Saturday, March 29, 2014

Public Comment on Japanese Reactor Restarts:

What are the Pros and Cons

The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recently announced its intention to hold public hearings and request public comments before restarting any reactors in Japan.  This has caused a lot of consternation, since it seems it will cause yet additional delay in a process that has already gone on longer than a lot of people have hoped.  The concern about the public meeting/comment process has been expressed in newspaper editorials and elsewhere.

Among the arguments against such public hearings are that they aren't required.  Some also point to other countries, such as the US, where public comment may be required for new regulations and for new reactors, but not for the restart of reactors that have been shut down.

In truth, however, the situation is very different in Japan than it is in the US.  In Japan, local jurisdictions must give their approval for the restart of a reactor after it has been shut down.  At the moment, public opinion in Japan is very divided, and it is safe to say that a majority of the population, particularly those around existing plants, would like to see the reactors near them stay shuttered.

While holding public hearings and requesting public comment doesn't necessarily win everyone over, it seems to me that an open dialogue between the NRA and the public could help alleviate the concerns of the public and perhaps win over some local mayors and governors who are now opposed to the restarts.

Added March 30:  After publishing this blog, I realized that NRC Chairman Macfarlane had made a statement in her remarks at the NRC Regulatory Information Conference on March 11--the anniversary of the Fukushima accident--that address this very point:  "I believe that when we demonstrate that our decisions reflect the best available information, and when we demonstrate openness to external interlocutors, it enhances public confidence."

However, for the public interaction to have the desired effect, the NRA will have to assure that the public comment is not just an exercise in checking off boxes.  If they hold public meetings, they will really have to lay out in detail what they have done and how all the known concerns that were raised by the Fukushima accident have been addressed, and why the changes they have made are sufficient.  When questions are asked at those meetings, they will have to be sure their responses provide specific answers, not just vague reassurance.  If they ask for written comments from the public, they will have to respond to the comments and explain how they have addressed the concerns.  If the comments raise any new issues that are valid, they will have to address these issues.

[In the United States, the provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as decisions by courts, require that government agencies provide such explanations in response to written comments from members of the public.  This is not the case in Japan at present.]

Hopefully, all of this can be accomplished without too much further delay, but it seems to me that, as long as Japan has the requirement for local authorization for restarts, the time spent will be worth it if it helps assure local governments that the modifications made to the plants will really prevent another Fukushima-like event.


Friday, March 21, 2014

New Director-General for the OECD/NEA:

USNRC Commissioner Magwood to Take the Post

It has just been announced that NRC Commissioner William Magwood will leave the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take the position of Director-General of the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency in September.  That position is being vacated by Luis Echavarri of Spain, who is retiring at the end of April after having served as the DG of NEA since 1997.  (There is no word yet on who will serve at acting DG between April and September.)

The NEA's current membership consists of 31 countries in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region.  Together they account for approximately 90% of the world's installed nuclear capacity.  The NEA's scope of work covers issues related to both nuclear regulation and development, and Magwood has substantial experience in both areas.  Prior to becoming a Commissioner of the US NRC, Magwood served as the Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology of the US Department of Energy, and before that, he worked in industry.  He also knows the work of the NEA well, having chaired its Steering Committee while he was at DOE.

NEA has had only 6 DGs in the more than 55 years of its existence, and it has been so long since an American held the position that I find many of my colleagues assuming that Magwood will be the first American to hold this position.  That is not the case.  Howard Shapar held the position from 1982 to 1988.  Shapar had also come from the NRC, in his case, from the legal office.  In addition, Sam Thompson served as acting DG between 1995 and 1997.  Thompson had come from State Department, and was serving as the Deputy DG when the DG position was vacated.  A full list of the previous Directors General can be found in the historical review of the NEA and its committees that I prepared for the 50th anniversary of the organization in 2008.

Magwood is taking the helm of the NEA at an interesting time in its history.  It will be the first change in leadership in 17 years.  During that time, several new countries have joined the NEA.  The program of work of the agency has always been a delicate balancing act, as the member countries have different interests.  Since Fukushima, the number of countries in the organization that have rejected nuclear power has grown.  At the same time, the Fukushima accident identified new needs for international coordination and exchange, especially among countries that continue to use nuclear power.  In addition, the global economic situation has put pressure on the budget.  Thus, Magwood will face some interesting challenges as he begins his new assignment.

Magwood will be leaving the NRC before the expiration of his term (June 30, 2015).  Since Commissioner George Apostolakis' term expires June 30, 2014, this will create two vacancies on the Commission in the coming months.  Commissioner Apostolakis has not announced officially whether he wishes to be nominated for a second term, but some sources suggest that he is interested in continuing to serve on the Commission. 

