Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rosalyn Yalow:

A Nuclear Pioneer

I was traveling when I learned of the death of Rosalyn Yalow, so this is my first opportunity to mention the passing of Rosalyn Yalow on May 30, 2011, and to pay tribute to someone I regard as a true nuclear pioneer. She is a pioneer not only for her professional contributions, but also because she succeeded in an era when women were largely barred from the laboratories and universities.

Perhaps the best account of her remarkable career is her own autobiography, written at the time she received her Nobel Prize in 1977. While her work had nothing to do with nuclear power plants, she made huge contributions to the use of radiation in medicine, so I feel it is appropriate to note her accomplishments in this blog. In particular, she was the co-developer of the radioimmunoassay technique, a technique that uses radioisotope tracing to measure various biological substances in human blood and in other fluids. This technique has been used in numerous medical areas, including among other things, diabetes research and screening of blood donors for hepatitis.

I feel privileged to have met Dr. Yalow in the early 1980s. I was, at the time, working for the Congressional Research Service (CRS). During that time, I covered a number of congressional hearings in areas of science and technology. Dr. Yalow testified at one of the hearings I had covered, and during a break, I was able to talk to her.

She was one of my role models, a Jewish woman and a civil servant--a rare combination in the upper echelons of the scientific community. And in this day and age, when civil servants are often vilified, she presented a stellar example of the kinds of contributions that a civil servant can make to the world.

My interaction with her confirmed something that I have observed a number of times--some of the most prominent people I know of, people who really have far more important things to do than to talk to me, often prove the nicest. With all that was going on in the hearing room, and all the other people clamoring to talk to her, she gave me a few minutes of her undivided attention.

Among other things, I just had to tell her that my mother was a Hunter College graduate, as Dr. Yalow was, and had attended college there at about the same time. I hoped one of the two of them would be able to tell me that their paths had crossed, but alas, neither of them remembered the other (and they were not in the same graduating class).

But their experiences bore some parallels. My mother started her college career interested in science, but decided that she would not be able to get a job in that field and turned to other areas. That was, at the time, the sane and sensible thing to do. Dr. Yalow took another path, one that at the time must have seemed risky at times. There have been many reports of the indignities she suffered early in her career, both as a woman and a Jew, and I won't repeat them here. Suffice it to say that the fact that she managed to overcome them seems nearly miraculous to me. When we won her Nobel Prize, I kind of wish someone had interviewed some of the people who belittled her and who shut her out and asked them what they thought now!

More relevant to me is that her persistence, and her success once some doors opened to her, helped clear the path for all the women who followed her into science and engineering careers. Even though her field was somewhat different, it was Dr. Yalow and women like her who helped make my own career possible, as well as the careers of many other women in the workforce today.

When we think of the women pioneers, we often go back to the very beginnings--to people like Marie Curie and Lise Meitner. We should not forget that obstacles remained for many years after them, obstacles that were slowly and painfully cleared by people like Dr. Yalow and many more whose names may not be household words.

So it is with special reverence that I mourn Rosalyn Yalow's passing, and honor her for her contributions, both to science and to female scientists everywhere.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Nuclear Regulation:

Finding the Right Balance

The recent focus on nuclear reactor regulation, both in Japan and in the US, is a reminder of just how difficult it is to find the right balance. As the Japanese now move toward their stated goal of changing their regulatory system, they should be reminded by events in the US and elsewhere that this is only the first step in a continuing process. If they need no other evidence, they can look to the recent NRC meeting on the preliminary findings of the post-Fukushima review of their own regulation of US plants.

Indeed, the role of the regulator is often an uneasy one. Those against a technology or enterprise will always feel that the regulators are not exercising enough oversight, and those in favor of it will always feel that the regulators are exercising too much oversight. One of the most educational experiences I had in my 14 years at NRC was a meeting--I have forgotten the topic--at which the industry and its opponents could agree on only one thing: that the NRC was doing it all wrong!

At the time, my temptation was to conclude that, if the parties at both extremes were unhappy with us, and for opposite reasons, maybe we were doing just the right thing! Of course, once I enunciated that theory, someone pointed out that this conclusion did not necessarily follow from the evidence, and I have since been very careful about making such statements.

However, the observation that NRC is usually a convenient target for all sides of an issue is one that has recurred repeatedly in the years since that meeting. Perhaps it is usually not so dramatic as when all parties were in the same room, but nevertheless, on issue after issue, I will read one article that claims that the NRC is soft on industry, while another claims, with equal fervor, that the NRC is regulating nuclear power to death.

