Thursday, December 20, 2018

N.S. Savannah:

The Final Phase

One of the early chapters in the history of nuclear power is about to enter its final phase.  The N.S. Savannah, which was built as part of the Atoms for Peace program started by President Eisenhower to demonstrate peaceful uses of atomic energy, became the first nuclear-powered civilian cargo/passenger ship when it was put into operation in 1962.  It is currently being readied for decontamination and final disposition.

The ship was operated until 1971, and the fuel rods were removed from the reactor core a few years later.  It has been maintained in that state, and in recent years, has been berthed in Baltimore Harbor awaiting a final determination of its fate.  The US Maritime Administration (MARAD) has maintained it, and over time, has even restored portions of the public areas of the ship.  However, this has always been regarded as a temporary state.

Now, MARAD has begun the process of decontamination of the ship as a step towards its eventual disposition.  The most exciting aspect of this process is that part of the containment has been cut away.  This will enable the removal of asbestos and and the reactor core.  In the meantime, the opening of the containment allows this rare panoramic view of the inside of a reactor containment:

The decontamination process is triggered by the fact that the ship still holds a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  That license expires in 2031, and by law, decommissioning should be completed before the license expires.  Decontamination is the first step in the decommissioning process, and expected to take several months. 

For those who are interested, there is a great virtual tour that takes you to a number of locations on the ship, including around the outside of the containment (before the containment was opened).  The website also has more information on the history of the ship. 

In the meantime, the ultimate disposition of the ship is still under consideration.  MARAD and a number of other interested organizations are actively discussing the next steps.  Possibilities range from preservation of the entire ship to scrapping the hull and preserving only a few key components at a museum or other facility.  Obviously, everyone is hoping the ship can be saved intact, but that depends on it finding a suitable home.  I would be happy to pass on any offers to host this historic ship!


Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Visit to Fukushima:

The Site Today


[Note:  Paragraph 5, on observable impacts to the area outside the plant, and paragraph 8, on observations at the site, were modified on November 9 to add a couple of additional observations.]

I recently had an opportunity to visit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station for the first time.  While many people have visited the site since the accident on March 11, 2011, the site does keep changing, so I thought my observations might be of interest.

I was in Sendai, Japan to participate in the International Conference on Maintenance Science and Technology (ICMST), and on the day following the conference, they offered a bus trip to the plant and a tour of the site.  A group of about 3 dozen of us boarded the bus at 8 am at the Sendai train station for a tour that would take us first to the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology Development, run by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), and then to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi site.

The Naraha site, about 2-1/2 hours south of Sendai (past Fukushima), was established following the Fukushima accident, is intended to provide a center for organizations engaged in nuclear power plant decommissioning activities to develop and test robotics and other equipment and procedures for decommissioning.  We visited the 2 main facilities--a full-scale mock-up test area, and a virtual reality system.  The virtual reality demonstration was particularly dramatic, as we "toured" the inside of the power plant.

We then turned north again and traveled to the Fukushima plant.  As we got close, my first reaction was that nothing seemed wrong in the surrounding area.  There was other traffic going in both directions on the route we were traveling.  There were stoplights on the road we were on.  We were passing houses and shops.  All of them seemed intact.  They were not boarded up, there were no signs of vandalism, and there were cars parked in front of the buildings.

It was only when we looked closely that we started seeing that something was not quite right.  There were no people around any of the shops.  Some of the side streets were blocked off, or had policemen controlling access.  In fact, entrances to parking areas were also blocked, so you could drive through the area, but not stop here.  As we really focused on what we were passing, we could see places where the grass and bushes and trees were clearly taking over, covering paved areas and entries to buildings.  Once we had figured out what to look for, it became obvious that we were driving through a no-man's land.  And to drive the fact home, from time to time, there were displays on the side of the road broadcasting current readings from local radiation monitors.   