When there are two vacancies from opposite parties, the pairing allows for some balancing of viewpoints, at least theoretically.  However, this time, the two positions being vacated are both held by Democrats.  Furthermore, of the three Commissioners remaining, two are Republicans.  The makeup of the remaining Commissioners will increase the political pressure to fill the vacancies quickly.  At the same time, given the ongoing politics of Yucca Mountain, the selection of an individual for Magwood's position (presuming that Apostolakis is renominated) is likely to be fraught.  Senator Harry Reid will seek a candidate who is opposed to Yucca Mountain, while others will oppose a very biased selection.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Technology Risk:

The More Things Change...

I was taking advantage of some wintery weather days a few weeks ago to try to go through some of the boxes that have been accumulating in my basement for the last...well, I'm ashamed to admit it, the last 20 or 30 years...or so.  As I changed jobs and moved around, files were brought down to the basement "until I have time to go through them."  All I can say is that anything that reaches my basement seems to have a remarkably long half-life!

Having finally reached the point where something really had to be done, I dutifully carted up the first Xerox box worth of papers.  It turned out to be a box of papers on risk issues, mostly dating from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. 

To put the contents of that box in context, I should mention that, in the early 1980s, I worked for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the US Library of Congress.  Among other issues I handled in those days was the at-that-time emerging issue of risk assessment and management.  While risk assessment was not new in the nuclear field or for the aircraft industry, the Congress at that time was grappling with the issue of how technological risks should be considered by government agencies.  As a result of that work, my interest in risk went far beyond the confines of nuclear power.

Therefore, when I left CRS and joined the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I continued to work, on and off, on risk-related issues, and I continued to squirrel away news items and scholarly papers on a variety of risk-related issues and notes from meetings I attended on the subject, as well as a few papers of my own from that period.  Going through them years later was like opening a time capsule.

First, there were the issues that seem to have been resolved, one way or another, and have disappeared from the dialogue.  When was the last time you heard about Alar, a plant growth regulator that was claimed to be carcinogenic and was banned in 1989?  Does anyone remember the Tylenol poisoning that led to tamper-proof caps on foods and drugs?  Who even debates the effects of secondhand smoke any more? 

More interesting, though, were the issues that don't seem to have changed one bit.  Most of the nuclear issues fall into that category.  I found papers on the health effects around Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, radiation and hormesis, BEIR V, and radon in homes.  I found one interesting map that tried to attribute changes in SAT scores to radioactive fallout from weapons testing (the map appeared in an article that debunked such theories).  I found discussions of childhood leukemia around operating nuclear power plants.

Some of the non-nuclear issues also seem to have a remarkable persistence.  Food issues, such as the use of artificial sweeteners and the pros and cons of natural foods, were in the news.  The question of whether electromagnetic fields caused cancer was being bandied about the press.  The concern about global warming was already on our radar screens (although, in those days, the term climate change wasn't used).  One pundit even asserted that he thought that global warming would counterbalance the nuclear winter.

Nor have the "generic issues" associated with risk assessment and management changed much.  How should different risks be assessed?  What are the ethics of making decisions based on cost-benefit analyses?  How can risk be communicated to the public?  What does the incidence of cancer in test animals mean for human beings?  How do different countries approach risk issues?  Why don't regulations always have the desired effect?  (For example, some analysts noted that people would drive more as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards were raised and the cost of driving decreased.)  How can over-regulation be prevented?  I saved one amusing spoof that detailed a slew of hypothetical dangers of pencils.

I suppose that I ought to look at all of this and come to some profound conclusion.  I guess the conclusion is probably in the eye of the beholder.  I know some will see persistent over-regulation.  Others will come to the opposite conclusion, bemoaning how entrenched interests always seem to delay the implementation of protective requirements.

I can find cases to support either conclusion, but on the whole, I think this walk back into history simply proves how complex and multifaceted many of these technology risk issues are.  Risk issues are resolved, but usually very slowly, and new events and new evidence can delay resolution, or even reopen closed issues.  These facts, of course, do not give regulators a free pass for moving slowly or being overly conservative, but they do point out the difficulties regulators face in assessing such difficult issues.

