It did not look at non-fatal illnesses.)  Most of the press seems to have focused on the figures for fatalities, which are startling. 

I have been a little surprised I haven't seen more follow up on the reports.  After all, numbers in the millions seem so large that I expected some rebuttal offering different data and different results.  I must confess I haven't tried to parse all the data and calculations in the study myself, but I can only assume that the lack of counterarguments is evidence that the study results are solid.

Of course, many of us have known for a long time that there were a lot of coal-related fatalities.  The problem has been that they usually occur in small numbers at a time, and mostly among people who are elderly or in poor health, so the correlation between coal burning and health effects has tended to be masked.  

Still, a number approaching two million certainly got my attention.  I hope it will get the attention of others.