When we got to the nuclear power station, we were taken first to a building where we had a briefing on what we were about to see, and then to another building to prepare for our tour.  While I've seen and heard reports of groups that have toured some areas by foot, we were going to stay on a bus and tour strictly by bus.  That was a disappointment, but it undoubtedly saved a lot of time, as we didn't have to don much protective gear.  It seemed to take long enough as it is for all of us to be issued entry cards, dosimeters and cotton gloves, and to be processed in.  And, unfortunately, we had to leave all cameras and cell phones behind, so I have no personal photos of this visit.

Once into the facility, we boarded another bus and went on a very thorough tour of the facility from the roads.  We passed all 6 units, and probably got within 50 yards of several of the damaged units, with frequent stops for the guide to explain what had happened at each unit, and what has been done since then.  In Unit 1, we still could see the skeletal remains of the building, while Unit 3 has been covered with a dome for the refueling operation.  Where damage is still visible from the vantage point of the bus, they pointed that out.  As we drove around the facility, they also indicated where the ice wall was, and the pipes that feed it.  One impressive feature is the hundreds of tanks that have been brought in to allow the storage of contaminated water.

They also showed us some of the human side of the facility, both before and after the accident--the remaining cherry trees of the hundreds that used to line the main drive and that were enjoyed by the staff in the spring (many had to be sacrificed for some of the post-accident activities), the new administration building, the housing for staff.  Also obvious were cars without license plates sitting in the parking lot; they had been on the site at the time of the accident and are now limited to use on the site.  They were particularly proud of some of the progress they've made.  In 96% of the facility, decontamination has reduced contamination to low enough levels that no protective clothing or only light protective clothing is needed.  (Of course, some of the more intense work is in the areas that are still contaminated, so a significant percentage of the staff still needs to suit up.

In the briefings and on the tour, there was much emphasis on the fact that they are only 7 years into an activity that is expected to last for decades.  It will be interesting to continue to follow this activity and track the progress over time, although many of us ruefully commented to each other that we might not be here to see the completion of the project. 


Monday, October 1, 2018

Nuclear Energy and Carbon Reduction:

A Critical Combination

I was pleased last week to have the opportunity to attend two events associated with the official rollout of a recent MIT study entitled, "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World."  This was an interdisciplinary study involving a number of people, both at MIT and elsewhere, some as part of the study group, and others as an advisory committee and a team of reviewers.  The co-chairs of the study were:  David Petti (also the executive director), Jacopo Buongiorno, Michael Corradini, and John Parsons.  

This study is part of a series of studies that MIT has conducted, starting in 2003, on a variety of energy related subjects, including geothermal power, coal, natural gas, solar power, and the electric grid.  Several of the previous studies dealt with nuclear-power related issues, but this one had the unique twist of focusing on the implications of nuclear energy in a future where there are constraints on carbon generation.

The first meeting of the day was held at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the second event was a meeting of the MIT Club of Washington, DC.  The 2 programs featured most of the same speakers, so I worried that I might be bored by the second round, but that was far from the case.  The study provided a very thorough and comprehensive look at the energy supply options under a variety of assumptions, both in the US and around the world, so there was a lot to digest.  In fact, having listened to a summary of the study twice, there is still a lot more detail in the very comprehensive report linked above.

But if I could highlight one really dramatic visual take-away from the presentations--and the study--it is a graph projecting the likely cost of generating electricity under different levels of carbon restrictions and different assumptions about nuclear power.  In particular, Figure E.1 in the executive summary, below, shows that the cost of generating electricity is significantly higher for scenarios of very low carbon emissions if nuclear power is not part of the mix, both in the US and in China. 

Figure E.1 

The irony is that, the same week that I was attending these briefings, I received multiple messages regarding an initiative of a group in my home state of Maryland who are trying to gather signatures for a letter to the Maryland government urging the government to adopt a low-carbon goal for the future energy supply--but never mentioning the importance of nuclear power in doing so effectively.  When I contacted them to ask about this omission, they claimed they were not anti-nuclear, but wanted to avoid a controversial subject. 

