Friday, May 12, 2017

Good Nuclear News:

Positive Moves in Several Countries

In the last couple of weeks, I've seen news items from several countries that appear to be good signs for nuclear power.  Unfortunately, these news items seem to have been drowned out by other news, and, as a result, they have not gotten the visibility and recognition they deserve, either as individual events, or as a confluence of forward-thinking decisions and actions.  The items that I think deserve a special mention are:

French Academy of Science contradicts national nuclear policy:  Briefly, the French Academy of Science has concluded that the current French policy of reducing the use of nuclear energy is unworkable, and that the current fleet of nuclear power plants should be maintained.  This position, coming from such a credible and respected institution, will hopefully encourage an open dialogue and a rational approach to energy decisions.

France and the U.K. are collaborating on nuclear skills:  With Brexit looming, everyone has been wondering about the impacts on nuclear collaboration between the U.K. and countries in the European Union.  Thus, the recent announcement of an agreement for joint work on developing standards for training, facilitating exchanges, and other collaborative efforts is a very good sign.

Japan establishes new inspection framework:  One historic drawback of the Japanese nuclear regulatory system has been its weak inspection framework.  This weakness has been observed and noted frequently over the years by observers of the Japanese nuclear program.  Therefore, I was very pleased to see that they are establishing a new framework, drawing some lessons from U.S. practices.

India strengthens independence of its regulatory system:  On a similar note, India has announced a plan to revise its regulatory system to be more independent, based on examples such as the nuclear regulatory systems in the U.S., U.K. and France.  Since independence has, time and again, been held up as one of the most important characteristics of an effective regulator, this is a very promising development in the Indian program.

One can argue that some of these steps may be overdue, but others (for example, the French Academy's announcement) are unexpected (at least to me) but very welcome, or, like the French-U.K. collaboration, demonstrate a very proactive approach to addressing impending changes.   

Each of these news items is significant in itself, but the fact that all these announcements were made in a very short time is very promising evidence of the positive developments taking place in several countries with significant nuclear programs.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Comparing Energy Technologies:

The Many Shades of Green

I am pleased to report that I recently had an article published in Physics World called "How Green is Nuclear Energy?"  I developed this article in response to their request, and it was published as the lead article in their special issue, "Focus on Nuclear Energy."

The online version of the article at the link above attracted a number of interesting comments.  Several of the comments addressed areas that I hadn't covered in the article.  These were valid criticisms, but I was dealing with a strict word limit, and as I have observed many times, energy is a very complex area.  Any analysis of energy alternatives must address multiple dimensions, including economics, health and safety, environmental impacts, resource availability, and reliability.  And each of these areas has multiple dimensions as well.  For example, environmental considerations include impacts on air, water, and land.  To say nothing of the fact that some elements of the picture change over time--new technology developments, new resource discoveries, changing international political alliances, and other factors all affect the comparison of different energy supply alternatives.

So, when I undertook this assignment, the editor and I agreed that I should focus a lot on greenhouse gases (GHGs), since that is a major concern around the world today.  The editor also wanted me to address the issue of waste, as that is an issue that is often regarded as the Achilles heel for nuclear power. 

Even covering those areas proved quite a challenge, and in the end, I would characterize what I wrote as an overview of the topic.  I tried to mention other elements that could affect the comparison of energy technologies, but did not have the space to explain them.

Thus, some of the comments picked up on areas that I had only mentioned in passing.  For example, one comment noted that the impact of nuclear accidents on the environment might trump the benefits of nuclear energy.  This topic alone is a huge one, and to address it properly, one would have to compare region impacts versus global ones, short-term impacts versus long-term ones, the costs and potential for cleaning up from accidents versus dealing with climate change, and much more.  And, while the impacts of an event at a solar or wind farm may be small, one should then consider the whole life cycle of other technologies.  To cite just one recent example that crossed my desk, solar panels and wind farms use materials that are, to date, in limited supply.  However, some people believe that there are large untapped resources at the bottom of the sea--but mining materials for solar panels in the oceans can carry risks to the environment in case of accident that could be widespread and significant.

