Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lessons from the VA:

A Reminder for the Nuclear Community

I hesitate a little to talk about the recent revelations from the Department of Veterans Affairs of apparent widespread falsification of records of patient waiting times.  There is still much we don't know about what happened and where the blame should be assigned.

However, as the story has unfolded in the past few days, I have been reflecting on nuclear safety culture and how it requires constant vigilance to maintain the standards we set to assure the safe operation of nuclear power plants.  I think it is timely to say a few things that are already apparent.  

In the nuclear community, we have established a principle that safety is paramount.  Further, we have realized that everyone has a stake in ensuring safety, that ensuring safety requires adherence to the rules and procedures, and that ensuring safety requires the willingness to stand up when necessary and identify when rules and procedures aren't being followed.

Of course, as everyone knows, the understanding of what is required to ensure safety developed in response to instances where things went wrong because someone fabricated a maintenance report, or ignored a critical step in a procedure, or failed in some other way to adhere to the highest standards.  And as we also know, it is very easy to "fall off the wagon."  But overall, the nuclear industry has established and maintained high standards.

Furthermore, management has learned that they get the performance they ask for, whether they ask explicitly or implicitly.  The nuclear industry has made great strides in creating an environment where, most of the time, employees feel free to report problems.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that other industries and other organizations need some of the same kinds of standards.  Whatever we learn from the VA fiasco in the future, it is already clear that staff and management were responding to a short-sighted focus on performance statistics and paying insufficient attention to other signals.  If it turns out that the problem was that the organization didn't have sufficient funding, staffing, and facilities in the first place, then what has happened is all the more tragic.

Whatever the outcome of this situation, I hope that the VA will look to the nuclear community for examples of how to create a culture where employees feel free to bring problems to the attention of management.  In the meantime, I hope the nuclear community will look at this example and reinforce their efforts to sustain that culture.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Women and Nuclear:

The More Things Change

Maria Korsnick
Sarah Kovaleski

I hadn't expected to be writing about women in the nuclear field twice in one month, but shortly after I reported on historic election at the American Nuclear Society, where 3 out of 4 new board members elected were women, two articles on women in the nuclear industry were in the news in the past week.

These stories report on progress in the utility sector.  One is an interview on NPR with Maria Korsnick, the first woman in the US to become a Chief Nuclear Officer (at Exelon), and the other is a personal reflection by Sarah Kovaleski, the first woman at Ameren Missouri to hold the position of Director of Engineering Design.

The first message from these two stories being reported so closely together and so soon after the ANS election is that things really are changing.  It's good to see that women are being recognized more and more, both by management and by their peers, and I congratulate both these women.

The other message that I get from these two stories is that some of the changes are taking far longer than I had expected.  Since I entered the nuclear field well before these two women, I am almost surprised to hear them report some of the same things I experienced:  being the only woman in a group; awkward moments over matters of protocol, like dress code and shaking hands; a lack of ladies rooms; etc.

Most striking is the fact that both articles report that there are nine men to every woman in the industry.  I think that the trend is changing and that, as the recent grads become a larger fraction of the workforce, we will see the disparity reduced.  In the meantime, for those who do not realize what the challenges that women still face in the engineering world, it is instructive to read these two reports.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Food Irradiation:

Slow Progress

 When I was president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in 2001-2, I got interested in food irradiation.  I knew that unaged, unpasteurized cheeses, which I had enjoyed on trips to Europe, were not permitted for sale or distribution in the United States because of concerns about listeria, a bacteria that can be harmful, particularly to pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.  I launched an effort to try to get temporary, one-time approval to irradiate the cheese to serve at a reception at an ANS conference, hoping that might ultimately lead to full approval for such products.

That effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but I have continued to monitor the status of food irradiation from time to time.

Therefore, I was very interested in recent news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month approved the use of irradiation for crustaceans (shrimp, lobster and crabs).  As a side note, given last winter's cold weather has apparently decimated the supply of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, I anticipate that a lot of the crabs in this area will come from elsewhere, likely making this FDA approval particularly timely for the Washington-Baltimore area.

So, the approval for irradiation of shellfish was the good news.  But, as a recent article on food irradiation in the Washington Post points out, it took 13 years to get that approval, and the last approval before that, for spinach and iceberg lettuce in 2008, took nearly 10 years.  That's the bad news.  Or at least some of the bad news.

The other bad news is the continuing efforts of small groups to fight the further use of food irradiation.  Their arguments are mostly hypothetical, minor, preventable, inconsistent, or just plain wrong.  Furthermore, a lot of the arguments against food irradiation are similar to arguments against the pasteurization of milk.  I wondered if there might be any messages in the story of how pasteurization came to be accepted.  Looking at this history, it took a combination of the endorsement by groups like the American Medical Association, an unfortunate typhoid epidemic in New York that killed thousands, and several decades.

While I certainly hope that it will not take such a tragedy to gain acceptance for food irradiation, the public should realize that, in fact, there have been illnesses and deaths from food contamination that would have been prevented had the food been irradiated.  In fact, the last large food poisoning incident occurred less than a year ago and sickened over 600 people

The other thing I learned from the Washington Post article was how very confusing and illogical our food laws are.  For example, the rules for indicating that a food has been irradiated (using the radura symbol shown at the left) are different for single food items, like shrimp, and for packaged food products, like frozen dinners.  Irradiation is treated as a food additive, when it is really a process, like canning or freezing, and not an additive at all.  Furthermore, it is considered an adulterant, which subjects it to the case-by-case approval process that has resulted in such long delays for approval.  This should be contrasted with the case for salt, for example, which is in the class of foods that are "generally regarded as safe."  As a result, salt can be used unlimited amounts in any food product, even though we know today that large amounts of salt are harmful to the health of a significant fraction of the population.

