Thursday, December 31, 2015

Post COP 21:

The Name-Calling Begins

Some of my colleagues who participated in the COP 21 conference in Paris recently noted the increased visibility of the nuclear community and predicted a backlash.  Boy, were they right!  But that backlash has not gone unnoticed, and people have stepped up to respond to the worst of the false allegations.  I have been trying to follow the name-calling and the accusations, and it is more fun than a prize fight. 

One of the first statements I came across was an article by Jim Green entitled, "The Attack of the Nuclear Hucksters."  Attack?  So, promoting a pro-nuclear viewpoint is an attack?  But promoting an anti-nuclear viewpoint is not an attack in the other direction?  The article accuses the Breakthrough Institute of "promoting its pro-nuclear [views] and arguing against...anyone who disagrees with them."  Excuse me if I'm missing something, but when anyone has a viewpoint on anything, don't they try to argue their case?

Likewise, a letter to the editor by Alan Jeffery of "Stop Hinkley" complains that, "There seemed to have been a desperate last-ditch effort in Paris to convince us all that nuclear power is an important part of the answer to the climate crisis."  But it appears that he is writing his letter because he would like all funding to go for renewable energy projects. is OK to argue your case if you want windmills and solar panels, but if you want nuclear power plants, you are making a "desperate last-ditch effort"?

Another article, this one by Naomi Oreskes, referred to "a new form of climate denialism."  The article somehow accuses people like James Hansen, who has been one of the most vocal figures in warning the world of climate change, of "climate denialism"--apparently because he wants to use all possible measures to combat climate change, including nuclear power.  How that is denialism of anything, let alone climate, I don't understand. 

I was apparently not alone in my confusion, as I noticed several authors who challenged the assertions.  In particular, an article by Michael Specter in the New Yorker challenging this view makes the very astute observation that "denialism is not a synonym for disagreement."  He goes on further to say that, "Oreskes is certain that we won’t need nuclear power to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. This is a legitimate and essential debate. But it should be possible to have it without denigrating positions held by people who have spent their careers, quite courageously, trying to solve the world’s biggest problem."

Mathijs Becker posted a lengthy blog in which he made a similar comment about the term "climate denialism," and further, went on to dissect the rest of the article point by point.  In particular, he challenges the statement in the Oreskes article that this new form of denialism "says that renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs."  He turns this one around, saying to Oreskes that, "You are clearly part of a movement that denies fundamental scientific principles." [emphasis added]   "As such you deny that Nuclear Energy is a credible solution to the most dire problem of Climate Change." 

Becker goes on to address all the other issues raised in the Oreskes article and elsewhere about the cost of nuclear power, the time it takes to build, and--one of my favorites--the fallacy that so-called renewable energy sources are completely renewable.  The sun and the wind may be renewable, but the materials needed in order to convert the sun and wind to electricity are not.  In a companion blog, he also takes on the arguments made by Mark Jacobson and cited by Naomi Oreskes.

Finally,  an article by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post, gets away from the petty bickering and points out the magnitude of the challenges society faces.  He doesn't take on any individual, but he does take on the arguments that solar and wind power can solve all our problems.  He points out that the apparent large growth of wind and solar power is a result of the tiny base it started from and that both sources are still heavily subsidized.  He says bluntly, "We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these."  To be fair, he highlights the challenges of nuclear power as well, including accidents, waste disposal, and threats of terrorism. 

His solution, and one that I believe is needed as well, is that technological development is needed in all areas: "We know what’s needed: cheaper and safer nuclear power; better batteries and energy storage, boosting wind and solar by making more of their power usable; cost-effective carbon capture and storage — making coal more acceptable by burying its carbon dioxide in the ground."


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Unintended Consequences:

Why We Don't Get it Right the First Time

I repeatedly hear of problems in our industrialized society that, when you think about it, are really the unintended consequences of decisions we made, sometimes a long time ago.  We don't set out to pollute the environment, put poisons in food, or cause needed suppliers to go bankrupt, but somehow, we do it.  And we keep doing it.  And it takes a very long time to recognize what we've done, and even longer to fix it.

One such instance just came to my attention recently.  Tests of wells in the San Joaquin Valley, described as the richest farm region in the world, are showing uranium levels that exceed safety standards.  The reason:  "a natural though unexpected byproduct of irrigation, drought, and the over-pumping of natural underground water reserves." [emphasis added]

Another instance that has been much in the news lately is how unregulated electricity markets are failing to put appropriate values on all the benefits (and shortcomings) of alternative forms of electricity generation, including reliability, lack of greenhouse gases, etc.  The result is leading to the shutdown of nuclear power plants and their replacement by natural gas plants that put more carbon into the atmosphere.

I could cite many other examples, and I could include ones from all areas of society.  Every time one of these cases comes up, we all rant about the stupidity of the decisions that led us to these predicaments.  Sometimes, the decisions are conscious ones, like laws to fix some problem that we have noticed; other times, they are passive ones, like doing more and more of what has seemed to be successful.

In most cases, the laws or the decisions seemed rational at the time.  I am always particularly struck by the fact that many of our problems stem from the fact that, in small amounts, pollution or poisons are often of little consequence.  When we had only a handful of cars on the road, the emissions from cars were an inconsequential addition to the atmosphere.  And cars were convenient, so we added more and more cars...until we suddenly noticed that they were a huge source of pollution.

Other problems stem from the fact that we don't seem to look at the big picture when we make decisions.  Perhaps we can't figure out what the big picture is.  When we make changes to the electricity marketplace--putting auctions in place, giving various kinds of financial incentives to some forms of electricity generation, we look primarily at an immediate objective--increasing the use of solar and wind power, for example.  We don't look at the broader ramifications--impacts on existing power generators, impacts on grid stability, impacts on long-term reliability, and more.

There is no perfect solution to this problem.  I could cite numerous examples from our everyday lives that follow the same pattern and just chalk it up to human nature.  However, when the consequences become very large and significant, such as when they impact the environment, our food or power supply, or other critical parts of civilization, we somehow need to start thinking longer-term and more globally.

There are several hurdles we face.  One is to identify what the potential problems are well in advance of when it becomes apparent that they are going to be problems.  This is a huge hurdle.  In the earliest days of automobiles, when they were a plaything of the very rich, and there weren't many roads, and everyone still had horses or lived near where they shopped and worked, who would have predicted how ubiquitous cars would become.  A second problem is to sort out what is real and important from the voices of special interest groups on all sides of the spectrum.

I think scientists and engineers can play an important role in attacking these two problems.  Scientists and engineers are not the only ones, of course, who may have insights, but they have the knowledge and the capability to analyze situations and perhaps identify potential problems early on.

A final challenge is to convince policy-makers to act in a timely fashion.  Since every decision affects someone's special interests, convincing policy-makers to act before there is a crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.  After all, every decision that is made affects some individuals or organizations negatively.  Cutting the use of fossil fuels may encourage the development of nuclear power and renewable energy, but it adversely affects coal miners, a huge transportation infrastructure, and fossil plant operators.  

Failing to act in a timely manner on any new challenge, of course, means that we will face risks to our health or our environment again and again, although perhaps from a different technology, or by a different part of the infrastructure, or to a different element of the environment.  This reminds me of the old saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  It seems to me this saying applies even if it isn't literally the same thing, but rather, the same behavior in a different situation. 