I haven't been able to get my arms around the logic--highlight the problem, but don't mention the one option that is likely to be critical to a realistic solution.  It seems to me that this is a recipe for failure in one way or another.  And this is graphic evidence that the message about the important role nuclear power needs to play in the future still isn't fully recognized and considered in the ongoing dialogue.

So I congratulate the entire team of the MIT study for a job well done, I urge everyone to review the study, and I encourage people around the country--and the world--to share the important findings of the study with their elected officials and others so that we end up with carbon-reduction strategies that are realistic and effective.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Nuclear Engineering Majors Rank High:

Survey Shows High Salary, 
Low Unemployment

It seems to me that nuclear engineering often doesn't even show up as a separate field in many surveys of academic disciplines, so it caught my attention immediately when I saw a recent survey reported in Money magazine that included nuclear engineering.  It caught my attention even more when I saw that nuclear engineering was ranked third in a survey that focused largely on expected salary and employment prospects. 

The information comes from a study done by Bankrate that covers over 150 professions.  As expected, the STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, and math) generally rank higher than other professions, but to see nuclear engineering near the very top was--for me--a bit of a surprise, although, of course, a pleasant one. 

As always with such studies, one has to do a deeper dive into the methodology to understand the significance of the numbers.  What is particularly interesting about this study is that, while average salary is the most heavily weighted factor, the unemployment rate is also factored in.  On this basis, petroleum engineering, which has the highest average salary of the fields identified, but also has a high unemployment rate, doesn't make the top 10. 

With some of the current uncertainties in the prospects for new nuclear power plants, or even in the continued operation of some existing plants, some of us have been worried about whether the nuclear field can continue to attract the kind of talent that will still be needed for decades to come.  A study like this, that shows nuclear engineering to be a field with high salary potential and excellent prospects for employment, should help persuade students now choosing career fields that the nuclear engineering field is an attractive one.

Of course, there is always some danger in choosing a field just because of the job prospects.  I've been around long enough to see the job prospects dry up in some fields, and whole new fields emerge.  But under any scenario, the nuclear industry is clearly going to need trained people for a long time to come.  And furthermore, nuclear engineering has historically been a very flexible field--with roots in several engineering disciplines, nuclear engineering majors are able to work in a variety of industries.  So all prospects appear to be good for nuclear engineering majors. 


Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Secret Cities": A Look at Nuclear History

Architecture and the Manhattan Project 

I recently visited an exhibit on the Manhattan Project at the Building Museum in Washington, DC.  The exhibit has been open since early May, so perhaps some people reading this blog will have seen it already.  But if you haven't, and if you live in the DC area or have a chance to visit, I highly recommend the exhibit.  It is open until March 3, 2019, so I hope a lot of people will have the opportunity to view it.

Called "Secret Cities," the exhibit focuses on the extraordinary requirements for housing generated by the opening of Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford laboratories during World War II, and how they were met.  This is appropriate, of course, since this is a museum about buildings and architecture, but by doing so, it focuses attention on something many of us don't think about--the fact that thousands of people had to be brought to these sites and housed, fed, and entertained, all under a shroud of secrecy.  

The exhibit puts the housing issue in context--it discusses other attempts at the time to turn out modularized housing, it includes examples of the work of some of the famous architects of the day and how their innovations influenced the designs, and it even illustrates some of the post-war housing construction that built, at least in part, upon the experiences of the Manhattan Project. 

While the exhibit focuses on the housing, it also does a good job of covering a number of other aspects of the 3 laboratories and the communities that lived there.  It includes displays that show some of the major facilities built to conduct the research and production at the laboratories, and gives brief explanations of the scientific principles that were explored and exploited.  It discusses the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and controversy surrounding the decision to drop the bombs.  It talks about life on these remote, secret sites, and shows examples of the signs, the badges, and the announcements of social events.  And it is frank about the poor treatment of African-Americans working on the sites--the segregation and inferior housing.

The exhibit even includes a couple of pieces of Vaseline glass (also called uranium glass) and Fiestaware.  My most amusing moment in the exhibit came as I was reading that display and overheard someone behind me opining to no one in particular that it must be dangerous to eat from those dishes.  I couldn't help myself.  I turned to him and said, "Only if you eat the plate."

