Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gas Leaks:

Is Natural Gas As Clean As We've Thought?

Just after I posted my previous post, which cited a study showing that nuclear power, hydroelectricity and natural gas were "better" than solar and wind power, I came across an interesting study that suggests that natural gas could result in greater global warming than coal plants!

Their argument is that methane leaks in natural gas systems may make actually put more carbon in the atmosphere than coal plants do.  I need to emphasize that this study appears to be based on hypothetical calculations.  Both the news article cited above and the abstract to the paper show what the emissions curves from natural gas plants look like compared to coal plants based on varying assumptions about leakage rates, but do not indicate what the actual leakage rates are or how hard it would be to control them.  Nor is it clear how they account for the different effects of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--specifically, the fact that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, but has a shorter half-life in the atmosphere.

On the one hand, a problem identified may be a problem on its way to resolution, so it is not clear to me how serious this concern might be.  Maybe testing will show that there is little or no leakage.  Maybe any leaks in existing facilities can be plugged.  Maybe new designs and new materials, or better construction, can limit leaks in the future. 

On the other hand, we already have heard other reports of leakage from pipelines and oil wells, so we do know that leakage is a difficult problem, and with thousands and thousands of miles of pipelines, those leaks could be a difficult and costly problem to solve.  And sadly, even shutting those systems down is not necessarily sufficient, as studies also show that there is significant methane leakage from abandoned oil and gas wells.  And in this case, the results are based on tests of wells that have been shut down, so we know that it is a real problem.

Nevertheless, with this report coming to my attention hard on the heels of the report showing the benefits of nuclear, hydro and natural gas over wind and solar, the news that natural gas may have more emissions than we've been assuming made me start to wonder:  We already know that the potential for adding significant amounts of hydroelectric power are limited--and even where it is possible, that comes with other environmental impacts.  So...which energy technology will be the last one left standing?

It is way too soon to answer that, of course.  In the first place, we need to find out what the actual leakage rates are.  So I'm not writing off natural gas just yet.  In fact, I sincerely hope the calculations do not turn out to be true, because it is clear that we have a transition period ahead of us to reduce our use of coal, and we need a variety of options to make that transition.

Nevertheless, seeing this report reminded me once again how complex the energy situation is.  It seems that, just when we think we have found "the" solution, we always discover a factor we didn't consider.  Methane leakage from natural gas plants could become such a factor.  Stay tuned!


Brookings Energy Study:

Comparing the Net Benefits of Low-Carbon Energy Technologies

I just stumbled across a paper that came out in May.  However, I don't recall seeing anything about it earlier, so I hope this is also new to most readers.  If it is old news to some, I apologize.

The paper, entitled "The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies" was produced by the Global Economy and Development program of Brookings Institution.  It takes a slightly different approach to comparing energy technologies than most others have done.

First, rather than comparing all electricity-producing technologies, they focus only on a comparison of low- and no-carbon emitting technologies.  Thus, the study doesn't consider coal at all.  Rather, it looks at the full menu of options that could replace coal--including solar, wind, nuclear, hydroelectric, and gas combined cycle. 

Second, instead of using levelized costs, they compare the annual costs and benefits of each technology, arguing that a plant that produces electricity with a relatively high levelized cost may be more valuable than a plant with a lower levelized cost if it delivers electricity more cheaply and reliably during periods of peak demand when the price of electricity is high.

Based on the assumptions they make, they conclude that "the net benefits of new nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle plants far [emphasis added] outweigh the net benefits of new wind or solar plants. Wind and solar power are very costly from a social perspective because of their very high capacity cost, their very low capacity factors, and their lack of reliability."

There is a lot more in this study than I can cover in a blog, but I encourage interested readers to take a look at it.  I should add that I find this a particularly meaningful report, given that it comes from the Brookings Institution, an organization that generally receives high marks for its work.  If anything, it is normally considered "left-of-center" which in my view makes the conclusions even more meaningful. 

I have a slight quarrel with claims that anything is no-carbon, given the fact that all these technologies require materials to be mined and processed, components to be manufactured, and facilities to be built.  Maybe one day all these activities will be powered by non-fossil sources, and I don't think this observation affects the net conclusions of the study, but I have become careful about saying anything is "no carbon," and I prefer to see studies address the full life-cycle emissions.

Perhaps that is the next step.  In the meantime, this looks like a potentially important study in looking at the decisions we face ahead in moving to less emitting technologies.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Views on the EPA Carbon Rule:

Support from Outside the Nuclear Industry

The comment period for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions closed December 1, and since then news reports on the comments filed by various groups have continued to trickle in.  Although the next step now is for the EPA to review the comments and respond to them, two reports on filings caught my attention--those from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and those from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

The reason I feel that these comments are very important is that both groups represent a broad range of interests, and are not in any way "beholden" to the nuclear industry.  NARUC is a non-profit organization that represents all 50 State public service commissions, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and cover not only the area of energy supply, but also telecommunications, water, and transportation.  EEI represents all U.S. investor-owned electric utilities.  This includes, of course, utilities with nuclear power plants, but it also includes utilities without nuclear assets.  Therefore, their comments should reflect a perspective that balances all the potentially competing interests, and perhaps more important, should be judged by the EPA and the public to be unbiased with respect to any one technology.

Therefore, I was very interested to read that NARUC called for better recognition of nuclear power in EPA's carbon plan.  They stated in a resolution that they "jointly recognize the need to maintain the existing, baseload nuclear generation fleet" and urge the EPA to assure that carbon reduction regulations encourage states to "preserve, life-extend and expand" reliable and affordable nuclear generation.  They specifically take aim at a provision in the draft rule that would require incorporating 5.8 percent of existing nuclear generating capacity when calculating a state's target emissions, and they advocate removal of output from nuclear energy facilities still under construction from state rate-setting goals.  These are two provisions that have been the target of criticism from the nuclear industry. 

EEI took a somewhat broader view.  They particularly criticized the EPA plan for potentially putting reliable power sources at risk, saying that EPA’s framework would require new facilities, including transmission networks, gas pipelines and generation facilities.  These could take as long as 10 years to build [I would guess even longer].  Therefore, it will be difficult for states to reach their preliminary goals by 2020.  EPA recommends giving states the ability to phase-in changes as they like between implementation of the rule and the the 2030 final deadline, rather than mandating that cuts the begin immediately in 2020.

The rulemaking is now back in the hands of the EPA, which has something on the order of 1.6 million comments to evaluate.  (Mine was one of them.)  Just handling the comments will be a gargantuan task, as comments like those from NARUC, EEI, NEI, and people like me are countered by comments from so-called environmental individuals and groups, saying that the EPA's rules should have been tougher and should have required changes faster.  

The final EPA rule is due in June.  In the meantime, though, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to EPA's rules on mercury emissions.  The issue is whether the EPA is overstepping its authority under the Clean Air Act by issuing such regulations.  The Supreme Court's decision on the mercury case may give some clue to how the carbon regulation and other EPA actions may be treated.  In addition, the new Republican majority in both Houses of Congress could  introduce legislative measures designed to reign in some of the EPA's actions.

In the meantime, the process continues.  It should be noted that NARUC and EEI didn't oppose the rule overall, but rather, objected to provisions that other sources have said could actually end up undercutting the goals of the EPA rule.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nuclear Anniversaries:

Some Events to Remember

Early this month, a friend and I were discussing the fact that it was the 72nd anniversary of CP-1 on December 2, yet we'd seen no coverage of that milestone, even in the nuclear press.  I promised him that I'd see if I could address the problem in this blog.