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Whiskey and Radioactivity:

Another Link between Alcohol and the Atom

I don't want to make too much of a habit of talking about connections between food and radioactivity, but the fact that there are a number of connections has always intrigued me.  I have previously written several pieces in this blog about connections between wine and the atom, including one on how wine can help limit the toxic effects of radiation therapy, and another on how gamma decay measurements can be used to help date wine.  I have also written about how irradiation could be used to kill listeria in unaged, unpasteurized cheeses.

I thought those posts about covered everything I would ever find on the relationship between food and beverages and radioactivity, but I just discovered yet another connection.  A recent news item reported that the Environmental Research Institute in Scotland is experimenting with biological materials that can absorb radioactive environmental contaminants, such as strontium, at the Dounreay site.  Materials being examined for their biosorption capabilities include the grains leftover from whiskey-making.

This finding was part of a research program to test the efficacy of a variety of materials, including eggshells, seaweed, and crab shells, for absorption of radioactive contaminants.  I will admit that the country probably has a lot of eggshells and seaweed, as well, but it really sounds so fitting to me for Scotland to use of a byproduct of a major industry to remediate a contaminated site in the country.

And now, just think--when you have a shot of whiskey, you may also be helping to clean up a contaminated site!  


Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Paris Terrorist Attacks:

So Far, Yet So Close

I have been struggling all week with my thoughts on the terrorist attacks in Paris just over a week ago (on November 13, 2015), and more recently, the attack in Mali, wanting to write something, yet feeling anything I could say would be inadequate.

First of all, the attacks reminded me vividly of my experience as a visitor to Paris during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.  I was attending an international conference there, and I  particularly remember how sensitive the French were to the events unfolding thousands of miles away in the United States.

The newspaper headlines shouted, "We are all American."  The French organizers of the conference I was attending cancelled a planned social event that evening.  I know that such events require significant down payments, so that must have cost the conference budget dearly, but there was no hint of that in their discussions of their action.  It was the right thing to do, they said.  I will always remember that.

A couple of days later, I went to dinner at a fancy restaurant, and the owner signed my menu with a message saying, "In these difficult times, we French are with you Americans."  I have framed and hung that menu.

So I was very glad to see that the American response to the Paris attacks was no less sympathetic.  I don't know if any social events at conferences were cancelled in the US, but I do know that the news coverage and the commentary reflected the fact that this was not just an attack on Paris, but rather, an attack on all humanity, and that America stood with France.

And indeed, the numbers bear out the fact that this was an attack on the world.  Paris is a magnet for the world, and among the casualties were individuals from a dozen or so countries.

Furthermore, in this increasingly interconnected world, it is hard not to feel that these events strike pretty close to home.  Since I lived in Paris for several years, friends and family immediately called to ask how close to home this event had hit.

Were any of the sites of the attacks places I had frequented?  No, I assured them.  These places were nowhere near where I lived or worked. 

Was anyone I knew caught up in these events?  The answer to that is also no.  And yet--there is only one degree of separation between some of the victims and me.  I know people who knew a young nuclear engineer, Juan Alberto Gonz├ílez Garrido, who was killed in the attack.  A French friend in turn has a friend who lost a family member in the attack.  Someone else has a daughter who attended a concert in the same concert hall only the night before.  And then, in the Mali event a week later, the one American who was killed lived only a few miles from me.

These events and others hit all of us in other ways, too.  The implementation of greater security at public gatherings.  The threats to Washington, DC, where I live, and to New York City.  The speculation about what other kinds of actions terrorists may have in mind--airports, the electrical power grid, the computer systems that contain all our private information, nuclear power plants, the use of dirty bombs or chemical weapons.  The list goes on.

Whether a terrorist event takes place on our own soil or far away, whether it is in a place we know well or a place we've never been, whether we know any of the names of the victims or not--every attack affects all of us.  Our sense of security.  The overlay of restrictions and checkpoints and delays that has become the new normal.  The slight paranoia that becomes ingrained in us.

So, more than a week after the Paris attacks, I still have on my computer screen a picture of Juan Alberto, as I have been wondering what I could say about the senseless acts that led to his death.  In the end, my condolences to his family and friends seems such a small gesture.

But if there is any silver lining, it is the fact that we have come to realize that these are not isolated event in places far away, but rather, events that attack all of us.  If there is a silver lining, it is that we have a sense of solidarity with the victims of this attack.  And finally, if there is a silver lining, it is in the determination of the Parisians not to let fear rule them, and not to let their way of life be changed.  Perhaps that is the only hopeful message I can draw from these difficult times.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--November

More Milestones

With this blog on key nuclear power "firsts" that occurred during the month of November, I have finally caught up with my monthly reports on milestones in nuclear power development in each calendar month, so without further ado, here are some of the most noteworthy events in nuclear history that happened in November of various years:

Nov. 3, 1954:  First reactor to demonstrate molten salt as a fuel (ARE, Oak Ridge, TN)

Nov. 4, 1943:  First reactor to operate above the zero power level; first reactor built for continuous operation (X-10 graphite reactor, Oak Ridge, TN)

Nov. 4, 1954:  First large-scale reprocessing using the PUREX process (F-Canyon, Savannah River, SC)

Nov. 23, 1963:  First on-line refueling for a reactor connected to the grid (NPD, Rolphton, Canada)

Nov. 25, 1961:  First nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (USS Enterprise, US)

I should note that the first on-line refueling (not connected to the grid) was at the NRU reactor at Chalk River, Canada.  This reactor started up on Nov. 3, 1957, but I do not have an exact date for the first refueling.

While this looks like a somewhat skimpy list for the month, there were several important events this month for which I have been unable to find an exact date.  These include two events in Nov. 1963 and one in Nov. 1968:  the Piqua OMR in Piqua, OH was the first organically moderated and cooled power reactor to start operation (Nov. 1963); the BR3 in Mol, Belgium was the first LWR to operate using mixed-oxide fuel (also in Nov. 1963, and the first demonstration of the THOREX process for thorium extraction occurred at the West Valley Reprocessing Facility, Ashford, NY in Nov. 1968.

Readers with outstanding memories may recall that I actually started this project in December, so this blog reflects the twelfth and last in the series.  As I wrap up this year-long project, I realize there are a number of loose threads.  There are probably a couple of dozen events for which I have found only a year, not an exact date.  A number of these are institutional--the start-up of academic programs (various degree levels, etc.) or professional society initiatives--and perhaps it is hard to determine what constitutes the start of the activity.  Several events occurred in the USSR during the Cold War, so perhaps little information was ever available in the West.  In some cases, I'm not sure why the record is not clearer on the exact date of an event.

However, the bottom line is that these events did not "fit" in any month, so are not covered by this series, although they are profiled in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development."  The book also contains more information on events that are identified in this blog, as well as in the previous blogs in this series.  Since publication of the book, I have found a few additional dates and other information, so there are one or two things reflected in some of these monthly reports that are not in the book.  For example, I previously did not have a date for the first on-line refueling for a reactor connected to the grid.

The new information will be included in an e-book version of the book, which should be completed and available soon.  The e-book will contain some updates, including a discussion of Fukushima and its impacts, profiles of several firsts that I identified after the print book was published, and some minor additions such as the dates I didn't have before.  When the e-book is available, I will publish some information on how to obtain it. 


