Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nuclear Power after Fukushima:

New Directions?

At the end of each year, I like to take stock of the past year and to try to guess what it may mean for the year ahead. This year is a complex year for doing that. While there have been many good signs this year--the start of construction of the first UAE reactor, a variety of licensing actions in the U.S., and progress in several other countries--the year has, of course, been dominated by the accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Japan.

Much of the discussion so far has focused on what the implications of Fukushima are in the near term. I have been trying to read the tea leaves as to what the accident might mean for the longer term future of nuclear power--that is, after we have implemented any modifications to existing reactors and to reactors currently under construction or in the planning pipeline. I have written and spoken on this subject in several venues in the last few months. Most recently, an article I wrote for the ASME Mechanical Engineering journal on "Nuclear Power After Fukushima" was published. (I understand the link to the ASME website may not be maintained, so if clicking on the title fails to bring up the article, as an alternative, I have posted a PDF of the article on my personal website.)

While I have no reliable way to predict the future, I have seen repeated references to the fact that some of the more advanced designs now on the drawing board would not have been vulnerable to the main problems that plagued the Fukushima reactors. This has led me to believe that the accident could give additional impetus to what was already a growing interest in advanced reactor technologies and/or small modular reactor (SMR--also sometimes "small and medium reactor") designs.

Some of the characteristics that seem to be of particular relevance include the use of coolants other than water and the ability of some reactors to continue to be cooled by natural circulation. These two factors alone would make the long-term loss of cooling water and offsite power much less important, and could also allow siting away from tsunami--or flood--prone coastlines or river shorelines. (I mention non-water-cooled technologies only to illustrate a point, and note that there are water-cooled SMR design concepts that should also have less vulnerability to Fukushima-type events.)

On the other hand, of course, these reactors are still on the drawing board, and I am very mindful of Admiral Rickover's famous quote about paper reactors vs. real reactors. To paraphrase: a reactor (or, for that matter, any other complex technological device) that is still under development always looks perfect; it is when you start to build it that all the problems materialize. (But do look up the original quote--it's so much better!) Much more work remains to be done to demonstrate that the advanced reactors will perform as anticipated--and even more importantly, that we do not introduce new vulnerabilities. The Mechanical Engineering article discusses some of the issues in greater detail for those who are interested.

One interesting side note about the issue of the journal in which the article appears is that this is a special issue, and the topics for the articles in the issue were selected by "crowd sourcing." Using that process, the subject of advanced reactors was identified as one topic of reader interest. I was pleased to learn of that interest and to contribute my thoughts on the subject, and particularly on how the Fukushima events might shape the development of such designs.

With that, I'd like to wish everyone all the best for the New Year! See you back here next year!


Friday, December 23, 2011

The NRC in Happier Days:

My Personal Experience

As we continue to hear of the dysfunction within the NRC, some may wonder about how the agency has operated in the past. Indeed, so far, the only comparisons I have seen to the past are of other times when the agency did not work at its best. This tends to leave the impression that the agency's performance ranges from poor to miserable. That is not the case! Since I worked as a technical assistant to a Commissioner for 4-1/2 years in what, in retrospect, was a very good time, I thought it might be useful to recount how well the NRC can function.

I began working for Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers in late 1987, a few months after he became a Commissioner, and continued to work for him until mid-1992, around the time his first term ended. During that period, there were 3 different Chairmen:

• Lando Zech (chairman from 7/1/86 to 6/30/89),
• Kenneth Carr (chairman from 7/1/89-6/30/91), and
• Ivan Selin (chairman for his whole tenure, from 7/1/91 to 6/30/95).

Also during this time, there were a total of 5 other Commissioners:

• Tom Roberts (8/3/81 to 6/30/90),
• Fred Bernthal (8/4/83 to 6/30/88),
• Jim Curtiss (10/20/88 to 6/30/93),
• Forrest Remick (12/1/89 to 6/30/94), and
Gail de Planque (12/16/91 to 6/30/95).

(Official bios for all the past Commissioners can be found on the NRC website. The extra link to Commissioner de Planque was my tribute to her after her death last year.)

In a career that has included several jobs truly exceptional positions, I can honestly say that working in the office of an NRC Commissioner was one of the best jobs I've held. Part of this, of course, was because Commissioner Rogers was a great boss. But environment is also always important, and part of what made the job such fun was that the atmosphere among the Commissioners at the time was generally co-operative and respectful.