However, as I thought about it, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.  It seemed to me that trying to think of something new and fresh to say about CP-1 every year might be a daunting task.  I could write something this year, but what else could I say next year?  Or the year after that? 

Further, it occurred to me that, aside from our personal birthdays and wedding anniversaries, other anniversaries are institutional (for lack of a better word) and most institutional anniversaries do not get much attention on an annual basis.  School reunions are held at 5- or 10-year intervals.  Yes, we do celebrate our national Independence Day each year, but--quick (and without calculating it!)--which anniversary did we celebrate last July 4?  In reality, we only make a big deal of that event on "round-number" anniversaries. 

And also, there may be too many events in the history of nuclear power that we could potentially celebrate.  True, CP-1 holds a very special place in that history, but there are many, many other events of note as well.  Trying to recognize all of them on an annual basis would be overwhelming. 

So instead, I told him I'd try to make note of various nuclear anniversaries periodically in this blog.  For starters, I will draw from my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.  Granted, the book focuses only on firsts of a kind, and there are more anniversaries that we could acknowledge.  But there are enough of the "firsts," so I will start with them.  I would certainly welcome any suggestions of other anniversaries we should acknowledge on these pages.

It turns out that December was a prolific month for nuclear firsts.  I was trying to figure out why this might have been--an end-of-year push, or just the luck of the draw.  Given that there are so many, I will just list them below.  They are all covered in the book, as well as in other sources, for anyone who is interested in learning more about any of them.  Since we are just focusing on one month here, I will put them in order of the day of the month, and not in order of the year they occurred:

  • December 2, 1942:  First self-sustained fission reaction (CP-1, Chicago, Illinois)
  • December 3, 1956:  First production of measurable quantities of U233 (BORAX-IV, Arco, Idaho)
  • December 17, 1967:  First pebble-bed reactor to provide electricity to the grid (AVR, Julich, Germany)
  • December 18, 1957:  First full-scale reactor for peaceful purposes only (Shippingport, Pennsylvania)
  • December 19, 1943:  First separation of usable quantities of plutonium from irradiated fuel (Building 3019, Pilot Plant, Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
  • December 20/21, 1951:  First practical generation of electricity from a reactor (EBR-I, Arco, Idaho)
  • December 20, 1957:  First multinational agreement for research cooperation for peaceful purposes signed (Eurochemic, Mol-Dessel, Belgium) 
  • December 23, 1956:  First purpose-built reactor to provide electricity for a site (EBWR, Argonne, Illinois)
  • December 26, 1944:  First reprocessing on an industrial scale (T Plant, Hanford, Washington) 
  • December 1950:  First swimming pool reactor (BSR, Oak Ridge, Tennessee) (exact date unknown)

While all of these are not of equal importance, several of them are among the events we discuss most frequently when we talk about the origins of nuclear power.  Certainly, CP-1, EBR-I, EBWR, and Shippingport stand out in my mind.  And all were significant steps in one way or another.  So, happy anniversary to all these nuclear firsts!


Friday, December 5, 2014

Nuclear Engineering:

Where the Grads Go

I have discovered that LinkedIn maintains statistics, by field, of where LinkedIn members in different fields work, what they do (ex., engineering, research, operations), and where they went to school.  The fields they have analyzed include nuclear engineering.  That alone makes this survey somewhat special, and nuclear engineering is a fairly small field and I have seen many studies that do not identify nuclear engineers as a separate category.

Their statistics represent over 23,000 nuclear engineers.  The complete table shows the top 25 places of employment, schools, and areas of work (by numbers in each category).  I will not reproduce the entire table here, but thought it would be fun to share the top 5 in each category:

     Schools:              Penn State, MIT, UMichigan, Texas A&M, RPI

     Employers:         USNavy, Westinghouse, Duke, Exelon, NRC

     Areas of Work:   Engineering, Research, Operations, Education, Program/Project

Interested readers can find the top 25 responses in each category at the link above. 

I have not tried to analyze how these statistics compare to the numbers reported in any other sources of such data, but with more than 23,000 nuclear engineers in their database, I suspect that these numbers represent a pretty fair cross section of the industry.  I do recognize that this is a somewhat superficial survey, and it is unclear whether "nuclear engineer" is defined in any consistent way--whether by degree, nature of work, or self-reporting.

Therefore, the numbers need to be used with a bit of caution.  Nevertheless, the table is a helpful way to get a broad overview of of the distribution of nuclear engineers today.  And it may be of interest to some to see where their alma maters and employers fall on this list.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Safety Culture:

Trains and Boats and Planes...
and Nuclear Power Plants

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in an event in Chicago where I gave a presentation that focused in part on safety culture for the nuclear power industry.  When I proposed this as a topic, I had in mind not only commercial power plants, but also several other recent events, both in the US and abroad, where weaknesses in safety culture appear to have caused or exacerbated an incident.

The incidents I had in mind included the radioactivity releases at the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in February of this year that appear to be related to mistakes in packaging of the waste, and the revelation in 2012 and 2013 of the falsified documentation for nuclear power plant components in South Korea.  On the non-nuclear side, I might have considered the Takata airbag problems, the General Motors ignition switch problems, and the sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea in April that resulted in the deaths of about 300 people, many of them high school students 

My presentation time was limited, so rather than try to present an exhaustive list of incidents, I focused instead on the fact that there is often an element of safety culture evident in accidents and incidents, even when they seem to have another immediate cause (one example being the Fukushima accident in Japan).  I also emphasized the need to learn from these events.  Although I recognize that no individual or institution likes to "air its dirty linen in public," I pointed out that hiding mistakes is usually unsuccessful, and further erodes public confidence when the truth comes out.  And even though not every event provides useful lessons for everyone, I noted that there are certainly lessons to be learned throughout an industry, and sometimes, even lessons that are transferable from one industry to another.

I had put safety culture in the back of my mind when I boarded a Frontier Airlines plane the next evening to return home.  We boarded about 20 minutes late, but the announcement said that they hoped to make up the time.  I thought nothing of that, either, as I know they often "make up time" in the air.  (I'm a bit suspicious that they build in extra time on the published schedule to cover short delays, but that's another story.)  We pushed back from the gate, and then the plane stopped.  We wait.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, an announcement from the cockpit informed us that the tip of one wing had hit a barbed wire fence and was entangled in the barbed wire!

In the 4+ hours it took to have someone come to inspect the situation, have someone else come to cut away the barbed wire, pull the plane back to the gate, and have us wait until another plane arrived and was serviced, my traveling companions and I had ample time to discuss the situation.  We still don't know for sure what happened, so anything I say is pure speculation, but almost anything I can imagine seems to me has an element of safety culture.  The fence presumably didn't jump out at the plane.  So...Were they rushing things a little to try to make up for the delay?  Was there a miscommunication?  Was the job in the hands of someone inexperienced?  Was that corner of the airport badly designed?

To be fair, there are far worse things that could have happened than to be delayed 4 hours while safely on the ground.  And to be fair, the other problems I encountered in my dealings with the Frontier Airlines staff that night had nothing to do with safety (lack of information from the pilot on what was going on for the 2-1/2 hours we were marooned on the plane, snarky stewardesses, ground personnel who promised food and drink vouchers but then rescinded the promise, and who also sent people to another gate to recharge their electronic devices but then said they would not be making boarding announcements on the PA system).  However, the event brought home to me that even seemingly simple actions can go badly awry, and that some aspect of a failure of safety culture is often involved. 