While a lot of the history and science covered in the exhibit will be familiar to people in the nuclear community, for me, the focus on the design and construction of the housing and on some of the memorabilia from life there at the time provided an added dimension to what I already knew.  I think others will also find that the exhibit provides a unique focus on some aspects of the Manhattan Project we too often take for granted.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Burton Richter, 1931-2018:

Scientist and Science Policy Advisor

Burton Richter died on July 18.  He was a Nobel Prize winner who was active in both the world of fundamental science and the world of science policy.  (Shown in the photo receiving the Enrico Fermi award from President Obama, along with Mildred Dresselhaus.)

In 1974, Richter led the team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Menlo Park, California, that laid the  foundation for the standard model of fundamental particles and forces.  The team at SLAC (now the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) produced collisions between high-energy electrons and positrons to produce a new particle which they called the ψ.  At essentially the same time, a team led by Samuel Ting at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, discovered the same particle, which they called the J.  As a result, the particle became known as the J/ψ meson.  The discovery significantly expanded scientists’ understanding of particles called quarks, which had been discovered at SLAC only a few years earlier.  In 1976, Richter and Ting, who was affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.

In later years, Richter participated actively in the science policy issues of the day, including nuclear power, energy technology, and climate change. For example, he and some colleagues from the American Physical Society (APS) urged Congress and the White House to reorganize the Department of Energy to create a separate undersecretary for science instead of having just one undersecretary for the entire department.  In 2005 Congress passed an act that established the position.  Richter was also one of a handful of scientists who in 2008 helped the then-incoming Barack Obama administration identify $20 billion worth of “shovel-ready” research projects across scientific disciplines that it would fund from the economic stimulus package called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Congress approved in 2009 to counter the effects of the sudden crash of the economy.

Among his many activities and honors, he served as director of SLAC, president of the APS, and was awarded the National Medal of Science and the Enrico Fermi Award.  He also wrote a book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century, to explain climate change to the general public.

I had the privilege of meeting Burt several times and hearing him speak.  Two meetings that stand out for me include one at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna, Austria, and another, when I was president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), and he spoke at our embedded topical meeting on accelerator applications.  At the latter event, he spoke on the need for nuclear power to meet the world's energy needs, and the possibility of accelerator transmutation of waste from nuclear power plants.

Burt Richter was a native of New York City.  He attended Far Rockaway High School, which also produced two other Nobel Laureates, Baruch Samuel Blumberg and Richard Feynman.  He attended Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, then went on to study at MIT, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1952 and his PhD in 1956.

The country, and the world, has truly lost a towering figure, both in the realm of science and in the arena of science policy.  


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Halden Reactor Project:

The End of an Era

First, I must apologize for a long lapse in activity on this blog.  I have been busier than usual the past few months, but fortunately, it was all good things. 

I continue to be busy this summer, but what has motivated me to put pen to paper again (OK, fingertips to keyboard) is that I was saddened to hear that the Halden Reactor is about to close.  For those who are not familiar with this project, the Halden Reactor Project, located in Halden, Norway, was a pioneer in the nuclear field in several ways.

As I detailed in my book on Nuclear Firsts, an agreement for cooperation among several European nations was signed on June 11, 1958--just over 60 years ago.  The reactor was already under construction on that date and started up just over a year later, on June 29, 1959, making it the first multinational project to begin operation.  It also became the first boiling water reactor in the world to operate using heavy water instead of light water.  A further milestone that the Halden Project achieved was becoming the first truly international peacetime nuclear research project in 1961, when it was joined by countries outside of Europe.

(Examining the dates carefully, we find that the Eurochemic project had a signed agreement on December 20, 1957, a few months earlier than the Halden Project, making it the first multinational agreement for a nuclear research project.  However, construction of the facility only began after the agreement was signed, so operation began several years later than the Halden Project.  Furthermore, the Eurochemic plant, an experimental reprocessing plant, only operated for a short time, whereas the Halden Project has been underway for nearly 60 years.)

