As Halloween approaches, I inevitably start thinking about scary things. Things that are scary to other people--and things that are scary to me.
I am well aware that nuclear power is scary to a lot of people. They think of the bomb. They think of the movie, "The China Syndrome." They think of Chernobyl. Or, they think about all the hype they've heard over the years about accidents, and radiation, and frogs with two heads.
I don't find nuclear power scary. I chalk that up to my education, experience, and a good dose of common sense. However, I have my own fears, fears that I think are justified:
I am scared when I think of about the possibility of global warming and some of the problems it can cause the world. I understand that the effects won't be uniform, and that some may even benefit, but I have heard enough about the potential changes to severe weather phenomena, water availability, crop production, and the spread of some diseases to worry about a future in which global warming is unchecked. I have been to the Maldives and seen a whole country that could be submerged.
I am scared when I see everyone pointing the finger at everyone else, as that will quickly lead us to inaction. True, the developed world is responsible for most of the past CO2 emissions, so they bear some greater responsibility. However, 97% of the future increase in CO2 emissions is expected to be from developing countries, so they have a significant responsibility as well. Their commitments might be different from those of the developing world, but should be no less binding.
I am scared when I think about the fact that fear and ignorance may cause our nation and the world to make foolish or shortsighted decisions, and that these decisions will force unwanted and unnecessary hardships upon us and upon future generations. I am scared of a future where bad decisions made today will cost us the comforts and conveniences we enjoy today.
I am scared when I see blind faith that some technology has all the answers, even when the evidence is already mounting that no single technology has all the answers. I am scared when people insist that there is "an answer," when my technical training makes it very clear to me that there is no simple or easy answer. When people say the answer is wind, even though wind doesn't blow all the time, or the answer is solar, even though the best places for solar plants is far from people, or the answer is biomass, even when that requires cutting down forests.
I am scared when I see unreasoning objections to other technologies. I am scared that some people cannot conceive of accepting nuclear power under any circumstances. When they cannot face their fears and learn the facts. When they cannot understand what is being done today and what can be done in the future to assure nuclear power plant safety and security. When they cannot accept the fact that nuclear power can help assure adequate energy for the world at a minimal environmental cost.
(And just for the record, I understand that some of the shortcomings of wind and solar and biomass can also be addressed by advanced technologies or other innovative methods. My fear is that this is not widely recognized, and that we are turning to these technologies as some sort of of panacea. My fear is that we aren't being realistic about what they can and cannot achieve. My fear is that society thinks it can discard a proven technology for an unproven one.) So, on October 31, when the little ghosts and goblins and witches and werewolves ring my doorbell, I will be worrying about the dialogue that is going on today about global warming and about energy alternatives, and wondering about what kind of future we are building for them.
I recently attended a very interesting talk by Marvin Fertel, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. The presentation was to an audience of Washington, DC-area local section members of the American Nuclear Society and covered a broad range of topics of interest to the nuclear community. Working in the world of politics as he does, he brings to his thinking a realistic, pragmatic perspective that is often missing elsewhere.
Perhaps his most important take-home messages to me were the difficulties of introducing any new energy technology on a large scale, and the fact that the "friends" and "enemies" in the nuclear business do not fall into neat slots. Both of these are observations I've made myself, but he had some facts that were new to me.
First, he pointed out that all new technologies require substantial changes in infrastructure to realize the often optimistic projections. The vision of an electric automobile in every garage, for example, is dampened by the reality that many more transformers would be needed on suburban electrical grids. Taking carbon emissions from coal plants and sequestering them somewhere requires pipelines. He made the sobering observation that it will take 30-40 years to make any large-scale changes in our energy sector. If we have only 10 years before we reach the tipping point for climate change, he observed, we out to be talking about adaptation strategies rather than about mitigation.
Taken in this light, it is not surprising that he also recognizes that there are limits to the rate at which we can build new nuclear power plants. He didn't go into detail on all the limitations, but we've heard them before--licensing, competing demands for commodities like steel (see my blog dated ...), manufacturing capability, skilled workers on site, etc. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that we can ramp up reasonably quickly to create a substantial new-build program in the United States. He sees a ramp-up period in the next 8 years in which 4 to 7 new plants could be built, but by 2030, believes there could be 45 new plants on line in the United States, with at least an equal number in the pipeline.