As I started thinking about writing this post, I realized that my comments were reflecting on both boat and air travel.  At that point, the old Dionne Warwick song, "Trains and boats and planes" came to mind, not for the meaning, but just for the title.  I at first tried to rephrase the title as "Nuclear power plants and boats and trains," but that just doesn't have the same ring.  I then realized that my presentation had left out at least one fairly recent train incident I could have mentioned--the derailment of a train carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in July 2013 that left over 40 people dead and leveled half the town.

Another country, another technological area, but once again, a problem fundamentally caused by a series of actions, many of which, at their core, reflected insufficient attention to safety.  The message, I hope, is not that such incidents are inevitable, but rather, that each such incident should lead to corrective actions that reduce or eliminate the possibility of a recurrence.  And to sharing the knowledge gained so that others don't suffer the same failures.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Nuclear Power and Election 2014:

What Lies Ahead?

The 2014 election results are in, with a big win for Republicans, so the speculation has already started about a number of issues, nuclear power among them.  While I don't usually publish blogposts two days in a row, as a long-term "Inside the Beltway" resident, I feel compelled to weigh in.

First, as everyone knows by now, the election put the Republicans in the majority in the Senate, so, for the last two years of Obama's presidency, he will face a Republican majority in both the House and Senate.  Many people see Republicans as stronger supporters of nuclear power than Democrats and therefore are anticipating a number of positive actions from Congress for the nuclear industry.

However, it is not clear how much of a change the new Republican majority will really bring to the nuclear industry.  For one thing, nuclear power isn't the only issue on Congress's agenda.  In fact, it isn't even the main issue.  Some of the favored causes of the Republican majority are likely to be trumped by an even greater favorite cause--the budget.  Therefore, it is not clear whether the Republican support for nuclear power will really translate into more funding for advanced nuclear R&D or more loan guarantees for new projects.  I wouldn't rule out some boost, but under the current fiscal environment, I wouldn't count on it either.

Another issue we often forget is that many Republicans come from states with very strong fossil fuel interests.  These states have been chafing under the increasing pressure to implement measures to reduce carbon emissions--the so-called "War on Coal."  Nuclear power has already been suffering from the current low prices of fossil fuels, and the new congressional lineup is unlikely to do anything that would favor any technologies over coal, oil and gas.  In fact, as Jim Conca points out in his blog at Forbes, nuclear power doesn't have any significant constituency.  It doesn't have a state leading the charge for uranium, like West Virginia, Texas, and Pennsylvania do for coal, oil and natural gas, and it has a much smaller total number of employees than the fossil industry has.

The Republican majority may have more influence on the regulatory side than on the operational or R&D sides, but even there, the crystal ball is still a bit foggy.  Sen. Harry Reid certainly loses his position as Senate Majority Leader.  Whether or not he can snag the position as Senate Minority Leader is still up in the air.  If he does get that position, he can still exert some influence over White House nominations.  However, there is a good chance that he will not get that position.  If the Senate Democratic membership sees his political stance as contributing to their downfall, they may turn to someone else who they think can rally more support in the next election.  That decision remains to be made.

Even if Reid does become Senate Minority Leader, though, the Republican control of the Senate means that it will be much more difficult to appoint someone to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) who has a strong agenda on a particular issue, such as Yucca Mountain.

Whoever becomes Senate Minority Leader, we will still face the fact that there will be two Democratic Commission positions to be filled during the coming two years.  Indeed, action on these positions should start almost immediately.  Chairman Allison Macfarlane just announced that she will step down from her position on January 1, and the recent appointment of Commissioner Jeffrey Baran expires on June 30, 2015.  (That appointment was only to the remaining term of the position vacated by Commissioner Bill Magwood.)

(When Baran was appointed, I remember thinking that it was curious that he was appointed for a term of less than a year.  In the past, when such short time periods were involved, individuals were often nominated and confirmed for the following term at the same time.  I wondered at the time whether there were factions that wanted to see Baran in action before agreeing to a longer appointment.)

Historically, the positions on the NRC have not been the President's or the Senate's highest priority.  However, if neither position is filled, on July 1, the NRC will operate with a 3-member Commission, 2 of whom are Republicans.  Normally, the Administration would be likely to try to avoid such a lineup, but if there are no real "hot-button" issues before the Commission, the Administration may not want to expend its political capital on the NRC.  And since the two vacancies are both for Democratic slots, it would not be possible to "pair" the appointments (i.e., nominate a Democrat and a Republican together) as has become the practice in recent years.

The next position of a Republican to be filled will be that of Commissioner Bill Ostendorff.  His term ends June 30, 2016.  It is possible that all appointments could be delayed until then, but that would introduce a serious risk of the NRC having to operate with a 2-member Commission.  While that has happened before, it is an undesirable situation, and there will be some pressure not to allow that to happen.  I believe that Ostendorff is well respected.  However, the presidential election will be looming by that time, and that has often slowed appointments in the past, especially if a change in the party controlling the White House is anticipated. 

I should also note the impact of all of this on the position of NRC Chairman.  Most readers will know that the designation of the Chairman is at the sole discretion of the President.  However, the President can select only among the Commissioners who have been confirmed by the Senate.  Thus, presuming that no new Commissioner is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate before January 1 (and I think it would be almost impossible for that to happen), the President may only select from among the sitting Commissioners.  He may name the individual Chairman or Acting Chairman.  Although he can appoint any of the four Commissioners (Stephen Burns was just sworn in as Commissioner as I was writing this the morning of November 5), the likelihood is that he will turn to one of the two Democrats.  Most people feel that Commissioner Burns will get the nod because of his greater experience, but it is not yet clear whether he will become Chairman or Acting Chairman.

So, as usual in Washington, despite the decisiveness of this election, we are still faced with a number of uncertainties in how significant the election will prove to the nuclear industry.  The election seems to promise some changes, but to what extent they will be realized will depend on decisions still to be made and on external factors that are not yet completely clear.  Things may become a little clearer as the consequences of the election begin to play out in the Senate leadership positions and in other actions.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Atmospheric Carbon:

The Plot Thickens

This week, the news carried several important items regarding carbon in the atmosphere, and by happenstance, I stumbled upon an additional items, so everything seems to be pointing me towards that as a topic for this blog.

Probably the biggest item to hit the streets was the fifth assessment report, or Synthesis Report, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The biggest soundbite to emerge from this report is that the IPCC calls for zero carbon emissions by 2100.  However, perhaps the most interesting element of the report for the nuclear community is that the report effectively says that a combined approach using all technologies is the best way to achieve this goal.  While it may be possible to meet the goal without one or more technologies, the cost of doing so will increase.

This, of course, fits in with what many responsible leaders have been saying for a long time, and reinforces the need to continue to develop and deploy a variety of energy technologies to meet future needs.

Perhaps coincidentally, this week also saw the release of a report that looked more closely at non-CO2 emissions and their behavior.  (The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is co-authored by researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, IIASA, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.)

In particular, there had been some thought that limiting methane and soot emissions might be easier than limiting carbon-dioxide emissions and might limit the need to reduce CO2 emissions.  However, this study shows that reducing these emissions results in smaller benefits for long-term climate change than previously estimated.