Looking back, I am almost amazed to recall how little party affiliation mattered in our day-to-day activities. I could go into the office of any of the other Commissioners and feel they were open and honest in sharing information and viewpoints. The Commissioners did not always vote the same way, but we did not have the number of 4-1 splits that we have recently seen. And when the Commissioners disagreed, it was not necessarily along party lines and there was no animosity. As a technical assistant, I spent a fair amount of my time working with the other offices to try to assure that we understood their viewpoints and they understood ours, and to look for ways, when possible, to accommodate all the critical interests. Even when we couldn't work everything out, the discussions were always based on solid technical grounds, and the interactions were always civil.

It is true that the atmosphere among the Commissioners has changed over time, and I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that I'm saying that everything used to be perfect. I think there was a time before I joined the Commission staff that things hadn't been as good. I know there was a time in the late 1990s when things deteriorated pretty badly. That history keeps coming up as a comparison to the present Commission. But most other times, and certainly most of the time between the late 1990s and the present Commission, my understanding is that the Commission functioned very much as I experienced it.

I do not know for sure what characteristics help lead to a co-operative Commission versus a dysfunctional one. During most of my tenure as a Commissioner's assistant, the Chairmen were ex-Admirals. Admirals clearly know how to lead and how to get people to work together for a common goal. That kind of background has to be helpful. Commissioner Rogers was a former university President. If anyone has to deal with a diverse assortment of individuals with strong views and a sense of independence, it is probably a university president. But other successful NRC Chairmen and Commissioners have come from diverse backgrounds.

So there is no one formula for success, and I would be hard put to be able to recommend how to "fix" the current problem. A commitment to change among the present Chairman and Commissioners may be enough to turn the tide. However, that will be difficult. There is clearly a lot of ill will to overcome, and it will be a long time before all the parties will really trust that any change will last.

My main concern at the moment is that the important work of the NRC not be compromised by the internal conflicts that have come to light among the present Commissioners. I hope that, whatever decisions are made, that is the foremost consideration.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nuclear Power History:

A Major Anniversary

Yesterday and today, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of the very biggest milestones in nuclear power history--the dates the EBR-I produced the first usable quantities of electricity ever generated from a nuclear fission reactor. I already noted this event in my blog on other December milestones in nuclear history, and many news items and blogs in the last 24 hours have been covering the milestone events of December 20 and 21, 1951.

To recap the events briefly, on December 20, 1951, the EBR-I was hooked up to a steam engine which was used to light four 200-watt light bulbs. The iconic photograph of the four light bulbs graces many a story of nuclear power history. Arguably, though, it is the event of the next day, December 21, 1951, that really launched nuclear power generation as a practical energy source--the reactor output was used to supply power to all the electrical equipment in the entire reactor building. While this achievement could not be captured in as convenient a visual image as could the four light bulbs, it truly raised the demonstration to a practical level.

In my mind, this transition to the realm of practical application is what makes today's anniversary such a big milestone in nuclear power history. The demonstration of the fission reaction at CP-1 at Stagg Field in 1942, the other milestone that looms large on the nuclear power landscape was, after all, "simply" proof of a scientific principle, not in itself a practical application. In fact, it had been spurred by a wartime effort to develop a weapon, and the earliest applications, as we all know, were weapons. A large infrastructure had been created in that process, but it had remained largely focused on military needs, and it operated largely in secret. The generation of electricity by a nuclear reactor 60 years ago this week first opened the door to civilian applications.

But we should not forget all the developments that took place between 1942 and 1951. A number of small reactors of different types were built and operated in an all-out research effort, and multiple enrichment and reprocessing technologies were tested.

I have already spoken of some of these other milestones in my book, Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development and in other blog posts. The purpose of raising the subject of history once again here is to remind readers of one of the most fascinating things I learned from writing that book--the EBR-I, important though it is, was not the first attempt of the nascent nuclear community to use, or to try to use, the new-found fission process for civilian applications.

There were, in fact, two important efforts that preceded the events at EBR-I, both of which took place at the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge. The first of these was the use, on August 2, 1946, of a nuclear fission reactor to generate radioisotopes for peaceful applications. The second was the generation of a very, very small amount of electricity from the reactor on September 3, 1948. It was just enough power to light a flashlight bulb, so did not have the practical significance of the EBR-I demonstration. Nevertheless, it was the first proof-of-principle of the use of a reactor to generate electricity.

