Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Knowledge Management:

An Ongoing Problem 

A few years ago, I did a lot of work on "nuclear knowledge management," or NKM.  There are a lot of definitions of what NKM includes, but my first brush with knowledge management came when, as a Department of Energy manager, I was visited by researchers from the national laboratories.  They told horror stories of experimental facilities that had been shuttered and troves of valuable data that were haphazardly stored and that were deteriorating over time.  The researchers had scattered and the information contained on antiquated magnetic tapes and other media were in danger of being lost.  Because so many nuclear research facilities had closed, we were not even able to reproduce the work in the United States if we needed to.

While I always knew this problem was not unique to the nuclear industry, it seemed that the knowledge management problem for data from nuclear experiments was particularly acute.  So many experiments had been abruptly cancelled, so many facilities had been closed, and so many technological approaches had been abandoned for one reason or another.  As I spoke to people about NKM, I always acknowledged that the nuclear KM problem was part of a larger problem, but in truth, I came to think of the nuclear part of the problem as being unique.

It was therefore an eye-opener to read a recent report alleging that scientific data in general suffers substantial loss over just a couple of decades.  I was further disturbed to see that the problem is a continuing one.  Although I recognize that new electronic technologies can sometimes create as many problems as they can solve, I had hopes that data-sharing on websites, better communications, etc., might mean that today's research stood a better chance of being preserved and usable over long periods of time.  This is not so, according to the article.  Much data is still stored on devices that become obsolete, and despite the wide reach of the Internet, researchers move, change e-mail addresses, and cannot always be found.

Certainly, not every bit of data retains its value over time.  However, all knowledge is built on what came before, so the report in the article that 80% of scientific data is lost within 2 decades comes as a surprise and a disappointment.  In my work on NKM, I tried to point out to others that the handling of data should be an integral part of research, and that organizations should be sure that old data is migrated to new storage media as necessary.

I realize that this is easier said than done, but too often today, the problem is simply not recognized until it is far too late.  A good first step would be to establish a deliberate program within each research organization to ensure that researchers document and archive their data properly, and have a plan to handle the data over time.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Nuclear Liability:

The Logic of Liability Regimes

Once again, I have seen an article criticizing the fact that nuclear liability regimes assign financial responsibility solely to the nuclear plant operator, thus appearing to insulate vendors from financial claims.  On the surface, these criticisms seem to have some logic--after all, who wouldn't want to go after the "real" culprit, if there is one; or after everyone, just to make sure?

This viewpoint, however, neglects to consider fully what the likely outcome would be of a system that tried to assign the "real" blame, or that opened the field to everyone suing everyone.   The likely outcome:  Chaos.  Delay.  Hugh litigation costs.  More delay.  Strong possibility of no compensation for victims. 

It is just those likely outcomes that motivated the originators of all the major nuclear liability compensation regimes (both US and international) to focus the responsibility on the operator.

There is a fundamental logic to that approach.  After all, we always say that it is the operator that is ultimately responsible for the safety of a nuclear plant.  Not the regulator.  Not the vendor.  Not the other suppliers.

Assigning the operator responsibility puts the onus on the operator to check what the vendor and other suppliers do, to hold them to the highest standards, not to skimp where safety is concerned.  While a blog like this is not the place to make final determinations about who knew what and when, and who should have done something about it, I can at least identify the type of questions one would have to address if one were to try to specify exactly who is to blame for the Fukushima accident.

Let's look at the article cited above, which advocates assigning responsibility for the accident to GE.  In the first place, the article identifies critiques of the GE BWR Mark I design by officials of the US Atomic Energy Commission dating from the early 1970s and gives that as a rationale for concluding that GE should take the blame.  However, the article does not note that modifications were made to that design and were implemented in US plants.  Operators--and regulators--in Japan should have known this.  So, who knew what?  When did they know it?  What did they do about it?

The article mentions that GE was "involved" in shaving down the cliff where Fukushima Dai-ichi was constructed, thus increasing its vulnerability to tsunamis.  I don't know what they mean by "involved."  Who recommended it?  Who approved it?  Who brought in the bulldozers?  I have a feeling that everyone shares some blame here, so who should be considered to have the ultimate responsibility? 

While the parallel may not be exact, some of the same thinking went into the approach used to compensate the families of the victims of the World Trade Center--and when presented with the option to litigate endlessly or to accept a one-stop, fixed-price compensation system, most opted for the latter.

I am not here to defend GE--or to vilify it.  I am just here to point out that multiple liability regimes have concluded that it is in the best interest of any injured parties to achieve a prompt resolution of claims, and that can best be done by assigning full responsibility to the one party where one can truly say, "The buck stops here."

As to the final argument in the article cited above, that accepting the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage would saddle the taxpayers of Japan either directly or indirectly with the cost of cleanup, that argument, too, has been considered by the framers of this convention, as well as of other liability regimes.

The liability regimes all establish provisions for substantial amounts of compensation that would have to be paid by utilities.  That compensation is expected to be more than adequate for most cases.  However, in very rare cases--and Fukushima is one--the regimes all recognize that governments do have an ultimate responsibility.  Governments have that responsibility for natural disasters, such as tsunamis.  Governments also have that responsibility for other industrial infrastructure.  The government responsibility has been recognized in actions following large industrial accidents and in compensation schemes for other industries.

The Nuclear Energy Institute and the American Nuclear Society have published good accounts of the provisions of the Price-Anderson Act, which is the US nuclear liability law, and give some examples of other industries that have similar liability limits.  The World Nuclear Association has a comprehensive piece covering the different international liability regimes (as well as some of the national ones).  I commend all 3 for further reading:


Friday, November 29, 2013

ASME Engineer-Historian Award:

A Note of Thanks

Like many people, I am busy celebrating this holiday season and have even less time than usual for writing my blog.  Therefore, I thought I'd devote this blog to expressing my appreciation for the recognition my book, Nuclear Firsts: Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development, has received.

First and foremost, I recently received the ASME Engineer-Historian Award for the book.  I had mentioned this in a previous blog, but a couple of weeks ago, the ASME gave me the award in a wonderful reception in my honor at their national meeting.  The photo shows me receiving the plaque from Dick Pawlinger, head of the ASME History and Heritage Committee.

Adding to my pleasure, the meeting took place in San Diego, where my thesis advisor, Tom Olson, now lives, so he and his wife, Marilyn, were able to see me receive the award.  Furthermore, one of my grad school colleagues, Marc Goldsmith, is the immediate past president of the ASME, and he was also present.  And last but not least, the 3 students from my WISE summer program were at the meeting and they also attended the reception.

I was particularly gratified that the ASME H&H Committee recognized and approved of how I handled some of the challenges of writing a history of a subject like nuclear power, particularly, sorting among the various claims of "firsts."

I have also been gratified at the reception my book has received elsewhere, especially from colleagues who have thanked me for identifying the need for such a book and for taking the time to research it.

Such recognition has helped make my Thanksgiving especially joyous this year, and I thank you for giving me the chance to crow a little about it.  My best wishes to everyone else for personal satisfaction, professional recognition, and all good things this holiday season.


