Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Japan, Independence and Transparency:

Has There Been Any Change?

I recently attended a meeting where someone spoke on their recent research on the Japanese electric power system, including the nuclear reactors in the system.  Since the meeting was off-the-record, I will not divulge the venue or the speaker. 

The meeting was a bit of an eye-opener for me.  With the institution of the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in Japan, plus a lot of interaction of the Japanese government and industry with representatives of nuclear regulatory systems in the US and other countries, I have been hoping that the new organization would shake up the relationships between regulators and the regulated.  Both the speaker's comments, and a discussion with another attendee after the meeting, make me wonder if I have been overly optimistic.

First, the speaker reported trying to arrange to meet with various government and non-government officials during an extended research trip to Japan.  A meeting had been scheduled with someone from NRA, but before the meeting could take place, NRA management had a change of heart.  The speaker attributed this to a revelation that someone on the NRA staff had previously met secretly with representatives of a utility.  When that was discovered, an internal directive was issued restricting meetings of NRA staffers with outsiders.  As a result, the speaker received a message from the NRA staffer canceling their meeting.  Since the NRA contact knew the speaker was scheduled to be in Japan for a long period, the message indicated that no meeting would be possible "for the foreseeable future."  The speaker waited a couple of months and tried to make contact again, but got no response at all.

Following the meeting, I was chatting with several other attendees, both Japanese and American.  One of the group was from a Japanese utility and is presently on a temporary assignment in the US.  When we started discussing the incident described above, I alluded to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Principles of Good Regulation.  I said that it seemed that the NRA was overreacting to the misstep of one of its staff by withdrawing too much, and I observed to the others that the first NRC Principle of Good Regulation, that of Independence, clearly states that "Independence does not imply isolation."  That Principle goes on to state that all views need to be sought and considered.  An internal directive limiting the possibility of interacting with all outside parties seemed to me to misinterpret "independence." 

The Japanese utility representative responded to this discussion by noting how difficult it has become for utilities to talk to the regulator.  They can no longer do so in private, without their conversations becoming known to others, so as a result, they don't want to talk to the regulator at all.  I then turned to the second of the Principles, that of Openness, and pointed out that the NRC strives to operate in an open and transparent manner so that the public is assured that decisions are not being made behind closed doors in the proverbial "smoke-filled rooms." 

The two back-to-back discussions made me wonder if the new regulatory organization in Japan has really brought about the kind of change that I think needs to occur there.  Although in my one-on-one conversation with the speaker after the meeting, I learned that my writings on the Principles of Good Regulation and on other aspects of the US and Japanese regulatory systems were well known in Japan, it is not clear if they have really adopted such principles. 

Of course, all parties will find operating in an open and transparent manner a more difficult process than the old practice of operating in secret, and of course, there will be times when they will fall short of the ideal or will overreact.  Likewise, I know that NRC is not perfect either.  However, suggestions that both NRA and the utilities are reacting to their current situation by isolating themselves represents a move in the wrong direction.  I had hoped to hear better news from Japan by now.  


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Women in Engineering:

Personal Reflections

An article in the New York Times on October 3 on why there are still so few women in science and engineering took me by surprise.  In the first place, I'd just returned from a visit to an alumni leadership conference at my alma mater, MIT, where they were parading all the good news stories about MIT, including that the number of women in the recent classes was hovering very close to 50%.  For someone who had gone to MIT...well...a number of years ago, this was indeed heartening news.  In my own freshman class, only 5% of the class was female--and that was higher than previous classes.

The New York Times article detailed at considerable length the kinds of discrimination, obstacles, and other difficulties that women still face, from professors who try to discourage them from continuing in the science and engineering professions, to difficulty combining careers and a personal life.  It all sounded like stories from a generation ago.

I must say that a part of my reaction to all these stories was that I must have been lucky, because most of these things hadn't happened to me.  And indeed, I may well have been lucky.  Everyone, male or female, ends up with a somewhat different mix of professors, classmates, supervisors and colleagues, and a few bad apples from any of these bins can hamper careers or embitter individuals.  And each of us reacts to stresses and setbacks a little differently.

Like most people, I have had bosses both good and bad.  Fortunately, most were good, and the ones that were bad were just generally bad, and not necessarily sexist.  I weathered the bad ones by remembering that what doesn't kill you outright only makes you stronger--although some days, that was a hard sell.

I can certainly recall incidents where people said things to me that were inappropriate.  And that I don't think they would say today.  And certainly, sometimes I didn't get a position after such a statement, and I wondered at the time if gender discrimination was involved.  But no one gets every job they apply for, so as long as I ended up with good opportunities, I didn't dwell on the missed chances.

But the article stirred up memories of some of those incidents, so for what it's worth, I thought I'd deviate from the usual topics of this blog and recount some of my more vivid memories of sexist comments, mostly from job interviews, as well as some of my reactions and the outcomes of the interviews.

The first story, though, is from a class in graduate school, where a very prominent professor of nuclear engineering (now deceased, and I won't speak ill of the dead) handed back tests, and as he handed me mine, said to the rest of the class (ALL male), You guys let a girl beat you!  I said nothing because I looked down at my paper and saw that the grade was only about 75 (often a good grade at MIT, but still...), so I assumed he was joking.  He wasn't.

From an interviewer at a private company--for a summer job:  I'll bet you played with dolls when you were a child.  "Well...yes."  Boys take their bikes apart and put them together again.  That's the kind of experience we want.  At the time, I was studying at MIT.  I guess that wasn't enough.  I didn't get the job.

