Friday, May 20, 2016

Positive Signs for Nuclear Power:

Views from ANS Officers

This week, the Washington, DC local section of the American Nuclear Society had the unusual pleasure of hosting both the ANS President, Gene Grecheck, and the ANS Vice-President/President-Elect, Andy Klein.   What was particularly interesting is how many positive signs both speakers highlighted during their presentations.  They did acknowledge that all was not rosy, but overall, their comments reflected the fact that a lot of positive things have happened in the past year or so.  Taken one at a time, we sometimes don't realize that there are some changes on the horizon.    

Gene kicked off the session by stating that over 2 billion people in the world today have zero access to electricity, so talking about reducing demand globally is not meaningful.  He also noted that, while the Germans boast about shutting nuclear power plants, Germany's per capita CO2 emissions last year were higher than those of the US.   

I have been particularly interested in how the international market seems to be evolving, so I was quite interested when he shared with us some discussions he had at the COP21 with the leaders of some of the developing countries poised to buy nuclear power plants from Russia.  Gene said that they acknowledged to him that they don’t like the idea of being dependent on Russia.  However, their countries need power now, and any problem that may happen with the Russians will be after their term of office!  This seems like a reverse riff on the NIMTOO (Not In My Term of Office) mantra, that in the United States, has usually been interpreted as politicians delaying decisions on nuclear power plants (or other controversial infrastructure) until they get out of office.

While Gene did not shy away from pointing out recent negative events (nuclear power plant closings, low natural prices, counter-productive pricing mechanisms in the electricity market), he also noted a number of events in the past year or so that had at least some potential positive impacts for nuclear power:  COP21, EPA's Clean Power Plan, Wisconsin’s repeal of their nuclear power plant moratorium, the efforts of the New York Public Utilities Commission to assure the continued operation of some of their nuclear power plants, and recent high-level events in the United States, including the White House Nuclear Summit last November and the DOE Summit this week.

Andy Klein picked up on the positive theme in his remarks, noting several groups that have had  pro-nuclear events and messages, including Third Way, Breakthrough Institute, and others.  He noted that the message from some of these groups is particularly persuasive because they are not perceived as being part of the nuclear industry.  

He also discussed advanced nuclear technologies and small modular reactors, and their potential benefits, although both he and Gene were careful to note that more needs to be done to prove such technologies.  His comments about the start of the NuScale reactor were particularly interesting.  He credits DOE's Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) with helping get the project started, but he points out that, like many large research projects, the initial efforts were not without some glitches.  Since he will undoubtedly be telling this story to other audiences during his coming term as ANS President, I will not share all the details here.

Andy ended his discussion of advanced reactor R&D by showing the wide assortment of projects underway outside the United States involving different countries and different nuclear technologies.  Unfortunately, there was not enough time in the session for him to describe those in any detail, but the shear number of initiatives makes it clear that there are still a number of countries and organizations committed to developing the next generation of nuclear power.  

The two talks were followed by a brief Q&A, with both speakers addressing the questions.  During the Q&A, Gene made one particularly interesting observation.  He noted that there is an imbalance in the requirements on utilities when they build a power plant versus when they close one.  When a utility wants to build a power plant, they have to address all its impacts--the environmental impacts, the impacts on the community, etc.  They are not permitted to build or operate the plant until they demonstrate compliance with requirements and receive approval.  But when they want to shut a plant down, no approvals are required.  Shutting a power plant certainly has impacts on the environment (due to replacement power), on the local economy (employment), etc., but there is no requirement to address them.  It is the utility operator's economic decision.

Both speakers concluded with optimistic messages.  Gene's final slide read, "The world needs nuclear, and nuclear needs ANS."  Andy repeated that, and laid out some of his plans for ANS in the coming year.  Both Gene and Andy encouraged the active involvement of the nuclear community in ANS as a way to contribute to the positive message about nuclear power.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Nuclear Firsts, DNFSB, and More:

A Month of Personal Milestones

April was a pretty exciting month for me.  While I usually don't blog about myself, two of the three "milestones" in my personal life have a nuclear connection, so I thought it was worth sharing some recent news.

First, my father turned 95 early in the month--and was even able to travel to my house for a visit.  While there is no direction connection to things nuclear, I think that's a pretty special milestone and deserves a mention.

The second event was that my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development," was published as an e-book and is available on Amazon.  I should note that it has been significantly updated, with a chapter covering Fukushima, and with the tables and other information updated to reflect recent plant start-ups and closures.  In addition, since the publication of the hardcover book in 2010, I have learned about a couple of firsts that I hadn't know about before, and I have added them in the updated e-book.

I'm pleased that I've already gotten good feedback on the changes.  I know that a number of nuclear engineering professors were using the hardcover edition in some of their classes, and I hope that the e-book will make the contents more accessible for students, researchers, and others.  I am also asked, from time to time, if the book is suitable for a non-technical audience.  I think it is.  The focus is on  the historical events themselves, and touches lightly on the technical underpinnings involved.

The final event of the month was the most exciting for me.  On April 28, President Obama nominated me to serve on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent organization within the executive branch responsible for providing advice and recommendations to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy defense-related nuclear facilities.

As some readers may know, this is a position that requires confirmation by a vote of the whole Senate.  Therefore, I am not yet serving in the DNFSB position and will not do so until such time as the Senate acts on my nomination.  I am currently beginning the process that will hopefully lead to a vote of confirmation by the Senate.

It is a great honor to be selected by the President for nomination to such a post, and of course, it will be even more of an honor to be confirmed by the Senate, so I am looking forward to undergoing this process in the weeks ahead.