Monday, June 28, 2010

Greenhouse Gases and the Ozone Layer:

A Lesson for the Future

Recent reports about environmental problems caused by chemicals introduced in the 1990s to protect the ozone layer struck me as having a message for those of us in the energy business .

The ozone issue relates to the hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that replaced the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) once used in aerosol spray cans, air conditioners, and refrigerators. Over the years since they were introduced, they have been found to have several problems.

First, HCFCs may break down in the atomosphere to form oxalic acid, one of the components of acid rain. (The Wikimedia photograph accompanying this posting shows trees damaged by acid rain.) Second, they themselves are greenhouse gases, and are much more potent than carbon dioxide as greenhouse gases. (Articles report they are 4,500 times more potent.)

So why am I commenting on this issue in a blog that is focused on energy in general, and nuclear energy in particular?

I write about this because it is yet another example of our failure to understand fully the implications of any new chemical or technology before we implement it on a large scale. I write about this because it sounds a lot like dumping chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico to disperse oil without fully understanding the environmental effects of these chemicals. I write about this because I continue to find reports of unexpected effects from the so-called benign, environmentally-friendly, renewable solar and wind energy sources.

I am not saying that we should not have replaced CFCs with HCFCs, and I'm not saying that we should have waited for the perfect solution before we did anything. When this change was made, I'm not sure how much people understood about greenhouse gases.

I am just observing that, as we try to correct one problem, we often end up creating another. It sometimes seems that we treat Planet Earth as one large science experiment. I would hope that we can step back and learn from mistakes like these. While we may never be able to anticipate every consequence of a new technology or activity, one would hope that we would learn to analyze things more thoroughly, and perhaps implement new measures differently than we have in the past.

Now that the world is struggling to reduce greenhouse gases, I have to wonder how much the HCFCs have contributed and how much harder the problems of the energy industry are because of them and how much the greenhouse gas reduction measures being developed are considering this component of the problem.

This brings me to the most important reason to comment on this issue in a nuclear blog. I see lessons that can transferred to other fields from the nuclear field. First, there is the use probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) in the nuclear field. PRA has forced engineers to think systematically about possible sequences of events that can lead to accidents. Second, there are measures like defense in depth in nuclear reactors. While chemicals in the environment are very different than systems in a reactor, it seems to me that some greater diversity of solutions might have reduced the unexpected negative consequences of HCFCs.

Recently, the Gulf oil spill has had people commenting on how the oil industry could benefit by adopting measures from the nuclear field. It appears that the nuclear field may have useful models in other cases as well.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The ANS Conference:

Lots to Think About

I'm a little late reporting on the American Nuclear Society conference, which took place June 13-17 in San Diego, but I have been trying to synthesize in my mind some of my many observations during the course of the meeting, and I only now feel I can add something to the reports that have already been written.

In the first place, the meeting appeared to be very successful. Strikingly, although the economy is still in the doldrums, the meeting attendance was up--very much so for a summer meeting, which usually draws a smaller crowd than the winter meetings. More than 1400 people attended. Although I could not get statistics, I was also struck by the number of non-US attendees. Again, there are usually more foreign attendees at the fall meeting, particularly every other year when the fall meeting is in Washington, DC.

There are several possible reasons for this, one of which may be the renewed interest in nuclear power. Companies that haven't sent people in the recent past may be re-engaging. Another factor might have been the fact that additional people were drawn to the meeting by the three "embedded topicals" held simultaneously with the meeting. The three were: the International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants (ICAPP); Second International Meeting on the Safety and Technology of Nuclear Hydrogen Production, Control and Management (ST-NH2); and Nuclear Fuels and Structural Materials for the Next Generation Nuclear Reactors. The international nature of these meetings may also have contributed to the high number of non-US attendees.

The number of simultaneous conferences, of course, made for many competing sessions, and the only downside was that it was sometimes difficult for me to hear everything I wanted to hear. I necessarily had to be selective, and although I heard from others about sessions I missed, my report reflects what I was able to see and hear firsthand.

The opening plenary was a good kickoff for the conference, with talks by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, Dick Stratford from the Department of State, Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marv Fertel, Hitachi-GE President Masaharu Hanyuu, and Ross Ridenoure of Southern Cal Edison.

I was particularly interested that both Marv and Ross offered very thoughtful cautions about the potential entry of so many new nations to nuclear power. While the idea of more nations having nuclear power seems attractive in some respects, Marv cautioned that there is a need to assure that new entrants have the competence to operate nuclear power safely, and Ross wondered about the ability of the grids in some smaller countries to support nuclear power. Small reactors would seem to be a large part of the answer to that, but turning again to Marv's comments, he indicated that he saw a definite role for such reactors in the future, but he noted that all reactors look good on paper, and hoped that the small reactor community would learn from the mistakes of the large reactors. Another interesting observation offered by Marv is that no technologies are completely proliferation resistant. We need both good technologies and institutional controls.

There was much more to the session, of course, including a lively Q&A exchange on the new NRC-commissioned study by the National Academy of Sciences on the effects of radiation around nuclear power facilities, and a very comprehensive summary by Dick Stratford of the status of the various nuclear agreements between the US and other countries, and the reasons behind the approaches taken, the reasons some agreements have moved or stalled, etc. It was a fascinating look into international diplomacy.

I would be remiss if I did not conclude my discussion of the opening plenary by congratulating Dick Stratford on receiving the Smyth award at this meeting. (The Smyth Award is the highest recognition given jointly by ANS and NEI. Its recipient must have international stature in a broad area of the nuclear energy field and must have made significant contributions toward the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.) Marv Fertel presented the award to Dick, and in his acceptance of the award, Dick noted that his former boss and mentor, Dick Kennedy, had received the same award in 1998, but in Dick Kennedy's case, the award was made posthumously. Dick Stratford opined that he was very glad that his award wasn't posthumous!

