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.