(A third civilian development that preceded the EBR-I was the use of a reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory, sometime in 1951, to demonstrate the principle of boron-neutron capture therapy. However, this technology never achieved the practical use that radioisotope production and electricity generation achieved.)

The purpose of highlighting these earlier achievements is not intended in any way to diminish the significance of the EBR-I achievement. Rather, it is to point out how many people and institutions contributed to the early development of nuclear power, and the number of small steps--and missteps--that it took to get us where we are today. It is something to think about as we celebrate this important milestone in history.


Japanese Nuclear Regulation:

A Growing Chorus of Concern

[I am reposting this blog entry, which was originally posted about December 2, 2011, with apologies to those who have already read it. I just discovered that Blogspot somehow lost the original post, and further, that this material was posted on another site under someone else's name.]

I was pleased to receive a message a few days ago from a long-time Japanese friend, Professor Yoshiaki Oka, pointing me to an article he’d posted on ” Building a Mechanism for Regulation of Nuclear Power” in Japan.

I had seen Professor Oka in early November at the American Nuclear Society conference in Washington, DC, and I knew then that he was preparing some material on this issue. During the course of that meeting, he spoke to a number of conference attendees, including me, to discuss the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission operates and other related matters.

In my discussions over the past few months with Professor Oka, as well as with a number of other people in the Japanese nuclear establishment (both government and industry), it has become clear that the Fukushima accident had raised concerns about the way nuclear power was regulated in Japan. In a past blog, I had reported on the earliest expressions of concern I had seen emerging from Japan following the accident.

Now the chorus of voices seems to be growing. Professor Oka has written a very comprehensive and eloquent argument for profound change to the Japanese system. He has made a number of the same observations that I have discussed in previous blogs, fingering concerns such as the lack of technical expertise in the nuclear regulatory organization, and the influence of what he calls the highly integrated “nuclear power village” over the regulatory structure in Japan. He also points to the heavy reliance in Japan on the expertise of external groups, and contrasts that with the high level of technical expertise on the staff of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He has identified some 170 such external commissions!

Professor Oka notes that these characteristics are not unique to the nuclear power area. Rather, they are “deeply rooted” in Japanese culture and in the way the government-industry interface operates in all areas. As such, the kinds of change he is calling for will clearly be difficult. Nevertheless, he sees a compelling need to make such changes and, in particular, outlines some of the characteristics of the way the NRC operates that he would like to see adopted in Japan.

On a personal level, I was particularly pleased that Professor Oka cited the 5 NRC Principles of Good Regulation (independence, openness, effectiveness, transparency, and reliability) in his article. As I have previously noted in a blog on the history of the Principles of Good Regulation, when I worked for Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, he pressed NRC to adopt such a set of principles, and I was assigned to help develop them.

Professor Oka’s publication joins a growing number of experts in Japan and around the world who are looking at the broader issues arising from the accident and trying to address those issues. A recent news item reported that an independent commission looking into the accident is due to release its interim findings on December 26. The report aims to go beyond explaining how the accident happened. It is expected “to explore the social and historical background to how Japan reacted to the crisis and offer insights into how else the disaster could have been handled.” The hope is to start a national debate on how Japan should deal with nuclear technology. It is also noteworthy that the report will be reviewed prior to publication by a group of international experts. These include Dr. Richard Meserve, former chairman of the NRC and now president of Carnegie Institution.

While that report is not yet out, it is clear from the description that a significant focus will likely be on issues like Japanese nuclear power regulation. It is a hopeful sign to see that so many prominent experts appear to be identifying some of the same issues regarding the nuclear power enterprise in Japan. Although there is a large distance to be traveled between identifying a problem and solving it, widespread agreement on what the issues are is a very crucial step. Therefore, it is encouraging to hear the rising chorus of voices in Japan pointing to the same concerns.

[Regular readers of this blog may wish to know that I amended 2 recent posts that discussed the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency to add a mention of a review draft of a document I produced several years ago documenting the first 50 years of the history of that agency.]


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Energy and Wildlife:

A Complicated Relationship

This week has seen more than the usual number of news items about energy and the the animal kingdom, and I thought it would be fun to put them together.

The first and by far most unusual story comes from Japan, where wild monkeys are being outfitted with special collars containing radiation meters, GPS receivers, and data recorders to allow for more detailed data collection on the radiation levels from Fukushima fallout in remote mountainous and forested areas.

