Friday, October 7, 2022

More Examples of Unexpected Impacts

Once again, a long time has elapsed between blogs.  But this time, I am returning to a theme that I have harped on before--the fact that nothing is really "free"; every energy source, every material, every structure in our highly industrialized environment comes with pluses...and minuses.  I had thought I had beaten this theme to death, but in recent weeks, discovered 2 new examples--at least they are new to me--that I think bear mentioning.  


The first example I came across was a discussion of the environmental impacts of hydorfluorocarbons (HFCs).  HFCs are commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners.  The article ominously notes that HFCs can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis.  In fact, they call them "super-pollutants."  But the point that really got my attention was the last sentence of the article, which stated that HFCs were first introduced in the 1990s, before their powerful heat-trapping properties were understood, to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that had been found to erode the ozone layer.


To me, then, in addition to the argument made in the article that there is a need to find a replacement for HFCs, the article drives home the point that everything we do has some impact, and that we need to be more aware of this.  After all, this is not be the first time that we thought that advances in technology were enabling us to replace something polluting or damaging with something better, only to find that the "better" technology came with its own shortcomings.  The classic example is that everyone thought automobiles would replace the "pollution" from horses on city streets, only to find that automobiles generated a different kind of pollution.


The other example I recently learned about deals with some of the possible causes of the increased strength of hurricanes.  Most of the discussion I had heard to date related to the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  However, this article cites another cause in addition to GHGs--the Atlantic has also experienced a reduction in aerosol pollution.  Some of that may be due to a reduction of Saharan dust in the last few decades, since hotter sea surface temperatures are weakening trade winds from Africa that transport the dust.  But some of it is due to a reduction in sulfate pollution from industry following the passage of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s.  From this article, it is not clear how much of the effect is due to the reduction in sulfate pollution, but the fact that it has this impact suggests that, once again, something we did with the intention of fixing one problem might be making another problem worse.

I would like to think that we have gotten smart enough to realize this and to be able to analyze systems to figure out their potential negative impacts before we unleash them on the world.  Or to phase in new technologies to assess their impacts before we have totally committed to them.  Perhaps that is not realistic.   But we should certainly try to anticipate "unexpected" impacts as much as possible, and we should monitor the impact of changes--whether introduced by laws to replace one process or material with another, or simply by the introduction of new technologies--so we can catch the impacts sooner and make necessary adjustments.


I am particularly interested in this issue because, for years, I have seen solar and wind power compared to nuclear power.  Without getting into an in-depth discussion here of all the issues, the general impression is that solar and wind are "natural" and therefore, are clean, while nuclear is not.  These arguments ignore the fact that solar and wind power require a lot of materials, some of them exotic, and that these materials need to be mined, manufactured, and disposed of.  And these sources are intermittent, so some form of storage or backup power is needed.  This doesn't mean that we should abandon solar or wind power.  Far from it.  But we need to incorporate it into our electricity supply systems with a full understanding of what is needed to make it work, and of all the impacts, and we need to balance these against nuclear power and other energy sources. 


I am not trying to say that we can never introduce new technologies just because they may have negative impacts.  I am just issuing a reminder that everything has impacts, positive and negative.  We do need to be more proactive in figuring out those impacts and in addressing them as early as possible.  And we need to try to move away from the mindset that one technology is "good" and another is "bad," and look instead for balance between alternative technologies to meet our needs while minimizing negative impacts. 





Wednesday, January 5, 2022

EU to Propose Considering Nuclear Power--but not on a Level Playing Field

It has been a long time since I was moved to write a blog, perhaps because I feel that I have already addressed many of the major issues, and I do not like to just repeat myself.  However, the recent reports that the European Union (EU) is considering allowing nuclear power and natural gas to be added to the list of "green technologies," but with "conditions," has me disturbed enough to break my silence.


As the Reuters article notes, the EU is responding to pressure from a number of countries to consider nuclear power and natural gas in its taxonomy of "green technologies," but it is trying to address the opposing pressures of the anti-nuclear countries by imposing conditions that appear to be tailor-made to make it extremely difficult for a country to comply.  Specifically, "the project has [to have] a plan, funds and a site to safely dispose of radioactive waste."  Since we know that disposal of radioactive waste has been a political football in many countries for years, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what is likely to happen.  Or not happen. 


