Friday, January 31, 2014

Good News from Asia:


Last week, I reported on a couple of pieces of good news for the nuclear community coming from Europe.  This week, Asia reasserts itself, with mostly good news, although there is also an additional piece of good news from Europe.

The biggest good news comes from South Korea and China.  Specifically, South Korea has approved the construction of 2 new reactors at the Kori site.  These are the first new reactors approved in Korea since the Fukushima accident almost 3 years ago, and of course, the first since the falsification scandal during the past year.  This troubled backdrop makes Korea's move all the more noteworthy.  It will be critically important, of course, to the smooth progress of these new reactors, for Korea to make sure it has completely addressed the roots of the falsification problem and that there be no recurrence of such problems. 

China also reported on progress on resuming approvals for new nuclear power plant construction.  China had previously lifted its post-Fukushima moratorium on new approvals, but the recent move seems to represent a further, more aggressive action, involving the introduction of more measures to promote the construction of nuclear power plants in coastal areas.  China's actions, of course, are driven by its continuing, very serious, air pollution problems, and its efforts to curtail the use of coal, or at least hold it steady, despite the continued growth of energy demand.

The "mostly" in my subtitle reflects two factors--not all the good news came from Asia, and not all the news from Asia was completely positive.  Specifically, Poland also made a step forward in their plans for nuclear power, and one country in Asia, Vietnam, confirmed a delay in their nuclear plans.  In both cases, these are not brand new actions, but rather, are further steps in previously announced plans.

In the case of Poland, the recent announcement reflects a cabinet decision on some of the details for the planning of the new reactors, including a timetable for some of the critical steps and a recognition of the need for Poland to develop the critical regulatory infrastructure needed.

The news from Vietnam does not represent a major change.  Rather, it represents a delay of a couple of years in the previously announced construction schedule for their first nuclear power plant.  They indicate that this delay is a result of stock-taking they did following the Fukushima accident.  Therefore, this news should not be surprising and should not be over-interpreted. 

Overall, the year has started with some good signs for the nuclear industry--and, I might add, for the energy supply situation in the countries involved.  It is a signal that governments are beginning to put the Fukushima situation into perspective. 


Friday, January 24, 2014

Good News from Europe:

Reasoned Approaches to Energy Policy

Two optimistic pieces of news regarding energy policy emerged from Europe in the last week or so.  One of them was a European Union decision that scrapped binding renewable energy targets for the future.  The other was a report that the Swiss public recognizes the contribution nuclear power makes to their energy security and that they want a say in decisions about the future of nuclear energy in Switzerland.

The EU decision was a major breakthrough.  Targets for 2020, previously established, known as the "20-20-20" targets, set three key objectives for 2020:
  • A 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels;
  • Raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20%;
  • A 20% improvement in the EU's energy efficiency.
These overall targets were supported by a layer of individual national targets based on the wealth of individual EU member countries, with the wealthier countries required to commit to higher renewable energy goals.

The 2020 targets will still stand.  The hotly debated issue in this round was how to set the targets for 2030 and beyond.  Countries like Germany and Italy were pushing for further individual targets for renewable energy sources, while countries like the United Kingdom pushed for more flexibility.  It appears that the arguments for flexibility won the day this time around.  The European Commission set a 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target of 40% over 1990 levels.  There is also an EU-wide target of 27% of energy consumption from renewable sources--BUT, there are no individual national target commitments.  Instead, each nation retains the flexibility to do what makes most sense in that country.

Although here are further steps ahead in finalizing this new plan, this is a major step and a significant change in policy from the past.  It removes the discrimination for and against specific energy technologies, and allows each country to chose a mix that best suits their needs based on their climate, population density, indigenous sources, and other factors.  This is a welcome change in direction.

The news from Switzerland also represents a step forward in having rational discussions on energy supply and demand.  In a series of questions on nuclear power in Switzerland, a majority of the respondents said that Switzerland's nuclear power plants were essential in meeting the country's energy demand, that the reactors should remain in operation, that the population does not want to be dependent on other countries for its energy supply, that the existing mix of energy sources should be retained in the immediate future, and that they want to be able to vote on Switzerland's future nuclear energy policy.  In most of these cases, the percent favorable response has gone up since the last such survey.