The Halden Project is jointly financed by about 20 participating countries under the auspices of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.  (Full disclosure--I worked for NEA from 2004-7.)  Over the years, Halden has hosted research in numerous areas important to the safe operation of nuclear power facilities around the world, and has improved knowledge and understanding in a number of key areas for nuclear power plant operation, including fuels, materials, man-machine interfaces, and other areas.

The announcement of the impending closure of the plant has only become public in the last day or two, and all the details are not yet clear.   In fact, as of this writing, there is not even an announcement yet on the Halden Reactor Project site or on the OECD NEA website.  What is clear from the WNA news item highlighted above, and from other news reports I have seen, is that the board of directors of Norway's Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) has made a decision that it is not financially viable to continue operating the nuclear reactor.

The reactor is currently shut down due to a faulty valve,  and the license is due to expire in 2020, so the expense of restoring it and going through the relicensing process was deemed to involve an unacceptable level of financial risk for IFE.  The board has expressed a commitment in continuing a research program in some areas.  The Halden laboratory does have other facilities, and the board stated that they planned to revise their research program.  Some of the organizations that have been conducting research at Halden have indicated that they are already beginning to look to research facilities elsewhere around the world to continue their research.

For many reasons, I am sorry to see this reactor shut down for good.  It has been such an important facility for so many years and has made so many contributions.  And the kinds of changes now needed--relocating research projects and revising the Halden research program--will take time and effort.  But the important contributions that the Halden reactor made to the safe operation of nuclear power plants around the world will live on. 


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Challenges to Nuclear Power:

Not Always the Obvious

Most conventional wisdom has looked at the rising use of solar and wind power and concluded that these are the primary reasons that nuclear power plants have been shutting down in recent years.  There is a growing body of analysis, however, that refutes that claim.  A recent study by MIT has reinforced the findings of a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, showing that solar and wind aren't the real problems.  Natural gas is.

It's easy to see how such misperceptions have arisen.  Multiple changes have been occurring in energy markets in recent years--various incentives to encourage the use of solar and wind power, a reduction in some of the initially high costs of building solar and wind systems, the movement away from regulated energy markets.  And the growth of fracking, which has flooded the market with cheap natural gas.

Of all these things, solar and wind power have gotten the most press, so at times, it has seemed as if so-called renewable energy systems and nuclear power plants were enemies.

These studies show that this is not the case.  Looking at energy supply geographically, there was little correlation between where coal and nuclear plants were retiring and where new wind and solar capacity was located.

Rather, the closures seem to be correlated with cheap natural gas.  In the short term, that may look good to a lot of people.  After all, who doesn't like a bargain? 

But haven't we all fallen for something that looked like a bargain, only to find that it wasn't?  The cheap shoes that didn't last.  The bargain appliance that broke down quickly.  

Natural gas may well be the type of bargain that looks great now, but can cost us dearly later on.  First of all, cheap prices are only good if we can rely on them to remain cheap in the long run.  History has shown us that is a bad assumption.  Oil and gas have fluctuated dramatically in price before, and could do so again.  

Secondly, when natural gas plants replace coal plants, there is a net reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  But when natural gas plants replace nuclear power plants, the result is an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  So our glee at our short term bargain may have health and environmental ramifications in the long run.

Cooler heads have always argued for maintaining a mix in our energy supplies, including renewables, nuclear power and natural gas.  A recent report by Jim Conca in Forbes looks at the recent "bomb cyclone" and shows the value of diversity.  A mix of sources offers a kind of resilience that no single source can offer.  It offers a buffer against short-term weather outages or transportation problems.  It offers some disincentive to any one source manipulating prices.  It offers some flexibility when bad things do happen. 

The MIT and national laboratory studies come at a critical time, when a number of nuclear power plants have closed due to financial pressures, and more closures are threatened.  Hopefully, they will help point the way to measures that can be taken to assure that the benefits of nuclear power are appropriately valued in the marketplace.