Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The View of Nuclear Power:

 Voices of Reason

[I start by saying that Blogger seems to have changed their whole template for preparing posts, so I have no idea at the moment whether this is going to look at all like my previous posts--or for that matter, whether it will get lost in cyberspace.  Please bear with me as I figure out the new order of things.]

The last couple of days have brought several news items, letters to the editor, and editorials that continue to give me hope that many people are viewing energy options in general, and nuclear power in particular, from a balanced perspective.  That is, they recognize that no energy source is perfect, that nuclear power continues to fill an important niche (baseload power with very little greenhouse gas emissions) that cannot be met by other energy sources, and that we cannot make sudden, radical changes in our energy mix.  

The two items that most emphasized this for me were an editorial on April 23, 2012, in the Washington Post, and a report that some environmental groups are now disappointed in the path Germany seems to be taking to replace the electricity from the nuclear power plants they have shut already shut down, as well as the ones they plan to shut down.

The Washington Post editorial is particularly important, in my view.  It raises the question of why we would think about phasing out a clean energy source.  It provides a very nicely argued analysis of the difficulties Japan and Germany are facing by the de facto current shutdown of nuclear plants in Japan, and the deliberate permanent shutdowns--and plans for more--in Germany.  It ends by addressing a concern an argument that is sometimes made that we will be able to move more quickly to renewable energy sources if we abandon nuclear power.  The Post argues that this is not the case, and that, in fact, we can only meet our emissions targets if we keep the nuclear power plants running.

This is not the first time in recent history that I have cited a Washington Post editorial in this blog.  The last time was when I wrote about the plan for offshore windmills for the State of Maryland.  This, of course, was an issue that would affect my pocketbook directly, so I was particularly glad to see the Post come out against selecting one technology "winner."  Their position on nuclear power is consistent with their position on the government not picking winners.  They are not saying we should favor nuclear power above other energy sources--in fact, they specifically see a potentially promising future for both nuclear power and renewables.  They are equally against the government taking actions that would favor one technology, or that would result arbitrarily and prematurely removing the option to use another technology.

Just a few days earlier, I had picked up an article noting that environmentalists are now concerned that Germany's retreat from nuclear power has increased greenhouse gas emissions.  This article is one of several I have read reporting that Germany's greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise following their phaseout decision, and that their energy plans call for the construction of more fossil-fuel power plants.  And, of course, as those of us in the nuclear field have recognized for some time, that they are relying more on nuclear power from neighboring countries.

I should hasten to note that the article does not conclude that perhaps Germany's decision on nuclear power was ill-advised.  It does indicate that some believe this situation is transitional and that Germany will eventually replace the lost nuclear capacity with renewables.  I am sure that Germany will continue to push renewables.  However, as a practical matter, once new fossil fuel capacity is built, it may be difficult to justify shutting it down in a few years, so I think the situation they have created will set back their greenhouse gas reduction goals for a long time.

All in all, I see these two articles as further signals of the growing recognition that energy supply is a complex and multi-faceted issue, and that abruptly or arbitrarily eliminating a critical source of energy has serious downsides.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

World Nuclear Association:

Changing of the Guard

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) just made an announcement of a pair of very important leadership changes: Tim Gitzel, the CEO and president of Cameco, has just assumed the chairmanship of the WNA, replacing Chris Crane, the president and COO of Exelon (who will continue on as vice-chair); and John Ritch, the Director-General of WNA for more than 10 years, will retire from that position this year.

Since I've gotten to know John Ritch in my last two positions, I will devote the rest of this post to discussing some of his contributions and accomplishments over the past dozen or so years I have known him. I must leave it to others to comment on the change in the chairmanship.

John has had a very distinguished career, first on the staff of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he specialized in East-West relations and nuclear arms control, then as the U.S. Ambassador to United Nations organizations in Vienna, Austria, which include the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and finally, in his present position as the Director-General of the WNA.

I got to know John after I joined the Nuclear Energy office of the U.S. DOE, which was towards the end of his 7-year stint as Ambassador to the IAEA, so most of what I know of his accomplishments in that position is indirect, but I did discover quickly that he was well-respected in the IAEA community, both for the insights he brought to issues and for his ability to work constructively within that diverse community.