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--October:

More Nuclear Developments

This blog will finally end my catch-up activities to outline the significant milestones in nuclear power development that occurred in each month of the calendar year.  These were intended to be published in the month being discussed, but unfortunately, I fell behind, for which I apologize.  Now, if I just manage to publish one on November's events before the month is out, I will be up to date!

Let's get right down to it.  Major developments in the history of nuclear power during the month of October include:

Oct. 2, 1968:  First reactor to use U-233 as fuel (MSRE, Oak Ridge, TN)

Oct. 3, 1960:  First portable, modular reactor (PM-2A, Greenland/a US project)

Oct. 4, 1957:  First use of the centrifuge process to enrich uranium (Sverdlovsk-44, Sverdlovsk, USSR)

Oct. 10, 1962:  First use of nuclear power in a country not involved in nuclear weapons development; and first PWR in Europe (BR3, Mol, Belgium)

Oct. 11, 1954:  First professional society focused on nuclear technology (ANS, Oak Ridge, TN)

Oct. 12, 1943:  First plutonium extracted from a chain reaction (Seaborg Laboratory, CA)

Oct. 18, 1945:  First government agency to oversee civilian nuclear power (French CEA, Paris, France)

Oct. 19, 1957:  First privately owned and operated reactor connected to the grid; first license for a power reactor (VBWR, Pleasanton, CA)

October also saw the occurrence of two significant nuclear reactor accidents:  the accident at Windscale Pile 1, Sellafield, UK on Oct. 10, 1957, which was the first severe early reactor accident yielding contamination; and the accident at Fermi 1, Monroe, MI in Oct. 1966, which was the first full-scale reactor to experience a fuel-melt accident.

Further details on all these events and others are outlined in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development." 



Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--September:

Continuing the Story

I continue to play catch-up on the monthly breakout of events important to the history of nuclear power development.  (For those who are not regular readers of this blog, I had planned to publish monthly accounts, but I fell behind over the summer.)  In this blog, I will report on milestones in the history of nuclear power that occurred during the month of September.

September was a particularly important month, as the events that occurred during this month (in different years) included the very first demonstration of electricity production from a reactor, the start-up of the first reactor to operate outside the US, the first civilian research reactor, and more.

Key milestones in September were:

Sep. 3, 1948:  First very, very small-scale demonstration of electricity generation from a reactor (X-10 Graphite Reactor, Oak Ridge, TN)

Sep. 5, 1945:  First reactor to operate outside the US (ZEEP, Chalk River, Canada)

Sep. 5, 1953:  First civilian research reactor; first university reactor to operate; first privately owned and operated reactor (Raleigh Research Reactor, North Carolina State College, NC)

Sep. 16, 1957:  First research reactor in South America (IEA-R1, Brazil)

Sep. 17, 1957:  First organically moderated and cooled research reactor (OMRE, NRTS, ID)

Sep. 26, 1944:  First "full-scale" reactor; first plutonium generated at production levels (via electromagnetic isotope separation) (Hanford B, Hanford, WA)

In addition, on Sep. 16, 1944, the first liquid thermal diffusion enrichment (a technology that proved to be a dead end) took place at the S-50 in Oak Ridge, TN, and in Sep. 1965 (specific date unknown), the first confirmed food irradiation took place in Canada.  September was also the month that saw the first accident at a nuclear facility (although not at a reactor) to occur that resulted in significant environmental contamination (Mayak, in the former USSR, on Sep. 29, 1957).

These events and more are described in greater detail in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development."


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--August:

Another Busy Month

First, an apology to my readers:  I had planned to publish one blog per month listing the milestones in nuclear history profiled in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development," (also available at the ANS bookstore) but I have fallen seriously behind.

As you can see from the title of this blog, I have not published the milestones for the past 3 months.  I actually have been busy with activities relating to the book book--specifically, updating it and turning it into an e-book--but I still should not have let this slip through the cracks.  Starting now, and over the next few weeks, I will try to catch up on the months I missed.

So, a bit belatedly, here are the historical events in nuclear power development that took place during the month of August:

Aug. 1, 1946:  First agency in the US to oversee civilian nuclear power (USAEC, Washington, DC)

Aug. 2, 1946:  First reactor to produce isotopes for peaceful use (X-10 Graphite Reactor, Oak Ridge, TN)

Aug. 4, 1956:  First research reactor to operate in Asia (Apsara, India)

Aug. 5, 1966:  First full-scale liquid metal breeder power reactor (Fermi 1, Monroe, MI) (Fermi 1 later became the first "large" reactor in the US to have a core meltdown.)

Aug. 14, 1964:  First demonstration of direct thermoelectric conversion from a reactor (Romaschka Reactor, USSR)

Aug. 15, 1947:  First reactor to operate in Western Europe (GLEEP, Harwell, UK)

Aug. 17, 1977:  First surface ship to reach the North Pole (Arktika, USSR)

Aug. 26, 1977:  First light water breeder reactor in commercial operation (Shippingport Reactor, Shippingport, PA)

Aug. 27, 1956:  First "full-scale" reactor to provide electricity and process heat to the grid; first Magnox reactor (gas-cooled) (Calder Hall 1, Sellafield, UK)

The month of August also saw the occurrence of the first fatal criticality accident (the Experimental Assembly at Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM, on August 21, 1945).

Once again, there were several firsts for which I have no specific dates.  These are the start of the first known nuclear training program (Clinton Training School, Oak Ridge, TN) in Aug. 1946; the first reactor with a fast-neutron spectrum, and also the first liquid-metal cooled reactor (mercury) and the first plutonium-fueled reactor (Clementine, Los Alamos, NM), also in Aug. 1946; and the first in-place reactor vessel annealing (SM-1A, Ft. Greely, AK).  SM-1A was also the first reactor to have its steam generator replaced.  


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Salaries by Degree Field:

Nuclear Engineering Near the Top

I just stumbled upon a new salary survey by degree field, and was pleased to see nuclear engineering near the top of the pack.  And the pack was large--319 degree fields, covering the spectrum from engineering and science to humanities, and from philosophy to supply-chain management, and including graduates of over 1000 colleges and universities in the US.

Very briefly, at the bachelor's degree level, most of the top fields, in terms of early and mid-career salaries, were engineering fields.  Of the engineering fields, petroleum engineers fared significantly better than all other fields, both at early and mid-career levels.  But the second ranking discipline for the mid-career cohort was nuclear engineering, with a couple of other fields close behind.  Overall, while STEM majors have the greatest earning potential, there are humanities fields that outrank some STEM fields in earning potential.

The study looked at salary distributions according to several metrics, including by college attended, for different fields at the bachelor's degree level, for different fields at the Ph.D. level, and for different fields at the associate degree level.  The number of fields shown at the Ph.D. level was much smaller than the number at the bachelor's degree level (only 39 fields) and, for some reason, nuclear engineering was not included in the survey at the Ph.D. level.

I want to caution the reader that I have looked only at the reported results and cannot independently vouch for the methodology or the analysis.  There are also other breakdowns of the data I would have liked to see.  And maybe I would have liked to see the 319 different academic fields aggregated into a more manageable set of fields.

It was really no surprise to me to see engineering fields rank so high.  I have seen that in other studies over the years.  And nuclear engineering has also usually ranked high, although I think the exact ranking has drifted up or down a few notches, depending on the year of the study, and on the exact methodology used. 