Mr. Fertel also spoke about the perceived Democratic-Republican party split on the nuclear issue. He feels that the issue of climate change is not a partisan one, and he sees growing support for nuclear power in the public arena and in the Administration. He pointed out some recent positive actions by the Obama Administration, such as "fixing" the loan guarantee program, which the previous Administration had not done. And in fact, shortly after the meeting, the nuclear community saw further evidence of the Administration's views on this issue when Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that he will push for billions of dollars in new loan guarantee authority for new nuclear power plants.
Mr. Fertel's slides are available on the ANS Washington-DC Section website. They contain some other interesting background. He also made some other interesting observations, which I hope to bring into future posts.
Sometimes, to hear the stark projections, you might think that nuclear power plants are the only energy systems that will require large amounts of construction materials, or that have limited numbers of suppliers. Since most of us focus more on one technology than on another, we may not be aware that other technologies have real needs, too.
I attended a very interesting presentation at the Canadian Embassy recently by Jason Tolland, Counsellor for Environment and Energy at the Embassy. The audience was a group of MIT alumna/ae and the topic was the Canadian-US energy relationship. Naturally, there was considerable discussion of Canada as a significant source of uranium, particularly for the US. But the majority of the discussion covered Canada’s role as a source of oil and gas. Since this was an area that was less familiar to me, I learned a number of interesting facts from his talk. The facts emphasized to me that the supply issues associated with nuclear power also exist for other technologies.
Perhaps the two most important takeaway points were the following:
• Liquified natural gas (LNG), considered an attractive source of energy for some applications, requires storage in large tanks. To my surprise, I learned that there are only two companies in the world that can supply the tanks. That sounds an awful lot like the case for large reactor pressure vessels, doesn’t it?
• Even more surprisingly, to me, is what he told us about the planned 1220 kilometer MacKenzie natural gas pipeline from the Northwest Territories. He noted that the total steel requirement for that pipeline would exceed the annual world production of steel. Of course, it wouldn't be built in one year, but that's still a staggering amount of steel, and is bound to have an impact on availability and prices of steel for other purposes.
Although natural gas is a fossil fuel, its greenhouse gas emissions are considerably less than those of coal or oil, so natural gas and LNG can be expected to be used in the future at least as much as they are at present, and most likely, more, as we transition to lower-emitting fuels. Therefore, the demands of these options should be of interest to all of us. Of course, as I expect to be the case for reactor pressure vessels, one would hope that rising demand would spur an increase in supply. Nevertheless, there is certainly a potential, both for the growth of these energy sources to be slowed, and, more importantly, for them to have impacts on other energy supply technologies—and indeed, on any large construction needs.
One further comment from Jason Tolland is of interest, particularly for the nuclear community. When he showed graphs of the energy sources for electricity supply, he noted that Canada considered that most of its electricity was produced using renewable resources. He commented that, unlike the United States, when Canada uses the term renewables, they include nuclear power and hydroelectricity.
It has been observed many times that nuclear scientists and engineers do not necessarily connect well with the public in conveying facts about nuclear power. From time to time, we are told that more emotion is needed, not less. More passion, not passivity.
While I am personally more persuaded by facts than by flashy presentations, I can understand the point. The average person who hears someone like me who carefully qualifies all her statements to make sure they are absolutely correct may come away hearing the caveats and not the conviction. They want to hear “safe” or “unsafe,” not “safe enough.” Not “safe if built and operated properly.” Not “safe compared to coal.”
The concern about how nuclear power is viewed was raised again at the recent World Nuclear Association annual symposium by Alain Michel, who has had a distinguished career in Belgonucleaire. He has raised the idea that a TV series with a nuclear power plant as a backdrop might make nuclear power seem more familiar to everyone. He draws an analogy to currently the popular Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) series on crime solving. Another similar area might be those series focused on solving medical problems.
While the idea seems intriguing, there is a fundamental difference between these series and anything I could envision that would involve nuclear power plants. In crime series investigations, the protagonists are solving an incident that happened outside their community. In medical series, the protagonists are fighting a disease, also something from the outside. Occasionally, a segment will show the protagonists fighting to fix a mistake made by one of their own—a cop gone bad, or a doctor or nurse who inadvertently helps spread a disease. But that is the exception to the rule. The policemen and the doctors are usually the knights in shining armor saving members of the public, or at least getting them justice.