Although John left the Ambassadorship in 2001, around a year or so after I joined DOE, I continued to follow his career when he moved on to the WNA, and in fact, had several opportunities to work with him, both while I was at DOE, and later, when I moved on to the Nuclear Energy Agency of OECD in Paris.

The very first thing that happened when John left Vienna to take up his new post in London is that the name and focus of the whole organization changed. Originally called the Uranium Institute (UI) with a mission primarily built around serving as a forum on the market for nuclear fuel, the organization was reinvented in 2001 as the World Nuclear Association, with an expanded mission that covers all aspects of the nuclear power industry.

There have been many changes since the UI became the WNA. I'm sure I could not identify all of them, but in addition to the obvious implications of the expansion of its scope, the WNA also became more active as a source of nuclear-related news and analysis, and I often find their website to be one of the better sources of concise information and background on nuclear programs and issues.

I would like to focus particularly on one activity in which I have had a personal involvement--that is, the World Nuclear University (WNU). The WNU was spearheaded by WNA, and in fact, especially by John. The goal of the WNU is to build leadership and develop networks among nuclear professionals around the world by providing a spectrum of short courses and other training activities in partnership with a broad spectrum of governments, industry and universities. Their flagship program is their 6-week Summer Institute, designed as a leadership development course for young professionals.

I well remember when John first came in to my DOE office and briefed several of us on his vision for this new program. Our initial reaction was skepticism. The WNA was not an academic organization. How would they attract the mentors who would be needed to provide the training. Who would provide the necessary financial support. What organizations would let their staff members leave for 6 weeks for such a course.

None of these questions fazed John. He patiently responded to all the questions, and continued to press for our support, as well as for the support of a variety of other organizations. When the WNU officially opened its doors a couple of years later, in addition to the WNA, its founding supporters included the IAEA, NEA, and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO).

The Summer Institute is now held in Christ Church, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, but for the first few years, it rotated among several countries. I myself had the pleasure of participating in the program as a mentor/instructor in its second year, 2006, when it was held in Stockholm, Sweden. I found the Fellows to be an extraordinary group of bright, energetic young professionals. I also thought the opportunity for these people to work together with their peers from a variety of other countries was extraordinary.

I have continued to follow the success of the program and to read some of the comments of the graduates. Many of them point to this as one of the most exceptional experiences of their careers. Since the first Summer Institute in 2005, the program has hosted more than 650 Fellows from more than 65 countries.

Of all John's many accomplishments, I think he can be proudest of having established such an important educational program for the nuclear industry. The students trained through the Summer Institutes and the other WNU programs will help chart the course of the nuclear industry around the world for the next several decades. This in itself is a remarkable legacy.

There has been no announcement yet of just when John will leave the WNA or what he expects to do. I am assuming he may stay until his successor is chosen. That individual will certainly have a tough act to follow.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Evaluating Nuclear Power Plant Accidents:

Is "No Radiation Deaths" Enough?

While the nuclear community has appropriately tried to correct public apprehension about radiation effects on health, I have been increasingly concerned that, even if the public were to accept that truth wholeheartedly, it may not be enough.

It is true, of course, that the general public does not understand radiation, and it is also true that, for all sorts of reasons, the average person is irrationally afraid of radiation. I have seen it happen in my own home. I'm the proud owner of a couple of pieces of antique, orange-glazed Fiestaware, and I occasionally use one Fiestaware platter as a serving platter. I have seen well-educated--even technically educated--guests draw away from the platter when I explain that it has a uranium-based glaze. So I know it is an uphill battle to convince people that small increases in the readings of radiation monitors around Fukushima are not hazardous.

Nevertheless, the radioactive emissions spread by the accident have caused areas of contamination in parts of the region surrounding Fukushima and have led to profound social and economic consequences. These include the long-term evacuation of around 100,000 people, and the loss of farmland and fishing territory--which means the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people who have not been evacuated, in addition to those who have been evacuated.