Other comments legitimately noted areas that I hadn't addressed.  One commenter, for example, spoke to the fact that we should reduce our use of energy.  I agree that conservation should be part of the equation (although the author of the comment may have had more in mind than the type of conservation I am thinking about), but trying to evaluate how much we could save was beyond my mandate.  Furthermore, globally, there are huge numbers of people who live in severe energy poverty, so the calculus of how much energy the world really "needs" quickly becomes very complicated.  My focus was limited to addressing nuclear power as one option to meet whatever energy needs society has, and to assessing nuclear power in terms of its effects on the environment, i.e., it's "greenness."

Another commenter observed that we may not really know how good or bad different pollutants are.  Can increased levels of CO2 be a good thing?  Can radioactivity lead to mostly good genetic changes?  And the author of that comment wonders if mankind will even be around forever, so what difference does it make?  Again, my mandate stopped far short of such apocalyptic musings.  The author of that comment does make a good point that perhaps there may be ways to recycle CO2 and use it, and indeed, there are researchers looking at just such things.  But, unless you feel that the fate of mankind is already determined and there is nothing we can do, I feel that our role is to plan the best we can for the world as we know it.  It is a delicate balance, I know.  You can't totally ignore the fact that we are working on improved ways to store energy, cheaper and more efficient solar cells, advanced nuclear reactors, nuclear fusion, etc.  I do not doubt that, 100 years from now, the conversation about the greenness of one source of energy or another might be very different.  But today, we can only operate on the best knowledge we have, and my comparisons are made in that spirit.

Finally, one commenter noted that I hadn't covered all the materials issues associated with power production.  In particular, that author mentioned the large amount of cement needed for nuclear power plants.  This one was of particular interest to me, because I have seen a lot of discussion of the materials requirements for different energy sources, and while current nuclear power plants are large structures and clearly require a lot of cement, most sources I've read point to wind and solar energy as the major culprits for large use of construction materials.  While a single windmill is, of course, much smaller than a nuclear power plant, the diffuse nature of the wind and sun creates a requirement for many windmills or solar panel structures, and the resulting use of materials is much higher, per unit of energy generated, for solar and wind plants than for nuclear plants.  One example of the comparisons I have seen is provided in a table by Breakthrough, that is based on data from a report by the University of Sydney, in Australia. 

My one brief article was not intended to address all the issues.  Nor was it intended to "prove" that nuclear power is the best of all options.  As I said in the article, there are clearly shades of green.  And there are shades of any other element of energy production we may care to examine.  The whole point of my writing the article is that we need to move away from the simplistic views of energy technology that regard wind and solar as green because it is natural, and everything else as bad.  Wind and solar power do have impacts on the environment, and a fair comparison of energy technologies has to look at multiple dimensions.  Each will excel in some areas and fall short in others, and finding the right balance is, and will remain, a difficult and imperfect process.

Update May 5, 2017:  The graph below, from a Department of Energy report (Table 10.4, DOE Quadrennial Technology Review 2015), came to my attention after I posted this article.  I add it here as a further example of the materials requirements for different energy technologies:


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Westinghouse Bankruptcy:

What Happened?

In the wake of the announcement this past week that Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy as a result of the losses incurred in the construction of four AP1000 units in Georgia and South Carolina, everyone is trying to figure out what happened.

Westinghouse, after all, certainly has long and extensive experience in the nuclear power design and construction business.  They have been in the nuclear business since the 1950s, and were responsible for the Shippingport reactor, one of the first commercial power reactors in the world.  The Westinghouse website states that, "Our technology is the basis for nearly 50 percent of the world's operating commercial nuclear power plants." 

And, after all, NRC had put in place a rule, Part 52, that was designed to make the licensing process more efficient and predictable than the old process (Part 50) had been.

So, what could have gone wrong?

