Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sailboats and Nuclear Power:

Some Unexpected Parallels

I haven't blogged in a few weeks, in part because, this past month, we took our first long cruise on our Silvergirl.  And while I returned to a world with lots of new news about nuclear power, before I turn to current events, I can't help but try to process what I was thinking as we cruised down the Chesapeake Bay and back. 
new sailboat,

And what I was thinking was that I saw lots of parallels between my experiences on the water and my professional life.  In one way or another, they all boil down to defense in depth.

As a sailboat owner, you've got to believe that I like the wind.  The idea of gliding silently through the water, the kinship with the sailors of old.  There's nothing quite like it.

But my husband and I learned many years ago, on our very first overnight cruise on our very first boat, that there is a downside to relying completely on the wind.  We had set ourselves a destination, and we were determined to be purists and to get there under sail.  The wind was light, and we inched along, oblivious to the time.  Suddenly, we realized that it would not be possible to reach our destination.  Fortunately, that day there was another safe anchorage on the way, and we detoured to stay there.  But there is not always a safe place to stay on the way.  So ever since that very first cruise, we've ceased being purists.  We watch the clock and turn on the motor in time to get where we want to go.

But it is not only propulsion where I see defense in depth on our boat.  In a sailboat, you are largely self-contained.  Even in a place like the Chesapeake Bay, where you are never far from land or from other boats, if you cruise, you may have to be able to fend for yourself for a day, or sometimes a couple of days.  This usually means backup systems, and it always amazes me how much backup we have in the confines of a small boat.  It is a floating box of defense in depth. 

For example, we have backup clothing and bathing suits in case we get wet, or in case it's colder than we expected, or in case we want to swim on a day we hadn't planned to, or in case a hat flies off.  And since food is very important, we have extra layers of defense in depth there.  Our cooking stove is fueled by propane, and we have an extra propane tank.  And if that should fail, too, we have a barbecue.  And if that should be impossible to use (for example, in a heavy downpour), we have food that, in emergency, we can eat without cooking.  We have a water tank on the boat, but we also carry a few gallon jugs filled with water.

Safety equipment?  We have high-tech life jackets that are supposed to inflate automatically, but have a way to be inflated manually if they don't deploy automatically.  We also have extra low-tech life jackets.  And we have seat cushions that can be used as flotation devices.  And we have a gadget called a LifeSling that is a step up from the traditional life ring tied to a rope, designed to be thrown to someone in the water.  We have 2 radios and a hand-held radio.  And we each carry a cell phone.   We have a GPS, and the cell phone is the backup for that, too. 

We also have extra rope, a whole kit of tools and extra hardware for the boat, an extra anchor, extra fenders to protect the boat when we're docked, extra...well, you get the idea.

Of course, on the sailboat, no one calls it defense in depth, but that's what it is.  And every time we have to resort to one of our backup systems or supplies, I think about all the redundancy in nuclear power plants.  It's not quite the same thing, of course.  On our sailboat, we are not likely to to make the evening news if we are becalmed, or if the engine conks out.  But the philosophy of having an alternative way to accomplish necessary tasks seems familiar, indeed, as we ply the waters of the Chesapeake.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Energy Subsidies:

What is Fair?

In the past few weeks, I have been seeing a variety of articles on the issue of subsidies for energy sources.  The first one I saw was a call for the end of subsidies for nuclear power plant operation.  This article particularly criticized the recent initiatives by several states to provide support to assure the continued operation of nuclear power plants.  Nowhere did that article address the existence of other subsidies, such as those for renewable energy sources.  The other article was a much more comprehensive analysis by James Conca, writing in Forbes, that pointed out that there are a variety of different kinds of "subsidies" for energy sources, and analyzed their characteristics and their impacts.

Seeing the two articles almost at the same time brought to a head some thoughts I've been struggling with for some time as I have heard vastly contradictory accounts of which energy sources are being favored, and as I've tried to square these viewpoints with what is good for the public and good for the country.

First, as Conca makes clear, tax and other incentives may reduce the cost for the user or the provider, but they do not change the total costs.  The taxpayers absorb the difference, effectively redistributing the costs.  This is largely invisible to most people, of course.  And it makes it much harder to understand the true costs, or the true consequences of the measures when they are applied in a complex, interacting environment.

For example, tax and other incentives to use renewable energy sources are designed to incentivize behaviors that are considered good for the country.  Thus, the various kinds of incentives outlined by Conca in the Forbes article are intended to encourage the use of forms of energy that reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.