Furthermore, while there were no radiation-related deaths from Fukushima, the act of evacuating people under the difficult circumstances immediately after Fukushima did result in some deaths. One can argue that these were not caused by the nuclear plant accident itself. Rather, they were caused by inadequate evacuation planning, or bad decisions, or other man-made and correctable (for the future) actions. One can further argue that every emergency situation seems to result in some degree of confusion, and decisions that, after the fact, can be criticized.

The point is that, even if the radiation from Fukushima did not injure or kill anyone, the collateral damage from the Fukushima accident is huge. It did result in some deaths, and it resulted in tremendous long-term disruption to the lives and livelihoods of many people.

What does this mean for the future of nuclear power? From other posts of mine, readers will know that I see a nuanced picture developing--politicians and a public that is concerned but that recognizes the benefits of nuclear power.

However, to maintain and grow this camp, more experts are beginning to recognize that it is not enough to protect against damaging levels of radiation exposure to the public. We must consider how to protect against extensive land and water contamination and to mitigate against the consequences of contamination levels that require long-term evacuation and the indefinite sequestration of large areas of land.

This new way of thinking may challenge some of our present assumptions, but those who are contemplating this new approach all seem to think it is an achievable objective. As more emerges on this topic, I hope to revisit it in the future.


Japan after Fukushima:

Is the Present Situation Sustainable?

One question that keeps recurring in the discussions of Japan after Fukushima is whether the nuclear power plants that are now shut down are actually "needed." Although many sources warn of likely energy shortages, others point out that, after all was said and done, Japan survived last summer without the threatened power brownouts and blackouts. This suggests, they say, that Japan had power to spare and can now easily get along without its nuclear plants.

This argument ignores several important facts:

1. Last summer, some of the nuclear power plants in Japan were still in operation. This coming summer, most or all plants will be shut down, so there will be less power available than last summer. Following Fukushima, the remaining nuclear power plants in the country were not all immediately shut down. In most cases, they continued operation until their next regularly scheduled maintenance shutdown. Following that shutdown, in accordance with established practice in Japan, the plants were not to be restarted until permission had been received from the local governments. In the past, this permission was routinely granted. In the wake of Fukushima, however, the surrounding towns have withheld permission pending the completion of stress tests, assurances of the adequacy of earthquake and tsunami defenses, and perhaps compensation. To date, no plant has been allowed to restart. It seems likely at this point that this coming summer will see few, if any, nuclear power plants restarted. Therefore, the supply of electricity this summer is likely to be considerably tighter than it was last summer.

2. According to reports, Japan was fortunate that it did not experience an exceptionally hot summer. A hotter than average summer would increase the demand for energy. I'm not a weather expert, so I can't predict what is going to happen this coming summer, but I know that temperatures vary, and that there is a range around an average. Next summer's temperatures could be cooler--but they could also be hotter. As anyone who has spent a summer in Tokyo knows, even the average temperatures are pretty hot and uncomfortable. Even the Hawaiian shirts suddenly popping up in Japanese offices as a result of the Cool Biz campaign don't always bring enough comfort. A hotter summer without the usual power available could be unbearable.

3. Japan managed its crisis in part by ramping up its use of old thermal power plants. This has increased the levels of carbon emissions and other fossil fuel air pollution. Tokyo is already notorious for its high levels of pollution. These older fossil plants do not incorporate the most advanced fossil plant technologies, and even the most advanced fossil fuel plants have much greater emissions than nuclear power plants. The increased emissions are, of course, counter to Japan's goals and international commitments. This is clearly not a good long-term option for Japan, yet replacing these plants with new electricity sources of any type will take a number of years. Fossil fuel emissions have been associated with health effects, particularly among the elderly and those with certain illnesses. Prolonged reliance on an increased use of older fossil fuel plants is likely to result in chronic illnesses and even deaths in some segments of the population.

