Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Public Opinion:

Growing Public Support for Nuclear Power Increasingly Recognized

I normally don't like to post a message simply to report a news item in the major media, but I had to sit up and take notice at a front page story in the Washington Post this morning noting the growing public support for nuclear power plants around the world. While we in the nuclear field have been seeing this trend for some time now, it has been piecemeal, and the change in attitude has been less apparent to the general public. I can't even count how many times in recent years I've had a conversation with someone that starts with them indicating that they think there is no interest in nuclear power or nothing happening in the field. I then recount the countries that are building new plants, the countries that are thinking about starting nuclear power programs, and the new programs and activities in the United States. With this article hitting the front page of a major newspaper, I hope that I won't have to do that as much from now on!

One caution to anyone using the article. It is probably apparent, but in case you haven't looked closely, the table showing number of nuclear power plants and percentage of electricity from nuclear power includes only OECD countries. It omits several countries with a large number of nuclear power plants, including China, India, and Russia, and a number of other countries with smaller numbers of plants.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

ANS Conference:

New Energy for Nuclear Energy

I've now had a day or two to reflect on the recent American Nuclear Society Winter meeting held in Washington DC last week. If the meeting was any indication, there is certainly new energy in the air for nuclear power. The conference, as those who have ever attended an ANS conference will know, sometimes seems like a three-ring circus, with multiple parallel sessions, industry exhibits, a raft of committee meetings for those involved in governance, and many friends and acquaintances to catch up with. No one person can capture all that goes on in the conference, and indeed, after every meeting, I eagerly await the issue of Nuclear News a couple of months later that summarizes some of the sessions I was unable to attend.

So rather than report the nitty-gritty from those sessions I chose to attend, I'll restrict myself to some general observations that I think suggest the changes I see happening:

• First, and perhaps most obviously, the attendance at the meeting was up. The final number of registrants was just over 1600, almost double the attendance at the beginning of this decade, if my memory serves me right.

• Not incidentally, the number of exhibitors has increased substantially. I spoke to the exhibit coordinator, and he said the available space was virtually sold out. I also asked some of the exhibitors how the show was going for them, and everyone I spoke to seemed pleased.

• The Young Generation-Nuclear group has continued to gain in numbers and level of activity. A major initiative at this meeting was a day of visits to Capitol Hill on the last day of the meeting. I attended the kickoff for this event, and was pleased to see the turnout and the enthusiasm. One of my initiatives when I was ANS president had been to try to encourage more of this kind of grassroots activity among the membership, and I am glad to see that more members now see the value of this kind of activity.

• Perhaps the most interesting development came at the very beginning of the meeting. I was surprised to see that the final program showed 1) such a long list of speakers, and 2) so many prominent speakers. No fewer than 10 speakers were listed. Three of them were very high level government officials: NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, DOE Secretary Steven Chu (via video), and DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, Warren F. "Pete" Miller. Three were current Members of Congress: Senators Jeff Bingaman and Lamar Alexander, and Representative James E. Clyburn. One was a former Member of Congress, Senator Pete V. Domenici. There were also three non-government speakers: Michael "Mike" J. Wallace (Vice Chairman and COO, Constellation Energy), and the General Co-Chairs of the conference, Carl Rau (President, Bechtel Nuclear Power) and Mark H. Ayers (President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO).

As an old Washington hand, I just knew that among all these high-level people, there would be some no-shows. In Washington, when you invite speakers of that ilk, you must always be prepared for the unexpected crisis that will pull your speaker away. I assumed that was why the organizers had so many "extra" names.

How wrong I was. Not only did every one of these speakers show up, one additional Senator showed up! Senator Jim Webb joined Senator Lamar Alexander in announcing that they were introducing bipartisan legislation on that day, "The Clean Energy Act of 2009," to invest in nuclear energy development. I do not know how if such major legislation has been rolled out at an ANS conference before, but I know that it hasn't happened often.

My second concern had been that, if all the speakers showed up, we might be there through lunch, but once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Every one of the 11 speakers kept to the time, and we finished the opening plenary on schedule. Kudos to all the speakers and organizers for that almost unprecedented performance!