Friday, November 22, 2013

The Nuclear Renaissance:

Putting it in Perspective

I think everyone has a tendency to try to extrapolate from limited information.  One reactor order equals a renaissance, and one shutdown shows that nuclear power is on its deathbed.  The truth, as usual, is much more complicated than either extreme, so I was very gratified to read a piece by Richard Myers of the Nuclear Energy Institute on the Intelligent Utility website

Richard makes several points.  Perhaps the most important among them is that the announcements of shutdowns this year mainly represent anomalies.  In particular, 3 of the 4 units (2 at San Onofre and 1 at Crystal River) and are due to steam generator replacements gone wrong.  He points out that this should be viewed against a backdrop of 110 steam generator replacements, 57 of them in the United States.  Only one, Kewaunee, was the victim of market conditions.  It is indeed possible that a few other plants, particularly older, smaller, single units in merchant markets, might also be vulnerable, but just because 4 units close in one year, it does not mean that this is a trend.

Another point Richard makes is one that I hadn't previously thought much about.  He observes that estimates suggest that approximately 100 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity will be retired this decade, primarily because it does not make economic sense to install the pollution control technology required by more stringent environmental standards.  This is approximately 10 percent of installed capacity, and demonstrates some of the pressures the entire utility industry is facing.

He also contrasts the shutdowns to the new builds.  In addition to the 4 units under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, TVA is also completing work on the long-stalled Watts Bar station.  Even more important, dozens of other reactors are under construction or being planned around the globe.  And I might add, some of them are in countries just entering the nuclear power arena.  As Richard points out, "The nuclear energy industry is a global enterprise with a global supply chain. It would be a mistake to gauge its health by taking a snapshot of one country at a single point in time."

Richard points out that much of what we are seeing today is a function of the economic turn down coupled with the currently low price of natural gas. 

Discussions of the surge in wind or solar power stations should be viewed with the same caution.  It is easy to achieve large percentages of growth when starting from a low level.  It is much harder to sustain the same rate of growth when the base level is higher or when other conditions change.

I always like to cite the Yogi Berra quote that it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.  (Note:  I've also seen this quote attributed to Niels Bohr and a lot of other people.)  In this case, it is very true.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

ANS Conference:

A Wealth of Anniversaries

The theme of this year's American Nuclear Society (ANS) Winter meeting, which just concluded, was "75 Years of Nuclear Fission," so I fully expected a lot of reflection on this milestone event.  I was not mistaken.  What I did not expect was that a number of speakers would pick up on the theme of anniversaries, and would point out the fact that this year is a significant anniversary of several other milestones in nuclear history as well.

During the course of the opening plenary of the conference, we were reminded of the following milestones we can celebrate this year:

• It is 100 years since the discovery of the structure of the atom.

• It is 75 years since the discovery of fission.

• It is 65 years since the start of the Naval Reactor Program.

• It is 60 years since President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace address.

• It is the 20th anniversary of the Megatons to Megawatts program.

As the author of a book on nuclear history, I wrote about most of these events, so I feel a little chagrined I didn't think about all these anniversaries during the course of the year.  However, I'm glad that others reflect on history as well, and were thoughtful enough to mention the milestones in their remarks.

Speakers made note of how quickly we moved from the theoretical concept of nuclear fission to applications.  One plenary speaker, Dr. Sidney Drell, Professor Emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), reflected on fact that Enrico Fermi did an experiment in 1934 that resulted in fission, but he did not recognize it as such.  Ida Noddack, a German chemist, observed that there might be an alternative explanation to the one Fermi proposed, but her idea fell on deaf ears at the time.  Drell speculated that, had scientists heeded Noddack in 1934, Germany might have had the bomb before World War II. 

The organizers of the conference assembled an outstanding lineup of speakers to celebrate the 75th anniversary.  In addition to Dr. Drell, the opening plenary included: Ernie Moniz, Secretary of Energy; George Shultz, former Secretary of State; and Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator.  The ANS President's Special Session that followed included: Allison Macfarlane, Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Pete Lyons, Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy (who also spoke in several other sessions during the course of the conference); Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences; Dan Mote, President of the National Academy of Engineering; John Browne, Director Emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory; Susan Eisenhower, Chairman Emeritus of the Eisenhower Institute; and Admiral John Richardson, Director of Naval Reactors.

These sessions were followed by a technical program that included many other distinguished members of the nuclear community, and spanned the whole scope of nuclear-related activities.  Particularly noteworthy were the 4 "embedded topicals" that took place during this meeting, covering risk management, small modular reactors (SMRs), nuclear nonproliferation, and a young professionals congress.   I gained many insights from the sessions I attended, far too many to cover in one post, but I hope to have a chance to weave some of these insights into future posts.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Uranium Glass:

 Still in Production

Art Glass by Jon Goldberg
A couple of years ago, inspired by a new stamp, I wrote a post about Fiestaware, a company that once made glazes for their line of dinnerware from the by-product uranium from silver mining.  In it, I also talked about uranium glass, or "Vaseline glass," as this was another product that used uranium, in this case, to produce a yellow-green tint in glassware.  One of the fun features of uranium glass is that it glows under ultraviolet light.

In my previous blog, I said that the glassware was popular from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.  In fact, although I didn't say one way or another, every example of uranium glass I had ever seen, and every piece of uranium-glazed pottery, was an antique.  As far as I knew, no one used uranium in glassware or pottery any more.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I was touring a craft fair in Washington, DC, a few days ago and ran into a display of beautiful, modern glass sculptures made by a living, breathing artist--and it was emitting the green glow I have come to associate with uranium glass displayed under UV light.  A conversation with Jon Goldberg, the artist, confirmed that it was, indeed, uranium glass that he was using.

Now, a craft fair was not a place where I would expect to encounter anything related to the nuclear field, or where I would expect to engage in a conversation about whether the uranium was depleted or not, but Jon graciously answered all my questions.  He also pointed me to his supplier, Gaffer Glass, in Auckland, New Zealand.  A look at the Gaffer Glass website shows that they call the glass "uranium green," and they include on their website a report from the National Radiation Laboratory in New Zealand on the radioactivity levels in the glass. 

This report, in turn, led me to an Oak Ridge Associated Universities website that provides a more detailed discussion of uranium glass than I'd previously found, and gives information on the radiation exposures from such glass.  Among other things, the ORAU piece details various similar glassware and different names that have been used for it over the years.  Also, to my surprise, it identifies several manufacturers in the US that currently make products using uranium glass.  They indicate that such glassware is now produced only for decorative purposes, rather than for dinnerware, as was previously popular.  Finally, the ORAU discussion confirms my guess that, while antique uranium glass used natural uranium, newer uranium glass uses depleted uranium.

So once again, although the details are different, people have cleverly figured out a way to take a by-product and put it to productive--and even artistic--use.

[For those who are interested, the exposure information comes from US Nuclear Regulatory Commission report, NUREG 1717, and more detailed information is available in that report.]


Friday, November 1, 2013

The Energy Market and Carbon:

Another Look at the Energy Marketplace

A Washington Post editorial on nuclear power a few weeks ago caught my attention.  It was reacting to the continued bad news coming from Fukushima in Japan, as well as to the Entergy announcement in the US regarding their decision to close Vermont Yankee.  

The editorial made the case for nuclear power quite strongly.  Despite all the bad news, the editorial concluded that we should continue to operate nuclear power plants in the US, and even possibly to build more.  One of their arguments was that Fukushima had some underlying problems that sound regulation could address.  Their other argument was that nuclear power would be competitive if the marketplace put a value on the fact that nuclear power doesn't produce carbon emissions.  They also noted some of the attributes of advanced reactor designs, both to improve safety margins and to lower costs.