I can't object to requiring a technology to consider the full life-cycle impacts.  BUT...if nuclear power is required to do this, why not wind energy and solar energy?  While the wind and the sun may be free and clean, we can't get usable amounts of energy from them without creating a lot of other impacts.  Numerous reports have documented the rare materials needed, and the wastes generated, by wind and solar energy.  In fact, given the low density of these energy sources, the amount of materials that are required to build the structures and systems to capture these distributed energy sources is huge.  These materials need to be mined and fabricated to build windmills or solar panels, and disposed of at the end of the lives of the windmills and solar power plants. Some of the materials used may be scarce and are currently available largely from places like China, which we do not want to depend on for basic energy needs, and many are potentially hazardous to human health and to the environment.  


There are some requirements for natural gas plants as well.  They must replace something more polluting, which is a good thing.  And there are emission standards--at the power plant itself--that assure that more advanced natural gas technologies are used.  However, once again, they don't take the full life cycle into consideration.  Specifically, they don't include consideration of methane emissions at the point of extraction, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas.  And for natural gas, too, there is a supply issue.  With Russia being a major supplier of natural gas to some European countries, we have already seen that it can easily be used for political advantage.


If anyone who has followed my blog thinks that I have mentioned all of this before, indeed I have.  I probably wouldn't have addressed the issue again, except for the fact that the EU is about to go down a bizarre and counterproductive path.  Don't get me wrong.  I think it is fine if the EU wishes to consider the whole life cycle of energy sources.  And it's a good idea to require some plan to assure that there will be financing for end-of-life requirements.  In fact, these conditions are probably appropriate.  I just think that it is important for all energy sources to be treated equally, and that these same conditions are applicable for addressing the materials needs for wind and solar systems.  That would be the best outcome for the people of the EU and for their environment.  


But going forward with a plan that imposes requirements on one technology and not on another strikes me as the worst of all worlds.  The people of Europe are likely to be saddled with an energy mix that they believe is "clean" and "renewable," but that will turn out to be unreliable, costly, and that, in the end, will leave future generations with a huge quantity of highly hazardous waste.  And probably with nowhere to dispose of it.



Tuesday, May 4, 2021

In Memoriam: Peter Lyons

I was very sad to learn that Peter B. Lyons passed away on April 29.  He began his long and distinguished career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and then spent many years in Washington, first as a Science Advisor to U.S. Senator Pete Domenici and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and later, as a Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and finally as the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE).  During the course of his career, he made numerous contributions to nuclear science and nuclear policy, some of which are described in the DOE's bio on Pete and in the American Nuclear Society's (ANS) newswire article on his passing.  


In addition to being a person of so many accomplishments, he was also an extraordinary human being, and I would like to focus on some of his personal characteristics that I observed in my many interactions with him over the years.  


I first got to know Pete Lyons well when I was the Principal Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy in DOE.  He was one of the Capitol Hill staffers I met with periodically to discuss the work of my office.  Although Hill staffers are notoriously busy and overworked, and in other offices, I was often kept waiting or given only a brief, rushed audience, Pete was invariably respectful of the time of anyone visiting his office, and very thoughtful and knowledgeable in discussions.   His focus was always on the science and on the national good.


When I left DOE, I continued to see him occasionally at various conferences and other events, and to follow his career.  I have a special memory from 2013, when I served as the Faculty Member in Residence (FMR) for the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE), a program supported by the ANS and several other engineering societies to bring students to Washington for a summer to expose them to technology policy.  One part of the program was for the FMR to arrange for the students to meet leaders working in the science and technology policy area from the government and other organizations.  


Pete was the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at that time, and I had arranged for the students to come as a group to meet him.  While I have been impressed by the fact that many very high level, very busy people, such as NRC Commissioners, Assistant Secretaries, and others, do make time to meet with the WISE students, Pete did much more than give them a briefing.  I had the students briefly introduce themselves and the topics they were studying that summer, and instead of just nodding his head and waiting for the introductions to finish, he engaged each of the students, asking them questions about their projects and offering them suggestions, or commenting on the schools or on other things they had mentioned.  I even saw him taking notes on their names, schools, and professional societies.  That showed a level of interest and engagement that went well above and beyond the norm.


