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.