Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission:

A New Leader at the Helm

The House of Representatives of the Japanese Diet recently passed a bill appointing three new Commissioners to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC).  Yoshiaki Oka, who is presently a professor of nuclear engineering in the science and engineering faculty of Waseda University was appointed as chairman of the JAEC.  In addition, Tomoko Nakanishi, a professor at the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Tokyo and Nobuyasu Abe, director of the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, were appointed as JAEC Commissioners.

It is important to note that these 3 individuals will take over their new duties during a time of change and uncertainty, not only for the role of nuclear power in Japan, but also for the role of the JAEC itself.  My understanding is that the JAEC will no longer be charged with promoting nuclear power, but rather, "will focus in various ways on particular aspects of nuclear-related issues."

What this will mean in practice, I am not sure.  One hint may be that on February 14, coincidentally (I assume) the same day as the Diet acted on these appointments, the Radioactive Waste Working Group of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, which is under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), identified a role for the JAEC as a third-party evaluator, or "referee," for issues related to geologic disposal.  

Nor do I know all the new Commissioners or their capabilities.  However, I do know the new Chairman, Yoshiaki Oka, quite well, having worked with him in organizing one conference, participating in another conference, and working together on several American Nuclear Society activities, and I can attest to the fact that he comes to this position with strong credentials.  His background includes bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Tokyo (in 1969, 1971 and 1974, respectively); a career as a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tokyo from 1974 to 2010; and his current position as a professor of nuclear engineering at Waseda University since 2010.

In addition to these positions, Professor Oka has been active in several professional societies, and has served as president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (2008-9) and as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Nuclear Society (2001-4).  He has led research projects on super-critical light water reactors, as well as a Japanese-government funded Global Center of Excellence (COE) on "Nuclear Education and Research Initiative," and has authored or co-authored several books on nuclear reactor design and technology.

Of course, the challenges of running a government agency are different from that of working in an academic institution or running a research program, and the challenges of redefining the mission of an organization are that much greater.  Nevertheless, it is very helpful for a person leading the JAEC to start from a strong technical base, and the new chairman certainly has those credentials.  As a friend and colleague through a variety of activities over several years, I wish him great success in this new endeavor.  I also wish the best to his colleagues.

And to the outgoing JAEC Chairman, Dr. Shunsuke Kondo, who I also know for many years, I extend my congratulations on his successful completion of a remarkable 10 years as Chairman, including his role in leading the JAEC in the difficult time since the Fukushima accident.  I also extend to him my best wishes for whatever new challenges he undertakes.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Fusion in 30?:

What the "Breakthrough" Means

It was interesting, in more ways than one, to read some of the coverage of the recent news from the fusion research community.  The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California announced in the journal Nature that they had used lasers to compress a pellet of fuel and generate a reaction in which more energy came out of the fuel core than went into it.

This was indeed a significant breakthrough--though still, by the admission of most of the community, a long way from a practical way to generate energy.  Most researchers and others described it that way.  Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), titled their article on the achievement, "Baby Steps on the Road to Fusion Energy."  Other articles, and many quotes in those articles, agreed both that this was a significant breakthrough, and that much more still needed to be done.

One spokesperson, however, appeared considerably more optimistic.  The Washington Post quoted Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, as saying, "In 30 years, we’ll have electricity on the grid produced by fusion energy — absolutely."

That got my attention big time.  Why?  Because when I was in graduate school--more than 30 years ago--people were saying EXACTLY the same thing.  Fast forward to 2014.  No fusion energy.

To be fair, Prager's quote was the only quote I've seen that said that.  Everyone else expressed caution.  The Washington Post article itself reported several of those cautious statements.  Other publications did as well:  This is a "baby step."  There is a factor of 100 to go.  There are still a lot of hurdles ahead.

Even Prager really undercuts his own prediction, saying, "I think the open questions now are how complicated a system will it be, how expensive it will be, how economically attractive it will be."