In just the few days since the announcement, I have read several analyses that come to very different conclusions about the cause of the bankruptcy.  I am still sorting out all the views, but in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to start tracking the various opinions and thinking about them.  I thought some of what I have been finding might be useful to share.

Regulatory requirement 

One of the first analyses I read, by Rod Adams, focuses on regulatory requirements that were imposed on these four units at a late stage in their design.  In particular, he points to changes in 2009 in NRC's requirements regarding aircraft impacts.  He notes that the NRC exempted current plants, and plants for which a construction license had already been granted.  Although the Summer and Vogtle units did not yet have construction permits and the detailed design was not yet complete, the design as it existed at that point had been sufficient to serve as the basis for a cost estimate and a firm price.  The subsequent redesign effort led to delays and resulted in a significant impact on the facility structure.  

Business decision

Another early analysis, by Jim Conca, attributes Westinghouse's problems to bad business decisions.  Conca points out that Westinghouse chose the Shaw Group to manage the construction of the four units at the two sites.  Shaw had no direct experience building nuclear power plants, but it had bought Stone and Webster out of bankruptcy.  Stone and Webster was an old nuclear company and had been responsible for building a number of nuclear power plants between the 1950s and the 1970s.  This gave Shaw the credibility to win the contract.  However, Stone and Webster no longer had any real nuclear expertise or staff, and the project experience significant delays and cost overruns.  Conca details further transactions, including to Chicago Bridge and Iron, which was a large engineering firm, but also had no nuclear experience.

Erosion of Expertise

Still another view is espoused by Paul Dickman, who previously worked at the NRC.  He points to the loss of the skilled workforce.  Of interest, he attributes lack of experience as a factor on all sides, not only on the construction side.

Scale of Project

One argument I haven't seen offered yet for the particular case of the Westinghouse bankruptcy, but that I have seen mentioned before for large-scale projects like nuclear power plants is the fact that many, if not most, large-scale projects seem prone to significant cost overruns.  Much has been made about this in the case of recent projects to build facilities for the Olympics, but many of the articles on the cost overruns for the Olympic facilities also mention other "megaprojects," such as bridges, highways, railways, and power stations.

All of the above?

My own guess is that several of these factors, perhaps even all of them, may be contributing elements.  For any one element, perhaps one could argue that Westinghouse should have anticipated some problems and built in some margin in its estimates or incorporated some flexibility in their contracts, but perhaps the combination of all these factors was a "perfect storm." 

The only thing we can be sure of at the moment is that there is likely to be a lot more evaluation of all the circumstances leading up to this bankruptcy, and a lot more guessing about what Westinghouse should have done.  Or, perhaps of more relevance, about what vendors should do in the future.   


Friday, March 17, 2017

Energy and Jobs:

A Delicate Balance

I have long been troubled by the question of how society should deal with the human impact of technology advances.  I have been especially concerned when I see advertisements for an industry arguing that a factory or a power plant or a coal mine needs to be kept open because of the jobs these industries generate.  Therefore, I was very pleased to see an article by Professor Maria Zuber of MIT reflecting on just this situation for the coal mining industry, and offering some practical suggestions for dealing with the impacts of change in a constructive way. 

In the past, when I've heard advertisements by industry groups promoting themselves on the basis of the jobs they create, one part of me has always reflected on the fact that a lot of occupations that once employed thousands of people now exist as niche markets, if they exist at all.  Somehow, in the past, the job market has always evolved and people have adapted.  So why is today different?

But another part of me recognizes that the situation is much more complex than just telling people to get another job.  In past generations, there were more people who were self-employed or who worked at small businesses, and they were spread out geographically.  The need for farriers or buggy-whip manufacturers or other such occupations diminished over a period of time, so probably, to a large extent, there was a natural progression.  People in these professions continued to work in the professions, but new people didn't take those jobs.  Since they were geographically spread, people needing these services could continue to get them, but perhaps had to travel a little farther.

