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.



Friday, December 8, 2017

Nuclear Fission and Accurate Reporting:

This Shouldn't be so Difficult!

Those of us in the nuclear field frequently find ourselves having to address inaccuracies in published material.  In the past, I've encountered 2 categories--publications from organizations with a bias against nuclear power, and publications that attempt to be balanced, but sometimes make a mistake.  Today, I just encountered a third class--a publication that I thought was respectable, but that responded to my observations about a deficiency in their reporting by circling the wagons.

The publication I have in mind is an email list of articles I get called Energy Daily, which publishes under the management of Space Daily.  The article in question was an article discussing the impacts of US budget cuts on the ITER international fusion project.  Most of the article focused on that subject, but I was startled to see a paragraph that read:

So far achieved in a handful of labs at great cost, the process entails fusing atoms together to generate energy, as opposed to fission, the atom-splitting process behind nuclear bombs and power stations, which carries the risk of costly accidents, theft of radioactive material and dealing with dangerous long-term waste. 

I immediately found a contact link and sent a message that indicated that this paragraph was highly inaccurate and misleading, and that I was surprised to find such a statement in this publication, particularly without attribution, as though all of this was established fact.  Among other things, I noted that, 1) fusion is used in bombs as well, 2) other energy sources generate toxic, long-lived wastes, 3) fusion isn't mature enough to know what its negative features are, and some radioactive byproducts will certainly be among them, and 4) the mention of accident risks and thefts of material need to be put in context.

Now, I have commented on statements in publications before, and if the publication is a reputable one, I usually get some acknowledgement that a statement was not as carefully thought out as it should have been.  In print publications, the resolution is sometimes an editorial correction in the next issue.  In online publications, it is a change in the text, and a mention that the text was corrected.

Therefore, when I received a response within 45 minutes, I was initially pleased.  But then I opened their message and discovered that they totally rejected all my points, even the factual statement that nuclear fusion is used in weapons.  Their argument was that the description of fission was "a stock, standard description."  They also argued that they provide extensive and detailed coverage of nuclear power news and technology, and therefore, "to single out one story without placing it in context to the rest of the news coverage creates a false impression..."

The only problem with this response is that no one reads everything, and no one remembers everything they read.  And the statement is made without any attribution or qualification.  I do realize that an article on fusion is not the place to digress into a long discussion of fission.  However, the article could have stood on its own without saying anything about nuclear fission.  In fact, the initial point of the comparison is clearly on the difference between fission and fusion, and the thought should have come to a full stop after saying that one process fuses atoms together while the other splits them.

But, once they made a statement that is so problematical, they should have responded to me much differently.  Any responsible publication that makes should be open to making corrections and clarifications.

I felt that some of my readers who may also read Energy Daily or other publications from this source might want to be aware of the level of their reporting, and of their attitude about it.  I tried to comment to the editor privately, thinking to save them the embarrassment of having their errors called out publicly, but since they seem to be unwilling to acknowledge even the most obvious errors, I should note that there is a place for comments at the bottom of their page. 


Saturday, December 2, 2017

An Important Nuclear Milestone:

75 Years Since the Birth 
of the Atomic Age 

I woke up today to news articles in several sources highlighting the fact that today marks the 75th anniversary since the world's first man-made nuclear reactor began splitting atoms.  I'm a little chagrined that I didn't think of this earlier myself, since it holds a major spot in my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development."  In truth, I've been a bit distracted by other things in recent weeks, and have neglected blogging altogether, so the reminder I got from others about this anniversary has drawn me back to the keyboard. 

When I wrote the book on Nuclear Firsts, it was almost a little surprising to me to see how many milestones there were in the development of nuclear power, and how so many milestones were small steps that built on other small steps.  This probably shouldn't have been so surprising to me.  After all, science and technology have always built upon past developments.  In addition, I was well aware of the different types of reactors that were explored in the early days, each of which were steps in different directions.  Likewise, I was aware that the other parts of the fuel cycle, and particularly, in the different enrichment technologies that were tested again each constituted steps in different directions. 