After Pete retired from DOE, he remained engaged professionally.  I was delighted to see him be recognized last year with ANS’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Award for his influential leadership in nuclear technology policy and for the vital role he played in the nuclear renaissance of the early 21st century.  And I was pleased to see an article authored by him in the February issue of Nuclear News.  After I read that article, I sent him a message about it.  In his typical fashion, he responded promptly and graciously, even though I was aware that he was very ill.


In one of our last conversations in person, I noted to Pete that he and I both had served in NRC, DOE, and on the Hill--although I hasten to say that he served in a higher position than I did in each of these organizations!  There are probably relatively few people with such backgrounds, and maybe it is one bond we shared.  But my observation was that he treated everyone with courtesy and respect.  

He will truly be missed, not only for his many contributions to nuclear policy in his various positions, but for his outstanding personal characteristics as well. 




Friday, February 26, 2021

Clean Air and New Jobs: A Breath of Fresh Air

One of the more contentious challenges in the ongoing effort to move to a cleaner mix of fuels to run our modern world has been addressing concerns about the jobs that are lost, and the people who are affected, as we transition from the current mix of energy sources to a more advanced mix.  


And truly, that is a serious problem.  We can look at the world and say that we made such transitions before--from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles; from burning wood to burning coal and then oil; etc.  Those transitions, too, changed the mix and location of jobs.  But most of those transitions occurred over longer periods of time than we are now envisioning, allowing people more time to adjust.

Therefore, I was very pleased to hear former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's responses to questions in her Senate hearing for the position of Secretary of the Department of Energy about the job implications of efforts to move to cleaner energy sources: 


“We can buy electric car batteries from Asia, or we can make them in America,” Granholm told senators. “We can install wind turbines from Denmark, or we can make them in America.″


One can argue that these are easy statements to make and harder measures to implement.  And they may certainly mean that some people will have to move.  But, it is also true that many of the jobs in the nuclear and renewable energy industries are good, high-paying jobs, and if measures like training and other support can be offered to those affected by closures of old facilities, then we potentially have a win-win.  In addition, if jobs are made an important part of the plan to transition to cleaner energy, then efforts can be made to locate some of the manufacturing centers for the new products needed in the very places where mining and other jobs are being lost.  


There are still many challenges ahead.  It is easy to say that we will build the factories here, but it is harder to compete against the cheap labor in some parts of the world.  It is easy to say that factories will be built in mining communities, but those decisions are not directly in the hands of the government.  And this is not a short-term issue; we will need sustained attention to the impacts on jobs.

However, if the recognition of need for job creation is made an integral element of the planning process, then a balanced approach to the energy transition can developed, one that considers the people as well as the environment.  It will not be easy, and there will not be perfect solutions, but Secretary Granholm's statements at the Senate hearing are a very encouraging sign that we will plan in a holistic way that addresses both the needs of the overall population and the needs of the individuals most affected by the changes.




Sunday, February 7, 2021

Renewable Energy and Waste

I was delighted to see a news item recently in the American Nuclear Society Nuclear Cafe reporting on an article discussing the waste generated by renewable energy systems.  Of course, I'm not delighted because there is waste from renewable energy systems!  Rather, I am delighted that the problem is beginning to be recognized.  This is a topic that I've addressed several times in past blogs, but I've always felt that the issue wasn't getting the attention that is needed, and that my voice was a lonely voice in the wilderness.  

Unfortunately, the terminology that has developed around energy sources has led to a widespread belief that renewable energy sources are "clean" because they generate no emissions when they produce energy.  Lost in the discussion is the fact that the production of energy is only one step in the lifecycle of any energy producing system.  All energy sources require materials that need to be mined and processed, and some of the materials traditionally used for solar and wind plants may be toxic.  And all power producing plants ultimately reach the ends of their lifetimes, which means that all the materials used in the construction and operation of those power plants ultimately need to be disposed of as well. 

