Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nuclear Paranoia:

Same Words, Different Take

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that some commentators are speaking the same language I speak. A recent op-ed criticizes the choice of former Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly by President Obama to head a new independent commission on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. As I read the article, I could see some of his points, but most of what he highlights in his efforts to prove how bad these individuals were struck me in just the opposite way.

Let's see:

• "Both Graham and Reilly have records that show each possesses some level of interest in confronting environmental issues." So, this is bad?

• In February 1991, Graham said, " There are no black-and white courses in a national energy policy...Every option has both assets and liabilities." Something we should all keep in mind, IMHO.

• In November 1990, Graham said that America "was too reliant on petroleum as our source of energy." Duh.

• In 2004, the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP), which Reilly co-chairs, "released a report that called for the expansion of energy technologies to keep up with requirements for 'substantially increased quantities' of energy over the next twenty years and address the challenges that 'climate change' presented teh energy stakeholders and those with the power to create and influence energy policy." Horrors!

• And back in March 1989, Reilly was involved in writing an EPA report that "said that if one wanted to help slow the warming of the atmosphere, one needed to drive a small car that was able to get 40 miles per gallon, pay a higher tax on coal and oil, plant lots of new trees, and finally, give up opposition to new nuclear power plants." Aha! That's the problem. He said the N-word.

To be fair, the author of the article, Kevin Gosztola, peppers the entire article with his criticism of Graham's and Reilly's support for nuclear power. He seems to see fear that they will use their appointments to this commission to push a pro-nuclear agenda.

But who would Mr. Gosztola want to see in these positions? Someone from the oil industry? Someone who knows nothing about energy at all? Only someone who is fixated on renewable resources?

Gosztola's concerns smack of a bit of paranoia to me. Anyone who is pro-nuclear has to be bad, even if all other indicators suggest otherwise.

I read the same quotes (as well as others pertaining specifically to oil and gas that I didn't include here) and came to just the opposite conclusion. To me, these backgrounds reflect the fact that Graham and Reilly are knowledgeable about energy matters, appropriately critical of the oil and gas industry, and rational about what kinds of measures are possible and reasonable. I think that bodes well for the work of the commission.

Further, as I understand the purpose of the Commission, their mandate will be to propose ways to prevent such disasters from happening again. Given our current need for oil and gas, it would be very hard to see them say that the only safe oil field is one that is closed. Rather, I suspect that they will suggest a mix of technological, regulatory and other measures that will lessen the likelihood that such a disaster could ever happen again.

As I noted in my previous post, they may draw on the experiences of the nuclear industry to identify these measures, but that hardly means that the nuclear industry will benefit directly.

Even if the recommendations of the commission result in reduced oil and gas production in the near term, it is not the role of this commission to propose alternative energy technologies. That will be determined in other ways. Therefore, even if one were to assume that they have reasons to promote nuclear power, this is the wrong commission for that purpose.

I should mention that Gosztola also claims these individuals have conflicts of interest. He particularly cites Graham's receiving PAC money from the nuclear industry, investing in companies with nuclear interests, and investing in Halliburton. For the reasons above, I don't see the nuclear PAC money or the nuclear investments as being an issue for his service on this commission. The Halliburton issue could be a different story, but can be resolved by his divesting his interests. It is a common problem that comes up in government appointments.

In closing, I note that Gosztola criticizes another quote of Graham's, cited in the Washington Times on March 18, 2001: "Nuclear power is not a magic bullet, but it should also not be a poison pill." Is this a wild-eyed proponent of nuclear power?

I read the same words and come to a completely different conclusion.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Setting an Example:

Once Again, Nuclear Power is Used as Model

I could not help but be struck the other day by calls for a "Three Mile Island" type of investigation of the BP oil spill, such as a recent op-ed in the Florida Times-Union. The calls for this action note that the TMI investigation led to the current regulatory regime for nuclear power, and suggest that this type of regulation might be what is needed for the oil industry. The statements refer both to the extent and depth of NRC's regulatory oversight, and to the model of independent regulation that the NRC provides, as contrasted with the reports about the Minerals Management Service (MMS). The emergence and role of the industry's Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) are also noted.

This is not the first time that analytic methodologies, regulatory approaches, procedures, or other measures that have been developed for nuclear power have been applied to non-nuclear issues and problems. To highlight just a couple with which I am personally familiar:

Probabilistic Risk/Safety Assessment: I do not profess to be an expert on the history of PRA/PSA. Undoubtedly, people assessed the risks of other technologies before Prof. Norm Rasmussen and his colleagues began their highly systematic studies of the risks, and the probabilities of these risks, for nuclear power operations. What is clear, is that the Rasmussen approach to studying and analyzing risks was more systematic and comprehensive than earlier work in other fields, that it was further developed and refined within the nuclear industry in the years since WASH-1400 was first published, and that it has since become a model for other complex technologies. I know this latter point for a fact. I briefed NASA on PRA while I was at NRC, and I am aware of the use of PRA in the airline industry, at the Department of Veteran's Affairs, and elsewhere, and of growing interest in seeing the use of PRA in other applications, such as telecommunications.