But when such incentives are written narrowly, they may exclude other sources of energy that can achieve the same end.  In this case, most of the measures designed to incentivize the use of solar and wind energy do not offer the same, or similar, benefits for nuclear energy, even though nuclear energy offers equivalent environmental benefits.

Some might point to other considerations, such as the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, as a reason to treat nuclear power differently.  However, all sources have other potential issues--land use, materials requirements, and yes, waste products, and each needs to be dealt with in an appropriate and equitable manner.  Trying to use a clean-air measure to address other issues selectively is ultimately not the best approach. 

To add even further to the complexity of the situation, since solar and wind energy are intermittent, some backup power is needed, and recent developments in the production of natural gas have led to abundant, and cheap, supplies of gas.  This is a relatively recent development and may not have been anticipated when some of the measures for renewables were developed.

The problem is that natural gas, while it is cleaner than coal, still has more emissions than nuclear plants.  So, if the result of the tax incentives for renewable energy sources and the sudden abundance of cheap natural gas is to end up causing nuclear power plants to shut down prematurely, then the tax and other incentives for renewables are, in a sense, helping undermine a part of the reason these measures were developed in the first place.

Ideally, one might say that the incentives for renewables should just be eliminated.  However, this is too simplistic.  In the first place, many individuals and companies have now made decisions based on the existence of those incentives, and cutting off the incentives might be unfair to those people.  Secondly, cutting incentives might not have the desired effect anyway, since natural gas prices are still cheap.  In fact, such a measure might even accelerate the dependence on natural gas--and increase the emissions as gas plants replace closing nuclear plants.

Furthermore, for many reasons, it is desirable to maintain a mix of energy sources.  This helps mitigate sudden disruptions in supply and helps mitigate any negative environmental impacts of one source.  Therefore, while natural gas is much cleaner than coal, there are downsides to allowing current costs alone to dictate the future energy mix.

Thus, some state governments are gravitating toward considering incentives to keep nuclear power plants in operation.  I don't think anyone views having more incentives as the ideal approach, but the states are dealing with a complex and evolving reality.  This type of measure effectively helps level the playing field for all energy sources that have low carbon and other emissions without pulling the rug out from under those who have invested in solar and wind systems based on government tax and other programs. 

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Deregulation and Nuclear Safety:

Understanding the Connection


In the last few years, the deregulation of the electricity markets in the U.S. has proven to have a major impact on utilities and on the nuclear power plants they operate.  It is interesting to look back to the early years of the 21st century, when widespread deregulation of the U.S. electricity markets was in its early stages, to see what the concerns were and how the anticipated spread of deregulation in the electricity markets was being viewed.

While today, we see a major impact of deregulation being the premature shutdown of some operating nuclear power plants, the earliest concerns were mainly the impacts of market deregulation on nuclear power plant safety.  In 2001, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published a report (NUREG/CR-6735) analyzing the effects of deregulation on other industries in order to help understand the implications of deregulation on safety.  The report focused on the aviation and railroad industries, as well as the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom, all of which had already experienced significant economic and market deregulation.  (This NRC site has a link to the full report, and a press release on the report provides some further summary details.) 

Overall, the study suggested that economic deregulation need not compromise safety.  However, the study cautioned that safety after deregulation cannot be taken for granted.  They noted instances of financial pressures, mergers and acquisitions, increased use of contractors, and downsizing having some level of adverse effects on safety and safety culture. The study also noted that the magnitude and speed of changes can create challenges to the management of safety.  The 2001 study concluded that the review and understanding of the problems in other industries could help identify ways of preventing similar safety problems in the U.S. nuclear power industry.

Fast forward to 2017.  To date, safety of the nuclear power plants has been maintained, despite the fact that the deregulation of the electric power markets has spread, so the issues identified in this study, as well as other efforts to maintain safety in a changing environment, appear to have had a positive impact.

We can also see that the concerns over the effects of deregulation of the electricity marketplace continue.  In fact, if anything, they have broadened.  Today, we are also concerned about the impacts of the premature shutdowns of nuclear power plants on the grid reliability and overall electricity supply.  In light of this, NRC continues to monitor the state of the industry to assure that nuclear safety, as well as decommissioning requirements, can continue to be met

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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.

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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.

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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:



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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.   

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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. 

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