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.