The argument about regulation looked at the situation at Fukushima and concluded that it shows us clearly how not to run a nuclear power plant.  The underlying problems at Fukushima, basic design flaws, and subsequent mismanagement, they observed, are not intrinsic to nuclear power plant operations, but rather, can be addressed by effective regulation.  They went on to cite the fact that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has established requirements for precautionary upgrades, and to note that, of course, continued vigilance is necessary.  They also note that advanced nuclear designs are more "passively" safe.

The argument about the marketplace, and particularly that it doesn't value the fact that nuclear power produces very low carbon emissions, really struck me, coming as it did so soon after learning that Vermont Yankee was being shuttered because of marketplace inequities--that is, for pricing rules for renewables that skewed the marketplace.

At first glance, it seemed that placing a cost on carbon emissions might also skew the marketplace.  However, I concluded that this is like comparing apples and oranges.  In the first place, we have acknowledged that there is a societal cost to carbon emissions, and that cost is presently not built into the market prices.  In the second place, a market mechanism that focused on carbon would treat all low-carbon technologies equally.    Nuclear power would benefit.  Renewables would benefit, too.

The issue of just how the societal cost of carbon emissions should be monetized is way out of my area of expertise.  I realize that there are different mechanisms--a carbon tax, carbon trading mechanisms, etc.--and that each has pros and cons.  I am also aware that carbon pricing mechanisms that have been tried to date have not all met expectations.  But I trust that unexpected flaws we have found in implementation can be addressed, just as we have improved on new technologies when our field experience revealed deficiencies we hadn't anticipated.  Or, perhaps there are other solutions altogether. 

I do not know what the best solution is.  However, I do know this.  Repealing existing renewable energy benefits will be difficult politically without substituting some other provisions.  I also know that we must find a better path than one that favors one clean energy source to such an extent that it drives out other clean energy sources.  Surely, we should be able to come up with one.

What we are doing right now seems to be the worst of all worlds.  Yet the reality is that it is in the public good to support the introduction of new, cleaner technologies, and this support usually ends up as a "subsidy" of some sort.  The trick is to find a mechanism that isn't counterproductive, and that doesn't drive out other energy sources that carry similar benefits for society.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Japan, Independence and Transparency:

Has There Been Any Change?

I recently attended a meeting where someone spoke on their recent research on the Japanese electric power system, including the nuclear reactors in the system.  Since the meeting was off-the-record, I will not divulge the venue or the speaker. 

The meeting was a bit of an eye-opener for me.  With the institution of the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in Japan, plus a lot of interaction of the Japanese government and industry with representatives of nuclear regulatory systems in the US and other countries, I have been hoping that the new organization would shake up the relationships between regulators and the regulated.  Both the speaker's comments, and a discussion with another attendee after the meeting, make me wonder if I have been overly optimistic.

First, the speaker reported trying to arrange to meet with various government and non-government officials during an extended research trip to Japan.  A meeting had been scheduled with someone from NRA, but before the meeting could take place, NRA management had a change of heart.  The speaker attributed this to a revelation that someone on the NRA staff had previously met secretly with representatives of a utility.  When that was discovered, an internal directive was issued restricting meetings of NRA staffers with outsiders.  As a result, the speaker received a message from the NRA staffer canceling their meeting.  Since the NRA contact knew the speaker was scheduled to be in Japan for a long period, the message indicated that no meeting would be possible "for the foreseeable future."  The speaker waited a couple of months and tried to make contact again, but got no response at all.

Following the meeting, I was chatting with several other attendees, both Japanese and American.  One of the group was from a Japanese utility and is presently on a temporary assignment in the US.  When we started discussing the incident described above, I alluded to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Principles of Good Regulation.  I said that it seemed that the NRA was overreacting to the misstep of one of its staff by withdrawing too much, and I observed to the others that the first NRC Principle of Good Regulation, that of Independence, clearly states that "Independence does not imply isolation."  That Principle goes on to state that all views need to be sought and considered.  An internal directive limiting the possibility of interacting with all outside parties seemed to me to misinterpret "independence." 

The Japanese utility representative responded to this discussion by noting how difficult it has become for utilities to talk to the regulator.  They can no longer do so in private, without their conversations becoming known to others, so as a result, they don't want to talk to the regulator at all.  I then turned to the second of the Principles, that of Openness, and pointed out that the NRC strives to operate in an open and transparent manner so that the public is assured that decisions are not being made behind closed doors in the proverbial "smoke-filled rooms." 

The two back-to-back discussions made me wonder if the new regulatory organization in Japan has really brought about the kind of change that I think needs to occur there.  Although in my one-on-one conversation with the speaker after the meeting, I learned that my writings on the Principles of Good Regulation and on other aspects of the US and Japanese regulatory systems were well known in Japan, it is not clear if they have really adopted such principles. 

Of course, all parties will find operating in an open and transparent manner a more difficult process than the old practice of operating in secret, and of course, there will be times when they will fall short of the ideal or will overreact.  Likewise, I know that NRC is not perfect either.  However, suggestions that both NRA and the utilities are reacting to their current situation by isolating themselves represents a move in the wrong direction.  I had hoped to hear better news from Japan by now.  


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Women in Engineering:

Personal Reflections

An article in the New York Times on October 3 on why there are still so few women in science and engineering took me by surprise.  In the first place, I'd just returned from a visit to an alumni leadership conference at my alma mater, MIT, where they were parading all the good news stories about MIT, including that the number of women in the recent classes was hovering very close to 50%.  For someone who had gone to MIT...well...a number of years ago, this was indeed heartening news.  In my own freshman class, only 5% of the class was female--and that was higher than previous classes.

The New York Times article detailed at considerable length the kinds of discrimination, obstacles, and other difficulties that women still face, from professors who try to discourage them from continuing in the science and engineering professions, to difficulty combining careers and a personal life.  It all sounded like stories from a generation ago.

I must say that a part of my reaction to all these stories was that I must have been lucky, because most of these things hadn't happened to me.  And indeed, I may well have been lucky.  Everyone, male or female, ends up with a somewhat different mix of professors, classmates, supervisors and colleagues, and a few bad apples from any of these bins can hamper careers or embitter individuals.  And each of us reacts to stresses and setbacks a little differently.

Like most people, I have had bosses both good and bad.  Fortunately, most were good, and the ones that were bad were just generally bad, and not necessarily sexist.  I weathered the bad ones by remembering that what doesn't kill you outright only makes you stronger--although some days, that was a hard sell.

I can certainly recall incidents where people said things to me that were inappropriate.  And that I don't think they would say today.  And certainly, sometimes I didn't get a position after such a statement, and I wondered at the time if gender discrimination was involved.  But no one gets every job they apply for, so as long as I ended up with good opportunities, I didn't dwell on the missed chances.

But the article stirred up memories of some of those incidents, so for what it's worth, I thought I'd deviate from the usual topics of this blog and recount some of my more vivid memories of sexist comments, mostly from job interviews, as well as some of my reactions and the outcomes of the interviews.

The first story, though, is from a class in graduate school, where a very prominent professor of nuclear engineering (now deceased, and I won't speak ill of the dead) handed back tests, and as he handed me mine, said to the rest of the class (ALL male), You guys let a girl beat you!  I said nothing because I looked down at my paper and saw that the grade was only about 75 (often a good grade at MIT, but still...), so I assumed he was joking.  He wasn't.

From an interviewer at a private company--for a summer job:  I'll bet you played with dolls when you were a child.  "Well...yes."  Boys take their bikes apart and put them together again.  That's the kind of experience we want.  At the time, I was studying at MIT.  I guess that wasn't enough.  I didn't get the job.