Nevertheless, in an era where we worry about the aging work force and the impact of nuclear power plant closures on our ability to attract new talent into the field, this study should be a shot in the arm for nuclear engineering departments. 


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scary Energy Scenarios:

My Real Fears on Halloween

From Wikimedia Commons
As I sit down to write this, I realize that I have been bombarded by more than the usual number of scary things this Halloween.  Of course, there are the ghosts and ghouls and goblins, the witches and werewolves, and the vampires and zombies.  But what haunts me more is the specter of an energy future resulting from decisions made on the basis of short-term profit, misinformation, and dogmatic ideologies.

So, it is not the eerie sounds emanating from the dark forest that scare me, or the creaky sounds from upstairs when I know that no one is there.  It is not the skeletons hanging from the trees and rattling in the wind. 

What really scares me is a future where we are less safe because our critical energy infrastructure is not being maintained or operated with the highest attention to safety.

What really scares me is a future where our energy and non-energy infrastructure is at risk because we failed to plan for changes in the environment, population, and emerging needs.
What really scares me is a future where I cannot get the energy I need because short-term pricing and market imperfections have caused valuable energy resources to shut down prematurely.  
What really scares me is a future where the air I breathe is dirtier because misguided attempts to manipulate the market by favoring particular technologies or handicapping others has resulted in more use of polluting sources to back up intermittent technologies.

What really scares me is a future where energy availability is restricted because not enough fuel is extracted, not enough power plants are built, and not enough transmission capacity exists because we did not find a way to balance local interests and societal needs. 

What really scares me is a future where the price of energy is pushed so high that that gulf between the haves and the have-nots becomes a chasm, and social unrest results.
What really scares me is a future where we become dependent on the whims of other regimes because we failed to develop our own resources or because we favored technologies that use materials that are scarce in our country.
What really scares me is a future where we have lost our voice on the international stage because we have taken too rigid and unrealistic a stand, or because we have failed to stay competitive in critical markets. 

What really scares me is a future where we are mired in the use of outdated technologies because we failed to invest in research and development.

What really scares me is a future where we do not realize our full potential in all areas because we are impoverished in the energy supplies that fuel advances in other areas, a better standard of living, and so much more.
These are my ghosts and goblins.  They pertain to all sources of energy and all parts of all the fuel cycles--fossil fuel extraction, gas pipelines, electricity transmission, nuclear power plants, windmills, rare earths, and more.  And, while Halloween will be over tomorrow, and the scary spiders and blow-up black cats and sheet-clad "ghosts" hanging from my neighbors' houses will be taken down in a few days, the things that trigger my energy fears, unfortunately, are not as easy to stuff back into boxes and store in the basement. 

I would like to think that common sense will ultimately prevail and that, in the very near future, we will exorcise the demons of shortsightedness, ignorance, and fanaticism when it comes to energy matters (as well as other matters).  Until then, I am scared.

Happy Halloween!


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Is Fusion Getting Closer?

And What If It Is?

The press has been abuzz lately about claims that fusion energy will soon be economically viable, and can become the go-to technology to meet a lot of our energy needs.  They point to some technological advances, particularly in the materials area, that certainly seem promising.

However, for those of us who have been around for--ahem--awhile, the arguments have a familiar ring.  Fusion has appeared to be just around the corner for a long time now.  For 30 years, I have been hearing that fusion is just 30 years away.  Maybe this time, it's really true.  It is probably just as wrong for me to dismiss a claim based on past failures as it is for others to ignore past failures altogether and promise success this time.  

More fundamentally, this news has gotten me to thinking about recent news items touting advances in other energy technologies, as well, and what it means for our energy planning.  The truth is that we are seeing advances, or the potential for advances, on many fronts.  Energy storage is getting cheaper, making renewables potentially more viable sometime in the future.  We are developing advanced nuclear power plant designs that will make nuclear power safer and more economical in the future. 

I could go on.  All of these claims are, at the moment, promises about concepts that are still in their early phases of development.  And in many of these cases, even a successful demonstration (such as achieving "break even" power production from fusion) is only one step in a long road to reliable, long-term operation. 

It all reminds me, once again, of Admiral Rickover's "paper reactors."  He noted that advanced concepts that are still on the drawing board are always reported to be fully developed, simple, cheap, flexible, etc.  However, once we start to build them, we run into problems, and end up with cost overruns and schedule delays while we solve all the problems we didn't think we had.  I know I've covered Rickover's statement before, and I will probably come back to it again one of these days, but it seems to me that it's one of the most profound statements that I've ever heard about advanced technologies and large-scale projects--that is, that there are a lot of stumbling blocks between the idea and the reality.

Surely, we will make progress on many of the technologies we are developing.  Despite past failures, maybe fusion will succeed spectacularly this time around and change the face of our energy supply.  Or maybe not this time, but another few decades down the road.  Maybe energy storage will get cheaper and make wind and solar energy more suitable for baseload.  Or maybe not this time.  Maybe the small modular reactors and other advanced fission reactor designs will indeed prove to be both safer and cheaper.  Or maybe not this time.  Maybe we will discover a reliable and cost-effective way to remove and sequester emissions from fossil-fired power plants.  Or maybe not this time.

Most likely, we will solve one problem, but discover other roadblocks.  For example, new materials may cause different kinds of problems in their mining, manufacture and use.  With luck, some of these areas will make progress, but others will stall, and it is impossible to determine today which will be the one that will edge ahead. 

The real point is, what should we do in light of this uncertainty?  We need more energy in many parts of the world and we need it today.  Heck, we need it yesterday.  We need to replace aging facilities.  We need to replace polluting facilities.  There are some people who think that we should just wait for the perfect technology that is just around the corner.  But Rickover's paper reactors should make us realize that the perfect solution is not really imminent, and will not be perfect.  It will most likely take longer to develop and implement new technologies than we think it will, and we will find that the new technologies have some drawbacks we didn't anticipate.

If that sounds full of despair, I don't intend it to be.  My point is that we have near-term needs that can't afford to wait.  They can be met only with present-day technologies.  A smart development program will take the best technologies that we have today to meet increased demands and to replace older technologies. 

Most likely, some of the technologies that are now under development will be available in the future, but we can't afford to wait.  And, what the best technology will be 30 years down the road...well, let's check in sometime in 2045 and see what's happened. 



Thursday, October 1, 2015

Energy by the Numbers:

A Comparison of Energy Sources

It's no secret that I like numbers.  Therefore, I was pleased to read, in the last few days, two reports that compared various energy sources--one in terms of fatalities, and the other, in terms of resource use.  These are two very different measures, but both are important ones, so I looked eagerly to see how the various energy sources compared.

The greatest concern that most people have, of course, is safety, so I looked first at an article by James Conca in Forbes called "How Deadly is your Kilowatt?"  In this article, Conca presents a table of the mortality rates worldwide for different energy sources (see below).  The results appear to cover all aspects of each fuel cycle.  They highlight the deaths from air pollution for coal, but they also talk about deaths from uranium mining accidents and from maintenance accidents for wind turbines.  They don't actually mention that they include deaths from coal mining, but presumably, if they included uranium mining, they included coal mining as well. 

