Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Future of Nuclear Power:

Riot versus Reason

I must confess that some of the recent news from the nuclear world has me conflicted, as they seem to pit my belief in democracy against my belief in the importance of reliable energy supplies for today's economies.

The German public didn't want nuclear power, so German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously supported increasing the use of nuclear power, did a sudden U-turn and promised a phaseout.  The Japanese are, quite understandably, concerned about the safety of nuclear power in Japan, and officials from the Prime Minister on down seem to be near paralysis in addressing the issue of the future of nuclear power in Japan.

These countries are democracies.  If the will of the public is to close nuclear power plants, they should be closed, we have been told.

Now, conceptually, I'm all for having politicians heed the will of the public.  However, there is a BIG difference between leading and following.  Today's politicians seem to have lost sight of that fact.  There is a BIG difference between doing what is really right and doing what is necessary to stay in office.  Today's politicians seem to have forgotten that distinction.

What has happened to the idea of statesmanship?  Of "profiles in courage"?

It seems to me that leadership carries with it the responsibility to make decisions that are sometimes unpopular.  In a democracy, that means that a leader must also be a teacher.  He or she must explain and justify the reasons for a decision.  They must be solid reasons.  They must stand up to counterarguments. 

The latter is not always easy.  In the case of energy supply, there are those who insist that we can replace coal and nuclear power with solar and wind power, quickly, reliably, economically, and with no environmental impacts.  It is not difficult to understand why people want to believe that, and might not be eager to analyze the claims too closely.  After all, wouldn't we all like perfect solutions to all our needs?

It is precisely because the assertions seem so seductive that it takes hard work to counter them.  Unsupported assumptions must be exposed.  Facts refuting them must be expressed in terms that the general public can understand.  It takes effort to explain what the impediments are to any quick transitions--and what the implications are for slower transitions.  It takes time to get the public to understand that all systems have environmental impacts--and to try to compare very different impacts.  It takes patience to make it clear that there are serious consequences to intermittency--and to convey an understanding of what that will mean to individuals and to industries.  

But the failure to educate the public leads directly to the situation we are seeing now in Germany, and to the direction in which Japan seems to be going.  When Germany's phaseout plan was announced, many experts pointed to the enormous obstacles ahead--the need for storage or fossil-fueled backup power for solar and wind installations, the need for grid enhancements to move the electricity from the windy regions to the industrial regions, etc.  Not a problem, the solar and wind proponents assured the public.  The will of the public, the Germany politicians said.

Now, we are seeing the predicted costs and difficulties of Germany's energy transition beginning to emerge.  This outcome was predictable, but it was not fully explained to the German public.  The resulting burning of lignite, of course, has ramifications beyond the borders of Germany, so should be a concern to us all.  Now, we are assured that Germany will catch up and will meet its carbon reduction goals anyway.  No one explains just how that will happen.  And the German politicians are remaining silent.

In Japan, we see the threat of a near-repeat of the same scenario.  It truly seems that Prime Minister Noda knows in his heart that keeping the nation's nuclear power plants shuttered is bad for the country.  He has supported the restart of two units, despite considerable opposition.  He has fought against promising an early exit from nuclear power.  Yet, the pace of restarts is glacially slow, the promised creation of an independent regulator has been delayed, and the pressures against nuclear power are growing

The outcome of failing to restart Japan's nuclear power plants is clear--more fossil fuels will be burned in a country that already has serious air pollution problems in some areas; the economy will be severely affected as industries fold or jobs are moved offshore; the health of the elderly and infirm will be affected by living without sufficient heat or air-conditioning.  But these are slow and incremental effects, and the public is largely in denial, so is swallowing specious arguments that Japan is managing and can continue to manage seamlessly, or maybe will minor inconveniences, without its nuclear power plants. 

So, yes, the will of the people is important.  But the first step in a democratic process is education.  The will of the public must be informed by the cold, hard facts.  I believe if people understand the true costs of giving up nuclear power--in terms of their individual and national well-being--we might see a very different dialogue than we are now seeing in some countries.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

More on Reid and Magwood:

Other Takes on the Story

It's been an interesting week for me since I published the post about Senator Harry Reid's comments on Commissioner Bill Magwood.  One commenter said I was "too civilized."  I'm not sure I've ever been accused of that before!

Someone else contacted me and suggested that I had missed a couple of plausible scenarios.  If Obama is reelected, he will presumably want to reappoint Chairman Allison Macfarlane.  However, since Macfarlane will come up for reappointment without anyone to pair her with, positive Senate action can't be presumed.

Maybe my observations of the Washington scene go back too far!  Pairing nominations is not required, and historically, the practice has only started in relatively recent years.  Since a nomination can be held up by a single Senator, it would not take much to stall a nomination that comes in alone.  One consequence of our increasingly dysfunctional Congress is that nothing seems to get done without essentially "bribing" the other party by dangling something--or someone--it wants. 