From a regional recruiter for a certain government agency known for covert operations (if I name them, they will probably still come after me):  Let me check which jobs are open to women.  When I asked why any jobs would be limited, I was told that some jobs required living in the field.  I said that, with my background, that wasn't the kind of position I was looking for.  I didn't get past the recruiter.

From an interviewer at a US government laboratory:  We had a woman working here once.  She got pregnant and left.  Try to challenge an opinion formed from a sample of one!  Later in that same interview, they started to think about the possible plus sides of having a woman around.  If you worked here, we could send you down to sweet-talk the machinists when we want them to give our work priority.  Fortunately, I got a job offer elsewhere at that point and withdrew my application.

From an interviewer for a private company:  Can you type?  Before I could respond, the interviewer quickly covered his gaff by saying that he meant for working on computers.  (This was back in the dark ages before everyone had a computer on their desk.)  I ended up working for that interviewer.  During the course of my employment there, I had one more memorable conversation with him.  A colleague--a young man who had been with the company for a year or two when I joined--and I went to our boss to propose a business trip.  It would be my first for the company.  My boss looked directly at me and said, You want to go away from your husband?  Again, he realized his gaffe as soon as the words were out of his mouth.  "And you want to go away from your wife?"  he said to my colleague.  A transparent recovery, as my colleague had already been on business trips, but again, we got over that, and I continued to work there for a total of about 8 years.

From an interviewer for a government agency that controls the budgets of other agencies:  Are you married?  Do you have children?  By this time, my response was faster.  "Do you ask the male applicants that?"  They assured me they did, because this was an intense job that required incredibly long hours and many 7-day weeks.  I then said to them, "Tell me the job requirements and let me make the decision as to whether I can make that commitment."  It was exactly the right answer, because they wanted people with the spine to stand up to agency managers.  I was offered the job, but I turned it down.

I'm sure every woman in a technical career has similar stories to tell.  For me, with time and distance, the stories have become mostly amusing, and I think I've managed to succeed despite the challenges these conversations suggest.  But for some women, even today, the negative stories still outweigh the positive ones.  I was very sorry to learn that is still the case.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Cost of Generating Electricity:

When the Free Market Isn't

I have been slow in commenting on the closure of Vermont Yankee announced a few weeks ago by Entergy.  This is because it is hard for me to know what to say.

In the end, it seems that the closure was triggered mainly by economics, and that some of the economic issues are so bizarre they simply make my head spin.

There are some economic issues I do understand.  Sort of.  I understand that the recent developments in the gas industry are leading to low costs for gas, making almost every other source of energy non-competitive.  I can argue that this is a short-sighted view, and I could wish the business world didn't have such a short-term view, but I understand that they do.

However, there are other economic issues that simply make no sense to me at all.  The fact that renewable energy suppliers are so heavily subsidized that they can bid negative numbers and still make money just doesn't make sense to me in a country that is supposed to be based on a free market.  Honestly, if I were Entergy, I would have given up long ago!

I have seen some very good coverage of this issue in other sources.  All the sources I respect feel, as I do, that something is irrational about what is happening.  Examples include a recent article in the New York Times by Matthew Wald, and a discussion on the American Nuclear Society (ANS) blog by Jim Hopf.

I do understand the government role in providing incentives to help new technologies get started, but the impacts of these incentives should be monitored to make sure they don't have unintended consequences.

As I see it now, we have subsidized renewables because we want to assure the viability of solar and wind power in the hopes of replacing dirtier and more polluting forms of energy supply, such as coal.  That might be a good idea--if that is what we actually accomplished.  However, what has really happened is that we have forced the closure of another source of clean power--that is, a nuclear power plant.

In the long run, the current situation is in no one's interest.  It will not lead to a cleaner environment and it will not lead to lower real costs for energy supply.  I do not know if the energy markets are as bizarre in other parts of the country, but if they are, it does not bode well for our national energy future.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Financing Nuclear Construction Costs:

Thinking Outside the Box

In the United Kingdom, Sir John Armitt, the former chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority recently told the government that he could break the log-jam over the construction of new nuclear power plants by setting up a similar body to construct them.

The particular issue he was addressing is the impasse between the government of the UK and France's EDF Energy over how the costs of the planned Hinkley Point C plant will be paid.  Under the current system, the costs of electricity must be predicted decades in the future.  The alternative, according to Sir Armitt, is to create an independent government body like the Authority, which built the facilities for the 2012 London Olympics.  In the power sector, such a body could use a mix of public funds and private investments (supported by tax incentives or government guarantees) to build the units and then sell each unit to the private sector.

My first reaction, when I saw this news, was one of astonishment.  After all, I well recall, around the time of the London Olympics, hearing that the construction had incurred huge cost overruns.  In fact, I recall wondering, at the time, if cost issues might be inherent to any very large-scale construction project. 

Of course, whether or not there are cost overruns, financing the construction of nuclear power plants remains a major challenge for the industry, so it is good to see someone thinking about innovative options.  The concern about the financial risk to utilities for the construction of large nuclear power plants is well known.  Even a move to smaller designs will not entirely remove the potential cost uncertainties, particularly for the first-of-a-kind units.

Today's news suggests that the situation may have moved forward in the UK, and a financing deal for Hinkley Point C might be close.  I do not know what that deal will look like.  Whether or not Sir Armitt's concept is reflected in the arrangement this time, it is clear that financing will remain a key issue for the nuclear power industry, and innovative financing concepts deserve to be examined closely.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Future of the Electric Grid:

Is it in Question?

Recently, Rod Adams had a thought-provoking discussion about the electric grid on his blog, Atomic Insights.  In it, he points out the fallacies of the argument that the electric power grid is becoming obsolete.  I would like to take this opportunity to reinforce many of the points he made, and perhaps add a few of my own.

There is certainly greater interest, both by homeowners and by companies, in off-grid power generation.  Just today, the Wall Street Journal described the efforts of Walmart and other large chains to generate some of their own power.

Nevertheless, all the "off the grid" concepts that I have heard about or can envision are unworkable for one reason or another.  They are either too unreliable, too expensive, or--if you have personal, fossil-fueled generators as backups--polluting and inconvenient. 

On an individual basis, they are unreliable if they depend solely on the sun or the wind--or even on a combination of the two.  They are expensive if they incorporate enough storage to bridge the sometimes lengthy periods when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.  Or, they depend instead on fossil-fueled backup sources, which in addition to being polluting, require individual homeowners to deal with maintaining and operating the generators and fuel safely. 

In fact, most of the renewable energy concepts depend very heavily on the existence of a reliable electric grid in one way or another.  Some of those who promote individual solar and wind systems believe that one alternative to having individual backup generators is--you guessed it--the much maligned grid. 

In this view, the individual homeowner operates independently of the grid when there is sun or wind and perhaps even has the right to sell power to the grid if when there is a temporary excess.  However, when their own sources are insufficient, they would expect to draw power from the grid.  (If this happens on a large scale, it has potentially serious consequences for the economics of the grid, and we will have to price power use differently, perhaps with an element to reflect peak use, so that intermittent users pay their fair share of the costs of having the grid available when they need it.)

Taken to the extreme, increasing the use of renewables could actually increase the demands on the electric grid.  A few years ago, I heard Amory Lovins speak at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  In his address, his response to critics who question the reliability of renewables was that the sun is always shining or the wind is always blowing somewhere, so power can be moved around--you guessed it--over the grid.