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average           170,000    (50% global electricity)
Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)
Coal – U.S.                             15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)
Oil                                           36,000    (36% of energy,8% of elect)
Natural Gas                              4,000    (20% global electricity)
Biofuel/Biomass                     24,000    (21% global energy)
Solar (rooftop)                             440    (< 1% global electricity)
Wind                                            150    (~ 1% global electricity)
Hydro – global average            1,400    (15% global electricity)
Nuclear – global average*            90    (17%  global electricity)

* With Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Some of the results were no surprise to me--coal was the worst globally, while nuclear power was the best, even when worst-case estimates of Chernobyl deaths and Fukushima projections were included.  However the difference caught me by surprise--worldwide, coal had almost 2000 times more fatalities per kilowatt-hour than nuclear power!  There were some other revelations as well.  The extremely high global death rate from coal appears to be dominated by China, so when China and the US were separated out, deaths attributed to coal use in the US were actually less than deaths attributed to biofuel/biomass use. 

I should caution that, like all studies, there are confounding factors.  Some of the energy sources can be used for electricity production, but can also be used in other ways--direct heating, propulsion, etc.  Nevertheless, even if the numbers were adjusted to compare, for example, only electricity production, it is clear that nuclear power is substantially lower than most other energy sources in terms of fatalities. 

The other study I saw is part of the Department of Energy's Quadrennial Technology Review on energy technologies and research opportunities (Chapter 10: Concepts in Integrated Analysis, September 2015).  While the Forbes article talked about materials use, the DOE report has a good table (see below) that shows just how dramatically the materials usage varies from one energy technology to another.  Although we are not talking about scarcity issues for most of the materials listed in this table, we know that some of the materials are energy intensive to produce.  Concrete, which is the dominant material used to build the plants for most of these technologies, is particularly notable in this regard. 

This table doesn't show requirements for rare earths, which has been discussed a lot recently, particularly in the context of wind turbines.  However, the report does cover that separately.

These two studies do not tell the whole story, of course.  There are other measures that need to be considered, ranging from land use, to cost, to different pollutants, to non-fatal health effects.  And the potential for improvements in each technology could change some of the numbers significantly.

Still, seeing these two sets of numbers side-by-side within a couple of days of each other helped me confirm and quantify some facts that I have thought were true for a long time, and that are important to any discussion of energy technologies.  


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Resource Issues and Energy Supply:

What it Means for Our Energy Future

Initially, this is going to look like another article on renewable energy in a blog that is supposed to be about nuclear issues.  But bear with me, this is actually about an article on the resource issues associated with renewable energy that has sparked some broader thoughts. 

The article (which is a few months old, but I only recently saw) starts off listing some of the same issues regarding renewable energy that many, including yours truly, have commented on.  It says that people assume that the wind and the sun are free and limitless, but they need more land, and lots of raw materials:

  • Wind turbine towers are constructed from steel manufactured in a blast furnace from mined iron ore and modified coal (coke). Turbine blades are composed of oil-derived resins and glass fibre. The nacelle encloses a magnet containing about one third of a tonne of the rare earth metals, neodymium and dysprosium.
The article goes on to talk about the waste generated in mining and processing rare earths, the cement needed to build towers for wind turbines, the coal needed to process silicon solar collectors, and the greenhouse gases other than CO2 generated in the manufacturing process.

So far, I'm with the author.  I have seen reports on all these effects before, and have commented on them myself.  I believe they are true and that they should be a concern to everyone who is interested in our energy future.  (Which should be just about everyone, in one way or another.)

However, the article ends in a single paragraph, that says, by contrast, that there is plenty of uranium and thorium for nuclear reactors, and that, anyway, the future is in fusion.  That is quite a leap.

That got me thinking about a comment I received on a recent post that took issue with me for supporting an "all of the above" scenario because of the added cost.  Addressing that comment fully is a subject for a future discussion, but suffice it to say that the "all of the above" scenario basically arises from the fact that no one energy source can solve all problems and meet all needs.  

The reality is that the author of the article I read didn't treat all resources equally.  You can find other authors who dismiss nuclear fission because the uranium and thorium resources are ultimately limited.  And fusion is not yet a realistic option.

The reality is that all energy resources have some limitations.  It may be true that there is more thorium than rare earths, but I doubt that either resource has been fully identified and explored.  It may be true that mining rare earths generates by-products, but so does mining anything. 

Also neglected in the article is any discussion of whether some of these downsides can be ameliorated.  I always got annoyed when people who opposed nuclear power talked about the coal needed to supply the power to operate gaseous diffusion enrichment plants.  Not only did they grossly exaggerate the amount of energy needed, they never considered that we could move away from using coal for this purpose.  That may be a moot point now, but the same point applies to the issue of coal use for manufacturing solar collectors.

My point is that there is no simplistic answer.  "Renewables bad, nuclear fission and fusion good," is no better than "Nuclear and coal bad, renewables good."  Both views are short-sighted.  They fail to address the benefits and short-comings of all technologies equally, and they fail to consider how current practices might be improved for all technologies, and in some cases--or alternatively, they wave away any concerns by assuming advances that have not yet been demonstrated.

Unfortunately, complexity makes things difficult.  There are no simple answers, no brief soundbites, no quick solutions.  But our energy future depends on understanding and addressing the complexities.  


Friday, September 11, 2015

Impacts of Renewable Energy Sources:

More Unexpected Consequences

This is getting to be somewhat of a theme with me, but everywhere I turn, I find reports of new and unexpected consequences associated with the greater use of renewable energy sources.  This week, I I learned of two new potential impacts on the same day, so I just had to return to the topic. 

The two reports apply to different areas:  One calculates that more wind turbines may offer diminishing returns--that is, as wind farms are expanded, the energy generated will not go up proportionately with the number of wind turbines installed.  The other pertains to hydroelectric plants, raising the surprising (to me) concern that hydroelectric plants may create conditions that generate an environmental poison called methyl-mercury. 

The first issue, the impacts of wind turbines, arises from the fact that large numbers of wind turbines may affect wind patterns.  I had heard this before, and while it isn't my area of expertise, it seems plausible.  It also initially seems unimportant.  So what if the gain isn't linear?  Just build more windmills, right?  Wrong.  More windmills require more land, and getting less bang for the buck increases the cost of wind energy.

The second issue is more complex, and is way out of my area of expertise.  The argument is that the flooding associated with hydroelectric dams (at least in the Arctic) creates areas where fresh and salt water merge.  The differing densities cause them to stratify, which creates a feeding zone for marine plankton.  The bacteria in this zone turn naturally occurring mercury into methyl-mercury, which then accumulates in the food chain.  (The article also notes that the melting of Arctic ice due to climate change has a similar effect.)

I must admit that I have a lot of questions about both studies.  How thorough and complete are the studies?  How pronounced is the non-linearity of the windmill effect?  Can the design and layout of the windmills make a difference?  Can anything be done to reduce the stratification of the fresh and salt water?  Can the methyl-mercury be removed? 

The point of mentioning these studies is not to imply that we have to stop building windmills or hydroelectric dams.  Rather, it is to point out that ALL energy sources have effects on the environment.  As we use more and more of any resource, these impacts become more apparent.  The response should not be to ban the use of the resource.  Rather, it should be to continually improve our understanding of the impacts, to design ways of reducing or ameliorating the impacts, and to look at the big picture--both supply and demand.

So, why am I covering these issues in a blog on nuclear power?  It is because I see some parallels to the way some people view nuclear power...or coal, or anything else.  The first time early hominids rubbed two sticks together and created fire, they probably burned themselves.  The point is that every form of energy--in fact, every agricultural or industrial activity--has impacts on the world around us. 