In the real world, those are the key questions that distinguish a successful demonstration from a marketplace success.  So it seems that Prager does understand that there are going to be economic hurdles on top of the technical ones.  But even if he meant to say only that there could be fusion-generated electricity available in 30 years, he seems to be way ahead of most of the fusion community.

Optimism is good for people working on the development of a challenging technology, and we can all hope that, in 30 years, we will have more and better energy supply options of all sorts available to meet our needs for power.  And maybe things are really different now than they were 30+ years ago. 

However, in the meantime, the research community needs to be aware that the one sound bite that is likely to be remembered is the dramatic one.  And if it happens to be sound bite that has already been around for 30 years, it is even harder to convince anyone that things are different this time around.

I only hope that I'm around in 30 years to see if, this time, the prediction was true.

February 15 addition:  I have just found an interesting analysis of the energy dynamics of the experiment at NIF suggesting that the achievement is still far from breakeven when the full energy chain is considered.  It points out that the "net energy" was calculated only based on the energy absorbed by the pellet compared to the energy emitted by the resulting fusion action.  However--and this is a big however--the energy used to power the lasers was 28,000 times the energy generated.  This number illustrates the magnitude of the task that still lies ahead before we can even achieve a system that can really produce more energy than it requires to operate it--much less, do so on a commercially viable basis.


Monday, February 10, 2014

The Tokyo Election:

What it Means for Nuclear Power in Japan

The election results are in for the hotly contested election for governor of Tokyo, and the "nuclear-neutral" candidate has prevailed by a significant margin.  Since the election had seemingly morphed into a plebiscite on nuclear power, one could reasonably now ask what this vote may mean for nuclear power in Japan.

My own assessment is that it may mean less for nuclear power than the pro-nukes might wish or the anti-nukes might fear.  Perhaps what it means most is simply that the electorate of Tokyo acted rationally and decided that nuclear power wasn't really an appropriate election issue for Tokyo.

By explanation, let's recap the election briefly.  The winning candidate, Japan's former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, is a former member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.  He was running against former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who had made opposition to nuclear power the central issue of his campaign.  By contrast, Masuzoe had not made energy policy a key issue, although he did state an interest in reducing the use of nuclear power in the medium to long term.  This was consistent with Abe's position on nuclear energy.

So, does this mean that the population of Tokyo backs nuclear energy?  Hardly.  In the first place, Masuzoe's didn't really support nuclear power, so much as indicate he felt Japan needed to tolerate it for the time being.  This position probably resonated with the electorate.  In the second place, surveys have shown that the public continues to be against nuclear power, but they are more concerned about jobs and the state of the economy.  Masuzoe's platform focused on these issues.  It should also be noted that there was a pro-nuclear candidate on the ballot--he came in a very distant fourth.  (A further possible factor is that voter turnout has been reported as low.  The role of the snowfall in Tokyo the day before, which was nearly a 50-year record level, is being debated.)

What the election results really mean is that the Tokyo public put their economic interests above their concerns about nuclear power.  In reality, since there are no nuclear power plants in the Tokyo area, it would have been foolish for them to make nuclear power their primary issue anyway.  [*This is in contrast the significance of the issue of nuclear power in other parts of Japan.  See note at end of blog.]  Voting for an anti-nuclear ticket in Tokyo might have been a "feel good" vote for an anti-nuke, but it was unlikely to have any practical value.  Therefore, in my view, the vote mainly means that the Tokyo electorate voted based on reason, and not on emotion.

As a result, it would be unwise for either the pro-nuclear camp or the anti-nuclear camp to make too much of the results of this election.  It is not a ringing endorsement of nuclear power.  The anti-nukes are not going to feel their cause is lost and slink away in defeat.  The path to restarting the shuttered nuclear power plants in Japan is still not clear or easy.  What happens in the nuclear arean will continue to depend on the on-going dialogue between the utilities the Nuclear Regulation Agency in Japan and on the local jurisdictions around each of the power plants.