The meeting, of course, covered much, much more, but suffice it to say that, from the opening plenary session, to the exhibit hall, to the buzz in the hallways of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, the mood of the ANS conference has changed. As someone said in one session, "A few years ago, we were talking about decommissioning. Now the talk is focusing on new nuclear power plants."


A Nuclear Song Revisited:

Lyrics to "Neutron Doodle"
By Request

I'm pleased to see that news of the posting of the song "Neutron Doodle" on YouTube, mentioned in my November 14 posting, has spread. As a result of a posting on Rod Adams' blog, Atomic Insights, one of his readers requested that the lyrics of the song be posted. I'm happy to do so. (ANS members may find the lyrics to all the contest songs, as well as MP3 audio downloads, on the ANS Song Contest page.)

Neutron Doodle
John McCoy (First Place)
"The atom's indivisible"
So said some physics factions
Bold Lise Meitner said "Not so!"
And wrote of chain reactions.

Want to split a nucleus?
Neutrons sure are dandy.
Mind the criticality
And keep some boron handy.

Enrico Fermi went to work;
He built a graphite pile.
The source of energy he found
Will last for quite awhile.

When you need 'lectricity
Uranium is dandy
When the fossil fuels run out
It's sure to come in handy.

The atom helps preserve our food;
It sterilizes suture,
Kills cancer cells. Who can say what
It will do in the future?

In medicine and industry
Radiation's handy,
In smoke detectors that are found
In homes throughout the land-y.

Utilities built lots of plants;
They light the homes of millions.
Tons of pollutants they've forestalled?
Why, that must run to billions!

For cleaning up the atmosphere
Nuclear is dandy!
It can bring us true blue skies
With clouds like cotton candy.

Accidents dealt us a blow
It's sad to tell the story.
But someday soon we'll build again
And rise to greater glory.

Everyone needs energy;
Nuclear is dandy.
Save, clean and affordable,
It's sure to come in handy.

Energy for great and small,
That's what the atom can bring.
We'll work until we reach that goal,
And on that we'll all sing:

Nuclear! It's everywhere!
Nuclear! It's dandy!
Working all around the world
For folks in every land-y.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Congress and Nuclear Power:

A View from the Hill

I recently attended a very interesting and entertaining ANS Washington DC local section lecture by Matthew Milazzo on his experiences as an ANS Congressional Fellow this year. The experience led me to think that this blog might be a good place to plug the value of such an experience--to the individual involved, to the US Congress, and to the entire nuclear enterprise.

I was initially inclined to skip the lecture. After all, I had other things to do that day, and furthermore, I had worked on the Hill myself, so I wondered if what he had to say would seem "old hat" to me.

I couldn't have been more wrong about the latter. It helped, of course, that Matt was an entertaining speaker and had interesting visuals. It helped even more that he was a keen observer and had a true--and current--insider's view. Matt works for a Senator. I had worked for Congressional Research Service, a little known branch of the Library of Congress. In that capacity, we served all the Members of Congress and all the Committees--House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, senior members and junior members. While that gave me a very broad view of what was going on, I didn't normally have "inside" access to any office. Matt does. Furthermore, my experience was some time ago. While not too much has changed about the way Congress works, at least a little bit has changed. In part, for me, the talk reminded me of old memories of my days on the Hill, but in part, it gave me yet another take on the intricacies of this institution.

But most of all, Matt's remarks reminded me of the sense I felt, when I worked on the Hill, that more engineers ought to work in public policy in general, and for Congress in particular. It is a well-known fact that very few members of Congress are scientists or engineers. It is a little less known, but still true, that very few of their staff members are scientists or engineers. And yet, it is the members of Congress, supported by their staffers, who make all the decisions on technical issues that affect the technical community--and that affect the entire country. It is the Congress that sets the budgets for Federally-funded research and development. It is the Congress that sets the policies that guide energy use and climate change.

For these reasons, the Congress desperately needs people with technical knowledge. It is true that Congress gets inputs and advice from many sources. The nuclear industry, just like every other industry, has a significant lobbying effort to get their voice heard on the Hill. Congress frequently invites experts from industry and the national laboratories to testify in hearings. Technical people write letters. And Congressional Research Service, where I used to work, has a cadre of experts available to answer questions and provide analyses for all Members of Congress.

That is not enough. It is really helpful to have people in the congressional offices, helping the Members of Congress with their day-to-day work. It is also helpful to have more scientists and engineers who really, really understand how the political process works and how to get things done.