This again appears to be at least somewhat of a break with past policy--the current plan in Switzerland is to phase out nuclear power by not replacing the current reactors with new nuclear power plants as they are retired--and a recognition that a nation's energy supply must consider a complex set of interacting factors.  In the case of Switzerland, energy independence and security were highlighted. 

While it is far too soon to project what further developments will follow the EU decision or the Swiss survey, and what the ultimate result will be on the mix of energy sources, it is a welcome breath of fresh air to see the dialogue shifting from a preordained solution to one where energy supply decisions take into account the unique circumstances of each country and all the complex considerations that affect, or are affected by, a nation's energy choices.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Fire and Risk:

Environmental Impact Assessments in the Stone Age

One of my not-so-enjoyable tasks over the recent holiday period was trying to tackle some of the accumulation of an entire career that I have stashed haphazardly in the dark recesses of my basement over the years.  My husband will be quick to tell you that I did not make as much progress as he hoped I would, but I did unearth one forgotten gem that I'd long since forgotten about.  To my utter amazement, the piece I found, which was written--well, let's just say several decades ago--reflects the same sentiment that has been the theme of a number of my blogspots--that is, everything has some impacts.

The piece was an outline purporting to be the table of contents of a report by none other than Dr. A. Troglodyte, the man or woman who had first discovered how to control fire and who now had the unenviable task of documenting its environmental impacts.

The outline for A. Troglodyte's report included the following chapters:

Chapter 1.  Accidental burns:  Especially to those who regularly handle fire, and to children or others who are unable to heed instructions to maintain a safe distance from the heat source.

Chapter 2.  Conflagrations:  The uncontrolled spread of fire can potentially result in large-scale loss of human life, and/or of human or animal habitat.  Potential impacts include loss of hunting or gathering grounds.

Chapter 3.  Air Pollution:  The emissions from controlled fire can cause respiratory illness in those who stay too close to sources for too long.  On a larger scale, with widespread use, the air pollution can have as yet unknown weather and climatic effects, as well as widespread incidence of respiratory diseases.

Chapter 4.  Carcinogens in Cooked Food:  Recent evidence points to the existence of potential carcinogens in the charred exterior layer of meats barbequed over open fires.

Chapter 5.  Physical Impacts on Members of the Genus:  Over several generations, the reliance on cooked food, which is softer and therefore easier to chew and digest, may lead to natural selection for physiognomic characteristics that would make it difficult for members of the community to survive without fire.  Furthermore, accustoming the body to warmer environments could reduce the ability of the species to endure without the constant availability of heat, thus potentially reducing the combat effectiveness of warriors, who might not be able to use fires on battlefronts without revealing their locations.

Chapter 6.  Socioeconomic Impacts:  One can envision the control of fire leading to the emergence of a "fire priesthood" which could potentially have unprecedented levels of control over fellow members of their tribes.  In addition, it would exacerbate class distinctions, with the privileged class having the ability to barter for fire and the less privileged having to do without.  Furthermore, the existence of fires is likely to lead to family units spending more time in their caves interacting only with their own members, and to reduced athletic activity, thus leading to more societal isolation and a more passive culture.

Chapter 7.  Depletion of Resources:  While the current need for fuel is limited and there appear to be adequate amounts, widespread use of fire could lead to depletion of forests, resulting in both the economic consequences of resource scarcity and the environmental consequences of widespread forest destruction.

Now, the casual reader may think I was poking fun at the excesses of environmental impact statements (EIS), but the truth is, my intentions were to demonstrate that, if we knew then what we know now, even something as basic to the story of human life as controlled fire might have been viewed with suspicion and alarm.

The message should not be that fire is evil, but by the same token, neither is nuclear power, and neither are any of the other energy sources, even though I have written a number of blogposts about various risks from each energy source as I learn of them.  We are no longer troglodytes (I hope!).  The real message is that we need to take this environmental impact statement to the next step to determine 1) what is the relative significance of each of these impacts, 2) how does it compare to the impacts of other competing sources, and 3) how might we reduce the impacts. 