The other age-old problem of regulation that we have discovered time and again is that fixing one thing sometimes exacerbates another. There are a number of examples from the annals of nuclear regulation, and I'm sure some of my readers have their favorites. Perhaps one of the easiest for a lay person to understand is that making access to portions of the plant more difficult to improve security may also make it more difficult for people to move around the plant in case of an emergency.

Thus, more is not always better in regulatory space, and one of the perennial problems of regulation is to continually refine regulation in the light of new evidence. In fact, the balance exists on several planes. One is the balance between different regulatory objectives (such as the security vs. emergency access situations noted above). Another is the balance between absolute safety and practicality. A quote I once read said that the only absolutely safe vehicle is one that has so many safety features that it is too heavy to move. So it is with nuclear power plants. The trick is to find the right mix of features that provide the necessary assurance of safety and still allow the vehicle to operate.

Regulation must also continue to evolve. It is tempting to say that, after so many years of nuclear power plant operation, we should have figured everything out. However, nuclear plants operate in a world that isn't static. As noted, sometimes we make a change in the plants that have unexpected consequences. Other times, things outside the plant change. 9/11 is perhaps the biggest external change agent we have faced in recent years, but there have been others.

So perhaps the biggest message for the Japanese government is that changing the regulatory system, while a necessary step, will not alone solve the problem.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Replacing Nuclear Power:

And Other Fantasies

Individuals who are anti-nuclear or just plain afraid of nuclear have long harbored the illusion that existing nuclear power is easy to replace. "Just build more solar arrays," I have heard, or "Just put up more windmills." Few are aware of how long it takes to build any new capacity in substantial quantities.

While individuals can, perhaps, be forgiven for not being able to "do the math" and figure out what is really involved in substituting for a substantial fraction of a nation's electricity supply, it is more troubling when countries start subscribing to the same myths, as several countries have done in the last couple of weeks.

Not surprisingly, given its history, Germany has led the way. "We'll just build more renewable energy sources and improve the grid," the government has said. Switzerland soon followed. Grudgingly, the governments are acknowledging that their move in this direction means that they will burn more fossil fuels, at least in the near future.

Actually, it will probably mean that they will build more fossil fuels for quite some time, as they are acknowledging that the shutdown of nuclear plants will require new fossil fuel capacity. It is hard to see them building new fossil-fueled power plants for just a few years of operation. Therefore, the first casualty of the German and Swiss decision is the effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

What Germany and Switzerland are not acknowledging is that they will actually not cut their effective use of nuclear power by very much. One advantage of the interconnected European grid is that they can draw on power produced by their neighbors. This allows them to self-righteously proclaim that they are leading the world to a newer, greener nirvana, while they conveniently block out the fact that their neighbors produce much of the electricity by means of nuclear power plants.

As an aside, I should say that I'm not completely sure that France and other neighbor countries can make up for the loss of this much nuclear power without having some negative effects for their own country. So, the second casualty of the German and Swiss decision may be some larger geopolitical consequences.

In any event, Japan doesn't have the luxury of drawing electricity from neighboring countries. Being an island, it is not interconnected to other sources of supply, nuclear or non-nuclear. Therefore, despite the magnitude of the accident, it is surprising and troubling to hear some people in Japan speculate that they may not restart reactors as they shut down for routine maintenance, and that all of Japan's reactors could be closed a year from now. While this may be an extreme view, even the less extreme views seem to be disconnected with reality.

It is true that there is a lot of local opposition to nuclear power at the moment, and the concern of the public is understandable. However, Japan is already suffering power shortages with the plants that are currently shut down. And it isn't even the height of summer there yet.

Even before the accident, Japan had a tight power supply by Western standards. Of course, I know that Americans use more energy than other industrialized nations, and that other countries maintain a standard of living similar to ours with a lower per capita energy expenditure. Still, having lived in both Japan and France, I can say from personal experience that not only are homes smaller in Japan than elsewhere, but the supply of electricity per household is also smaller.

Therefore, I am disappointed to see Japan appearing to retreat from reality. Germany and Switzerland may be able to survive with their heads in the sand, while others feed their thirst for electricity, but Japan has no such options. So a consequence of the directions Japan is beginning to take may have severe consequences on the Japanese economy.

In short, the rosy optimism countries seem to have that they will "just" replace nuclear power with other sources of electricity is likely to have some serious negative consequences, both within their own borders and around the world.