This, I might remind you, is only the first of...again, I say with shame...many boxes of old papers, so next time we have a spell of bad weather and I have a chance to open another box of old treasures, I may have a report on another look into history, perhaps next time on a strictly nuclear issue.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Energy Diversity:

A Discussion on Capitol Hill

A few days ago, I was privileged to participate in a briefing on Capitol Hill on the subject of "the role of nuclear power in a diverse energy portfolio."  The meeting took place on a snowy Washington morning, with the worst of the storm arriving right during the rush hour.  As I passed one car that had spun out and was teetering on an embankment on the side of the road--and this was not even on a high-speed highway--I wondered about whether I was going to have any audience once I got there.

I needn't have worried.  I don't know whether it was the topic, the continental breakfast, or workaholic Washington, but over 60 people showed up.  The meeting was co-hosted by the Global America Business Institute (GABI) and the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI).  Lee Terry, a Congressman from Nebraska and Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, opened the proceedings.  Rep. Terry pointed out that his Subcommittee deals with a variety of energy resources and he was convinced we needed them all.

The first speaker was Dr. Pete Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and the US Department of Energy (DOE).  He gave an excellent overview of the extensive and varied work of the Office of Nuclear Energy.  The briefing was packed with information on the different programs of the Office.  I will not try to capture his remarks in detail here, but the DOE/NE website has summaries of the various programs run by that office.  Pete not only spoke about their technical work, such as the work on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies, but also spoke about the international cooperation activities of that office and their support of university activities.  On a more general level, he emphasized that "no credible study" has shown that we can meet all our energy needs with renewables, and he noted his concerns about the marketplace signals leading to shortsighted decisions.

I followed up with some thoughts on why we need energy diversity.  Knowing that analogies can be faulty, it was with some trepidation that I offered an analogy between human nutrition and our energy "diet," so I was gratified to see some vigorous nods from people in the audience as I laid out my case.  I noted that humans have a variety of nutritional needs, but many, if not most, foods that can help us meet these needs also have some negatives:  meat supplies protein, but also contains cholesterol (which itself is both a good and bad nutritional element); red wine has health benefits, but too much alcohol is bad; fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, but a lot of fish has mercury (not a natural characteristic, to be sure, but something we need to deal with in dietary space just the same); I don't know of any "bad" elements in most fruits and vegetables, but those alone can't meet all our nutritional needs.

Likewise, I ticked off some (although I am sure not all) of the characteristics we need in our energy supply, likening them to "nutrients":  a supply that is adequate, affordable, reliable, secure, safe, clean, and able to meet both baseload and peaking demands.  I then noted the various types of "dietary" downsides that had to be considered:  cost, air pollution, water pollution, wastes, land use, water use, accidents, ecological risks, etc., and emphasized that these factors had to be considered, not only for the fuel (mining, fabrication, and disposal) and the fuel "burning" for each technology, but also for essential non-fuel materials and other requirements for each technology (such as fabrication of photvoltaics for solar power and mining of rare earths for wind power). 

A few days before my talk, a colleague and fellow blogger, Michele Kearney, had passed on to me a presentation Prof. Richard Lester, head of the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Department, had made at last month's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago, addressing the role of nuclear energy in a diverse energy portfolio.  I liked one paragraph so much that I quoted it in its entirety, and I repeat it here:

Can we do this [note:  he had been talking about the needs our energy supply must meet] without nuclear?  The answer cannot be 'proved' in a mathematical sense.  But it's a matter of basic common sense that when you have a very difficult task like this, the more options that are available, the more likely you are to succeed.  And, if any option is taken off the table, the chances of failing will increase.  That's especially because no two low-carbon options are alike.  Solar, wind, geothermal, and  nuclear each have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Given the enormously varied nature of the energy system, this diversity is an asset.  And the value of this diversity is all the greater because, in energy, there are always surprises.  So, while it's an interesting exercise to think about whether a single option--e.g., wind or solar [note:  I might add, even wind and solar]--could do the trick, no serious strategy would advocate putting all our eggs in a single basket, especially given the magnitude of the stakes.
Richard Lester, "Can we solve the energy problem without nuclear power?" AAAS Symposium at the 2014 AAAS Conference, Chicago, February 15, 2014.

Finally, I picked up on Pete's theme about the misguided marketplace signals, both in the natural short-term nature of markets, and in the signals given by renewable energy mandates, and ended with the hope that there would be some moves to redefine the mandates to include all low-carbon energy sources, and to make other changes to help avoid some of the recent problems we have seen in the energy markets.

The meeting ended with a short, but lively Q&A session that may contain some nuggets for a future blog, and when the formal meeting concluded, some of us hung around for a while sharing more thoughts on this issue.  Fortunately, by the time I left Capitol Hill, the sun had come out, and getting home was easy.