I'm not saying that all this happened without any disruption or difficulty, but that kind of transition is not the same as a company employing hundreds or thousands of people in one area suddenly shutting down.  We have had some experience with large companies, or industries that dominated a region, closing their doors, and it has not been good.  Cities and towns have been devastated by the large-scale unemployment that has resulted from changes of fortune of the industries they  hosted.  When hundreds or thousands of people in a region are suddenly left without jobs, there is no place for them to turn.  It is easy to say they should move to a different region or to a different industry.  It is harder to accomplish. 

Yet, every time I have heard an industry argue that it is important because of the jobs it has creased, I have wondered how we can ever move ahead if we need to keep the doors open because of the jobs.  How can we reduce the pollution from dirty industries?  How can we reduce the health and safety risks from inherently dangerous occupations?  How can we replace outmoded technologies with new ones if we have to keep supporting the old ones?

Professor Zuber addresses this issue for the coal industry.  What is particularly impressive to me is that she has a very personal perspective on the coal industry, as she grew up in coal country and her grandfathers were coal miners (and were afflicted with black lung disease).  Therefore, she does not see this as an us-versus-them or an either-or situation.  She argues that we need to reduce the emissions that burning coal produces, but at the same time, she has empathy for the people whose jobs are at risk.  The solution she describes is multi-pronged:  develop and deploy carbon capture technology, develop other uses for coal, and most of all, develop and support a plan to assist workers in transitioning from the coal industry to other industries.

All this is easy to say, but harder to implement, especially if it has to be scaled up to other industries and other parts of the country.  Nevertheless, as we move forward, I think we have to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of saying that the jobs justify the existence of a factory or a mine or a power plant.  We must instead look at the bigger picture and look at all the options.  Professor Zuber's suggestions for the coal industry provide a good model for how we might start to approach such decisions. 


Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Dilemma of Regulation:

Is it Good or Evil?

After I reported on the death of Harold Denton last week, I couldn't shake the feeling that his career and his role in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident had some larger implications that I should have addressed--namely, the importance of a good regulator.

When I lecture to students on regulation, I always start by saying that, in a perfect world, there would be no need for regulation.  Everyone would be capable and ethical and honest--no one would cut corners to save time or money, no one would cheat anyone else, no one would be careless or irresponsible or would handle equipment they weren't trained to handle.  We wouldn't need stoplights that end up making us stop even when we can see that no traffic is coming the other way.  We wouldn't need to have policemen giving us speeding tickets when, most of the time, you can drive a little over the speed limit perfectly safely.

I also like to give two examples of the value that regulation--and regulators--sometimes have.  In particular, I point out that before the present era of occupational, environmental, and other regulation, the death rate from accidents was astounding by today's standards.  Quoting from David Von Drehle in Time magazine, May 2, 2013, who was talking about what happened after the infamous Triangle Factory fire in New York City in 1911:

A little more than a century ago, in the rapidly developing United States of America, nearly 1,000 workers died on the job every week, on average. Collapsed mines buried them alive. Bursting steam engines scalded them to death. Pots of molten steel poured over their heads. Whirling saw blades worked loose in lumber mills and turned to shrapnel. Railroad engines crashed. Merchant ships and fishing boats sank in trackless seas.

In the years since then, the number of workplace fatalities has been cut by more than 90%, even as the population of the country has more than tripled. The risk of death on the job today is but a tiny fraction — less than 1/30th — what it was on the warm spring day in 1911 when 146 garment workers died in New York's notorious Triangle fire.

The fact is that most regulation today was introduced in an effort to prevent a repetition of disasters that were killing and maiming people in the early days of industrialization.  Even today, as Von Drehle points out, in countries with lower regulatory standards and higher levels of corruption, we still see factories collapsing and killing hundreds of workers.