From a regional recruiter for a certain government agency known for covert operations (if I name them, they will probably still come after me):  Let me check which jobs are open to women.  When I asked why any jobs would be limited, I was told that some jobs required living in the field.  I said that, with my background, that wasn't the kind of position I was looking for.  I didn't get past the recruiter.

From an interviewer at a US government laboratory:  We had a woman working here once.  She got pregnant and left.  Try to challenge an opinion formed from a sample of one!  Later in that same interview, they started to think about the possible plus sides of having a woman around.  If you worked here, we could send you down to sweet-talk the machinists when we want them to give our work priority.  Fortunately, I got a job offer elsewhere at that point and withdrew my application.

From an interviewer for a private company:  Can you type?  Before I could respond, the interviewer quickly covered his gaff by saying that he meant for working on computers.  (This was back in the dark ages before everyone had a computer on their desk.)  I ended up working for that interviewer.  During the course of my employment there, I had one more memorable conversation with him.  A colleague--a young man who had been with the company for a year or two when I joined--and I went to our boss to propose a business trip.  It would be my first for the company.  My boss looked directly at me and said, You want to go away from your husband?  Again, he realized his gaffe as soon as the words were out of his mouth.  "And you want to go away from your wife?"  he said to my colleague.  A transparent recovery, as my colleague had already been on business trips, but again, we got over that, and I continued to work there for a total of about 8 years.

From an interviewer for a government agency that controls the budgets of other agencies:  Are you married?  Do you have children?  By this time, my response was faster.  "Do you ask the male applicants that?"  They assured me they did, because this was an intense job that required incredibly long hours and many 7-day weeks.  I then said to them, "Tell me the job requirements and let me make the decision as to whether I can make that commitment."  It was exactly the right answer, because they wanted people with the spine to stand up to agency managers.  I was offered the job, but I turned it down.

I'm sure every woman in a technical career has similar stories to tell.  For me, with time and distance, the stories have become mostly amusing, and I think I've managed to succeed despite the challenges these conversations suggest.  But for some women, even today, the negative stories still outweigh the positive ones.  I was very sorry to learn that is still the case.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Cost of Generating Electricity:

When the Free Market Isn't

I have been slow in commenting on the closure of Vermont Yankee announced a few weeks ago by Entergy.  This is because it is hard for me to know what to say.

In the end, it seems that the closure was triggered mainly by economics, and that some of the economic issues are so bizarre they simply make my head spin.

There are some economic issues I do understand.  Sort of.  I understand that the recent developments in the gas industry are leading to low costs for gas, making almost every other source of energy non-competitive.  I can argue that this is a short-sighted view, and I could wish the business world didn't have such a short-term view, but I understand that they do.

However, there are other economic issues that simply make no sense to me at all.  The fact that renewable energy suppliers are so heavily subsidized that they can bid negative numbers and still make money just doesn't make sense to me in a country that is supposed to be based on a free market.  Honestly, if I were Entergy, I would have given up long ago!

I have seen some very good coverage of this issue in other sources.  All the sources I respect feel, as I do, that something is irrational about what is happening.  Examples include a recent article in the New York Times by Matthew Wald, and a discussion on the American Nuclear Society (ANS) blog by Jim Hopf.

I do understand the government role in providing incentives to help new technologies get started, but the impacts of these incentives should be monitored to make sure they don't have unintended consequences.

As I see it now, we have subsidized renewables because we want to assure the viability of solar and wind power in the hopes of replacing dirtier and more polluting forms of energy supply, such as coal.  That might be a good idea--if that is what we actually accomplished.  However, what has really happened is that we have forced the closure of another source of clean power--that is, a nuclear power plant.

In the long run, the current situation is in no one's interest.  It will not lead to a cleaner environment and it will not lead to lower real costs for energy supply.  I do not know if the energy markets are as bizarre in other parts of the country, but if they are, it does not bode well for our national energy future.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Financing Nuclear Construction Costs:

Thinking Outside the Box

In the United Kingdom, Sir John Armitt, the former chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority recently told the government that he could break the log-jam over the construction of new nuclear power plants by setting up a similar body to construct them.

The particular issue he was addressing is the impasse between the government of the UK and France's EDF Energy over how the costs of the planned Hinkley Point C plant will be paid.  Under the current system, the costs of electricity must be predicted decades in the future.  The alternative, according to Sir Armitt, is to create an independent government body like the Authority, which built the facilities for the 2012 London Olympics.  In the power sector, such a body could use a mix of public funds and private investments (supported by tax incentives or government guarantees) to build the units and then sell each unit to the private sector.

My first reaction, when I saw this news, was one of astonishment.  After all, I well recall, around the time of the London Olympics, hearing that the construction had incurred huge cost overruns.  In fact, I recall wondering, at the time, if cost issues might be inherent to any very large-scale construction project. 

Of course, whether or not there are cost overruns, financing the construction of nuclear power plants remains a major challenge for the industry, so it is good to see someone thinking about innovative options.  The concern about the financial risk to utilities for the construction of large nuclear power plants is well known.  Even a move to smaller designs will not entirely remove the potential cost uncertainties, particularly for the first-of-a-kind units.

Today's news suggests that the situation may have moved forward in the UK, and a financing deal for Hinkley Point C might be close.  I do not know what that deal will look like.  Whether or not Sir Armitt's concept is reflected in the arrangement this time, it is clear that financing will remain a key issue for the nuclear power industry, and innovative financing concepts deserve to be examined closely.