The message here is a very mixed one, as a reduction in soot and other emissions would still improve the air quality, and would therefore yield benefits for human health and agriculture and near-term climate change, even if their contribution to long-term climate targets is less than previously presumed.  Also, other research has indicated that simultaneous and coordinated action on air pollution and climate change is more efficient, in terms of cost, than addressing each separately.

Finally, I was visiting Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) recently and picked up a copy of their latest journal, the Spring 2014 issue of Argonne Now.  Thumbing through the magazine, I found an interesting article that looks at different kinds of carbon particulates in the atmosphere, particularly "brown carbon" and "black carbon."  The article, which has the intriguing title, "The Volcano of A Hundred Thousand Mouths," appears on pages 26-29 of the print edition.  Because the PDF shows a two-page spread, the article is on pages 15 and 16 of the PDF.  (If you have an interest in future issues of their publication, ANL offers free subscriptions.)

Brown carbon comes largely from lower-temperature, smoldering fires, while black carbon comes from hot fires, such as from coal plants and car-engine combustion.  Although there is a lot more brown carbon in the atmosphere by mass, it can't trap heat as well as black carbon and therefore, has been largely ignored until recently.  Now, however, it is being recognized that brown carbon can be a significant factor in how aerosols affect the Earth's climate, and renewed attention is being given to this factor.

Taken together, the articles are a reminder of the huge complexity of the environment and what humankind is putting into it, and that the problems associated with fossil fuels extend beyond CO2.  All of this makes finding a realistic solution that much more difficult, but it also reinforces the importance of improving our understanding of the interactions of all energy-producing technologies with the environment as we move toward a new energy mix.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Grid and Solar Power:

Getting the Incentives Right

One of the biggest problems in the energy industry today seems to be setting the incentives to achieve what we'd like to the maximum extent possible without introducing other problems.  I just found an interesting article on some incentives for solar power that are having unintended consequences, so will focus on that.  The problem is really broader than just solar energy, but the article provides a good case study for how good intentions can produce suboptimal results. 

The New York Times just published an article called, appropriately, "How Grid Efficiency Went South."  The article covers some of the same ground we've been hearing a lot about recently, namely, the negative pricing that nuclear plants have suffered in some markets when demand is low and renewable energy sources are producing too much electricity.

More interestingly, though, the article points to another problem I had not seem discussed before--namely, that the rules for buying solar power that is input to the grid by private solar collectors create an incentive that results in less total energy production than could be generated.  Namely, the incentives create a discrepancy between what is best for the owners of the solar panels and what is best for the overall energy supply.  Most solar panels, the article explains, are oriented to the south so they catch the maximum amount of solar energy as the sun transits from the southeast to the southwest during the course of the day.  That generates the most energy, and therefore, earns the owners the most money.

Sounds good, right?  Well, maybe not so much.  The article points out that the greatest demand is often in the afternoon, when the sun has heated the world up and more air conditioning is needed.  By then, the sun is hitting solar panels at an oblique angle, and they are generating less electricity.  To maximize production, the panels should be oriented in a more westerly direction, so they have more output when the demand is higher.  However, that would result in a somewhat lower total generation, and under current pricing rules, a somewhat smaller income for the owner.

(The article did not address seasonal variations.  In winter, the demand for heating would be less in the afternoon when the atmosphere has heated up.  However, most home heating is supplied by natural gas or oil.  Therefore, the heating season is probably not really relevant in this case.)

One can't blame the owner of the solar panel for wanting to maximize his or her return.  The problem is that the incentive plan that was set up was too simplistic.  More is usually better.  It is also simpler.  But it doesn't produce the maximum value overall.  There are, of course, solutions to this problem.  Just as electricity use can be priced according to the demand levels, so too, can electricity supply.  Of course, the transition will not please those who have already installed their solar panels. 

While this is a solar issue, it demonstrates some of the complexities we seem to keep missing when we put new rules in place.  In a broader sense, it relates to the issues we discuss for nuclear power because the same kinds of short-sighted policies apply in other areas that do affect nuclear power.  The negative pricing that I mentioned above is one such policy, but there are others as well that we have addressed in past blogs and will continue to address in the future.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Water and Energy:

                       A Close Connection

Several recent items brought home for me the very close linkage between water and energy.  In particular, one study suggests that coal and nuclear power plants are vulnerable to climate change.  The study predicts that rising temperatures could exacerbate the problems we have seen in recent years with plants having to shut down because cooling water temperatures were too high.  Specifically, they predict that electricity production could be reduced by between 4 and 16 percent between the years 2030 and 2060 due to increasing temperatures.

The authors of the study drew the conclusion that this might mean that electricity production might have to shift from coal and nuclear plants to natural gas plants, which use less water.  They appeared to jump to this conclusion without considering other options, including the use of cooling towers and the use of advanced nuclear technologies that don't rely on water for cooling.  I have seen other suggestions that more plants in the future could be sited in coastal areas, thus having access to the oceans, which would not heat up the way confined bodies of water can.

Of course, I have to agree that each of these solutions faces challenges, but so does the greatly increased use of natural gas.  The point is that there is a potential concern in the future and we need to begin to think about ways to address it.

What was even more interesting to me, however, was another article that crossed my desk, this one saying that water is also an issue for some renewables.  The article reports that solar thermal farms that are more "financeable" also potentially use billions of gallons of water.  Since some of these projects are being sited in desert areas, that could become a significant problem.  They mention one project in Nevada that would require about 20 percent of the area's water supply.

Once again, this is not a dire projection of doom and gloom.  The article identified solar technologies that use less water.  These include a technology that places mirrors on towers, producing high-temperature steam, and using a dry cooling method.  They indicated that photovoltaics require water "only" to clean the panels.  However, I understand even that can be significant, as dust can reduce the output of a photovoltaic array significantly.  Further, they say that photovoltaic arrays are typically more expensive and less efficient than solar thermal farms.  For photovoltaics as well, research continues on ways to improve the efficiency and to clean the panels without water.

While the article didn't mention it, wind produces electricity without the need for cooling water.  But as I've indicated in other posts, there are other issues associated with wind.  Therefore, wind has a role in the energy mix, but as with every technology, there are tradeoffs.  

The point of this discussion is not to conclude that we have no options.  The point is to recognize the issues associated with the water needed to produce electricity and the possible trends, and to assure that growing constraints are considered as new technologies are developed. 

On a larger scale, of course, water and energy are linked at a more fundamental level.  Just as it takes a lot of water to produce electricity from most sources, it also takes a lot of energy to produce clean water, more so in places where water for human consumption needs to be extracted from seawater. 


Friday, September 12, 2014

Wine and Radioactive Decay:

An Interesting Mix

I had not expected for find a wine-related topic to blog about again in a nuclear forum (an early blog of mine reported on the effects of red wine in helping protect against radioactivity), but I have just found yet another connection between nuclear science and wine.  A technical paper reports on the work of a nuclear center in the Bordeaux region of France (the Centre d'Etudes Nucleaires de Bordeaux-Gradignan, or CENBG) in using measurements of gamma decay to date wine.  Although this work seems far removed from their main mission, which was to measure the mass of the neutrino, I guess it was only natural for a nuclear research center in the middle of one of the most famous wine regions in the world to try to apply their tools to the main industry of the area.