This, of course, would require a far more advanced and integrated electric grid than we presently have, able to deal with rapidly changing power inputs, especially from the wind, and to be able to direct it instantaneously to where it is needed, which might be hundreds of miles away.  This would be true whether the solar and wind inputs came from the roofs of individual homes or, more likely, whether they came from wind or solar farms.

The truth is that, short of returning to caves and really living on only what we can gather or grow individually, we cannot live in isolation.  Even if we move into a world of more distributed power generation sources, we will inevitably need to link them together to achieve the reliable energy supply needed for a modern society to function.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Molasses and Nuclear Power:

What they have in Common
When Molasses isn't Sweet

At the same time the world's eyes are focused on reports of radioactive contamination of the ocean from Fukushima, news of a very different kind of threat to sealife has crossed my desk--pollution from an accidental release of molasses from a leak in a molasses pipeline.

Yes, molasses.  It sounds a bit like a joke, but the reports from Hawaii about a spill of molasses into Honolulu Harbor sound remarkably similar to the stories coming out of Japan, or the stories that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill--thousands of dead fish, long-term effects, impacts on neighboring reefs, an increase in predator fish (replacing the dead fish), unusual growth in marine algae (due to the nutrient-rich liquid) with perhaps unanticipated environmental effects, and warnings not to swim or eat the fish.  Gary Gill, the Deputy Director of Hawaii's Department of Health, terms this, "The worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across...this is a biggie if not the biggest that we've had to confront in the state of Hawaii."

Some of the reasons for the concerns are different--the long-term effects near the spill are due to limited water circulation in the bay delaying the flushing out of the contamination (although, when it does spread, it would still affect the nearby reefs); and the warnings against swimming and eating the fish are not because the molasses itself is harmful, but rather because of the possible increase in predator fish (for swimmers) and the possible growth of harmful bacteria and other substances in these conditions.

Bizarre as this incident may seem (and it certainly sparked some amusing comments from readers on the CNN website), this is not the first time that a molasses spill has led to serious consequences.  Nearly a century ago, the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 claimed over 20 lives, caused numerous injuries, and swept buildings off their foundations when a tank containing molasses exploded and sent a tidal wave of molasses, several feet high, crashing through the streets of Boston, Massachusetts.

All of this is not to suggest that we should ban molasses or create a Molasses Regulatory Agency.  It is a reminder that it is not only "unnatural" activities such as oil drilling and large, centralized power plants that have the potential to cause harm.  A lot of human industry today, even that related to food production and processing, has the potential to have serious impacts on the environment--and ultimately, to our own well-being.

Short of returning to subsistence farming--which I don't see happening, and which, of course, would come with its own set of environmental impacts anyway--we need to understand that anything spilled into our lakes and rivers and oceans in large quantity will affect the water, even things that are "natural" and nourishing, anything we eject into the air in large quantity will affect the air, and anything we produce leaves behind some residual waste products. 

While two major accidents in 100 years may not seem like much, it seems that the molasses industry may need to learn some lessons from those who operate gas and oil pipelines, from the clean-up effort from Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima, and from other large industrial activities.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Energy and Fire:

Hidden Dangers

Just last week, I commented on the Yosemite fire and the concerns forest fires raise in terms of siting of some energy sources and power lines.  I didn't think I'd find myself writing about fire issues again so soon, but a friend just sent me a very interesting article about the dangers solar panels pose for firefighters.  The article raises yet another, although very different, fire-related issue that I hadn't thought about before.

The article reports that the solar panels on the roof of a burning warehouse in Burlington County, New Jersey, presented serious safety hazards for the firefighters attempting to extinguish the blaze.  "We may very well not be able to save buildings that have alternative energy," New Jersey's acting fire marshall, William Kramer, said after a fire chief refused to sent his firefighters onto the roof of the warehouse on August 31.

Several problems were identified in the article:
  • - The possibility of electric shock because electricity to the panels can't be shut off,
  • - The fact that any kind of light, including a firefighter's flashlight, will activate the panels,
  • - Not having a clear path on the roof to cut ventilation holes,
  • - The chance of slipping on the slick panels,
  • - The increased possibility of structural collapse because of the weight of the panels on the roof, and
  • - Inhalation exposure from the caustic fumes of solar batteries. 
The concerns that solar panels pose for firefighters have been recognized for at least several years, as a 2010 report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation was cited that warned firefighters to treat all solar systems as energized at all times.

The inherent conflict between firefighting and other requirements is certainly not unique to solar energy.  In homes and businesses, space layouts and other features of buildings are optimized for convenience of use, comfort, security, and other reasons rather than for optimum fire safety or access by emergency responders.  In nuclear power plants, some of the measures taken to ensure security against unauthorized intrusion may make it more difficult for emergency responders to move around the plant quickly in case of any emergency, including a fire. 

In the case of solar energy systems, the problem has the potential to be more serious than in some other cases.  This is in part because of the use of solar systems in residential and office buildings, where many lives may be endangered if fires can't be extinguished.  The fact that more and more solar energy systems are being installed means that the potential risks are multiplying quickly.  And finally, the fact that solar energy systems can pose multiple potential threats to the safety of firefighters, each of which may need a different solution, makes the efforts to address this problem more difficult and more costly. 

These kinds of problems, serious though they are, do not seem to be insurmountable.  The article quotes a representative of the Solar Energy Industry Association saying they are working on appropriate codes and standards for solar installations and on training for first responders.  Clearly, there may be a need for "backfits" to improve the safety of existing solar installations for firefighters, or even for some limits in the deployment of solar energy systems.

The reaction to the news of yet another unexpected problem attributed to solar installations should not be one of defensiveness from the solar energy advocates or of joy from the proponents of other energy technologies.  Neither approach helps move us towards a future with adequate supplies of safe, affordable energy.  Rather, the reaction should be the recognition by all that every source of energy supply has pros and cons, that every source of energy supply has some unexpected drawbacks, and that we must keep assessing and improving the design, installation, and operation of all energy supply systems to address issues as we learn of them. 


Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Yosemite Wildfires and Energy Supply:

Another Vulnerability

[There are multiple nuclear-related issues in the news this week.  While the announced closure of Vermont Yankee has been getting the most attention from the nuclear community in the past few days, there is at least one other issue that is timely, so I will turn my attention this week to the news from 3,000 miles away.]

Even as the flames around Rim Fire at Yosemite still blaze, we learn that they are bringing to light yet another concern about our energy supply--the potential susceptibility to wildfires.  A recent editorial in the Wall Street Times referred to the new "message" we are seeing from the inferno as "California's Smoke Signals."  (Note:  The WSJ is a subscription publication.  As of the date of this writing, the editorial was available via an Internet search on the title, but I can't vouch for its permanence.  However, I will cover the key points below.)

There seem to be two parts of the problem:  siting of facilities and transmission lines.  The WSJ puts most of its emphasis on transmission lines, but I will start with the siting problem.

The WSJ notes that most solar and wind projects are located in fire-prone areas--dry, sunny desert and valley regions in the case of large-scale solar plants (at least in California), and mountainous regions in the case of wind farms.  Both of these types of areas are inherently vulnerable to fires, and although the editorial doesn't say so, climatic changes could exacerbate the vulnerability of these areas in future years.

Other kinds of power facilities, such as nuclear and coal plants, tend to be sited along the coast or on large bodies of water.  While it is not impossible for them to be affected by an external fire, the probability of them being exposed to large, long-duration blazes is much lower.