Likewise, had the vote gone for Hosokawa, it would unlikely have had much impact on the activities already in process to try to gain approval to restart some of the idled plants.  However, it certainly would have reinforced the image that the Japanese population put their highest priority on shuttering the existing plants, and in that sense, would have created an additional psychological hurdle.

Therefore, the fact that vote went the way it did provides a ray of optimism for the future of nuclear power in Japan.  It demonstrates that nuclear power isn't the key issue for the general population, and it gives some hope that, if plants are restarted and run smoothly, the anti-nuclear sentiment may become less and less of a priority among the voters of Japan.

[*Note:  In contrast to other countries, local jurisdictions in Japan do have a role in decisions on nuclear power plant operations--and other industrial or infrastructure-related activities--in their areas.  Therefore, this type of vote could have an impact in areas of Japan that host nuclear power plants.]


Friday, February 7, 2014

Nuclear Power and Earthquakes:

A Contribution to the Dialogue

When I studied nuclear engineering in grad school, I thought that nuclear power was an intersection between different science and engineering disciplines--nuclear, mechanical, chemical, electrical, systems, etc.

At the time, that scope seemed plenty broad to me.  Little did I realize that, over the years, I would find my work affected by international and domestic politics, the electricity market, regulation of all types, public perception of risk, and a variety of other external factors.  While I can't claim to have become an expert in all of these areas, I have tried to develop at least a rudimentary understanding, and I do try to keep up with the news.

Therefore, I was very pleased to get a message from Woody Epstein providing me with a recent article he co-authored on an analysis of active faults and nuclear power plants.  Earthquakes, of course, are yet another external factor that is important to nuclear power.

Woody lives and works in Japan and has been active on a number of risk assessment issues.   The paper he sent me, which is entitled Active Faults and Nuclear Power Plants, was co-authored by Neil Chapman (MCM Switzerland), Kelvin Berryman (GNS Science, New Zealand), Woody Epstein (Lloyd’s Register, Japan) and Hideki Kawamura (Obayashi Corporation, Japan).  (This is a submission version of a paper for  Eos Transactions, American Geophysical Union.  That version indicates two additional authors, Pilar Villamor and Lloyd Cluff.) 

Although the title is generic, the article primarily covers the geology and seismic vulnerability of the site of the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant.  For me, it provided a very useful and understandable tutorial of how a major fault is analyzed to determine when it was last active and what other considerations are important.  Understanding such arguments is critical to understanding the discussions now underway in Japan that underlie the decisions on whether some of the currently closed nuclear power plants will be permitted to restart. 

In the case of Tsuruga, the paper briefly walks the reader through the steps that lead to the conclusion that the Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) was correct when it determined that there was no evidence of movement at the site in the last 120,000-130,000 years.  The paper also briefly addresses other issues, such as the presence of smaller faults.  And although the authors don't go into specific detail, they do note that the earthquake issue should not be viewed as a simple "guilty or not guilty" issue.  Likewise, they point out that, where active faults are found nearby, there can be consideration of whether and how the risk can be mitigated. 

Japan, of course, is not the only country that faces serious seismic concerns.  Therefore, at least some of the discussion in this paper may be useful to understanding the situation elsewhere as well.  Of course, we must keep in mind that different locations around the globe have very different geologic and seismic characteristics.  Furthermore, the authors point out that different countries have different definitions of "active faults."  Nevertheless, for those of us who struggle to understand the basis for some of the discussion going on in Japan, this paper makes a useful start.

Thus, Woody and his colleagues have not only contributed to the analysis of the particular situation at Tsuruga, but they have produced an assessment that can help more of us become familiar with the issues involved.  While one paper can't turn a nuclear engineer into a seismologist, I certainly think it will help me understand better the reports I am hearing from Japan on their seismic assessments, as well as reports I may hear from elsewhere.