Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nuclear Internships for Students:

A Word to the WISE

A reader contacted me recently and told me he was a nuclear engineering student seeking advice on summer internships. Instead of replying privately, I thought this subject might make a good column, and perhaps that others might weigh in and offer suggestions beyond what I can offer.

First of all, I'd like to take this opportunity to make a pitch for students to use at least one summer during their college years to try to learn something about public policy in the science and engineering area. Everything in nuclear energy is profoundly affected by decisions made in Washington, DC and in state capitals around the country, yet very few policy makers have any training in science or engineering, and very few scientists and engineers are willing to engage in the public policy debate.

Over the years, I've tried to do my small part to change this equation. One activity in which I was personally involved for a long time is called the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering--or WISE. In this program, outstanding engineering students are selected to spend 9 weeks in Washington, DC during the summer to learn how government officials make decisions on complex technological issues and how engineers can contribute to legislative and regulatory public policy decisions.

The WISE program has been ranked by the Princeton Review as one of the best student internship opportunities in the US (although I couldn't find it on their current website). The program is sponsored by a number of engineering societies, and I'm proud to say that ANS has consistently been a strong supporter, sponsoring two students each year. The students select a topic, meet with government and other officials to gather ideas on the legislative and regulatory issues associated with that topic, and prepare a paper on it. Some of them have had their papers published. In addition, they participate in a series of talks by various government officials on a wide range of science policy topics.

Unfortunately for the student who wrote to me, it appears from the WISE website that the deadline for applications for 2012 has recently passed. I do not know if there would be any latitude for the coming year. Anyone interested would have to inquire, but I suspect the WISE group will be reluctant to make an exception, as they are probably already reviewing the applications they have received. Therefore, the WISE program is probably more of an opportunity for students to consider for 2013. I should note that most students participating in the WISE program are rising seniors, but exceptions have occasionally been made to that rule.

Of course, there are many other summer internships in science policy available in Washington. Many government agencies and congressional offices accept students for short term programs in the summer. Arrangements would have to be made either through a student's congressional representatives (for a Capitol Hill experience) or with the specific agency of interest. A number of universities have their own programs designed to expose science and engineering students to the Washington public policy arena and even offer academic credit for the experience. Some state governments also have opportunities for students to serve in internships.

I have been focusing on internships in the science policy area, but for students who want to stick to more traditional engineering experiences, many companies in the nuclear industry offer students opportunities for summer positions. These opportunities are specific to each company, and would need to be explored individually with each company.

I would welcome comments on this blog from readers who can recommend other internship opportunities to the student who raised this question.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Radiation from Fossil Fuels:

The Forgotten Problem

Given the widespread concern about the risk of radiation exposure from nuclear power plants--which those of us in the field know is very low--I have always been amused (if that is the right word) by the fact that routine emissions from coal plants expose the public to far greater doses of radiation than nuclear power plants do.

Therefore, as "fracking" has become a focus of attention, I've been even more amused (again, if this is the right word) by reports about "fracking" and radioactive emissions. It seems that fracking, a procedure designed to help extract more natural gas from formations containing natural gas, has now been identified with increased releases of radioactive emissions.

I guess I question whether amused is the right word because the whole situation isn't really funny. First, we need all the energy sources available to us. I do not believe that it will help the US and the world to try to tear down coal or natural gas for their radioactive emissions. Second, the news suggests that we have been putting our attention and our resources in the wrong place. (Surprise, surprise.)

We can probably address the problems of radioactive emissions from coal and natural gas, but not if we are misdirecting resources at lesser problems.

This news illustrates once again how very complicated the tradeoffs are between different energy resources, and identifies the need to begin to look at the energy sphere from the broadest possible perspective.


Friday, January 6, 2012

Nuclear Power and the Press:

Getting it Right vs. Making a Splash

Last year (actually a couple of months ago), someone shared an article on a Columbia Journalism Review critique of an Associated Press article on possible cancer risks from Fukushima. The review points out that the article gets the facts right, but spins the message. For example, the title of the article is "Future cancers from Fukushima plant may be hidden." The first line of the article says, "Even if the worst nuclear accident in 25 years leads to many people developing cancer, we may never find out."

So, not only may people get cancer from Fukushima, we won't even know they are getting cancer from Fukushima. Scary, right? The CJR review continues by saying that is just the point. The article itself refutes the title, citing one expert saying, "The cancer risk may be absent...," another as saying that the 2 million residents of Fukushima Prefecture probably got too little radiation to have a noticeable effect on cancer rates, and yet a third who said that, from what he'd seen, nobody in Fukushima except for some plant workers has been exposed to harmful levels of radiation.

OK, I'm cherry picking here, too, as several quotes talk about risk levels too small to detect--and that is where the authors have picked up their headline. However, my very point is that the headline and the lead-in to the article don't promote the idea that the cancer risk may be very low or even non-existent. Rather, they just say it will be "hidden." That actually sounds more ominous than a specific, but small, number. By contrast, as I read the quotes, I would probably have titled the article "Few if any cancers expected from Fukushima accident." But that wouldn't sell newspapers. And that is probably why I went into engineering, and not journalism.

But the story reminded me of several other news items I'd come across in the same vein--that is, articles that slant the coverage in one way or another. The Nuclear Energy Institute did a great analysis of a series in the Associated Press a few months ago on safety at US nuclear power plants. (It should be noted that the CJR, at NEI's request, looked into that series. While it largely agreed with NEI's criticism of the reporting, it also critiqued NEI's response.)

Some more specific examples, especially of headlines, are also of interest. For example, Reuters came out with a story at around that same time on the post-Fukushima review of the nuclear reactors in France. The title of the Reuters article was "France needs to upgrade all nuclear reactors." The first paragraph of the article states that the head of the French nuclear safety agency [IRSN] said that France "needs to upgrade the protection of vital functions in all its nuclear reactors to avoid a disaster in the event of a natural calamity," but goes on to say--in that first paragraph--that there is no need to close any plants. Other media that picked up this story entitled it "Are all of France's nuclear power plants unsafe?" and in their first paragraphs, stated (without citing a source) that French nuclear power plants are "unsafe and need a massive overhaul."

For the final example I want to highlight today, it is Reuters that goes for the sensational title. In this case, it is a report on the release of a draft of the International Energy Agency's 2011 World Energy Outlook. The title reads "Exclusive: IEA draft: Nuclear to fall as power demand." I'd say that sounds like a prediction, right? Reading the article, we see that this was the low nuclear case, and there is a specific quote in the report that the low nuclear case is not a forecast but "is intended to illustrate what a pessimistic view of the prospects for the nuclear power industry might entail."

I also note that the IEA later slammed the press for jumping to publish its story based on a partial draft that IEA said had been revised and updated, and its own press release when the report was later published makes it clear that this was intended to illustrate the significant consequences of a major reduction in the use of nuclear energy. In fact, the primary scenario shows a significant growth in nuclear power, even with the consequences of the Fukushima accident factored in. The WEO-2011 report is available for purchase from IAE, but a very good summary has been posted on-line by the World Nuclear Association. Furthermore, in the wake of the publication of the report, the IAE has been vocal on the need for nuclear power, both in general and for specific countries such as Japan.

All the above is not intended as a rant against journalism, or against hard-hitting reporting. However, I do feel justified in complaining about one-sided reporting, or about misleading reporting. I realize that a sensational headline sells newspapers (or whatever media is being used), and that we are unlikely to see these kinds of practices ending anytime soon. Nevertheless, just as the press ideally helps keep our institutions honest, I feel a duty to call the press out when it is less than completely honest.