The first, and seemingly easiest, response is to ban the activity.  That is a short-sighted reaction.  The mindset we need to develop is to figure out how to manage the resource and its impacts.  This applies equally to every energy resource, and to every other human activity as well.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Global Warming:

Is it Real?

Although this is a blog devoted to nuclear issues, I keep finding myself drawn into the discussions of climate change.  This seems a very relevant issue for nuclear power, because it is the most reliable source of low-carbon energy.

Therefore, I've made a great effort to learn more about the arguments over climate change--whether it is real, whether it is man-made, and whether we should be doing anything about it.  Despite all my efforts, I remain perplexed.  I'm not a climate scientist, so I have a hard time sifting out what is true and what is not, what is important from what is unimportant: 

  • One day, I read a report that the global temperatures are rising.  The next day, I see a study says that depends on where you measure.  Still another report insists that temperatures fell last year, and that, in turn, is rebutted by the argument that one year doesn't matter.  
  • Some say it isn't the global average temperature that is the problem, but rather regional effects.  Or that the problem is really the changes in weather patterns--more severe storms, more widespread droughts, etc.
  • Other reports detail the changes that will take place in the world.  Parts of the world will be washed away by rising seas, but other areas will benefit from longer growing seasons and temperatures conducive to a wider range of crops.

  • I see accounts of what we must do to get the problem under control--cut down our use of fossil fuels, conserve more, replace current technologies with advanced technologies.  It sounds expensive, but doable.  Then, I read yet another report that makes it sound like it's too late anyway.  The problem is so large and the changes are moving so fast that nothing we can do can turn back the inevitable. 
  • Some reports point to historical changes in global temperature and therefore conclude that it is all natural, and we can't do anything about it.  Or shouldn't to anything about it.  Or, once again, that nothing will work anyway.
  • Others say that maybe we should just plan for the changes--build dikes around our low-lying cities, move some of our infrastructure to higher ground, learn to seed clouds to control adverse weather phenomena.  

So what should we make of all these contradictions?  We sometimes lose sight of the fact that carbon dioxide is only one of the side products of fossil fuels.  Long, long before I ever heard of the problems of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, I heard about smog.  So that might argue that there one more reason should be trying to move to cleaner fuels anyway.  Or, to cleaner ways to use the existing fuels. 

The answer to that, of course, is--at what price?  If we are really in imminent danger of flooding cities that are home to hundreds of millions of people, and if human action can address the issue, most people would be willing to pay a pretty high price.  If there really is a high degree of uncertainty, or if we don't think any actions we take can affect it, then, we might still be willing to pay something for cleaner air, or to reduce the consequences of climate change, but what we should do becomes more of a cost-benefit issue.

I therefore was very interested to discover a Wall Street Journal article by Stephen Koonin, Director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University.  The article, entitled "Climate Science is not Settled," is almost a year old, but in case other non-subscribers to WSJ didn't see it last year, I think it is worth a read.  It identifies some of the many reasons that I keep seeing these contradictory reports:  the variability of natural climate change; the lack of full understanding about the role of the oceans; the roles of water vapor, clouds, and temperature; the deficiencies of existing models, including the fact that they do not use a fine enough grid, the failure to account properly for the behavior of the sea ice at the two poles; and other uncertainties.  Koonin calls for improvements to models and more rigor to "stress test" them.

But I find some of his final comments the most interesting.  He says, "Policy makers and the public may wish for the comfort of certainty in their climate science. But I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is 'settled' (or is a 'hoax') demeans and chills the scientific enterprise, retarding its progress in these important matters. Uncertainty is a prime mover and motivator of science and must be faced head-on."

He further says, "Society's choices in the years ahead will necessarily be based on uncertain knowledge of future climates. That uncertainty need not be an excuse for inaction. There is well-justified prudence in accelerating the development of low-emissions technologies and in cost-effective energy-efficiency measures. But climate strategies beyond such 'no regrets' efforts carry costs, risks and questions of effectiveness, so nonscientific factors inevitably enter the decision. These include our tolerance for risk and the priorities that we assign to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental quality, and intergenerational and geographical equity."

Finally, he concludes, "Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future.  Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself."

I think that would indeed be a rational way to approach a very difficult, but very important, issue.


Friday, August 21, 2015

All of the Above:

A Matter of Common Sense

One recurring discussion we seem to face is what the mix of energy sources should be.  This discussion has become particularly important as the drive to reduce carbon emissions grows, and as the costs of renewable energy simultaneously seem to be plummeting.  That combination of factors has tempted some to envision a world powered entirely by the sun and the wind.

Many of us in the energy field have long tried to challenge such a scenario.  Experience has taught us that new problems often emerge as the use of a technology increases.  I recall many years ago reading a "look back at history" type of article that lauded the fact that those newfangled automobiles would solve the pollution problems created by horses in the city.  No one recognized then that automobiles would bring another type of pollution, and that, years later, we would spend time, money and energy to address that pollution.

Therefore, I was very pleased to see a very rational discussion of the issue entitled The Environmentalist Case against 100% Renewable Energy Plans.  The article draws a distinction between what is technically possible and what is optimal, thus transforming the argument from whether or not something can be done to whether it should be done.

The article also takes on the difficulty of achieving a 100% renewable power supply.  Although proponents of such a scenario cite various storage possibilities (as well as grid interconnections), the article points out that energy storage is not just a daily problem.  Wind patterns are seasonal, and there can be extended patterns of wind variability for other reasons.

In fact, shortly after I read this article, I saw some statistics from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) that graphically showed a 5-month period at the beginning of 2015 where the capacity factors of wind plants on the West Coast were lower than the average of the previous 5 years.  The EIA notes that capacity factors vary non-linearly with wind speed, so small decreases in wind speeds can result in much larger changes in capacity factors.

As a result of these variations, a huge investment in storage would be required in order to assure a reliable energy supply during extended periods of low wind speeds.  Yes, wind and solar mixes can complement each other, and yes, grid interconnections can bring renewable-generated electricity from far away, but each of these scenarios has costs and limitations as well.  Reliable baseload sources can do the same job much more efficiently.

The article also takes on some of the other, less technical, issues.  In particular, it notes the irony that eliminating nuclear power in favor of wind and solar energy requires much more transformation of the landscape to produce the same amount of energy, which draws opposition from other environmental groups, as well as from people who don’t want wind turbines marring their scenic views.

The article raises other points as well.  For example, it notes that all energy technologies are evolving, so the projected benefits of advanced solar or wind systems should be compared to the those of advanced nuclear systems and advanced carbon capture and storage systems, not to present technologies.  This is a point that I have found is often glossed over--by proponents of all technologies.

There are probably other points that the article could have made.  It comments on the small footprint of nuclear power plants compared to wind and solar plants, but not on the greater amounts of materials needed for renewable plants producing the same amount of power, and the environmental impacts of mining and manufacturing those.  Or of the need for specialized materials such as rare earths.  It mentions an allegation that mining uranium is energy intensive (and therefore, generates carbon at the front-end), but it doesn't challenge that assumption or compare the front-end energy demands with those for renewable energy sources.    

The article emphasizes that replacing some non-emitting sources with other non-emitting sources gains nothing environmentally, while adding a lot to the cost.  It concludes that the best option is a mix of energy technologies, noting that the optimal mix may vary, depending on location. 