In other sessions, one thing that was notable to me were that a number of presentations were made by people looking at the role of nuclear energy in a broader context. These included looks at the implications of very large-scale energy storage to allow nuclear power to meet peak loads by Professor Charlie Forsberg of MIT and two of his students (Isaiah Oloyede and You Ho Lee), and an interesting proposal by Cal Abel, a student at Georgia Tech, to replace coal-fired plants with nuclear plants, but to maintain the coal--and rail--industries by converting coal to natural gas to replace imported petroleum for transportation needs.

In addition, there were many talks that covered advanced reactor technologies, both large and small, and both water-moderated and other. In addition to talks from the developers of some of these technologies, there were some more general discussions of regulatory issues and the like. Still other talks that I attended addressed issues of financing or issues associated with the national strategies of particular nations, including potential new entrants such as Jordan. Rather than trying to offer a complete synopsis of sessions I attended (which would only be a subset of the meeting anyway), I hope to bring in further comments and insights as appropriate when I address particular subjects in the future.

My own small role in the meeting was to organize and chair a plenary session in the embedded topical on nuclear hydrogen covering some of the nuclear hydrogen programs around the world. In opening the session, I had to observe that, when we organized a similar session at the meeting in Boston 3 years ago, I had six countries and IAEA represented. At this meeting, I had only 3 countries and IAEA in the program (and due to a last minute health problem, the speaker from China could not attend). The 3 countries who did not participate this time were South Africa, France and Russia. The three countries who were on the program were all in Asia (Japan, Korea and China), and the two who were present both reported slowdowns of their activities.

Thus, as always, different activities proceed at different rates. The good news is that in most cases, the slowdowns appear to be temporary. In some cases, they may be related to belt-tightening by governments, and in other cases, they seem to be a pause to take stock and possibly redirect focus. Whether the slowdowns will stretch out, I cannot guess at this point, but given the current interest in nuclear power on other fronts, nuclear hydrogen efforts could well be reinvigorated in the months ahead.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Nuclear Waste Disposal:

A Tall Order for the Blue Ribbon Commission

Although I have heard many comments about what the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste disposal should cover, I have heard fewer comments about how it should do its work. I was therefore very interested in a recent article by Iain Murray on the latter subject. Although I don't necessarily agree with some of his general observations on global warming or on the public perception of solar and wind, I think he has given a very good account of how the consultation process, particularly with local communities, has helped in other countries.

His article reinforces what I have seen as the basis for apparent success of the Finnish and Swedish approaches to siting waste facilities. I was further interested in his report of the finding of the British review that citizen panels and school projects came to different conclusions about geologic disposal than did the stakeholder groups, which he indicated were dominated by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. While we all know that Greenpeace, FOE and others are very active and vocal participants in stakeholder activities, I do not think many decision-makers fully understand that such voices do not necessarily represent the views of local residents or others. It therefore only reinforces my conviction that the process that the US uses to reach a new decision on disposal of nuclear waste has to emphasize this type of engagement.

I also note that Iain Murray mentioned that the Commission should "explore the feasibility of reviving the Yucca Mountain project." While that will be very contentious politically, it would give added credibility to the Commission's efforts if it can address Yucca Mountain, as it would help demonstrate that the Commission's review was comprehensive.

Clearly, the Blue-Ribbon Commission has its work cut out, but it would make a good start by heeding the lessons of history, both good and bad, so that we do not simply repeat the mistakes of the past.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

International Energy Outlook 2010:

What's the Word for Nuclear?

Last Tuesday, the DOE Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its 2010 International Energy Outlook (IEO). I was fortunate to be in an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC that morning, where Deputy Adminstrator Howard Gruenspecht of the EIA gave a briefing on the IEO.

Some of the key findings have already been reported by the press. Most notably, worldwide, the EIA is forecasting an increase in energy consumption of 49% between 2007 and 2035. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming fraction of the increases (84%) will be in the non-OECD countries. Also of interest is the confirmation that the recession has dampened energy demand in the near term. As the world (hopefully) moves out of this recession period, the EIA is seeing that the pace of recovery in China and India exceeds that of Japan and European Union member countries.

Much of the study discusses the conventional fossil fuel resources (coal, oil and gas) as well as unconventional fossil fuels (coal to liquid, gas to liquid, oil sands and oil shale). However, news that has not been as widely reported is the IEO findings on nuclear. Most noteworthy is that the projection for nuclear electricity generation in 2030 is 9% higher than the projection published in last year's IEO.

As many long-term watchers of the EIA will recall, it has long had a reputation of being skeptical, at best, when it came to assessing the prospects of nuclear power. I can well recall, during my tenure in DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, meeting with the top management of EIA (at that time) to tell them why we thought their assessment of nuclear power was unduly negative. Although they listened politely, I'm not sure we ever changed their thinking. It is therefore very encouraging to me to see a 9% increase in their projections in just one year.

I should point out what most readers of this post will know, or will guess--that most of this increase is in Asia.

It is important to keep in mind that EIA makes its projections based on existing laws and regulations, not on projected ones. Thus, even President Obama's recent call for higher fuel efficiencies of heavy vehicles would not be incorporated into this study. (In addition, that particular announcement also probably came as the study was being completed.)

For those who are interested in reading and understanding the details of the study, the whole report is available for downloading from the EIA website.