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.