Take away message: Wildlife is helping assessing the impact of the Fukushima accident.

The second story is similar to ones I'd heard before. The cooling water from nuclear power plants has been beneficial to a number of species. In the past, most of the stories I'd heard were of species, like shrimp, that are food sources. But in this case, the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida has proved a haven for an endangered crocodile species. In particular, the cooling canals have been adopted by crocodiles as nesting sites, and Florida Power's management of its cooling canals has been credited with a significant rebound in the population of crocodiles in South Florida.

Take away message: Nuclear energy is helping wildlife.

The third story is not as cheerful. Again, it is not a new story. As the idea of wind power has captured the imagination of the public, stories have begun to emerge that wind turbines are detrimental to a lot of the airborne segment of the animal kingdom. While it's not new, the latest article I've read on the dangers of wind power to wildlife points out that new guidelines about to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could "create another challenge" for the wind industry.

Take away message: Wind energy and wildlife have a fraught relationship--wind turbines kill birds and bats, and rules to reduce these kills may hamper wind power development.

Perhaps my "take away" messages are an oversimplification. There are cases of fish being sucked up into the intakes of nuclear plant cooling systems and being killed, but there are, as noted, cases where the outlet water has supported aquaculture. I have heard of no such plus-minus for wind turbines. There are said to be some promising ways that wind farm operators can reduce fatalities, but they are still speculative. In the meantime, the role of the monkeys in assisting with radiation monitoring in Japan and the role of Turkey Point in helping rebuild the crocodile population in Florida are real.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Meltdown at NRC:

Contemplating the Outcome

This week, like so many others, I watched two important hearings: the hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the rift between the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, and the other four NRC Commissioners; and the hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which had been scheduled to address the NRC's task force report on the Fukushima accident, but which also ended up addressing the issues between the Commissioners.

Whatever anyone may think of any of these individuals, it is a sad day for the Commission and the nuclear industry that the situation has deteriorated to the level that the four Commissioners felt compelled to bring their concerns about the Chairman's leadership to the White House, and that the Congress had to hold hearings to air this topic.

I'm sure there will be many reports on this hearing, so I will not cover the hearing itself. Rather, in the last few days leading up to the hearing, I've observed that everyone in the nuclear industry has become a political pundit, so without analyzing every single claim, I will just try to list all the viewpoints circulating about the situation, the individuals involved, and what President Obama will/won't/should/shouldn't do in the wake of the revelations.

These comments come from private correspondence, private conversations, mainstream publications, and to some extent, from the hearings. Some of the statements are factual, some are opinions. Of the latter, I agree with some and disagree with others, but since I don't want to assume the mantle of political pundit myself, will offer only a few factual comments, and let the reader decide on the statements.

• Chairman Jaczko is way out of line and should step down or be forced down.

• Chairman Jaczko is the only Commissioner protecting the American public and should stay on as Chairman.

• The four Commissioners who sent a letter to the White House outlining their concerns are dragging their feet on safety and engaging in a witch hunt against Chairman Jaczko.

• The four Commissioners who sent a letter to the White House outlining their concerns are exposing a serious risk to public health and safety from the continued renegade actions of Chairman Jaczko.

• Sending a letter to the White House was a timid gesture. All four Commissioners should threaten President Obama that they will resign if Chairman Jaczko is not removed as Chairman immediately.

• The President should move Chairman Jaczko to a position in another agency and replace him with one of the current commissioners. [Note that the President can remove Jaczko as chairman, but cannot remove him as a commissioner.]

• Even if Chairman Jaczko were to leave the Commission altogether, in the current environment, it would be difficult for President Obama to get a nominee confirmed by the Senate for the vacant position. [Probably true.]

• All 5 commissioners have degrees in some field of physics or engineering and have previous experience working on various kinds of nuclear issues from different perspectives.

• Of the 5 commissioners, only Commissioners Magwood and Ostendorff have management experience.

• Of the 5 commissioners, only Commissioner Ostendorff has operated nuclear facilities.

• Commissioner Magwood is the leader of the "coup" against Chairman Jaczko. [In the Senate hearing, Commissioner Magwood said that he didn't know how that allegation had arisen.]

• Commissioner Magwood is the heir apparent for the chairmanship. [In the Senate hearing, Commissioner Magwood said that he had no designs on the chairmanship.]