If the Senate does not act, Obama's options will be limited.  If he can't push Macfarlane through, he probably can't get anyone else nominated either.  If he is left to choose from among the current commissioners, there are two other Democrats on the Commission, and word is that Commissioner George Apostolakis is not interested in the chairmanship.  That would leave Commissioner Magwood.

Of course, Obama could demonstrate a bipartisan spirit, and appoint Commissioner  Ostendorff as chairman.  Although he is a Republican, he has a reputation for being fair and balanced.  Historically, nuclear safety has not been a highly partisan issue, so it should be possible for someone of the opposite party to take the helm at NRC.  But, if Obama's wish to renominate Macfarlane is thwarted by the Senate, will he be in the mood to reach out to a Republican?

It is noteworthy that Senator Reid could not stop Obama from appointing Magwood as Chairman.  That action does not require Senate confirmation.  One therefore wonders if Reid's statement is really a message to the President.  If the Senate Majority Leader feels so strongly about Magwood, will Obama want to risk his ire by appointing Magwood as Chairman?

But I come back again to wondering about the timing of Reid's message.  If that was his objective, might it be better to deliver the message after the election?  Or, better still, shortly before Macfarlane's appointment ends.  In answer to this, my friend speculates that maybe Reid is also trying to send a message to Macfarlane.  Although her history seems to suggest that her views on Yucca Mountain are aligned with Reid's interests, he may be worried by her balanced statements that she will look at everything anew.

It is still not clear what he can accomplish regarding Macfarlane by making the comments he made about Magwood.  Maybe he is concerned that she will gain Republican support, and he wants to remind her of the power he wields.   

So, there are even more possibilities than I thought of before.  All still speculation, of course.  The only thing that seems certain is that, if Obama is re-elected, the issue of the chairmanship come July 1 could--dare I say it?--go nuclear.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reid, Magwood, Jaczko:

The Saga Continues

Those of us who live and work "inside the Beltway" can sometimes get a little smug in our conviction that we really understand how things work around here.  Recent events, however, are leading me to question my own sense of certainty about my understanding.

The first blow to my feeling that I "know the ropes" came last December, when the news went public that four of the Commissioners at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had written a letter to the White House complaining about the behavior of its then-Chairman, Gregory Jaczko.  I don't want to go so far as to assert that this event is unique in the history of the Republic, but in the more than six months since that incident, I have not been able to find anyone who can point to a comparable incident.  After all, this letter was endorsed by all of Jaczko's peers on the Commission, by both Democrats and Republicans, and was not a closed-door intervention, but rather, was a message to the very top of the Administration. 

With the departure of Jaczko at the end of June and his replacement by Dr. Allison Macfarlane as Chairman, I would have thought that the story had come to a logical conclusion.  Not so.  In recent days, I see that the issue is still simmering.  In the first place, Jaczko's friends and former Senate colleagues put on a farewell-cum-fundraising party for Jaczko, to help him pay off the legal expenses he incurred defending himself against the charges brought against him, and have now established a website to collect additional funds.

For those who may wonder why he needed legal support, since he was not sued and had no court appearances, I know from my own past, when I worked for the government, that I frequently got advertisements for insurance that would cover legal costs that might be incurred in defending oneself against accusations of wrong-doing.  (And in fact, agency guidance always recommended hiring legal counsel in such cases.)  Therefore, the fact that he had an attorney was probably prudent of him.  The fact that he did not carry the insurance was surely a mistake.  The fact that his colleagues are publicly raising money for this purpose is an unseemly postscript to this unfortunate affair.

And yesterday, I discovered that the saga has still not ended.  In a piece published in Huffington Post, Senator Reid made a strong attack on Commissioner Magwood, accusing him of lying and calling him various unflattering names.  Again, I can't confirm that this is completely unprecedented--and I do know that Senators and Congressmen sometimes resort to name-calling--but this incident certainly has some unusual overtones.  Name-calling is usually reserved for members of the opposite Party; Senator Reid and Commissioner Magwood are both Democrats.  Name-calling usually occurs in the heat of the battle; this battle would seem to be over, with Jaczko ousted and a new Chairman--in fact, one who was Reid's choice--installed.

In fact, the biggest question my friends and I have been debating in the past day or so is:  Why now?  The end of the article suggests that Reid "wasn't looking to eviscerate Magwood and would have kept his concerns private if he hadn't been asked."  That seems disingenuous to me.  Surely, a Senator could respond to such a question by saying that this chapter is closed.  After all, it is hard to imagine a likely scenario where Magwood could be appointed Chairman of the NRC.  If Romney wins the election, he will appoint a Republican.  If Obama wins, Macfarlane will most likely stay in her position.  There is a hint in the final sentence of the article that Reid might be trying to assure that Magwood is not nominated for any other position.  One wonders if that means that something along those lines has been floated?  Or if he is posturing to help Obama in the State of Nevada? 

So this whole episode appears to be lingering long beyond what we'd all expected.  At this point, I don't suppose it is any special "inside the Beltway" wisdom or insight to say that it seems that the saga is not yet over, but the only thing most of us can do now is to stay tuned.