On a personal level, perhaps the most enjoyable fact I learned from the Washington Post article was that irradiated ground beef is available on the retail consumer market.  Only one supermarket chain was mentioned in the article, Wegman's.  Two mail-order providers are also mentioned, Schwan's Home Service and Omaha Steaks.  Although Wegman's is not a national chain, there happens to be one not too far from us, so on a recent foray, we picked up a package to sample.  It was clearly marked, but the store gave no indication of why they were selling it.

The Wegman's blog, however, provides just the kind of rationale that made me interested in irradiated cheese.  The blog has a very clear and open explanation of why Wegman's chose to sell irradiated ground beef--recommendations for food safety call for cooking hamburger to 160 degrees F, but a lot of their customers prefer a rarer and juicier burger.  (They sell unirradiated ground beef as well, so there is freedom of choice.)  While the Wegman's blog doesn't mention it, the reason they sell irradiated ground beef and not irradiated whole cuts of beef is that the bacterial contamination is limited to the surface of whole cuts of meat.  For ground beef, any contamination is spread throughout the product.  Hence, it must be heated to the center to destroy any bacteria. 

It struck me that this argument is very much in line with my interest in irradiated cheese.  It allows customers to enjoy a product with less taste-changing processing and greater safety.  What's not to like? 

Now that we've discovered a source, it looks like we will be able to enjoy rare, irradiated hamburger in our home.  Maybe there is hope yet for irradiated cheese.  I only hope I don't have to wait another 20 years for that.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ukraine, Russia, and Nuclear Power:

Complicated Connections

I don't usually comment in this blog on current events, particularly those involving interactions between countries on other continents.  However, I can't help but notice how much energy in general, and nuclear power in particular, is intertwined with recent Russian actions in Ukraine.

Clearly, natural gas is a major issue in the conflict.  Crimea, which Russia has taken over, has most of Ukraine's natural gas and oil reserves.  But of even more importance, some of Russia's pipelines to Europe run through Ukraine.  The combination clearly puts Russia in a very controlling position.  The European nations, quite understandably, are reluctant to try to oppose Russia, which could easily use its gas supplies to hold them hostage.

This should be a vivid lesson to the rest of the world, whenever nations are tempted to narrow their energy sources to the options that are seemingly the cheapest or easiest.

What is most interesting to me is the role that nuclear power plays in this conflict.  Jim Conca, who blogs at Forbes, has produced a very thorough discussion of the role that nuclear power--or the lack thereof--is playing in this conflict.  In particular, he highlights the impacts of Germany's shutdown of a number of their plants, and the planned shutdown of more.  He notes that the shutdowns of Germany's nuclear fleet have increased their dependence on Russian gas, and therefore, limit their options.

Could this crisis become severe enough to cause Germany to back off, even temporarily, on their plans?  I don't know.  I would hope that ideology would give way to reason when they are confronted with what could become a serious threat to the continent.

Could this crisis spur new nuclear development elsewhere in Europe?  Possibly, but new nuclear power plants are a long-term proposition.  They may be part of a good plan to prevent Russia from ever having the power to repeat such an exercise, but they will have no impact for many years.

The sad truth is that there is no quick solution to replacing Europe's energy supplies.  People look to the new gas discoveries here in the United States, but developing those fields will take time as well.  This could, however, be part of a longer-term solution.

In the meantime, we in the US should continue to seek diversity in our energy supply.

Jim's article points out that Russia also wields a big stick in the nuclear area.  They are aggressively marketing their reactor technology, which will make some countries dependent upon them for reactor services.  For countries already dependent on Russia for gas, this is double jeopardy.  With other countries marketing nuclear technology aggressively as well, Russia does have competition in this arena, with or without the US.  Nevertheless, it is clear that even purely peaceful nuclear technology could become an element in international diplomacy, if it hasn't already attained that status.

The situation in the Ukraine is also likely to affect a lot of unrelated activities.  Among them could be the ongoing effort to build a new, more permanent cover for the Chernobyl reactor.  It is not clear yet whether and how this will be affected, but military activity could well distract current efforts. 

Finally, some have expressed concerns about possible military activities around Ukraine's nuclear power plants.  I hope for many reasons that this conflict can be defused before it reaches such serious proportions, but would find it very difficult to believe that Russia would turn a nuclear power plant into a weapon so close to their own border.  After all, they have the experience of Chernobyl.
However, we all are aware of the potential for unintended events in wartime situations.  Among the problems that Ukraine--and its friends--will have to face should the situation escalate will be arranging for defensive measures around their nuclear plants.  In today's climate, where we have considered terrorist threats to nuclear power plants, this is probably not as much of a change as it might have been prior to 9/11.  Nevertheless, even without a direct attack on a nuclear power plant, a prolonged loss of outside power could be a threat, so such possibilities will have to be considered.

So, for many reasons, I hope that this current situation can be resolved and defused.