• Environmental groups opposed Commissioner Magwood's original appointment because he has strong and long-standing ties with industry--including his previous employment and his close relationship with industry during his tenure at the DOE. [Commissioner Magwood denies having close ties with industry and points out that the work of the DOE office he headed is mainly focused on advanced nuclear technologies.]

• Commissioner Magwood worked as a consultant for TEPCO (licensee for the Fukushima plants) prior to joining the NRC. [This is true, but the last time I checked, the NRC doesn't license or oversee plants in Japan, so it's hard to see the relevance of this.]

• The President would not appoint a Republican as Chairman. [While it's not done frequently, the President certainly can appoint a Republican, and from time to time, Presidents do appoint individuals from the opposite party.]

• The President will not do anything until after the election because he doesn't want to lose the Nevada vote.

• The President will not remove Jaczko as Chairman because Senator Reid is making Jaczko's continued tenure as the NRC Chairman a condition for supporting President Obama's initiatives in the Senate.

• Since the Yucca Mountain issue is now off the table, removing the Chairman won't affect the Nevada vote.

• The President doesn't need the Nevada vote anyway.

• Things will be smoothed over for now and the status quo will be maintained, but things won't really change and there will be another flare up soon.

• The system is broken and can't be permitted to stay as it is.

If I've learned anything at all about politics from living "inside the Beltway" for lo, these many years, it is that decisions are often made for reasons that fall completely outside the sphere I follow. This decision may well be influenced by election politics, the situation in another agency, or any of a number of other considerations. Therefore, I will not venture my own guess. But I will be watching eagerly to see how this is handled, and how the Commission operates in the weeks and months ahead. And whether one or more of the above predictions come to pass.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nuclear Power Anniversaries:

Celebrating Many Milestones in December

Last Friday, December 2, Will Davis, who blogs at Atomic Power Review, reminded all of us that December 2 was a very important anniversary in the history of nuclear power. December 2, 1942, after all, was the date that controlled fission was first achieved at Chicago Pile 1. Will also noted the curious fact that December is a month with many other nuclear anniversaries as well. Indeed, I had noticed that myself when I was writing my book, "Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development," so I thought I might be able to add something to the story, even though I'm a few days late for the December 2 anniversary.

As Will notes, and as the ANS Nuclear Cafe also observes, the 3 events we probably cite the most in the development of nuclear power all occurred in December. In addition to CP-1, on December 2, 1942, the other key events include the first generation of usable quantities of electricity at the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 on December 20-21, 1951 (making this upcoming December 20 the 60th anniversary), and the start-up of Shippingport on December 28, 2957. Will's blog on the historical December events has some fascinating old illustrations of Shippingport and of Fermi-1.

What many people don't know, and what I discovered learned only in writing the book, was that there were a number of other important milestones that occurred in the month of December. The full list of early milestones profiled in the book that occurred in December (with the previously mentioned ones highlighted in red) are:

• December 2, 1942: First controlled nuclear fission (at CP-1 in Chicago)
• December 19, 1942: First demonstration of reprocessing (bismuth phosphate process at Oak Ridge)
• December 26, 1944: First industrial scale reprocessing (bismuth phosphate process at Hanford)
• December 25, 1946: First reactor outside North America (F-1 in the Soviet Union)
• December 1950: First "swimming pool" type reactor (Bulk Shielding Reactor at Oak Ridge)
• December 20-21, 1951: First generation of useful quantities of electricity (at EBR-1 in Idaho)
• December 3, 1956: First use of thorium in a reactor (BORAX-IV in Idaho)
• December 23, 1956: First purpose-built reactor to provide electricity for a site (EBWR at Argonne)
• December 18, 1957: First peaceful commercial reactor (Shippingport in Pennsylvania)
• December 20, 1957: First peaceful multinational project (Eurochemic for reprocessing, in Belgium)
• December 17, 1967, First electricity from a pebble bed reactor (AVR in West Germany)

Will also identifies the first criticality of the N.S. Savannah as being in December 1961. These are certainly not all of equal importance, and of course, there are important events that happened in other months of the year. Still, it is striking that so many key events took place in the waning days of the year. I do not know why this seems to be the case. Perhaps some conscious, or even unconscious, effort to reach certain goals before the year was out. Whatever the case, I would echo Will and others in recognizing that this month