My other favorite example is the Thalidomide scare of the 1950s.  Thalidomide was legal in Europe while the FDA appeared to dither and delay approval for use in the U.S.  In the meantime, women using the drug in Europe started to give birth to deformed babies.  In the end, it was a single person on the FDA staff who kept asking for more information that saved the American public from the same fate.  Until the risks of Thalidomide were revealed, this woman had been widely criticized for causing regulatory delay.  

Does every regulatory delay save lives?  Of course not.  Is every search for more information merited?  No.  Can regulators make an effort to speed up their reviews?  Certainly.  But it is a difficult challenge to determine how to speed up reviews without risking missing some important potential problem.  It is not a problem that can be solved by imposing an arbitrary restrictions on regulations.

I do not want to be an apologist for regulation.  Regulations do have some inherent shortcomings:  they are sometimes made in reaction to a problem, so they are implemented in a hurry and may not fully consider all possible situations and implications; regulators tend to use some conservatisms to try to counter anything they may not have thought of; they tend not to be updated as fast as new technology develops or as our knowledge evolves, so can be out of date.

Regulations, to serve their purpose, need to be continually reviewed and modified to reflect new technology, new science, new social developments, and new concerns.  Some regulations may even become obsolete and should be eliminated.  But evaluating regulations is complex.  Regulations exist in a complex world--they have costs, but they also have benefits.  Decisions to eliminate or modify existing regulations or to develop new regulations need to be based on objective reviews of the entire picture: the needs, the options, the costs, and the benefits.

There is a lot that can and should be done to improve regulation.  Regulators should seek to find the least burdensome ways of implementing regulations.  The NRC has attempted to encourage this through its Principles of Good Regulation.  The paperwork and reporting requirements of regulations are often considerable and should be streamlined where possible.

All of this, however, should not be done with a view that regulation is evil and the less we have the better.  This should be done with a view toward addressing the kinds of needs that led to the regulations in the first place, whether they were health and safety regulations, economic regulations, or any other kind of regulation.  They should be done with a perspective on what has been good about regulation as well as what has been flawed--of the factory accidents that were prevented because of the lessons learned from the Triangle Factory fire, the medical problems that were prevented because of the kinds of regulators that evaluated Thalidomide and other drugs, and all the other benefits, often unrecognized, of things that didn't go wrong because of regulation.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Tribute to Harold Denton:

A Man for the Moment

 Harold Denton, left, is shown in the control room at Three Mile Island 
with President Jimmy Carter and a power plant technician on April 1, 1979. (AP)

Sadly, this is one of two posts this week of the deaths of two icons of the technical community, and of my professional career--Harold Denton, who was the face of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at the time of Three Mile Island (TMI), and Mildred Dresselhaus, an MIT professor who did pioneering work in the field of nanotubes, and so much more.  Both have achieved a kind of "rock star" status during the course of their careers. 

I only learned of the death of Harold Denton about a week after his February 13, 2017 death, when I saw an obituary for him in the Washington Post.  Although Harold Denton had a long and distinguished career at NRC and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the article focuses almost exclusively on Harold Denton's role in the aftermath of the TMI accident.  This is fitting, as the accident was a pivotal moment for NRC and the nuclear industry.  As the obituary makes clear, Harold Denton exuded an air of calmness and competence that was critical in reassuring the public--and in beginning what would be a long process of analyzing and responding to the accident.

I did not join the NRC until a few years later, and I never worked directly for Harold, but while I was at NRC, I had many opportunities to see him in action in meetings and to speak to him.  By this time, the "rock star" status was past history--the Post reports that Harold was profiled in People magazine, he was awarded honorary degrees by several Pennsylvania colleges, and his likeness even appeared on T-shirts--but he still was held in high esteem at NRC.  Even when the issues were contentious, he never seemed to lose his cool.  The same calm manner that reassured the public gave him an air of authority among his peers.  

It is interesting to reflect on the importance of the competence he brought to a frightening situation.  While many people criticize regulatory overreach, regulators often play a key role in averting crisis in the first place, and when the unimaginable happens, of working to assure the safety of the public.  The Post comments that, "He was that oft-maligned figure, a $50,000-a-year federal regulator, who managed to be the voice of competence and reason at a time of peril."