The paper notes that wine contains very small, but measurable, amounts of cesium 137 from weapons testing.  Thus, the amounts of the isotope in wines can be used to determine the vintage of fine wines and to protect against fraudulent claims about the vintage.  For example, a 1930 vintage wine should not contain cesium 137.  Since the gamma radiation from the decay of cesium 137 passes through glass bottles, the test is has the additional advantage that it is a nondestructive one and doesn't require tampering with expensive, old vintage wines.  (The article emphasizes that the amounts of cesium 137 in the wine are negligible, so wine lovers need not worry on that account either.)

The authors of the study point to other possible applications in the future.  The gamma spectrometer used is very sensitive and may be able to detect a range of isotopes.  Since soils in different regions vary in composition, the distribution of isotopes in a given bottle of wine may be able to identify whether it is from Bordeaux or Burgundy--or Napa Valley.  However, the paper concludes that the work has not yet been done to validate this concept.

It sounds like an area of research that I would enjoy--in more ways than one!


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Science and Policymaking, Part III:

What We All Need to Know about the Public

The astute reader of the last two blogposts (on policymakers and on scientists) will notice that the missing link in this story is the public.  Sure enough, there is a 3rd article on what both scientists and policymakers need to know about the public.  This one has only 12 points.  Again, I offer the headings for the 12 points and leave the interested read to pursue the explanations in the original article:

1. There is no such thing as ‘the public’

2. People are perfectly capable of understanding complex issues and technologies

3. People want to be able to participate in decisions around policy involving science and technology

4. People are not ‘anti-science’ or ‘anti-technology’

5. People can be experts too

6. People may ask questions which do not occur to experts

7. People are not necessarily interested in science and technology per se

8. People know that policy-makers and scientists are human

9. It is important for policy-makers and scientists to be clear about when they are telling and when they are listening

10. Public deliberation can help reduce the risks that proposed policy will fail

11. Re 10 above, public deliberation can also help give confidence to policy-makers

12. There are many different and valid ways of engaging people

As I read through this last group, I was struck by one point that made me shake my head and say, "Well, I know some people who are anti-science."  (Actually, I don't think I know of anyone in my immediate circle, but I do know they exist.)  This made me realize that the whole set of points in all three articles lumps people together too much.  We can all identify people who are anti-science as well as people who are pro-science, so perhaps a lot of these should read "Not all people are anti-science," etc.  The first of these lists, on what scientists need to know about policymakers, did say that policymakers are not a homogeneous group, but they didn't carry over this caveat into the other lists.  So, yes, I could tweak all of these, and I offer this to you with the caveat that none of these 3 groups are homogeneous, but I still think there is a lot of food for thought for all of us in these lists.













Science and Policymaking, Part II:

What Policymakers Need to Know about Scientists

In my previous post, I excerpted 20 points from an article in The Guardian that tried to give scientists advice on what they needed to know about policy-making in order to be more effective in working with policymakers.  That article was actually inspired by an earlier article in The Guardian that tried to explain scientists to policymakers.  So, although I know most of this audience consists of scientists and engineers, I thought you might find it interesting to see how others explain our work.  Once again, I present only the bullet points (complete with the original spelling) and urge the reader to go to the original article for further explanations.

With that, here are the recommended 20 things policymakers should know about scientists:

1. Differences and chance cause variation

2. No measurement is exact

3. Bias is rife

4. Bigger is usually better for sample size

5. Correlation does not imply causation

6. Regression to the mean can mislead

7. Extrapolating beyond the data is risky

8. Beware the base-rate fallacy

9. Controls are important

10. Randomisation avoids bias

11. Seek replication, not pseudoreplication

12. Scientists are human

13. Significance is significant

14. Separate no effect from non-significance

15. Effect size matters

16. Data can be dredged or cherry picked

17. Extreme measurements may mislead

18. Study relevance limits generalisations

19. Feelings influence risk perception

20. Dependencies change the risks 

Once again, the comments provide some different perspectives, and perhaps my own list would be a little different.  But overall, I think most of the points are valid, and they should provide food for thought for all of us.



















Science and Policymaking, Part I:

What Scientists Need to Know about Policymakers

I was just pointed to a rich mother lode today--a trio of articles on what the various actors in science and technology policy need to know about each other.  Since I am a scientist and engineer who has worked in the policy area for a long time, the articles struck a chord and I wanted to share them here.  I suspect my audience is mostly other scientists and engineers, so I'll start with an article on what scientists should know about policy-making

Note that these articles were published by a British publication, The Guardian, so a few of the particulars pertain to the British government system.  However, the points the author makes are largely valid for any democratic government.  A few details may need to be changed, but the overall points apply.  Also, I'm sure we can all quibble about the details, and some of the commenters to the original article have taken issue with the relative importance of different issues, the order, whether some duplicate or contradict others, etc.  You can read the comments and draw your own conclusions.  I personally found that most of the points resonated, and perhaps will provide food for thought to others as we all continue to struggle with the interface between science and policy.  I perhaps thought the 20 points enunciated in The Guardian article could have been boiled down to a smaller set of points, but that is a small quibble.

I will highlight here the 20 points the original article in The Guardian makes about what scientists need to know about policy-making.  For the detailed discussion of each of the points, as well as for the comments, please see the original article.  In subsequent blogs, I will highlight the other Guardian articles, which provide similar thoughts on the other participants in policy-making.

1. Making policy is really difficult

2. No policy will ever be perfect

3. Policy makers can be expert too

4. Policy makers are not a homogenous group

5. Policy makers are people too

6. Policy decisions are subject to extensive scrutiny

7. Starting policies from scratch is very rarely an option

8. There is more to policy than scientific evidence

9. Economics and law are top dogs in policy advice

10. Public opinion matters

11. Policy makers do understand uncertainty

12. Parliament and government are different

13. Policy and politics are not the same thing

14. The UK has a brilliant science advisory system

15. Policy and science operate on different timescales

16. There is no such thing as a policy cycle

17. The art of making policy is a developing science

18. 'Science policy' isn't a thing

19. Policy makers aren't interested in science per se

20. 'We need more research' is the wrong answer

I will be interested in how the experience of others supports or contradicts these points, either in the US or elsewhere, but overall, I think most of these points are useful to keep in mind for those of us who engage with policy-makers.























Friday, August 22, 2014

Nuclear Waste:

A New Path Forward?

I was just wrapping up a post a couple of weeks ago and reflecting on how, most of the time, people don't want new infrastructure, be it a windmill or a factory, and yet they don't want to lose infrastructure either, even if other people consider that infrastructure dirty and polluting.

I was thinking specifically of coal mines, which arguably have often damaged the landscape and affected the health and safety of their workers, but I also recall cases where people fought to save industries in their communities, even when the industries spew pollution over the local residents.  I was toying with introducing a new acronym to the world to highlight the fact that there is a counter to NIMBY.  I thought of something like Keep Our Old Pollution Spewing Industries, or KOOPSI, and was envisioning sayings, like "oopsis follow KOOPSIs" or "KOOPSIs lead to oopsies."   

But I knew even as I was thinking about this that it was too simplistic.  If there is a KOOPSI attitude, there are certainly exceptions.  Witness people who have continued to argue against nuclear power plants in a region, even when they have operated safely for decades, and brought jobs and prosperity to their host communities.  So, I held off from publishing my whimsical new addition to the world of acronyms.

So, imagine my surprise, just after I hit the publish button, of opening a message in my mailbox that led me to an article about Loving County, a county in Texas that is thinking of offering to take the nation's high-level radioactive waste!