As I wrote the book, I kept finding more of these small--and maybe some not-so-small--steps, and the book kept getting longer.  But through it all, it occurred to me that there were really layers of importance, and some of the firsts were definitely more significant than others.  I didn't try to explore this dimension in the book, perhaps because it was too subjective and too dependent on which end-points one looked at (after all, the Canadians might have a different perspective than the US on which technological developments were most important). 

But if any one event stands out as being a truly pivotal event to almost all subsequent developments, the first demonstration of a controlled fission reaction at Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) on December 2, 1942, would have to be a leading candidate.  Not only was it a giant scientific step beyond anything that had been done before, but given world events at the time, it very quickly launched a major development effort that led to transformative applications on both the military and civilian side.

It is certainly true that CP-1 didn't develop in isolation.  It was built on a number of scientific experiments and theories that preceded it.  And it is true that it might have been forgotten if nothing else had followed.  But given that so much did follow this historic day, it is appropriate to celebrate this milestone anniversary in the development of nuclear power.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Solar Power for the Military:

Deja Vu All Over Again

I recently saw an article discussing the use of solar panels by the U.S. military.  It cited a Department of Energy (DOE) study concluding that the military needs to rely more on solar power in order to eliminate weaknesses in the grid.  The article speculated that, with military funding to help address some of the drawbacks of solar power (including energy storage), there might be a knock-on effect for the general public as well.

The story brought back memories.  Early in my career, I worked for an Air Force think tank called Analytic Services (or ANSER).  Since I was the resident nuclear engineer, by extension, I was also assigned other energy-related projects.  Which is how I came to work on a project to explore the possible use of renewable energy to provide power for military bases housing MX missile systems.  I worked on it for some months, and even published a paper on it.  Alas, this was so long ago that I couldn't find it on the Web when I looked, but I did find a passing reference to the concept at the end of a 1979 article.

I hadn't thought about that project in years, but seeing the news item made me reflect on how many technologies don't get off the ground the first time.  This is true in the nuclear area, too, as we are now talking about technologies like molten salt for nuclear reactors as though it was a brand-new idea, when in fact, that was one of the technologies that was explored in the earliest days of nuclear power development.

This development reinforces the observation that the path to a technological development is not always a straight line.  Modern windmills are, of course, a new incarnation of a very old technology, once used for mechanical power, not electricity.  Nuclear technologies that were once sidelined for a variety of reasons are now receiving renewed interest.  Now, it may well be that solar power for military applications merits another look.  I've been away from it too long to make an educated judgment.  I just wish I'd saved the work I did so many years ago!  


Friday, October 13, 2017

Natual Gas Projections:

Revisiting Conventional Wisdom

Just when you think you have a good handle on the facts, along comes a study that casts doubt on some of the "conventional wisdom."

At least, that was my reaction when I read a summary of two recent reports on natural gas projections.  Among the "blockbuster" findings were the following:

  • Fracking and drilling are not playing nearly as large a role as thought in boosting oil and gas production from shale,
  • Technology's role has been overstated by as much as 50 percent,
  • As prime drilling spots get used up, technology may not be able to counter the loss in productivity from shifting to less desirable locations,
  • And perhaps most surprisingly, the land-use needs of natural gas are similar to wind and solar production, at least in some locations. 
 I hasten to note that these are newly published results and it will be interesting to see the response to them.  In the first place, both studies looked at specific geographical areas, so it will be important to see if the results are typical of other areas.  Also, there may be ways that some of these concerns can be addressed.  The article hints at that, noting in particular that there are ways to decrease the land-use footprint.

However, the two studies do point to the fact that, once again, we find ourselves making greater use of a well-known technology, and suddenly finding that scaling it up introduces unforeseen problems.  Given the growing importance of natural gas in our energy use, it will be important to explore these issues further.  For one thing, the fact that productivity may decrease over time will result in higher gas prices, and thus our growing dependence on natural gas may cost us dearly in the future.

This, to me, reinforces the argument that it is important to maintain a diverse energy supply, and that energy policy should recognize this and incorporate measures to assure that we maintain a healthy mix of energy sources over the long term, including both nuclear power and renewables.


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.



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.