Not every regulator is a Harold Denton, of course, and most of the time--fortunately--we are not dealing with events as extraordinary as TMI.  Had TMI never happened, Harold would have had a very successful career at NRC and would, undoubtedly, have made significant contributions to nuclear power regulation, but except among his colleagues, these contributions would have been largely unnoticed.  

It shouldn't take a TMI to bring to the public attention the kinds of skills and talents that reside in the bowls of our government agencies and the importance and value of those skills and talents for the American public.  Harold Denton would have been a remarkable public servant even if he had never been in the public eye.  The world has truly lost someone who probably never expected to be in the limelight, but who, when the need arose, stepped up to the plate and did a remarkable job.



A Tribute to Mildred Dresselhaus:

Note to readers:  The URL title of this post was intended to be "A Tribute to Mildred Dresselhaus."  In attempting to add the YouTube video of the Super Bowl ad, my control over the title has somehow been overridden.  Although the right title appears in the post, the URL is not the same.  I am not sure whether to blame YouTube or the blog host, but given that this is a tribute in memory of her, I feel the original title of the video is inappropriate, and just wanted readers to be aware that this was not my choice.

A Pioneer on Many Fronts

Sadly, this is one of two posts this week on the deaths of two icons of the technical community, and of my professional career--Harold Denton, who was the face of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at the time of Three Mile Island (TMI), and Mildred Dresselhaus, an MIT professor who did pioneering work in the field of nanotubes, and so much more.  Both have achieved a kind of "rock star" status during the course of their careers. 

When I heard the news about Mildred Dresselhaus' death early this week, I was doubly sad.  First, I had known her for a long time, and I knew about her work and her accomplishments.  But second, she had been slated to speak to the Washington, DC area alumni/ae on March 9, and I had been looking forward to attending and to seeing her again. 

My earliest encounter with Mildred Dresselhaus, or "Millie," as we all knew her, was in the early days of my freshman year at MIT.  This was at a time when there were very few women in science or engineering, so it probably makes her the first female scientist I met.  She had a great interest in helping and mentoring the small number of women at MIT, and had come to our dorm to talk to us about careers--and about combining careers and a personal life.  This is a subject that still gets attention today.  

Even then, her energy and devotion to both her work and her family were clear.  The fact that, as a young professor, she took the time from her work to help mentor us was telling.  This was a time when mentoring was not as common, and did not help a junior professor in advancing through the ranks.  In fact, as she said repeatedly throughout her career, she took only a day or two off for the birth of each of her children, which was undoubtedly a reaction to the fact that, in those days, her career would have been doomed had she taken much more time off.  In fact, although I haven't seen it reported in the obituaries, I recall her telling us that, when her babysitter was unavailable, she took her babies to work with her at the MIT Magnet Lab.

After I left MIT, I didn't see much of Millie for many years, although I periodically heard about some of her many achievements.  (Since these are detailed in the obituary, I won't repeat them here.)  But to my delight, our paths crossed again while I was at the Department of Energy (DOE), as my tenure there overlapped with her appointment as head of the DOE Office of Science.  We were in different offices, so our paths didn't cross every day, but our offices had some common interests, and I was able to meet with her a number of times and to get to work with her as a professional.  

Following that, our paths crossed less often, although I met her several times at conferences of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  Therefore, I had been very excited when I saw that, even in her mid-80s, she was scheduled to come to Washington, DC, and I was looking forward to hearing her speak and to seeing her once more.

It is particularly bittersweet that her death comes just as she assumed real "rock star" status, with the General Electric ad at the last Super Bowl designed to encourage women to study science and engineering, and having been dubbed the "Queen of Carbon" for her nanotube work.  My only consolation is that she will live on in all she has done in her career, both in her technical work and in her support and assistance to so many women in their careers.