Tuesday, May 4, 2021

In Memoriam: Peter Lyons

I was very sad to learn that Peter B. Lyons passed away on April 29.  He began his long and distinguished career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and then spent many years in Washington, first as a Science Advisor to U.S. Senator Pete Domenici and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and later, as a Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and finally as the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE).  During the course of his career, he made numerous contributions to nuclear science and nuclear policy, some of which are described in the DOE's bio on Pete and in the American Nuclear Society's (ANS) newswire article on his passing.  


In addition to being a person of so many accomplishments, he was also an extraordinary human being, and I would like to focus on some of his personal characteristics that I observed in my many interactions with him over the years.  


I first got to know Pete Lyons well when I was the Principal Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy in DOE.  He was one of the Capitol Hill staffers I met with periodically to discuss the work of my office.  Although Hill staffers are notoriously busy and overworked, and in other offices, I was often kept waiting or given only a brief, rushed audience, Pete was invariably respectful of the time of anyone visiting his office, and very thoughtful and knowledgeable in discussions.   His focus was always on the science and on the national good.


When I left DOE, I continued to see him occasionally at various conferences and other events, and to follow his career.  I have a special memory from 2013, when I served as the Faculty Member in Residence (FMR) for the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE), a program supported by the ANS and several other engineering societies to bring students to Washington for a summer to expose them to technology policy.  One part of the program was for the FMR to arrange for the students to meet leaders working in the science and technology policy area from the government and other organizations.  


Pete was the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at that time, and I had arranged for the students to come as a group to meet him.  While I have been impressed by the fact that many very high level, very busy people, such as NRC Commissioners, Assistant Secretaries, and others, do make time to meet with the WISE students, Pete did much more than give them a briefing.  I had the students briefly introduce themselves and the topics they were studying that summer, and instead of just nodding his head and waiting for the introductions to finish, he engaged each of the students, asking them questions about their projects and offering them suggestions, or commenting on the schools or on other things they had mentioned.  I even saw him taking notes on their names, schools, and professional societies.  That showed a level of interest and engagement that went well above and beyond the norm.


After Pete retired from DOE, he remained engaged professionally.  I was delighted to see him be recognized last year with ANS’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Award for his influential leadership in nuclear technology policy and for the vital role he played in the nuclear renaissance of the early 21st century.  And I was pleased to see an article authored by him in the February issue of Nuclear News.  After I read that article, I sent him a message about it.  In his typical fashion, he responded promptly and graciously, even though I was aware that he was very ill.


In one of our last conversations in person, I noted to Pete that he and I both had served in NRC, DOE, and on the Hill--although I hasten to say that he served in a higher position than I did in each of these organizations!  There are probably relatively few people with such backgrounds, and maybe it is one bond we shared.  But my observation was that he treated everyone with courtesy and respect.  

He will truly be missed, not only for his many contributions to nuclear policy in his various positions, but for his outstanding personal characteristics as well. 




Friday, February 26, 2021

Clean Air and New Jobs: A Breath of Fresh Air

One of the more contentious challenges in the ongoing effort to move to a cleaner mix of fuels to run our modern world has been addressing concerns about the jobs that are lost, and the people who are affected, as we transition from the current mix of energy sources to a more advanced mix.  


And truly, that is a serious problem.  We can look at the world and say that we made such transitions before--from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles; from burning wood to burning coal and then oil; etc.  Those transitions, too, changed the mix and location of jobs.  But most of those transitions occurred over longer periods of time than we are now envisioning, allowing people more time to adjust.

Therefore, I was very pleased to hear former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's responses to questions in her Senate hearing for the position of Secretary of the Department of Energy about the job implications of efforts to move to cleaner energy sources: 


“We can buy electric car batteries from Asia, or we can make them in America,” Granholm told senators. “We can install wind turbines from Denmark, or we can make them in America.″


One can argue that these are easy statements to make and harder measures to implement.  And they may certainly mean that some people will have to move.  But, it is also true that many of the jobs in the nuclear and renewable energy industries are good, high-paying jobs, and if measures like training and other support can be offered to those affected by closures of old facilities, then we potentially have a win-win.  In addition, if jobs are made an important part of the plan to transition to cleaner energy, then efforts can be made to locate some of the manufacturing centers for the new products needed in the very places where mining and other jobs are being lost.  


There are still many challenges ahead.  It is easy to say that we will build the factories here, but it is harder to compete against the cheap labor in some parts of the world.  It is easy to say that factories will be built in mining communities, but those decisions are not directly in the hands of the government.  And this is not a short-term issue; we will need sustained attention to the impacts on jobs.