Of course, this is only an initial thought by a few people.  It doesn't mean we've solved the country's HLW problem.  It doesn't even have the full backing of the 95 residents of the county, and it seems to be for storage, not permanent disposal.  But the most interesting fact in the article was that there might be other sparsely populated counties in the deserts of the Southwest that see some benefits to the jobs and funds that would come with such an enterprise. 

But it just shows that, just as there are exceptions to KOOPSI, there are also exceptions to NIMBY.  In the end, in most cases, it boils down to jobs and the local economy.  That should surprise no one.  But if the old adage that the exception proves the rule is true, if we accept NIMBY, we have to accept KOOPSI, too, so I hearby introduce this new acronym to the world.

On a more serious note, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future recognized that the problem with Yucca Mountain is that it did not have the support of the local community from the outset, and any new process had to start with inviting interested communities.  The possible offer from Loving County, Texas seems like the first small step in that direction. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

EPA's Proposed Rule:

Some of the Complexities

There has been a lot of discussion since early June, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposed rules for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.  I have previously commented on the possible ramifications of this rule for nuclear power.

Since that time, there has been a lot more discussion on the possible implications of the proposed rules.  While I think there will be still more analysis, I thought it would be worthwhile to summarize some of the new information here.

One study comes from MIT, and emphasizes the importance of a multi-pronged approach to reducing carbon emissions.  While their study doesn't explicitly address the EPA's proposed rule, they do address some of the same issues.  According to the authors of the study, source-specific regulations are an important element of emissions reduction, but they provide only partial coverage and must be combined with other measures to have the desired impact.

The authors favor a price-based policy, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.  This is a contentious area, but one argument they make is that source-specific regulations force action in particular areas, while ignoring cheaper options that may be possible, such as reducing overall energy use or cutting emissions from industry.  They also say that, “Using targeted emissions policies can actually encourage emissions increases in other areas.”  When costs to the consumer drop (such as with fuel economy standards), there is a tendency for consumers to increase their usage.

Another study comes from a joint effort of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and National Security Program and the Rhodium Group (RHG).  On July 24, CSIS hosted a presentation in Washington to present the preliminary findings of this study.  This study looked explicitly at the EPA rules and assessed what changes to the electric power and energy production systems in the US are likely to occur under the EPA’s proposal, as well as what the price, demand expenditures and other impacts may be.  Their full report is due out in October, but in the meantime, you can view their 1 hour 10 minute oral presentation by clicking on the image below:

Unfortunately, there are a couple of spots where the audio fades for a moment, but overall, this session provides an interesting glimpse into some of the state and regional considerations that are likely to be involved if the EPA rules are adopted.

 If nothing else, these two studies illustrate the complexity of this issue, and emphasize some of the elements we should be looking at closely to be sure that the proposed rules have the desired effect and avoided unintended negative consequences. 


Friday, August 8, 2014

Energy Policy and Disruption:

Managing Change

Two items hit my mailbox yesterday, both of which relate in some way to the issue of the disruption that can be caused by technological transitions.  Therefore, although I addressed issues related to the evolution of energy technologies only a few weeks ago, I decided there were more dimensions to the problem that merited further examination.

The first of the two articles actually doesn't relate specifically to energy supply and demand.  However, it points out that the concerns about disruptive technologies are not limited to the energy arena, and are not limited to the historic changes I gave as examples in my last blog.  The more modern example that I can cite is the possibility of robots replacing human labor in more and more ways.

This is not a blog about robots, so I won't dwell on this, but we all know that we have been interacting with increasing frequency with machines instead of humans (think ATMs instead of bank tellers), and we can all see still more such interactions in our future (think driverless cars).

In the article, Vint Cerf, who is considered one of the fathers of the Internet (and who I've had the pleasure of meeting) is quoted as saying, "Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case.  Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices."  This is probably true, although it may be difficult for people whose jobs are affected to take the long view.

The second article is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and includes a graph showing that mining and related activities constitute a large part of the economies of several states.

This graph reveals a dimension I had not thought about too much before, and that is how profoundly some of the anticipated changes in our energy supply might affect some states.

Up until now, my thinking has been much like Vint Cerf's thinking--I assume that new jobs will replace the old ones, and I have regarded that as the main consideration.  I have always realized that argument is not as simple as it sounds.  At a minimum, people will need to be retrained for the new jobs.  There are also issues of whether the pay will be the same, whether the working conditions will be as attractive, etc.  In addition, people may need to move for the new jobs, and although we are a mobile society, moving is disruptive, especially if you feel you are being forced to move against your will.

But, what I hadn't thought about was to what extent there might be a large net migration of jobs out of some states.

At first glance, today's situation does not seem that different from technological and other transitions made throughout the course of history.  The types and distribution of jobs have not remained static in the past.  If they had, we would have remained mired in the Stone Age. 

And as job opportunities and other things have changed, people have moved.  That is also nothing new.  The United States was shaped by people who moved for better opportunity (or for other reasons, but this is not a sociological blog), whether it was out of other countries and to the US, or from the East Coast to the Midwest and West.

These moves have had profound consequences.  Cities prospered or declined due to the fortunes or misfortunes of the industries they harbored and the movement of people to or from their jurisdictions.

In the past, I don't think people could predict these transitions well, and both individuals and municipalities struggled as a result.  What is different today is that we understand better what the potential impacts of various actions and decisions may be.  And we have the time to act.  We will need to replace existing coal and other fossil fuel plants with cleaner technologies, which costs money and takes time.  This should allow time for individuals and states to adapt.

States and companies can continue to challenge new requirements--that, after all, is the American way--but they should also be looking to help promote other uses of coal products and cleaner coal technologies, to attract the development of replacement energy technologies, and to attract other industries.  When they lobby the Federal government, they should not simply fight all change, but they should lobby for ways to make the changes work for them.

I realize that this is easier said than done, and not everything states may try will succeed.  It may, therefore, seem easier just to try to keep things as they are, but that is a temporary solution anyway.  The argument for preserving jobs is a powerful one, but it is up against a more powerful argument of effects on public health and the environment.  Change is inevitable, whether it comes sooner or later, and the states and companies that anticipate that and start to position themselves will stand the best chance of surviving the transition--and perhaps even of improving their lot. 


Friday, July 25, 2014

NRC Commissioner Nominees:

A First Look

As had been widely rumored, the White House this week nominated Stephen Burns and Jeffrey Baran for positions as NRC Commissioners.  If confirmed, the two would replace George Apostolakis, whose term ended June 30, and William Magwood, who is about to assume the position of Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris. 

Since I know one of the two quite well (I worked with Steve Burns while we were both at NRC), and the other not at all, I will try to limit this discussion to factual information so I can treat both of the candidates equally.  (I will allow myself one digression, which will become obvious in a minute.)

Steve Burns is well known, not only to me, but to most of the nuclear community, as he served as an attorney at the NRC from 1978 to 2012, rising from an entry-level legal position to the position of Deputy General Counsel in 1998, and General Counsel of the NRC in 2009.  He left NRC in 2012, to join the NEA as head of their Legal Affairs office.  The NEA website has a brief bio of him, noting that he received several high-level performance awards during his career at NRC.