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Acronym Mania:


Several yars ago, I did a blogpost on NIMBY and other related acronyms. I was actually surprised I found as many as I did, and I never expected to find enough new terms to do another post on acronyms again.

Then, I started discovering that there were whole new worlds of acronyms out there.  My first clue was an excellent blogpost by Margaret Harding on "PEST(EL)," a term that was totally new to me.  This was some time ago, and I must confess, I put it aside at the time, thinking that perhaps there was just that one term I'd missed.

However, much more recently, I had a discussion with a colleague during a recent trip to Korea.  He was busy compiling a really comprehensive list of acronyms, both familiar and unfamiliar, for a class he was teaching.  Looking over his list made me think that there might be more interest in acronyms than I had imagined.

Therefore, when I returned from that trip, I unearthed Margaret's blog again. Maybe I'm behind the times, but I had never heard of the acronym PEST(EL), so my first action was to do a little digging.

What I found was a whole new and different set of related acronyms that I'd never heard of before. Like the NIMBY series, these are not specifically nuclear-related, but also like NIMBY, they are applicable to the analysis of nuclear issues--as well as to numerous other socio-technical issues.

So herewith is my newest contribution to acronym compilation (with the highlighted words emphasizing the new additions from one acronym to the next):

PEST: Political, Economic, Social and Technological

SLEPT: Social, Legal, Economic, Political and Technological

PESTEL or PESTLE: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal
(the second version is apparently the British version)

STEEPLE: Social, Technological, Economic, Ethics, Political, Legal and Environmental

STEEPLED: Social, Technological, Economic, Ethics, Political, Legal, Environmental and Demographic

STEER: Social, Technological, Economic, Ecological, and Regulatory

LoNGPESTEL: Local, National and Global Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal

TANSTAAFL or TINSTAAFL: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, or There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (depending on your grammatical proclivities)

A number of sources, including Wikipedia, offer further definitions of what's usually included in each of these factors.

I know we have all dealt with every one of these factors in analyzing nuclear issues. I just never knew there was a name for it!


Friday, January 3, 2014

Nuclear Power in 2013 and 2014:

 New Year Reflections

As we ring in the New Year, it is a good time to reflect on what has happened during the past year, and what we might expect in the year ahead.

In summary, the past year has been an eventful one, with some bad news, but much promising news--particularly from a global perspective. 

On the negative side, the worst news domestically was the early retirement of several operating nuclear power plants due to a combination of unusual maintenance issues and an electricity market that, from my perspective, makes less and less sense the more I see it in action. 

Internationally, South Korea continued to struggle with the effects of the revelation of the "counterfeit parts" scandal that began in late 2012, finding more fake certificates for components in their nuclear power plants as the year wore on.  At this point, they seem to have addressed the problem, but it resulted in a rough year for the industry.

In Japan, the aftermath of the Fukushima accident continues to haunt the country, with the shutdown of the country's operating plants resulting in significant increases in pollution and a severe impact on the national economy.  Elsewhere, Germany remains committed to its shutdown plant for its nuclear reactors, despite increasing evidence of the negative impacts that are being seen from the plants that were shut down shortly after Fukushima.

On the plus side, the overall trend for the growth of nuclear power around the world is positive, with a very aggressive construction schedule in China, and ongoing construction projects or plans in a number of other countries.  In the United States, several construction projects continue to be active, and good progress was made during the past year.

Another positive sign is the continued interest in advanced designs, particularly Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that could expand the market for nuclear power in a number of directions--to smaller grids and smaller markets, for remote applications, and in places where the water supply is limited.  The interest, which has been building for several years, passed a milestone in 2013 with awards from the Department of Energy for two light water designs.

Interest also continues on non-light water designs that would offer many of the same benefits as light-water SMRs, plus additional benefits, such as suitability for high-temperature industrial applications.

Looking to the future, the picture continues to be mixed.  The strong new-build agendas in several countries bode well for the future of nuclear power on a global scale.  In the United States, however, the current low prices of natural gas continue to warp the market.  On the positive side, more and more people, including some prominent environmentalists, are stating publicly that nuclear power needs to be a part of the energy mix.  While I don't have a crystal ball, overall, it seems that there is growing optimism for the future.

My best wishes to all for a healthy, happy, prosperous New Year!