However, if the recognition of need for job creation is made an integral element of the planning process, then a balanced approach to the energy transition can developed, one that considers the people as well as the environment.  It will not be easy, and there will not be perfect solutions, but Secretary Granholm's statements at the Senate hearing are a very encouraging sign that we will plan in a holistic way that addresses both the needs of the overall population and the needs of the individuals most affected by the changes.




Sunday, February 7, 2021

Renewable Energy and Waste

I was delighted to see a news item recently in the American Nuclear Society Nuclear Cafe reporting on an article discussing the waste generated by renewable energy systems.  Of course, I'm not delighted because there is waste from renewable energy systems!  Rather, I am delighted that the problem is beginning to be recognized.  This is a topic that I've addressed several times in past blogs, but I've always felt that the issue wasn't getting the attention that is needed, and that my voice was a lonely voice in the wilderness.  

Unfortunately, the terminology that has developed around energy sources has led to a widespread belief that renewable energy sources are "clean" because they generate no emissions when they produce energy.  Lost in the discussion is the fact that the production of energy is only one step in the lifecycle of any energy producing system.  All energy sources require materials that need to be mined and processed, and some of the materials traditionally used for solar and wind plants may be toxic.  And all power producing plants ultimately reach the ends of their lifetimes, which means that all the materials used in the construction and operation of those power plants ultimately need to be disposed of as well. 

The ANS article and my previous blog detail some of the specific wastes produced by solar and wind power plants, so I will not repeat that discussion here.  The only point I would add to the discussion in that article is one of volume.  It is often overlooked that the distributed nature of wind and solar energy means that the systems used to extract that energy for human use have to be large and have to use a lot of materials.  Getting our energy supply from the wind and the sun requires thousands and thousands of wind turbines and solar panels.  Therefore, the issue is that, not only are there hazardous wastes created when we build wind and solar power plants, the volume of that waste is very large.  By contrast, the amount of waste generated by a nuclear power plant is much smaller.  And both radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and hazardous wastes from other power sources may need to be sequestered for long periods of time. 

The important point is to recognize that no energy source is completely "clean."  Every source of energy generates some form of waste somewhere in the lifecycle of the system.  It is also true that we can expect to find solutions for dealing with most of these wastes.  Some of these solutions are in early stages of development, and we may need a lot more work to assure that they will be effective.  And all of them will add to the costs of energy production.  And, yes, all of them are likely to generate needs for places to dispose of toxic materials sometime in the future.  The point is that these aspects of our energy supply need to be better recognized by everyone involved--the technical community developing these systems, the energy companies seeking to build them, the communities wishing to host them, and the general public.

Hopefully, this article will start a broader dialogue on this important issue.



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Fiestaware: Understanding Radiation

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a blog on Fiestaware when I noticed that the Post Office had issued a stamp honoring the man who had designed the original Fiestaware line (Frederick Hurten Rhead).  My tone was a bit lighthearted, as one color of classical Fiestaware was made with a uranium glaze that gave it a distinctive orange color, so it had become something I personally enjoy collecting and using.  (Well, collection may be a bit exaggerated, but I do have a couple of pieces, and I also have a couple of pieces of Vaseline glass, a product that similarly used uranium to color glass.  And for any other would-be collectors, I do want to note that the Fiestaware that is in production today doesn't use that glaze.  You have to look in antique shops.)


I did not think I would ever have a reason to revisit this subject, but yesterday's news featured an article about a school at which a hazmat emergency was declared because a student brought in a small sample of uranium-containing classical Fiestaware!  The first thing that has me scratching my head is that the student brought it in because they were demonstrating the use of a Geiger counter.  A Geiger counter needs a little radiation to show it's stuff!  Duh!  The second thing that struck me about this story is the profound ignorance that still surrounds anything with the "r word"--radiation.  


 People seem to be able to put other risks in perspective, but whether because of history, because it is invisible, or for any one of a number of other reasons I have heard, people do not seem to be able to understand even the basics of radiation.  This clearly is one factor that has dogged the nuclear power industry for its entire existence.


 I wish I had a magic answer to this dilemma, a way to educate people and to make them understand what they should fear and what they do not need to fear.  But it is clear that, as we continue to try to educate the public on the safety of  nuclear power plants, we need to keep in mind that we should be sure the educational tools cover things more basic than the nuclear power plants, in particular, the radiation from not only the nuclear plants, but from even such innocuous items as an antique orange plate.