The other, more general, problem is that of transmission lines.  In this case, ANY power plant that is sited far from populated areas requires miles of transmission lines, often through--you guessed it--fire-prone areas.  Thus, large-scale solar and wind power stations are doubly vulnerable--they can be shut down by fires either at their sites or anywhere along their transmission lines.

However, nuclear plants, hydropower plants, or large coal-fired plants that are sited far from population centers have the same vulnerability to the transmission problem.  Hydroelectric power plants obviously have to be sited at suitable bodies of water.  Large-scale solar and wind projects require places where large tracts of land are available.  Large nuclear plants need access to water.  Even if cooling towers are used, public concerns will prevent them from being sited near population centers (although nuclear plants, with or without cooling towers, can be sited a lot closer to population centers than the 120-mile and 150-mile transmission lines mentioned in the editorial).  

The editorial cites a 2008 draft Environmental Impact Report for the San Diego Gas and Electric area that indicated there had been 33 "reported power outages" from 16 different wildfire or lightning events occurring from 1986 to 2005.  While this is less than one causal event and less than two outages per year, these types of outages, occurring in remote areas and sometimes over a widespread area, are generally not fixed quickly.  (No data was reported in the editorial on lengths of these outages, number of people affected, or costs of repairs.)   

Although the WSJ paints this vulnerability as a problem of the "green political obsessions" of California, I see the issue as more complex.

The description of the problem leads me to think that more attention needs to be given to citing some fraction of our energy supply closer to population centers, especially in areas of the country prone to large-scale fires.  This can be done--to some extent--with almost every power source (except perhaps hydropower).  There are certainly smaller-scale applications of solar and wind energy.  There are also small, more passive, nuclear reactors under development that should be able to be sited closer to population centers.

These statements are, of course, easy to make but hard to implement.  The reactors are still under development.  There is still a NIMBY problem, both for nuclear plants and, increasingly, for windmills.  There is still the reliability problem for renewable energy sources.  (This is true regardless of scale, but the larger-scale projects often are combined with on-site storage systems.)  There is the cost of the loss of economies of scale.  Alternatively, there might be a possibility of rerouting some transmission lines to make them less vulnerable to fires, but that will also entail a substantial cost.

The point is that the wildfires are a graphic argument for diversity of supply.  I have always believed that diversity is important, but I must admit that, until this week, I thought of it primarily as an issue of mixing sources, such as nuclear, coal, gas, and renewables.  Now, however, I think the definition needs to be expanded to include diversity of size and location as well. 


Monday, August 26, 2013

Post-Fukushima Japan:

Unseen Impacts

I am often struck by comments I hear that the shutdown of most of the nuclear power plants in Japan hasn't seemed to have much of an impact.  The country continues to function, after all, doesn't it?  People are not dying in masses on the streets because of lack of heat in the winter, are they?

True, a lot of conservation measures have been taken.  Building hallways are darker and offices are warmer in the summer, but on the surface, everything looks like it is perking along more or less as usual.

What people do not realize, of course, is that the most serious effects are basically invisible to most of the people most of the time.  A couple of weeks ago, a report came out that Japan's carbon dioxide intensity in FY2012 far exceeded the levels achieved in the past when all the nuclear power plants were in operation.  This put Japan far beyond the carbon reduction targets they'd previously targeted to achieve.

This finding should not be surprising, because what Japan has done to keep the country functioning is to ramp up the use of fossil fuels.  The public may feel that it is mainly their efforts to conserve energy, and the sacrifices of their comfort and convenience, that are allowing them to function without nuclear plants.  However, in reality, a far larger effect has been the replacement of nuclear power by fossil-fired power plants.

There are other impacts as well.  The higher costs of energy have had effects on the economy.  For example, jobs have moved overseas as the cost and availability of energy made it less economical to manufacture goods in Japan.  These causes and effects are also not readily visible to the average person.

Unfortunately, the fact that things look generally OK on the surface makes it easy for the Japanese public to believe that they can continue to function without returning their nuclear power plants to service.  As long as they think that just notching the thermostat up or down a little will do the job, it will be difficult to get people to understand the need for nuclear power. 


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Irradiated Food:

The Case for More

I was pleased to see a recent NRC blog that highlighted the value of irradiating food to eliminate the harmful pathogens in our food supply that all too regularly cause massive outbreaks of illness and even deaths.  They were responding to news of recent outbreaks of illness traced to lettuce from Mexico served at the major US restaurant chains of Olive Garden and Red Lobster--only the latest of many such outbreaks in many parts of the US over the years

I have been following this issue for a number of years, and even I was surprised at the statistics they cited--that, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 1 in 6 Americans falls ill each year from tainted food.  Most of these food-related illnesses, of course, prove to be minor, but 128,000 people are hospitalized each year and 3,000 die.

That is far too many, and it should be unnecessary.  While some say that the solution is higher standards of cleanliness in the food production chain--and I cannot disagree with that--I do not think that is a complete answer.  The food chain is too far-flung and too distributed for the traditional methods of oversight to work effectively all the time.

With food irradiation, we have an option to provide a much higher guarantee of safety than we can possibly achieve by rules and inspections alone.  It's been proven safe, and contrary to what many people think, it has been in use for a number of years for certain food products, such as spices.

It seems, however, that expanding the use of irradiation to other foods has run into repeated roadblocks due to misconceptions about what irradiation does to food.  The NRC blog tries to address that issue.  I am glad to see them weighing in on this issue, but I can say from personal experience that they have a steep climb ahead of them.

I have previously told the story of what might be termed my ANS irradiated cheese caper--how, in 2001-2, when I served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), I thought I would bring to America the cheeses from France that we cannot import!  I would ask for only a one-time exemption, I offered to post signs at the reception to remind pregnant women and others with health concerns not to eat the irradiated cheese, and I would engage the help of Congressman Joe Barton.  Piece of cake, I thought (or perhaps I should say, piece of cheese).

As I reported, it was all to no avail.  The FDA would not budge.  In the end, we held the ANS reception sans les fromages de France.

I tell this cautionary tale because I know the challenges that are faced by the efforts to improve the safety of our food through irradiation.  I am hopeful that, over time, the opinion of the public will change, the voice of the NRC will be influential, and that the FDA will begin to approve the irradiation of more foods.  I only hope that it will not take more disease outbreaks and more deaths for this to happen.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

New Nukes:

The Next Generation

I was pleased to see an article in Time magazine called New Nukes, which provided a rather positive and optimistic view of the need for nuclear power and its future.  [Note:  On-line access by Time magazine is by subscription, so I'm not sure this link will provide the full article or be permanent.]

What proved most interesting to me about the article, however, was not so much the content of the article as the approach.  Rather than highlighting the "usual suspects" for the next generation of designs--that is the integral pressurized water reactors (iPWRs) that most people acknowledge have an edge right now in terms of the stage of development and the knowledge base of conventional PWRs on which they build--they take the leap of focusing on non-light water concepts.  And rather than drawing on the national laboratories and other places that have been exploring non-LWR technologies for decades, they focus mostly on young graduate students--the next generation of reactors from the next generation of reactor designers.

I want to make sure it is clear that the article did mention all the options.  It described the AP1000s and the EPRs currently under construction, it mentioned Babcock and Wilcox and the US Department of Energy (DOE) award as well as the Hyperion and NuScale contenders, and it discussed larger, more established efforts on non-LWRs, such as Terrapower's traveling-wave reactor.

But the article began and ended with a focus on two graduate students who have founded start-up companies in the hopes of promoting non-LWR technologies.  (One is a molten-salt design, and the other, although not stated in the article, seems to be a very small module.)  It almost glossed over the prospects for the iPWRs on the grounds that, "to really change the economics of need to fundamentally change how plants operate."