Emergency Evacuation Procedures: As we all know, there are explicit requirements for emergency evacuation procedures around nuclear power plants. Such procedures, however, do not necessarily exist for other industrial hazards. There have been cases where a toxic chemical spill has occurred on a highway within the Emergency Planning Zone for a nuclear power plant, and the emergency procedures that had been developed for the plant (and never used for that purpose) were actually activated for the toxic spill.

One could point to many other examples as well--in training, procedures-writing, preventive maintenance, and other areas--where the rigor of the approach in the nuclear field has been adopted, at least in part, in other areas.

It is not difficult to see why this is the case. Nuclear power was probably the first major, complex technology to develop under such close public scrutiny and in an era where safety concerns with other technologies were beginning to be recognized.

While every technology since the taming of fire has carried some risk, previously, it was only the benefits of new technologies that were widely recognized and discussed. It is amusing to read old papers that laud the new-fangled automobile, which was expected to reduce the (ahem) pollution on city streets from horses. No one ever projected in those days that the growth of the automobile would lead to other pollution and other problems.

By contrast, from its earliest days, nuclear power was recognized as a resource of great promise and possibility, but also one that carried significant risks if not built and operated to a very high standard. As a result, the standards of performance in the nuclear field have always been higher than those for most other disciplines. Little by little, it has come to be recognized that some of those standards are helpful in other areas as well.

I am in no position to judge the MMS or any of the specific details of the BP oil spill. Nevertheless, it is clear that this accident will spell substantial changes for offshore oil drilling, and perhaps for other aspects of the oil industry as well.

While it is easy for people in the nuclear field to see the BP oil spill as a chance to point out the hazards of other technologies, I do not see this as a time for gloating. The truth is that we need a continued supply of oil, so the problems revealed by the spill need to be stopped up every bit as much as the spill does. The positive message for nuclear power in all of this is the perception in many quarters that the nuclear power industry is the industry that is doing things right.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Small Modular Reactors:

Is Small Beautiful?--Time Will Tell

The buzz word of the year in the nuclear industry seems to be "small reactors." Having been involved in discussions of small reactors since my DOE days, I am both pleased and concerned about the hype.

I am pleased because I think there are some real potential advantages to small reactors, particularly for remote and small-grid applications. Potential advantages have also been cited for some larger-scale applications, including the ability to limit the capital requirements by building units incrementally, the ability to refuel one module at a multi-module site without shutting down the whole site, and (depending on the technology), some possible safety advantages.

However, I am concerned lest we expect too much of a technology that hasn't yet been proven. I was therefore pleased to see a reasonably balanced, albeit all to brief, discussion on "Downsizing Nuclear Power Plants," in the latest issue of IEEE Spectrum. I was also glad to see my grad school classmate, Andy Kadak, quoted prominently. The article outlines some of the well-known advantages of small, modular reactors (SMRs), but emphasizes that the installation costs may be as much as, or even more than, those of larger reactors. The advantages may lie more in the savings in financing costs if the plants can be built faster than in differences in the actual capital cost. There is also the fact that the utility's outlay per plant is smaller, so the utility is less likely to have to "bet the company" on the commitment to build.

The article was not intended to be encyclopedic on small reactors, so I cannot fault them, but their discussion of some of the available technologies was brief and incomplete. It should be noted that the designs mentioned vary from those that may indeed be close to "shovel ready" to those that still require significant development. While there are some small reactor proposals that rely on the technologies we know the best, and could conceivably be built soon, most of the design concepts are very different than existing reactors, raising the possibility of many unknowns that could slow or derail progress. At a minimum, the time needed for their development and deployment is clearer considerably greater. In addition, the more innovative small reactor designs will also raise new regulatory issues to be dealt with by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so licensing the first of these may not be a quick or easy process.

None of this is meant to throw cold water on the idea of SMRs. I am a big believer in diversity of energy supply for many reasons. I think the future energy mix could well involve both large and small SMRs. But I always worry when the newest idea takes on the trappings of being the "silver bullet." This is true whether that newest idea is fusion, carbon sequestration, renewables, smart grids--or, among reactor technologies, small modular reactors.

Therefore, within the nuclear community, I worry a little that SMRs are beginning to dominate the dialogue. I do not think the proponents necessarily intend it, but the general public sometimes doesn't hear all the nuances, and wants to turn immediately to building the better mousetrap, not realizing that the better design is still a paper reactor. (Sorry for the mix of metaphors here, from silver bullets to mousetraps, to paper reactors.)

The solution to this situation is not to let uncertainty stop us, but to assure that we don't start cutting off other options in anticipation that we have found the silver bullet.