In summary, the article makes a good start at looking at our energy mix holistically.  In particular, it helps make the case of why something that is technically possible (maybe!) is not necessarily the best path to pursue, and suggests how we should be approaching decisions on our future energy supply.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Nuclear Power and Human Factors:

A Close Connection

I was very pleased to read recently that the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD/NEA) has just increased its emphasis on the human factors side of nuclear power. In particular, NEA "has created a new division to support its member countries in their efforts to further improve the human side of nuclear safety." The new Division of the Human Aspects of Nuclear Safety consolidates activities in the areas of training, safety culture and public communications, and encourages greater focus on such areas within member countries.

In fact, I'm more than just pleased.  I'm very gratified.  One of my areas of personal interest for the last dozen or so years has been knowledge management.  Knowledge management includes issues associated with assuring adequate training and other actions to assure that knowledge is transferred effectively within an organization.  My personal involvement in this latter area began when I was in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and continued when I moved to the OECD/NEA as Deputy Director General from 2004 to 2007.  I therefore feel particularly pleased that the NEA has increased the attention it is devoting to training, as that will inevitably help with the knowledge management issues I tackled during my tenure there. 

In more recent years, I've become very engaged in explorations of the issue of safety culture as well, and have made a number of presentations in this area.  Safety culture is another important aspect of the enhanced human factors work the NEA says it will be doing, and I'm pleased to see that as well.  While both issues have been getting more attention at technical conferences and in other venues, and safety culture, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention since the Fukushima accident, I have still sometimes felt that work related to the human element was a footnote for many people in the nuclear field, and that a lot of engineers sometimes feel that you can completely engineer out the potential for people to affect the performance of a facility negatively.

I believe it is particularly valuable for safety culture to be addressed at an international level.  Since Fukushima, there is a growing recognition that there are some traits that have a societal connection--independence versus conformity, going along versus rocking the boat, etc.  There is less recognition that some of these traits are not all good or all bad.  Almost any human trait, carried to an extreme, has a downside.  There is also not enough recognition that individuals within a culture vary a great deal--and even more important, that people can be retrained to overcome behaviors they may have been taught.  What better place to deal with such issues than an international organization, where people of different cultures can have a chance to see how other cultures view issues of behavior at a nuclear facility, and can learn from each other?

I have had less personal involvement with public communications, although in some of my roles, particularly when I served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), I have certainly had a chance to see the important impact public opinion can have on nuclear power, how public perceptions can be distorted by biased reports, and how important timely, accurate public information can be.

I therefore applaud the direction NEA is taking, and look forward to them making important contributions in the future to human factors issues in the nuclear area, including training, knowledge management, safety culture, and public communications.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--July:

A Busy Month

Today, I continue my series of nuclear milestones of the month.  If May and June were slightly light on historical events, July more than makes up for it.  July is noteworthy in the US for being the month that the first reactor to supply power to the commercial grid started operation.  It is also noteworthy for the number of nuclear milestones that took place outside the US, including in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, and the Panama Canal (although this was a U.S. project).  Two of the firsts are for major multinational institutions.

Key July milestones include:

July 1, 1959:  First reactor test in a program to develop rocket propulsion (Kiwi-A, Los Alamos, New Mexico)

July 5, 1961:  First military surface ship to operate using nuclear power (USS Long Beach, U.S.)

July 8, 1955:  First research reactor licensed to operate, and first reactor to operate under a license (Pennsylvania State University Nuclear Reactor Facility, State College, Pennsylvania)

July 9, 1967:  First gas-cooled heavy water reactor to supply electricity (EL-4/Brennilis, Finistere, France)

July 12, 1960: First non-governmental multinational organization for nuclear power (Foratom, Brussels, Belgium)

July 12, 1957:  First sustained electricity supplied off-site (SRE, Santa Susana, California)  [Power excursion July 13, 1959 led to shutdown.]

July 16, 1973:  First commercial-scale desalination using nuclear power (Aktau BN-350, Aktau, USSR/now Kazakhstan)

July 17, 1955:  First electricity to the commercial grid in the U.S. (BORAX-III, Arco, Idaho)

July 22, 1947:  First "large" reactor outside the U.S. (NRX, Chalk River, Canada)

July 25, 1966:  First nuclear power reactor to operate in Asia (Tokai-1, Tokai Mura, Japan)

July 29, 1957:  First international governmental organization for nuclear technology (IAEA, Vienna, Austria)

July 29, 1978:  First thermal power reactor to operate with full MOX core (Fugen, Tsuruga, Japan)

July 30, 1951:  First research reactor built by countries that had not engaged in weapons development (JEEP-I, Kjeller, Norway)

In addition, we have several firsts this month for which I was unable to find an exact date:  First boiling water reactor (BORAX-I, Arco, Idaho); first demonstration of a high-temperature gas reactor (Dragon Reactor Experiment, Winfrith, United Kingdom); and first floating nuclear power plant (MH-1A, Panama Canal).

As always, more information on all of these milestones, and more, is available in my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Climate Change and Science:

The Case for Greater Logic

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted some of the inconsistencies many of us have long noted between the concerns over climate change and the actions being taken--or not being taken--and added a few.

Eduardo Porter starts his discussion by asking whether America's efforts to combat climate change are going off the rails.  He then continues by saying, "environmental experts are suggesting that some parts of the [U.S.] strategy are, at best, a waste of money and time. At worst, they are setting the United States in the wrong direction entirely."

The point that came as the greatest surprise to me was that allowing the burning of biomass in power plants to help reduce consumption of fossil fuels produces 50 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal.  This seems contrary to all the discussions I have heard about the benefits of using biomass, and the article didn't provide enough detail to allow me to verify the statement independently, but at the very least, it suggests we may need to analyze the biomass option more thoroughly before we commit to it.   

The article also panned some energy conservation efforts, particularly weatherization programs, on economic grounds, saying that they cost more than twice as much as the energy savings they produce.  Furthermore, energy efficiency efforts worldwide are slowing, according to the article.

The concern is that a lot of the strategy for reducing carbon emissions relies on energy efficiency improvements and the use of biomass, so if these strategies are flawed, the U.S. and the world is unlikely to meet carbon-reduction goals.  The author doesn't mince words, saying that such strategies "are driven more by hope than science."  He bemoans the fact that ideological considerations are limiting the options, and are excluding potentially more viable options such as nuclear power.

While this article seems to focus perhaps a bit too much on concerns about biomass, the overall case it makes--that we need to be guided by science and not by unfounded phobias and unreasonable hopes--is a very important one.  As the U.S. and the world continue to make decisions on how to reduce carbon emissions, we cannot rely on preconceived biases or simplistic assumptions about the benefits or liabilities of any option. 


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Energy and Independence:

Thoughts on Independence Day

As the U.S. Independence Day approaches, I have been thinking of the meaning of independence in the world today.  I realize I am not talking about the same kind of independence that the early citizens of America fought for, and I'm not really trying to draw any analogies to the events of 1776.  However, the word "independence" has arisen time and again, so I have had ample opportunity to ponder the meaning of independence in an interdependent world.