I was pleased to see such an optimistic article in a major publication like Time.  I am very pleased to see the enthusiasm and enterprise of the next generation of nuclear engineers--and I certainly wish these two young entrepreneurs the best of luck.  Yet, when I see stories like this, I worry about the next "too cheap to meter" criticism.  The article tries to say that there are hurdles ahead, and that it will take time--and lots of money--to bring new designs to market--but I am afraid those cautions are almost lost.  Furthermore, while I think it is important to pursue more advanced technologies, we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss the near-term technologies. 

Therefore, I hope to see Time, or other publications, continue to cover new developments in nuclear technology.  Over time, I hope these will provide the general public a more complete picture of the iPWRs and their promise and prospects. 


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nuclear Power and Regulation, Part 2:

Is Regulation Needed in the First Place?

A recent post of mine on a case of over-regulation that was making magicians develop emergency plans for their rabbits in case of natural disasters inspired a commenter to suggest that we should think twice about writing any new rules.  After all, he says, "we have had zoos for well over 100 years and somehow we survived."  He goes on to say that he doesn't think we need a "constant stream" of new rules.

Although I'm not an expert on zoos, I would guess that there probably have been natural disasters in the past that breached the security of zoo enclosures and allowed the release of dangerous animals, or that resulted in animals dying cruel and unnecessary deaths.  But that is only my guess, and I have no more concrete evidence for that than does my commenter in saying that zoos were fine without any such regulations. 

I was addressing only the magicians with rabbits, where the rule was clearly excessive.

But I will also say this:  If you go back in history, most regulations that we have today started out in response to a problem.  Contrary to what some believe, they didn't originate for no reason at all in the halls of Congress, or from the cubicles of government bureaucrats. 

They originated to solve a problem.  And in most cases, they originated because of the obvious damage that had been caused when there were no rules in place.  Think about banking.  Think about monopolies.  Think about contaminated food.  Think about discrimination.

In reality, most regulations were only put in place after people were injured or killed, or after they'd suffered financially, or after they'd been treated unfairly. 

I suspect that those early regulations engendered the same kinds of controversies that exist today.  The industries of the day probably thought that things were fine without any regulations at all.  That they could fix their own problems.

And just as surely, the regulations probably missed the mark in some way or another.  Perhaps they didn't address all the problems.  Or perhaps they went too far in some respects.  That gets us back to the case of the rabbit and the magician.

It would be nice if everyone was smarter and and we could avoid these kinds of errors in the first place.  But the solution is not to block regulation in the first place.

The first solution is to fix problems once they are identified, and hopefully, to fix them more expeditiously than has been the case in the past.

The second solution is to try to get smarter about developing regulations so we don't have as many problems.  This, of course, is easier said than done.  It requires the active involvement of regulators, industry, and other stakeholders.  It requires everyone to look outside the box to think about finding solutions that minimize impediments to operations but at the same time address legitimate health, safety or other concerns.  And it requires them to think about the magicians with rabbits.

It may actually be easier for this kind of interaction to take place in the nuclear area than in the case of caged animals, since magicians and rabbits don't usually participate in the regulatory process, but nuclear vendors, utilities, and public interest groups do.

But the more we try to think outside the box, the more issues there are to be considered, and that takes time, which is also a drawback.

So, yes, regulation is by its very nature an impediment to someone, some of the time.  There are usually good reasons for most of those impediments, but sometimes, there are impediments that are excessive, misdirected, outdated, or unnecessary.  Therefore, the solution to regulatory problems is not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater."  Rather, it is to try be as smart as we can in the first place, and to fix problems promptly as they are identified.

Taking a knee-jerk stance against regulation is really just as short-sighted as thinking that more regulation is always better.  The real point is that we need smart regulation.  It is not easy to attain smart regulation in a complex and changing world, but we will never achieve that goal if we draw lines against regulation altogether. 


Friday, July 26, 2013

Energy and Climate Change:

A Two-Way Street

We have long been bombarded with stories about how our use of energy is affecting our environment and our climate.  The biggest concern has been that the carbon dioxide emissions from power production can lead to global warming, but particulate emissions may also have environmental and climate-related effects.  

Now, we are being told that climate changes may, in turn, affect our energy supplies.  The US Department of Energy (DOE) recently published a new report outlining a number of potential effects of climate change on energy sources.  In fact, they point out that we have already seen the beginnings of these effects.

The most troubling aspect of this report is that virtually all sources of our energy supply are vulnerable to some degree.  Furthermore, there are multiple and widespread phenomena that can affect the energy supply, from droughts to floods, and from storms to rising sea levels.

Power plants of all kinds depend on cooling water, so droughts can affect nuclear plants, fossil plants, hydroelectric plants, and even solar plants.  Barges carrying coal and oil can be delayed by low water levels in rivers, and shale oil and gas extraction sites that use water may have to reduce or cease operations. 

Conversely, floods and storms that are becoming more frequent or more severe due to changes in the climate can force power plants to shut down, and rising sea levels can ultimately affect many power stations and other energy-related facilities that are sited on coastlines.  Storms can also damage power lines.

The report notes that we need to begin to pay more attention to these potential problems.  In some cases, improvements to the infrastructure can help make our facilities more resilient to phenomena such as storms and floods.  In other cases, R&D may be able to develop ways to extract oil and gas, and to cool power plants, in ways that use less water.

In the nuclear field, it is noteworthy that some of the advanced reactor concepts are designed to use coolants other than water.  Although these designs are being developed because of other potential benefits, they should also be largely independent of most of these climate-related effects.  They would certainly be more resilient to droughts, and since they would not need to be sited near sources of water for cooling, they should be less vulnerable to flooding, storm surges, or rising sea levels as well. 

It is clear that much more will need to be done as we begin to understand all the interactions between our energy supply and climate change, both to harden and protect our existing energy infrastructure, and to design more robust systems for the future.  It is heartening to know that at least some of the advanced technology developments we have been pursuing in the nuclear field are already steps in the right direction.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nuclear Power and Regulation:

Pulling Rabbits out of Hats

This week, the news carried an item that must have amused most people.  A magician is being harassed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for not having a disaster plan for what to do with his rabbit in case of a natural disaster such as a tornado or flood.

I can hear the groans.  Yet another case of "arbitrary and capricious Federal regulation."  The little guy being harassed by the big, bad government.

All true.  And I think Marty Hahne, the magician in question, could now successfully expand his repertoire, if he wants to, from pulling rabbits out of hats to doing stand-up comedy about magicians battling government agencies.

But if we peel back the layers a little, we can understand both sides of this story. 

The rule was designed to deal with zoos and other institutions that have large numbers of animals, and in some cases, dangerous animals.  And since Washington, DC was only recently stalked by a red panda that escaped from the Washington Zoo, there is ample evidence that plans do need to be in place for the unexpected when it comes to animals under institutional control.

Therefore, most people would likely agree that we need some sort of rule.  In that light, let's examine this rule.

Is the overall rule a "good" rule?  It probably is.  As noted above, we need institutions to do something.  The only way to guarantee that is with a rule.

Is the rule a bad rule for magicians with rabbits?  Absolutely.

Should the USDA officials have thought about the needs of magicians when they wrote the rule?  Ideally, yes, of course, but I'll answer that question with a question of my own:  Would you have thought about magicians?

