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.