The first time it really came to my attention was in 1973, during the Arab oil embargo.  At that time, the U.S. initiated efforts to achieve "energy independence."  This is not the time or place to go into the details of that initiative, but as we all know, the U.S. never achieved the complete energy independence that was discussed at that time.  The shock of those events did spur energy R&D and a variety of other efforts, but in the end, complete energy independence did not prove practical--and one could argue, it did not prove necessary. 

Nevertheless, that incident certainly sensitized the United States and many other nations to their potential vulnerability.  That sensitivity lingers to this day, and has been reinforced--albeit in other parts of the world--by more recent incidents, such as Russian threats to cut European gas supplies.  However, it seems to me the thinking has evolved from a concept of total independence to one of having multiple options--a kind of independence by virtue of diversity, perhaps.  This manifests itself in a number of ways.  President Obama's statement that we need an energy strategy that includes "all of the above" is perhaps the most explicit statement on the subject.

But the same concept works within a technology as well.  Nuclear power plants are a good example.  Nuclear power plants need uranium to operate, and many nations do not have indigenous supplies of uranium ore (or the capability to enrich it).  Nevertheless, there is far less concern over uranium supplies than there is over oil supplies, in large part because there are significant uranium resources in a number of countries.

There are some who argue that the use of renewable energy provides true independence, but even that is not completely true.  Wind turbines, for example, use rare earths, and currently, the largest known sources of rare earths are highly concentrated in a few countries, such as China. 

Thus, while I am pleased to celebrate Independence Day and all it stands for, I also like to think that maintaining our independence today requires that, to meet critical needs, such as energy supply, we must maintain a diverse set of options, both in the technologies we use, and in the sources of supplies for those technologies. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nuclear Energy Institute:

A Top Workplace

This week, the Washington Post published its survey on the best places to work in the Washington, DC region.  I was delighted to see that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) made this list.  Kudos to the management and staff of NEI for this distinction!

The results were based on a questionnaire to the employees of 317 firms in the DC area who agreed to participate, and companies were ranked in categories based on their size.  NEI was ranked 44 out of 75 companies whose rankings were published.  (Companies ranked below the top 75 were not listed.)  The category "small workplace" appears to represent companies with fewer than 150 employees in the DC area.  NEI has about 120 employees.

According to the Post, one of the reasons that the survey results were divided according to size is that smaller firms generally tend to score higher than larger firms, so NEI's ranking might have been even higher if all the companies had been ranked against each other irrespective of size. 

The survey looked at a variety of measures of employee satisfaction, including feeling "connected to their workplace through meaningful work and the belief that their company is moving in the right direction," feeling genuinely appreciated by their employer, having confidence in their leadership, and, of course, pay and benefits.

Since I live in the Washington area and have worked on nuclear policy issues for many years, I have had frequent opportunities to rub elbows with NEI management and staff.  I have always found them to be highly competent, helpful, upbeat, and enjoyable to work with.  I should also add that they have been very supportive of various elements of the nuclear community, in particular, students, and they have housed and advised the American Nuclear Society (ANS) supported students in the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program for many years. 

However, I must admit that, if you had asked me if NEI would have come in high on a survey of good places to work, I might not have guessed that they would.  Why?  I can imagine that the work of the NEI staff is often frustrating.  After all, we live in an environment where members of the public and Congressional decision-makers often have strongly held, but very distorted, views of nuclear power.  The staff must often feel like they are beating their heads against a wall in their efforts to promulgate factual information. 

In addition, one must realize that NEI does not operate as a completely free agent.  They work for their member companies, and while their members all share an interest in nuclear power, the companies vary in size, in their other operations, and in the regulations of the regions in which they operate.  What is best for one company is often not best for others, and NEI must constantly balance and consider the different perspectives and needs of their membership.  This, too, can be a difficult, and sometimes unappreciated, challenge.

So, what is it that makes NEI rise to the top ranks as a desirable place to work?  NEI published its own analysis, which I think does a good job of highlighting the things that make NEI a special place.  Marvin Fertel, the president and CEO of NEI, said, "NEI thrives because we believe the most satisfied and engaged employees are those who enjoy their work environment; have good camaraderie with their colleagues; are able to maintain a vibrant work-life balance; have good health and wellness; are provided opportunities to grow their knowledge and skills, and feel that they are directly achieving our mission and vision." 

Marv Fertel's statement goes on to say how NEI actively promotes these elements through targeted, proactive programs to assure a good work-life balance, to foster a healthy, productive work environment, and to assure high job satisfaction and morale." 

The NEI article also emphasizes the commitment of NEI's employees to the importance of their mission, noting that, "NEI employees are extraordinarily committed to NEI’s core mission, which is to foster the beneficial uses of nuclear energy and commercial nuclear technology.  NEI employees feel that nuclear energy, as a clean-air source of electricity, plays a vital role in meeting the growing need for low-carbon electricity." 

So this survey makes me realize that, while I have sometimes felt sorry for the monumental difficulties that NEI often faces, the commitment the staff shares to the importance of their work, and the recognition and appreciation they see from their management, makes them enjoy the challenges.

So, congratulations again to NEI staff and management on this notable and well-deserved recognition! 


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Science Denialists:

The Hidden Danger

An amusing tongue-in-cheek article in the New Yorker, entitled "Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans," made me smile--but also made me reflect on the darker truth behind the humor.

Most of us, especially those trained in science, find it difficult to believe that other people sometimes can't seem to understand principles that are obvious to us.  This has been a problem for hundreds of years, of course, whether the issue was the shape of the earth, the evolution of the human species, or anything else.  Most of the time, we tend to dismiss such people with a laugh and a shrug. 

The problem is that the failure of people to understand science is not just an amusing sideshow--too large or too loud a constituency of such people can influence public policy, and therefore, can have a profound influence on many aspects of our well-being.

The illustration in the New Yorker article shows an image of the earth, and the title reflects the fact that earth is endangered.  This would lead to an implication that the article is taking on climate change deniers.  That may well be the case, but as I thought about the article, I became convinced that the same strain of fact-resistant humans can affect many other areas as well, and in some cases, the implications may also be widespread and substantial.

For example, if emotional arguments against energy-producing technologies (such as nuclear power) and unrealistic expectations of other energy-related technologies (such as conservation or renewables) are allowed to rule decision-making on R&D and on new build, we are likely to face growing energy shortages in the future.  If irrational fears of advanced biological developments, like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), restrict our ability to improve the disease resistance and productivity of our crops, the world's food supply will remain vulnerable.  If too many people reject vaccines, we will be susceptible to new epidemics of diseases.

As I was thinking about this issue, I came across a related article in the New York Times.  This article reports on a study of scientists who seem to reject scientific explanations.  The article seems to suggest that my focus on the lack of analytical training of the general public might be too short-sighted.  The study found that the very same group of scientists employed questionable tactics over the decades to cast doubt on scientific findings relating to such diverse areas as acid rain, the ozone shield, tobacco smoke and climate change.  The researchers observed that some of these scientists had had major "career triumphs" during the Cold War, but later apparently came to equate environmentalism with socialism and government regulation with tyranny.

Thus, the problem may be much deeper than an uneducated public.  And, since some of these views come from people with scientific credentials, they may be even harder to counter.  Nevertheless, they are both manifestations of "fact-resistant humans."  Neither article suggests a way to overcome the invasion of this species, and alas, I don't have any easy answers either.  Perhaps the first step is for us to stop thinking that such views are harmless, and to start recognizing that they may be as dangerous as a new pathogen.