Should they have thought about bunny rabbits?  Same comment, and same question as above.

Clearly, what this incident shows us is an inherent short-coming of rulemaking.  A rule is made to address a particular need (emergency plans for zoos and other such institutions), and, I might add, sometimes a need identified at a particular point in time.  (More on that later.)

The rulemaking process has a safety valve that is supposed to help the agencies involved identify unanticipated consequences.  One problem in this case:  magicians probably don't review the Federal Register every day!

When the safety valve doesn't work, or when it works imperfectly, rules get put in place that have unintended consequences.  In this case, they create an undue burden on a man who pulls rabbits out of hats.  What is particularly ironic in this case is that he could keep the rabbit without being burdened by the rules if the rabbit was just a pet and was not used in a commercial situation.  Or, as the article points out, he could kill the rabbit and eat it without being bound by any rules.

You might well ask:  What is the message here?  Is this a case where it was wrong to have a rule at all?  I don't think so.  I would think that it is important for zoos and other institutions to have emergency plans in place.

Likewise, most of the regulations in other areas have a fundamental purpose that is valid.  The problem is that the regulators don't think of all the ramifications.  Or, in the case of technology, they write a rule that doesn't anticipate a new development.  Or, the situation changes in some other way.

This is not intended to excuse poor regulation.  It is a reality.  It is not that different from the reality that faces individuals and families and businesses all the time, for reasons big and small.  You plan a dinner party for the maximum number of people you can seat at your dining table, then learn that one of your guests has a significant other you hadn't known about.  You buy a house convenient to your job and then get a better offer--but with a much longer commute.  Your company moves into new quarters with just the right amount of space for the staff, and then gets a big new contract that requires additional staffing.  Trivial examples, perhaps, but some of the same issues are at play. 

So, what is the solution?  Obviously, the solution is that shortcomings in the regulations should be fixed as they are identified.  Of course, that usually turns out to be "easier said than done."  The rulemaking process is slow and cumbersome (for reasons both good and bad).  In the case of the magician's rabbit, the USDA does recognize the problem and is going to look into it, but that is usually a slow process.  The problem will probably eventually be fixed, but no doubt, Marty the magician is going to be saddled with excessive paperwork for a long time.  That is, unless he decides to pull an iguana out of his hat instead (as this particular rule applies only to mammals)--or unless (hint, hint) he can pull a final revised rule out of his hat!

(There is one "magic trick" the government can use, and they possibly will in this case.  That is, they can use a blanket waiver or an exemption for magicians with rabbits.  However, such waivers need to be used judiciously, or else fixing one mistake in a regulation could well end up creating another.  And for readers outside the US, I should note that, while the US uses a common-law system that allows the use of waivers, countries that use a civil law system generally do not allow waivers.)

The real message of this story is that government rules are only as good as the information that informs them.  If the regulators did not think about magicians and rabbits and if no one brought that particular situation to their attention, it is not surprising that the rule missed the mark.  If new technologies emerge and if regulations had no way to anticipate those technologies, it is not surprising that those rules may be fine today, but inadequate a decade from now.

Given this reality, I do not fault the government for rules with flaws.  I must admit, I got a good laugh out of this one, but I can fully understand how it happened.  However, for the same reason, I do fault the government for the slow pace of fixing flawed regulations.  While there is a process that takes some time (for example, to obtain and assess stakeholder views), the total process of making or revising a rule usually takes far longer than the public comment portion requires.  That is an important concern.

The case of magicians and the government is, of course, a special one.  The regulators are clearly at fault, but in reality, one can't have expected them to think of this very special scenario.  For most areas, where the industry watches their regulators closely, it is harder to make this statement.  Certainly, the regulators miss things.  In some cases, and particularly in cases where technology changes over time, the industry may miss things as well.  In other cases, the industry may raise concerns, but the regulators may decide the concerns are not valid, or not important, or are trumped by other considerations.

One reason some rulemakings take a long time is to accommodate the continued dialogue needed to sort out these kinds of issues.  I really don't know how often regulatory changes are made to address issues that were identified during the initial rulemaking process, but clearly, every time this does happen, it represents a failure of the public comment provisions of the rulemaking process to operate as intended. 

All government agencies really need to find ways to improve their rulemaking and to streamline the rulemaking processes, particularly where changes are needed to address shortcomings in existing rules.   Unfortunately, in this era of government cutbacks, I can't see an easy path for such reform.  And there are no magicians in the government!


Saturday, July 13, 2013

My Summer with the WISE Guys:

An Update

Before I launch into today's topic, allow me to report on some personal news.  I recently was notified by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) that I have been selected to receive their Engineer-Historian Award for my book on Nuclear Firsts.  Second, I recently provided an English-language version of an Op-Ed of mine that appeared in a Japanese newspaper.  This was recently picked up and published by the Howard Baker Forum on Energy.  All in all, a good week.

Now, back to the subject of this week's blog.  At the end of May, I announced that I was going to be working with a group of summer interns in Washington.  This program, called the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering, or WISE, is a program that has been operating for over 30 years.  I promised updates on the program during the course of the 9-week program.  I now find that we are 2/3 of the way through the program, and I have yet to provide my first update.  This is my attempt to make up for lost time. 

First though, a little more perspective than I previously provided.  Each summer, the WISE program brings a group of engineering students, most of them entering their final year as undergraduates, to DC to study technology policy.  I coordinate visits for them as a group to various government agencies and other organizations in Washington, and they each do a paper on a technology policy topic.  They are supported by 7 engineering professional societies, and the 14 have interests that span most of the engineering disciplines.

Unlike most internships, the WISE interns, or WISE Guys, as they sometimes call themselves, are not assigned to one agency or organization.  This is both a plus and a minus.  When assignments to an office work well, an intern can find him- or herself in the thick of some of the most important issues of the day and make some contribution to it.  When things don't work so well, an intern can find that they are mainly answering phones or copying documents. 

The WISE program differs from these others in that it gives the students a broad overview of a lot of different agencies and organizations.  In the past 6 weeks, we have met with officials from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of State, the Department of Energy (two meetings, one with the Office of Nuclear Energy and one with the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Congressional Research Service.  We also met with the Library of Congress, where the students all registered to be able to do research at the Library, and we had briefings from various private sector experts on standards, Administrative Law, the US budget, the UN's statistics program, public communications, and (upcoming) intellectual property and patent law.  We also held a couple of interesting roundtable discussions, one with some past WISE interns who are now working in the Washington area and the other with a group of current S&T Fellows assigned to Congressional and Executive agency offices.  Whew!

A couple of things stand out from these meetings:

First, most government officials and others, busy as they are, have been very generous with their time.  Not only have they taken the time to meet with us, but many have also invited the interns to contact them later with any specific questions.  Some of the interns have taken them up on that offer.  I know--because I used to work in some of these agencies--that the officials are doing this on top of already intense jobs.

Second, many of the people with whom we've met have shared the stories of how they got where they are, and it's been very revealing to see what unexpected paths many careers have taken.  I know this is true of my own career, but somehow, one always think that everyone else had things figured out and followed some straightforward path.

Third, it has been fun to sit by and watch networking in action.  Sometimes, I have arranged a meeting for a very specific and focused purpose, only to find that the background or activities of one of the people with whom we meet resonates with one of the students in a totally different way than I'd anticipated. 

The interns are now heavily into the preparation of written papers on their research projects.  They have done their literature searches and met or spoken with people on various sides of their issues, and on Monday, I should get 14 draft papers for my review.  That should keep me busy for a while.