Fortunately, some of the Representatives and Senators who have been most engaged in technical issues have hired staff members with technical backgrounds. The staffs of the technically-oriented committees also include people with technical backgrounds.

These staff members are still a small minority, and in my opinion, a fraction of the number of technical staff Congress really needs. Matt is helping to fill that gap through his participation in a one-year fellowship sponsored by the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and coordinated with a program run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This program is supported by about 30 professional societies, covering the spectrum of technical interests, and includes an orientation on the intricacies of congressional and government activities, as well as placement in a congressional office. The professional societies provide financial support for the assignment (although it has been my experience that some employers believe the experience is so valuable that they may voluntarily make up any difference between the fellowship stipend and the employee's normal salary).

Individuals who participate in this program have an opportunity to contribute to the legislative process, and gain an understanding of the process that is often helpful to them for the remainder of their careers, as well as helpful to their professions. As Matt's very entertaining presentation showed, it isn't always an easy assignment, but it is an important one. I'd like to encourage people who are curious about such an assignment to look at Matt's presentation on the ANS Washington, DC Section website (as of this writing, it has not been posted, but soon should be).

For those who are interested, AAAS provides a general discussion of their Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program. However, each professional society administers its own program. The ANS program is called the Glenn T. Seaborg Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship. The ANS Fellow for the coming year has already been selected, but it is not too soon to be thinking ahead for 2011. I should close by noting that nuclear professionals with backgrounds in other engineering disciplines, such as mechanical or civil engineering, may qualify for fellowships from those societies as well.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Nuclear Song:

The Saga of a Song

I am pleased and proud to announce the posting of the song, "Neutron Doodle," on YouTube.

"Neutron Doodle" is the brainchild of Kevin McCoy of Areva and his musical group "Tritium." It was the winning song in a contest I organized for the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in 2002, during my term as president of the Society.

Credit for the idea of doing this actually belongs to my husband. He had noted many times that, in 1941, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bonneville Power Administration commissioned Woody Guthrie to write songs in support of building dams that could produce affordable electricity for millions of people. Perhaps the most famous of these songs was "Roll on Columbia."

Documentary about Woody Guthrie and BPA

Why, my husband kept asking me, doesn't the nuclear industry get some famous singer to help promote nuclear power? Why didn't I try to do something. I had the usual array of excuses, and for a long time, that was the end of that.

When I was elected president of ANS, I thought I saw my opportunity. I didn't have any connections with famous singers, but I thought I'd take another Woody Guthrie song, "This Land is Your Land," and tweak it a little bit to say "These Plants are Your Plants." It was a good idea, but I didn't have copyright authorization to use my lyrics and Woody Guthrie's music together, so couldn't perform the song publicly.

On to Plan B. I asked ANS to arrange a contest among the members to write an original song, or to write lyrics for a song whose music was in the public domain. I was pleased and surprised at the amount of talent and interest displayed by the members. I convened a committee, and they selected Kevin's song from among several outstanding submittals. The lyrics of all the songs (including "These Plants are Your Plants") and MP3s of the contest songs are on the ANS website. (This link is available to ANS members only.)

Recently, with the advent of new technology, others have also had the idea that songs and videos can help to spread the message about nuclear power. As a result, I contacted Kevin and he agreed to post his song on YouTube. I encourage everyone to log in to YouTube and watch the video. I think you'll agree he did an outstanding job. I also encourage anyone with the talent and interest to write and post their own songs.

Note added subsequent to publication of this post: In response to a request, I posted the lyrics to Neutron Doodle on November 21, but I later realized that it may be difficult to find the posting without a link, so this postscript provides the link.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gas Pipelines:

Update and Correction to a Past Blog

It has recently come to my attention that some information I quoted from a briefing I attended may be wrong. On October 20, 2009, I reported that a speaker had indicated that the steel required for a gas pipeline from Canada to the US would require more than a year's worldwide supply of steel. The speaker did not provide the analysis supporting this, and I must confess that I do not know much about pipelines and I did not try to reproduce the number myself. I have now learned that another blogger and his readers have analyzed the statement and found it to be wrong.