Jeff Baran is much less known to the nuclear community.  He is also an attorney and has worked on Capitol Hill since 2003.  He was most recently appointed Democratic Staff Director for Energy and Environment in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce by Rep. Henry Waxman.  He has indicated that his education sparked an interest in pursuing a career in public interest environmental law.  Also in the course of his education, he served as an intern for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he worked on a case challenging the EPA’s issuance of a pollutant discharge permit under the Clean Water Act, and worked on Freedom of Information requests for information on the implementation by states of the Safe Drinking Act standards.

Both candidates have already had questions raised about them.  Questions about Baran revolve mostly around his lack of experience with nuclear regulation.  Questions about Burns range from concerns about his role during Chairman Gregory Jaczko's tenure to concerns that he is coming from the NEA.

I will leave to others to debate the importance of Baran's lack of experience on nuclear matters.  (I should note that the NRDC is usually regarded as anti-nuclear, but it appears--assuming the article cited above describes his internship completely--that Baran didn't work on nuclear issues during his internship there.)  I will also leave to others to assess the significance of Burns' role during Jaczko's tenure, as I don't feel sufficiently familiar with all the details.

However, I feel I must comment on the concerns that continue to be raised about high-level people coming from or going to the NEA because the NEA is viewed as "promoting nuclear power."  Since I served in the NEA, I know that not to be true.  And NEA has several strongly anti-nuclear countries in its membership that make sure NEA focuses on nuclear safety and regulation, legal issues, radiation protection, waste, and research collaboration.  So far, I have seen this criticism more with respect to Bill Magwood than to Steve Burns, which has surprised me.  I simply don't think the criticism is warranted for either individual.

Finally, I would point out that, although there are two nominees, this is not the type of pairing that has become the new normal.  That is, it is not a Democrat paired with a Republican.  It is two Democrats, as both of the vacancies were positions held by Democrats.  It is a little hard to say how this will play in the Senate, but it is an unusual set of circumstances.  Also, Congress is scheduled to go on recess at the end of July, and Magwood leaves at the end of August.  Unless Congress acts very quickly (and positively) on both candidates, which seems unlikely given the circumstances, come September 1, the Commission will be operating with only three Commissioners, two of them Republican.  At the moment, Congress has been moving slowly on other confirmations, even where there is no controversy. 


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nuclear Power and Crystal Doorknobs:

The Risk of Just about Everything

A news item from the UK a couple of days ago piqued my interest--an expensive house had caught fire because a crystal doorknob had concentrated the the rays of the sun

My first thought was to wonder how such a well-known and well-understood phenomena could have caused such a problem.  After all, most of us learn as young children how a magnifying glass can burn a hole in a piece of paper.  It may be one of the first scientific principles we are able to demonstrate for ourselves.

But, looking at this incident another way, builders have been installing doorknobs in homes for centuries.  It even looks like crystal doorknobs have been around for a long time.  Who would stop to think that a doorknob might carry a risk of fire?  Who would think to look around to see if the sun could strike it directly?

From there, I thought about parallels to other situations.  Although this particular incident seems bizarre, the news is full of reports of injuries or deaths from consumer products used in ways that weren't expected, or from malfunctions of devices because something about the environment wasn't considered.  It isn't only high technology.  Plastic bags have warnings on them because children have suffocated playing with them.  No one anticipated that before it happened.  

The question is, where does this understanding leave us?  It would be easy to say there should be no crystal doorknobs.  Certainly, in the case of doorknobs, we could live without ones made of crystal.  But what if we didn't understand that the problem was caused by the fact that the doorknob was made of crystal?  What if we thought all doorknobs were a problem, and we insisted that houses be built without doorknobs?  Or that living in a house is dangerous because it can catch fire?

The reality is that, in most cases, it is not so easy simply to reject a technology or a device completely.  If we had rejected every technology and every device that had ever caused any type of damage or injury, we would still be living in the Stone Age.  We'd have no heat, no vehicles of any type, and certainly no electricity.

So, although my thought train started with a news item about a fire caused by a crystal doorknob, it moved on to other technologies, and ultimately, to nuclear power plants. 

I guess the first connection I saw was the fact that something unexpected happened, even though in this case, the cause was something so simple and basic that every child has seen the phenomenon.  It made me wonder why people are always surprised when we run into an unexpected problem in a complex system like an industrial facility or a nuclear power plant. 

Then, I thought about what happened after the fire started.  Even though this particular event was unanticipated, the house had a system in place to provide a warning that there was a fire.  The fire alarm had not been installed because of the crystal doorknob, but it was a basic safety system that operated when this fire occurred.  Likewise, nuclear power plants have in place a robust set of warning systems.

The analogy probably ends there, because nuclear power plants have far more layers of defense than a private home.  Nuclear power plants also have backup systems and other features that a house doesn't have to help deal with incidents.  And the nuclear power infrastructure--the plant management and the regulator--reviews any incident for lessons learned and needed changes. 

In the end, then, the message I get from the crystal doorknob is a complex one.  Even the most benign of objects can carry a risk we may not anticipate.  Instead of banning things when we discover a problem, we are better off if we learn from them, whether it is a fire-producing doorknob or a nuclear power plant.  Depending on the exact problem, we provide instructions for use or warnings about risks, or we modify devices to be safer, or we put in warning systems such as fire alarms or backup systems to allow operation to continue without interruption, or we install systems to mitigate the situation. 

In the case of the crystal doorknobs, the London fire department is warning people not to put crystal objects in direct sunlight.  That seems to be an appropriate response to the problem.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Energy Evolution:

Managing Change

Much has been made of the recent EPA carbon emission rules (which were largely validated by the Supreme Court ruling earlier this week) and whether they will mean "the demise of the coal industry."  The arguments are complex and overlapping:

  • Some say that it would be OK for the coal industry to die if it is a free market "decision," but not if it is the result of government intervention.  Others point out the inherent complexities of the electricity "marketplace."

  • Some say that it will cause a huge amount of economic harm, both to those employed by the coal industry and to the states where the coal is mined.  Others see new doors opening when some doors close.

  • Still others take a different perspective and point out that delaying climate change policies may be worse  for the industry in the long run, noting that any new capacity that is constructed now might have to be shuttered prematurely, resulting in more stranded capacity.  

No one seems to have given thought to the fact that, throughout the history of industrialization, we have experienced numerous instances in which one technology has replaced another:  horse-drawn carriages, whale oil, and wood-burning stoves are just a few of the technologies and resources rendered obsolete by newer technologies.  Recently, we have seen even more rapid changes in telecommunications and related technologies.

Indeed, these changes were disruptive.  We don't have neighborhood wheelwrights and horseshoe makers anymore.  We don't have people making and selling ribbons for typewriters.  The younger generation has never seen carbon paper.

I could go on almost endlessly, but the point would be the same.  In each case, particular jobs have been lost, but new jobs have been created.  In most cases, the evolution took place over a period of time.  As a result, nimble companies were able to adapt and change their product line.  Some employees, too, shifted to other types of work, or completed their careers in a shrinking industry that adapted mainly by not bringing in new blood. 

I don't want to belittle the potential impacts of change on individuals, or even on companies.  Certainly, any change produces new challenges.  And any challenge produces winners and losers.  Surely, some companies may fail, and some people may lose jobs.  However, new companies and new jobs will be created.  With foresight, the states that are most concerned about potential job losses in the coal industry can counter those losses by attracting some of the new jobs that will be created by the replacement industries. 

In reality, the challenges presented to the coal industry by the EPA rule are really no different in nature from the challenges presented by the introduction of trains, automobiles, airplanes, digital cameras, computers, and any of a dozens of other products I could name.  In fact, coal itself is a relative newcomer on the human stage.  It was undoubtedly a disruptive technology in its early days.