The ANS article and my previous blog detail some of the specific wastes produced by solar and wind power plants, so I will not repeat that discussion here.  The only point I would add to the discussion in that article is one of volume.  It is often overlooked that the distributed nature of wind and solar energy means that the systems used to extract that energy for human use have to be large and have to use a lot of materials.  Getting our energy supply from the wind and the sun requires thousands and thousands of wind turbines and solar panels.  Therefore, the issue is that, not only are there hazardous wastes created when we build wind and solar power plants, the volume of that waste is very large.  By contrast, the amount of waste generated by a nuclear power plant is much smaller.  And both radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and hazardous wastes from other power sources may need to be sequestered for long periods of time. 

The important point is to recognize that no energy source is completely "clean."  Every source of energy generates some form of waste somewhere in the lifecycle of the system.  It is also true that we can expect to find solutions for dealing with most of these wastes.  Some of these solutions are in early stages of development, and we may need a lot more work to assure that they will be effective.  And all of them will add to the costs of energy production.  And, yes, all of them are likely to generate needs for places to dispose of toxic materials sometime in the future.  The point is that these aspects of our energy supply need to be better recognized by everyone involved--the technical community developing these systems, the energy companies seeking to build them, the communities wishing to host them, and the general public.

Hopefully, this article will start a broader dialogue on this important issue.



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Fiestaware: Understanding Radiation

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a blog on Fiestaware when I noticed that the Post Office had issued a stamp honoring the man who had designed the original Fiestaware line (Frederick Hurten Rhead).  My tone was a bit lighthearted, as one color of classical Fiestaware was made with a uranium glaze that gave it a distinctive orange color, so it had become something I personally enjoy collecting and using.  (Well, collection may be a bit exaggerated, but I do have a couple of pieces, and I also have a couple of pieces of Vaseline glass, a product that similarly used uranium to color glass.  And for any other would-be collectors, I do want to note that the Fiestaware that is in production today doesn't use that glaze.  You have to look in antique shops.)


I did not think I would ever have a reason to revisit this subject, but yesterday's news featured an article about a school at which a hazmat emergency was declared because a student brought in a small sample of uranium-containing classical Fiestaware!  The first thing that has me scratching my head is that the student brought it in because they were demonstrating the use of a Geiger counter.  A Geiger counter needs a little radiation to show it's stuff!  Duh!  The second thing that struck me about this story is the profound ignorance that still surrounds anything with the "r word"--radiation.  


 People seem to be able to put other risks in perspective, but whether because of history, because it is invisible, or for any one of a number of other reasons I have heard, people do not seem to be able to understand even the basics of radiation.  This clearly is one factor that has dogged the nuclear power industry for its entire existence.


 I wish I had a magic answer to this dilemma, a way to educate people and to make them understand what they should fear and what they do not need to fear.  But it is clear that, as we continue to try to educate the public on the safety of  nuclear power plants, we need to keep in mind that we should be sure the educational tools cover things more basic than the nuclear power plants, in particular, the radiation from not only the nuclear plants, but from even such innocuous items as an antique orange plate.



Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Jill Biden's Title

I was as appalled as most people when I heard the news the other day about Joseph Epstein's opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal advising Jill Biden that she should not insist on being addressed as "Doctor."  Aside from the obvious fallacy of his argument--that a Ph.D. is not a real doctor--and aside from the clear sexism, it was a sad reminder of how slowly things change.


As a woman who holds an earned doctorate in engineering, I have had my share of experiences with people addressing me incorrectly.  In one memorable incident early in my career, a colleague and I were meeting with a client.  The client addressed me as Mrs. Marcus, but called my colleague Dr. Bxxx.  To my colleague's credit, he saw the irony of the situation--I had a doctorate, but he did not! 


And that is just one story. When I get together with my former classmates, we can share stories of such slights for hours on end.  Still, that was over a generation ago, and I truly thought we had moved on from those days.  


It is truly discouraging to discover that this kind of mindset is still prevalent, and that anyone has the gall to express such a viewpoint so publicly.  I can only hope that this affront to Doctor Jill Biden and the uproar that followed will end up being the trigger to true change.