The statement and my uncritical acceptance of it points out what I believe to be a major problem we are all facing in discussing energy alternatives. The issues are numerous and very broad, so no one is an expert in all areas, and it is too easy to rely on someone on the basis of position or reputation. I regret if my quoting of the statement has misled anyone, and hope that, by referring you to the other blog that I can correct whatever damage has been done.

I will redouble my efforts to try to check the facts before I post something in the future--or, if I am unable to do so, at least to ask my readers if they can confirm or counter anything I report. One hope I have for this blog is that, by putting our collective heads together, we can come up with the real truth behind the assertions we hear for various technologies.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Irradiated Cheese:

Cheese and Nuclear Energy

I don't know why it is that I keep coming back to cheese as a theme, when the overall topic is nuclear energy. (See my previous essay for the JANUS series in this blog or on the JANUS website.) Maybe it's because I like cheese. Whatever the reason, a recent article from MIT called "Against the Common Gouda," discusses some concerns of cheese-makers about US rules on cheese production. This article reminded me of a past initiative of mine. Although it is not about nuclear power per se, and although it was unsuccessful at the time, it is probably of interest to the same community, and it may be time to raise the issue again.

The issue, for those who may not be familiar with it, is that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that either pasteurized milk be used for cheese made and sold in the US, or that cheese made from unpasteurized milk be aged for at least 60 days before it can be sold. The concern is that cheese that is unpasteurized and not aged can carry a bacteria known as listeria that can cause illness in humans.

By contrast, some other countries do not require either pasteurization or aging of their cheeses. In particular, France does not have these requirements, and I think most people would agree that, when it comes to cheeses, the French know their stuff. Those of you who have lived or traveled in France know that there are a number of soft, fresh cheeses that are either not available here--or if they are, the pasteurization required here has made them a shadow of what they could be.

Now, in the first place, one can question the need for the rigid US rules. In the three years I lived there, during which time I had the pleasure of eating many fresh cheeses, I did not see reports of massive illness due to the consumption of unpasteurized cheeses. In fact, I didn't see any reports of illnesses. The French--and as the MIT article relates, many artisanal cheese makers in the US--believe that careful attention to cleaning of the equipment used in cheese making makes the process safe and hygienic.

Furthermore, the small population that may be particularly susceptible are taught the risks and behave accordingly. Female friends in France told me that pregnant women in France know that they are not supposed to eat unpasteurized cheese. The entire population is not denied because the cheeses may present more of a risk to pregnant women. Just as Americans are not denied access to wine just because pregnant women should limit their consumption of wine.

But where, you might ask, does nuclear energy come in to this picture? Well, the listeria can also be killed by irradiation. So, to paraphrase a famous quote, pregnant women could have their unpasteurized cheese and eat it. However, the same FDA that doesn't allow the sale of unpasteurized/unaged cheeses also does not permit cheese to be irradiated.

About 10 years ago, when I was president of the American Nuclear Society, I tried mightily to address this issue. I hoped to serve irradiated, unpasteurized/unaged cheese at one of our receptions. First, I had to confirm that irradiation would not change the taste or texture of the cheese. For that, I enlisted the help of some friends in France, who had some cheese irradiated and convened a small group of experts to taste the cheese. Alas, I could not join them! However, they reported to me that they felt the irradiated cheese had the same taste and texture as the unirradiated cheese. So, there was success on the French side.

However, when I turned to the FDA to seek permission to import the cheese, I was rebuffed. I initially requested just a one-time exemption, knowing that a full rule change would take more time. Even that was rebuffed. I then turned to Congressman Joe Barton, who had an interest in this issue. He and his staff made heroic efforts to get the FDA to change its position, but to no avail.

That was 10 years ago. Perhaps now, with the increasing interest in artisanal production of foods, the situation might be different. The MIT article didn't mention irradiation as a possibility at all. In fact, I might imagine that small-scale farmers and cheese makers might initially be turned off by the idea, as it might seem counter to their idea of more "natural" food.

However, the use of irradiation would address a lot of concerns: What if all producers do not consistently maintain the high level of cleanliness required? What if we do not manage to educate all pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems? Irradiating fresh cheeses can address those concerns, and open the US market to a broader and more interesting array of cheeses. As one who misses some of the cheeses I ate in France, I would like to encourage all those involved to reconsider the use of irradiation for cheese.