It is hard for me to see a series with nuclear as the backdrop operating the same way. True, scientists and engineers could be the knights in shining armor that save the day when there is a problem. However, wouldn’t the setting for the show have to have a serious incident every week to fuel the drama? If so, what would that do to the perception of nuclear safety? And since many, if not most, incidents and accidents have a human element as part of the causal chain, would we simply have nuclear engineers who are villains (wittingly or unwittingly) versus nuclear engineers who wear white hats? So wouldn’t half the engineers and scientists look like bad guys?
It should not be forgotten that most of the dramatic presentations that have used a nuclear power plant as a backdrop—or as the main element—have showed nuclear power in a bad light. “The China Syndrome” is the most famous example. “The Simpsons” may not have made nuclear power into evil incarnate, but they certainly portrayed nuclear power plant employees as bumbling idiots.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see a series portraying nuclear power in a positive way. I know lots of people in the industry who I think are knights in shining armor, who bring the world advances in nuclear medicine, nuclear power, and other applications. But their work seldom involves high drama. You don’t really have a child dying in a hospital bed while nuclear scientists develop and deliver a new radioisotope on the spot. Even if you manage to make one episode based on that premise (I must confess that, with most of the world’s radioisotope production shut down, you could possibly have one episode along those lines), it would not be something that could be repeated weekly. In nuclear power plants, it seems to me that the dramatic possibilities are even more limited.
I’d be happy to learn that I’m missing something, and that there could be a dramatic series based in a nuclear facility that did not scare the public more than it educated them. I’d be interested in any thoughts on how Alain Michel’s goals could be accomplished.
Some of the points they make are valid and have been recognized by others in recent years. The demand for energy is increasing rapidly worldwide, and many projections show that, even with very aggressive nuclear construction programs, it will be difficult to maintain the nuclear proportion of the total energy supply. The article mentions concerns about supply chain constraints, workforce issues, and the international financial crisis. These are all real issues. Some, such as supply chain and workforce, are being addressed. Others, such as the financial crisis, will surely have an impact on nuclear construction—as they will on other large industrial projects.
However, some of the statements in the article are problematical and undercut their own arguments. For example, it notes that the difficulty of maintaining, or even increasing, the number of nuclear power plants is substantially reduced if operating lifetimes could be significantly increased beyond 40 years, on average, but concludes that there is currently no basis for such an assumption.
That’s funny. The NRC has licensed more than half of the operating nuclear plants in the US for an additional 20 years beyond the 40-year period of the initial license, and continues to receive and process applications for most of the remaining US nuclear power plants. Furthermore, they are beginning to discuss the possibility of a second license extension. While this concept is still in its early stages, it makes it clear that the negativism about operating lifetimes is exaggerated.
The article also mentions some of the difficulties of implementing nuclear power in countries that do not yet have it. Again, anyone would acknowledge that there are substantial hurdles for such countries to overcome. However, the article does not acknowledge all the options that may be available. For example, it cites grid capacity as a potential issue for some countries. That is very true for a large plant (of any type), but there are some promising technologies for smaller reactors currently being developed. The article also mentions issues specific to individual countries. In most cases, these are not insurmountable obstacles.
In addition, the article does not mention a number of positive trends, such as the aggressive nuclear construction programs in India and China (although the report covers construction projects).
As that famous philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said, “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” I know I quote him all too often, but it is true, and it is difficult to say it better. The nuclear renaissance may be slowed by the recession and nuclear power may not be achieved in every country now thinking about it. However, the fact that the road ahead is difficult doesn’t mean it is impassable.
The report should be viewed as a warning of some of the challenges ahead, not as a prophecy.
Dr. Gail H. Marcus is an independent consultant on nuclear power technology and policy. She previously worked as Deputy Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris; Principal Deputy Director of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology; in various positions at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); and as Assistant Chief of the Science Policy Research Division at the Congressional Research Service. Dr. Marcus spent a year in Japan as Visiting Professor in the Research Laboratory for Nuclear Reactors, Tokyo Institute of Technology, and five months at Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Dr. Marcus has served as President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and as Chair of the Engineering Section of AAAS. She also served on the National Research Council Committee on the Future Needs of Nuclear Engineering Education. She is a Fellow of the ANS and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Marcus has an S.B. and S.M. in Physics, and an Sc.D. in Nuclear Engineering from MIT. She is the first woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering in the United States.
Ordering Information for Nuclear Firsts
Winner of ASME Engineer-Historian Award 2013
See my chapter on nuclear power (#22) in this new book