Friday, April 25, 2014

Women and Nuclear:

Maybe We Have Come A Long Way!

I was very interested to see the results of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) election for officers and Board members, which were just announced today.  Three out of the four U.S. At-Large Directors elected to the ANS Board are women!  (They are Katherin Goluoglu, Gale Hauck, and Sandra Sloan.)  In fact, the non-U.S. At-Large Director, Sandra Dulla, is also a woman, so 4 out of the 5 new Board members are women. 

I may be dating myself, but when I first got involved with ANS, women in the Society were few and far between, and women in governance were even rarer.  In fact, the first time I ran for the ANS Board of Directors, the late Gail de Planque, who was one of the few women who had served on the Board to that time, was very upset when she saw that I was one of two women on the ballot.  Her thinking was that the membership might vote for one woman, but never two, so we might end up splitting the vote and both losing.  I'm happy to report that she was wrong.  It was probably one of the few times she was wrong, but both the other woman and I were elected.

But wait. There's more.  The incoming president, Mikey Brady Raap (shown on the left), is a woman, and Margaret Harding has just been selected to fill the remaining term of the treasurer following the recent unexpected death of Mike Lineberry, who had held that position.  Furthermore, two other women (Angie Howard and Heather MacLean Chichester) continue as members of the Board, making a total of 8 women out of 20 positions (and 2 of the 4 executive committee positions).

My point in making note of these election results is not intended to imply that a Board that is almost half women is going to be "better."  The ANS membership is fortunate in that we always have a strong slate of candidates, and the real pity is that we can't elect them all.  My point is a very personal reaction, perhaps reflecting on my conversation so many years ago with Gail de Planque, when I don't think either of us would have envisioned an election result like the one we saw from ANS today.

So, congratulations to the newly elected women, and ALSO to the newly elected men, and best wishes to both the new and continuing Board members as they work to lead the ANS in the year ahead.  


Friday, April 18, 2014

More NIMBYism:

My Livelihood, but Not My Backyard!

I am beginning to see more and more instances of NIMBYism (NIMBY = Not in My Backyard).  It's an observation I made before, but once again, what I am seeing is not limited to nuclear power.  Far from it.  Some of the recent objections, in fact, make it clear that the concerns aren't even necessarily about safety and clean air.

The most recent instances that have popped up in my news sources are particularly interesting, as one involves Japan, where much of the population now opposes nuclear power, and another comes from Texas and has a very interesting twist. 

Someone brought to my attention an article in a Japanese newspaper saying that the local population in an area targeted for the installation of a solar power plant is objecting on the grounds that this is a resort area and the plant will "wreck the scenery."   The article discusses how the local government is trying to derail the plan, and also mentions other places in Japan where the local population is objecting to planned solar installations.  This, despite the fact that much of the Japanese population is against the restart of the nuclear power plants and believes that renewable energy sources can be built to replace the lost power. 

This concern by the local population mirrors a similar situation in California a couple of months ago, where the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to put 1 million photovoltaic panels on land they own a few miles from the infamous World War II Manzanar Japanese-American internment camp.  Japanese-American organizations and National Park Service officials have expressed concern that the installation will compromise the isolated nature of the site, which is part of the understanding of the experience of the internees that they are trying to convey.

The most interesting news item, however, was the one from Texas, where the residents of a very upscale neighborhood of multimillion dollar ranches are suing to block the construction of a water tower, to be used in part for hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") near their neighborhood.  The tower, the lawsuit claims, "will create a constant and unbearable nuisance to those that live next to it" due to noise and traffic hazards.  What makes the suit newsworthy is the fact that one party to the suit is Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corporation and a "zealous advocate of the US shale boom" and the use of fracking!

While some of the details of the positions of the various protagonists are unclear to me (he already lives near some oil and gas wells and he claims not to object to the use of the tower for fracking operations), the fact that he is a party to the lawsuit is certainly sending a mixed message.

And these are not the only stories that have come to light of local residents objecting to new installations in their areas, even if they are in favor of the technologies and want to see them installed--somewhere else.  I still recall the fight a few years ago over the plans for a offshore wind farm opposite the Kennedy compound in Cape Cod

I fully realize the importance of keeping some unspoiled land, the value of preserving important parts of our historical heritage (both positive and negative), and I even understand the expectation that people who buy expensive properties have that they have a "right" to preserve what they bought.  I also understand the rights of the poor not to have all the negative parts of our infrastructure dumped on them, and of those in heavily populated areas not to have infrastructure further encroach on their limited space.

But despite all of this, everyone wants electricity on demand, 24/7 and in whatever quantities they want, and they want it at a reasonable price.  So I find myself very frustrated. 

Japan is a small, mountainous country with a high population density and a long history, so siting almost anything is bound to impact views, interfere with recreational activities, or be near populated or historical areas.  The places that have the most land available for solar or other space-intensive activities are just the places that we would like to see preserved, whether for their beauty or for their history or for the wildlife they harbor.

I sometimes wonder if all these NIMBY objections will ultimately point to an advantage of nuclear power.  Nuclear power plants require far less space than renewable power plants, and many of the advanced plants and smaller plants being contemplated today, in addition to being more passively safe, can be constructed partially or completely underground, thus further reducing their impact on the scenery.

Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but in the long run, it would be very good if people begin to realize that nothing is "free," and that we need to balance a lot of conflicting interests and requirements to develop appropriate solutions to meet our energy needs.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

External Hazards at Nuclear Power Plants:

A New Study

I recently learned of a report from the European Commission on external-hazard related events at nuclear power plants.  I will caution that, to date, I have read only the summary of the report, so my observations are based on what is in the summary.  

In light of Fukushima, everyone has been sensitized to the fact that an external event has the potential to trigger a serious accident at a nuclear power plant.  For the Fukushima event, the external events were an earthquake and a tsunami.  However, those who follow event reports at nuclear power plants also know that there are a variety of other ways that the external environment can impact nuclear power plant operations, including severe weather events, floods, and the clogging of intake pipes.  For that reason, a report such as this can help provide some perspective on the kinds of accidents possible.
This report provides some useful pie charts showing the percentages of different kinds of accidents in the data base of the IAEA-OECD/NEA Incident Reporting System (IRS), as well as pie charts for the same types of events for French reactors and for German reactors.

It is interesting to note that the percentages of some of the types of accidents differ significantly.  The reasons for this are not completely clear.  It may be due in part to differences in environment in individual countries that might, for example, make the nuclear plants of one country more or less vulnerable to clogging of intake pipes.

I should note that the report says that it does not address earthquake hazards, as they have already been addressed in other reports.  I also note that the report doesn't separate different types of events within a class of events.  For example, they say they have taken tsunamis into consideration, but there is not a separate category for tsunamis.  Rather, they are considered a type of flooding event.  While this may be reasonable in terms of the similarity of most of the consequences, given the post-Fukushima concerns about tsunamis, it might have been useful to see a more explicit breakout of such events within the flooding category.

A key conclusion of the report is that, for the IRS database, the main external phenomenon affecting nuclear plant operation is extreme weather conditions. The next most frequent phenomena affecting nuclear power plants are water intake fouling (mostly of biological origin) and lightning.  (The most frequent events were different for France.)  The external hazards, in general, had no severe actual impacts on nuclear safety based on the events reported to the IRS database.

The authors also observed that, where events had previously occurred, corrective actions had often been taken, and those corrective actions noticeably reduced the effects of a recurrence of the event.  This reinforces the importance of studying events, such as they have done, and of making sure the lessons learned have been assimilated.  Such studies can also help assure that the money and effort spent on corrective actions go toward changes that will reduce the recurrence of events with the greatest potential consequences.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fukushima and Safety Culture:

A Complex Issue

An article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in recognition of the anniversary of Fukushima has brought new attention to the concept of safety culture and how it may differ between organizations.  The article compares the fate of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station operated by Tohoku Electric Power Company to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.  The article, which is based on a research paper from the University of Southern California, concludes that, despite a lot of similarities between the two sites (age and type of nuclear reactors, strength of earthquake, height of tsunami), the Onagawa site fared much better than the Fukushima site.  The article attributes this to differences in safety culture in the two companies.

The article and the longer research paper present an interesting thesis, but years after the fact, it is very difficult to sort out all the details behind the differences in the decisions of the two companies that produced the different outcomes.  In reality, the situation is very complex. 

As I reported almost 3 years ago, one of the factors that really caught my attention in the early reports following the accident was the fact that the height of the hill on which Fukushima Daiichi was built had been lowered!  This issue has been a continuing source of discussion over the last 3 years and is addressed once again in the new study.   Had they not cut off the top of the hill, the reactors would have been above the height of the tsunami.  How could they have made such a decision? 

The first article I saw reporting that the hill had been lowered noted that one possible factor in the decision was that it would allow the base of the reactors to be built directly on solid bedrock to mitigate any earthquake threat.  While that sounds like reasonable justification, other evidence cited in the same article suggests that the final decision was based on a cost-benefit calculation of the operating costs of the seawater pumps.  (Although it is not mentioned, presumably, there are alternatives for earthquake mitigation, perhaps more costly as well, that would not have required lowering the height of the site.)  And, we must remember that the decision was approved by the regulatory authority at the time. 

In fact, a little over a year after the accident,  the Japanese government's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that "This was a disaster 'Made in Japan.'"  The report explains:  "Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

So, is the problem "Japanese culture"?  Perhaps.  But the article on the Japanese report notes that American culture is almost the opposite, yet the US has had its share of industrial accidents, many of which reflect similar types of technical misjudgements and institutional arrogance.

Is the problem "TEPCO culture"?  Maybe, but Fukushima Daini, which was also a TEPCO site,  survived almost unscathed.  Were the details of the challenges different, or was the subculture at the site different?

As is the case for most industrial accidents, there were many contributing factors to the Fukushima accident.  One can look at the situation and postulate a number of points, from the construction of the plant to the initial management of the accident, at which a different decision or a different action might have prevented, or at least drastically reduced, the magnitude of the accident.  One can look at both TEPCO's decisions and actions, and those of the government. 

Just as it is difficult today to understand fully the underlying motives for decisions made by TEPCO during the construction of the Fukushima plants, it is also true that there may be factors other than safety culture alone that led to the survival of the Onagawa site.  However, even if that is the case, it is clear that there were some significant differences at the two sites, and therefore, that there are lessons that can be learned.  The caution is that these are not the only lessons that need to be learned, and TEPCO is not the only entity that needs to absorb the lessons.