I am not a Pollyanna.  I am sure there will be some companies and some employees that will not be able to adapt.  But the changes will not take place overnight, and most should be able to adapt.  In that case, the net result for most can be positive.  

Therefore, while there is certainly a potential for disruption in the wake of the new rule, there is also considerable opportunity.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

NRC and the Non-Concurrence Process:

Success or Failure?

I was a little surprised to read that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) non-concurrence process has recently come under attack.  I have always considered it one of the strong points of the NRC's efforts to ensure that all possible efforts are made to hear and consider minority viewpoints on safety issues.  Briefly stated, the NRC non-concurrence process provides for several mechanisms through which NRC staff members can raise their concerns about NRC decisions--and be sure those concerns are considered

The criticism seems to be spurred by the results of a survey the NRC had conducted to see what different groups of staffers felt about the process.  Overall, the survey found that the views of the process were fairly positive.  However, the employees who had actually used the process gave the agency lower marks. 

The question is, what do the results of this survey really mean?  As Rod Adams has pointed out in his blog, Atomic Insights, the results of the survey are based on a very small sample size, and there is a tendency, in this type of survey, for people who are unhappy to be the most likely to respond. 

There are other factors as well.  There are a lot of smart people at NRC, and they all take their jobs seriously.  This means that it is a normal practice to consider all options.  This doesn't make them immune to making mistakes--that is the very reason the non-concurrence process exists--but it should not be surprising that, most of the time, even after the enhanced review that the non-concurrence process spurs, the original decision of the staff will prevail.  

Furthermore, the problems that NRC deals with are complex and multifaceted.  There are often many considerations to be balanced.  It is very easy for any one individual to focus on one solution and start to shut out the big picture.  That is one good reason that most decisions at NRC involve a number of staffers, often from different specialties.  It helps reduce the chance that a decision will be made without looking at the problem from all angles.  Those who challenge the NRC decisions are most often individuals, and may, at times, operate without the benefit of these multiple inputs.

Even with all this, there is always a chance of bias creeping in.  The non-concurrence process provides an avenue to ensure that someone takes an independent look at the decision, and the criticism of it, before it is finalized.  Thus, the process provides for review by a higher management level, up to and including the Chairman of the NRC.

This process has been used, and it has resulted in changes of direction.  Nevertheless, in many cases, the original staff decision is upheld.  Ideally, both sides should put the events behind them after a final decision is made.  There is not supposed to be retaliation against someone who raised a concern, and there is not supposed to be continued resentment by the challenger if his or her view doesn't prevail in the end. 

But human nature being what it is, that part of the process may be the greatest challenge to the system.  It would not be surprising for a manager, consciously or subconsciously, to be particularly critical of an employee when performance appraisal time comes around.  And it would not be surprising for an employee to feel rejected in general and to view every interaction in a negative light.

I don't know if any of this is the case.  I certainly am not aware of any cases where managers or staff discriminated against employees who raised safety concerns.  But it is not impossible.  Therefore, I think NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane took exactly the right approach when she said that the agency was taking these findings seriously and would look into them.  That response is exactly in the spirit of the process itself. 


Friday, June 13, 2014

Nuclear Engineering Students in Top Ranks:

Three Nuclear Engineering Undergrads Among "Most Impressive" at MIT

As an MIT alum, I am always interested in news covering just about anything MIT-related, so my interest was piqued when I saw a link to an article from Business Insider entitled, "The 14 Most Impressive Students at MIT Right Now."  I opened it.  After all, I might have a chance to learn something about someone who is destined to win a Nobel Prize someday.

Well, in the first place, I discovered that the article is a year old, so please forgive me if you have already seen it.  I had not.   Secondly, having read the article, I can't say that I can guess which of the students might be future Nobelists.  Since many of this group are focusing on fields of engineering, the answer might be "none of the above."  However, what did strike me first was how much some of these students were doing while they were still undergraduates.  While I believe that I was a pretty serious student and I also engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities, what these students are doing makes my undergraduate achievements pale by comparison.

But what really got my attention was that 3 of the 14 were nuclear engineering majors.  And even more, I happen to know one of them.  Let me share some highlights about each of them:

Cameron McCord
Cameron McCord, who graduated in 2013, double-majored in nuclear engineering and physics.  He has already had stints with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and Brookhaven National Laboratory.  He was the battalion commander of the Navy ROTC at MIT, a player on the MIT soccer team, a member of the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, and a recipient of a Truman Scholarship.

I met Cameron when he came to Washington in 2011 with MIT's DC Summer Internship Program, which I'm proud to say that my husband and I support.  Since he was interested in nuclear engineering, we served as his sponsors for the summer, so I'm especially pleased to see him recognized.

As a bit of a DC policy wonk myself, I particularly liked this quote the article included from him:  "Nuclear engineering and nuclear energy production will always be closely linked with policy.  They come hand in hand. If you aspire to be a nuclear scientist or engineer and you don’t make a concerted effort to both understand the policy as well as how to communicate, work in teams, and lead people, I think you are doing yourself a disservice."

He is initially serving in the Navy, but anticipates a career in government or a non-profit organization, working in the areas of nuclear safety and nonproliferation. 

Ekaterina "Katia" Paramonova

Ekaterina "Katia" Paramonova, also of the Class of 2013, majored in nuclear engineering and minored in public policy.  She is a dual Russian and US citizen who wants to help improve relations between the US and Russia, because she believes that countries have to be willing to work together in order to achieve success.  [As an aside, she obviously has greater challenges now than when this article was written.]

She has also studied at the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute doing materials research for the International Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER).  At MIT, she participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), working at the  MIT nuclear reactor, and was an assistant student leader of the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program.  In addition, she co-chaired a 500-person student conference through the American Nuclear Society, and organized a trip for MIT students and faculty to the AtomExpo Nuclear Conference in Moscow to foster a discussion about the ways scientists and researchers in the two countries can help each other.

She plans to get a masters in nuclear engineering and a PhD in France in order to work with fast reactors.

Ethan Peterson
Ethan Peterson, Class of 2013 as well, was a double-major in nuclear engineering and physics, and in addition, had a minor in French.  He was co-captain of the MIT football team and was the second football player at MIT to be named a National Scholar-Athlete.  [The Business Insider article reported that he was the first, but the National Football Foundation showed an earlier winner from MIT some years ago.]  He was also treasurer of his fraternity, and he volunteered at the Special Olympics and at the Boston Medical Center.  In addition, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout from the Boy Scouts of America.

He plans to pursue a PhD in nuclear engineering or physics and to become a college professor, working in the area of plasma physics and fusion research.

The resumes of the other 11 students are equally outstanding.  While I don't know exactly how the students were selected, what made them stand out from all the other high-achievers at MIT, and why 14 were selected, this is clearly an impressive group.  [Note that the end of the article has a link to a similar article highlighting 22 Harvard students with similarly impressive credentials.  Since Harvard does not have a nuclear engineering program, I have not included profiles of any Harvard students here.  Honestly, despite my allegiance to MIT, I would treat a Harvard nuclear engineer equally!]

Students who have amassed such credentials even as undergraduates give me high hope for the future.  And the fact that 3 out of 14 are nuclear engineering students gives me confidence that the nuclear field is attracting the best of the best, and that bodes well for the discipline.