4. The cutbacks in power caused discomfort and inconvenience--or worse--for much of Japan's population. Japan reduced demand by cutting back on "unnecessary" uses of power. This required homes and offices to decrease the use of air conditioning, reduce lighting, turn off escalators, etc. All of these options work OK for most of the people, most of the time, but can be difficult to devastating for elements of the population. Japan has an aging population, and using the subways can be difficult enough under ordinary conditions. Walking long flights of stairs when escalators are shut down can be nearly impossible for the elderly, or for anyone handicapped. In very hot weather, it can be dangerous. Even in their own homes, the elderly and the infirm can suffer when temperatures soar. I have not seen any statistics on deaths due to heat stroke, but I suspect there were some, and others are also predicting that there could be more problems.

5. The reduced energy supply affected Japan's economy. Continued reductions in energy supply will prolong the effects on the economy. With the shutdowns of Japan's nuclear power plants, factory production was reduced or moved to lower-demand periods. This cost the economy jobs and reduced its exports, resulting in record trade deficits, and the loss, to General Motors, of Toyota's coveted status as the world's top selling automaker. Industries have been considering moving some of their manufacturing to other countries if they believe the energy shortages will persist. The loss of jobs and, worse, the loss of exports, would cause a sustained negative impact on Japan's economy.

In short, and not surprisingly, the overall picture is very complicated. Japan has so far weathered the loss of energy from its nuclear power plants by a combination of measures, including cutting back on demand in various ways, and substituting fossil fuel energy sources. All of these measures have had different negative impacts--on the environment, on the economy, and on the lives of members of the public. All of the effects are likely to get worse if the shortage of energy continues. Furthermore, the situation is now worse than it was last summer, when some of Japan's nuclear plants were still operating, and the situation will be even worse if 2012 brings Japan an unusually hot summer.

All in all, I don't think the fact that Japan got through last summer without brownouts or blackouts is a sign that the country can continue to function without any of its nuclear power plants unless the country and its people are ready to accept a significantly lower standard of living, a greater incidence of health problems and premature deaths, and a substantially reduced role for Japan in the global economy.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wind and Nuclear Power:

What's Good for the Goose...

There is an old saying that goes, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander." (I may appear to be dating myself, but in my defense, my mother used to use it.) I thought of that expression the other day when two pieces of news crossed my desk at the same time.

First, someone circulated a link to a report produced by Mark Cooper from the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School detailing why, according to their analysis, we can't have safe nuclear power at an affordable cost. While there is lots to challenge in that report, I know others can do a better job of that than I can. What I would like to focus on is the part of his argument that says, in essence, that nuclear power cannot stand on its own two feet, has always needed all kinds of government subsidies to exist, and always will.

The reason I want to focus on that point is that, the very same day that I read his report, I saw in my newspaper that a committee in the Maryland House of Delegates has approved a proposal to add a surcharge to the utility bills of Maryland ratepayers in order to finance a planned offshore wind farm.

Since I'm a Maryland resident, this was of more than academic interest to me. Granted, the fee is only supposed to be $1.50 a month, and granted, that won't break the bank for most people. But I don't like to throw money away, so it galls me to think that I may be billed against my will for these windmills--even if it is $18 a year.

Furthermore, there are already hints that the $1.50/month is just the opening bid, and that the ultimate burden to the ratepayer will be much higher.

The Washington Post published an excellent editorial on why this Maryland windmill tax is a bad idea. The most persuasive argument in the editorial, in my mind, was that Maryland actually has a law that mandates a 20% share for renewable energy in Maryland by 2022, but leaves it to the marketplace to decide which renewable energy sources help supply that mix. They point to disagreements on what should be considered renewable, but argue that, if that is a problem, that point should be addressed. The competition that the renewable energy mandate sought to encourage should not be undercut by having the government selectively pick "winners."

What caught my attention, obviously, was hearing on the one hand that nuclear power is doomed because it needs government support, and yet being told on the other hand that I should personally fork up some of my own hard-owned money for a government-led scheme to support wind power in my state.

Maybe the truth is that virtually all new, clean energy sources need some type of support. But in that case, I would extend the argument made in the editorial and say that the forms and degree of support needed should be considered in the selection of energy sources. We should not, however, reject one source of energy for requiring government support when we offer government-mandated support to another source of energy.