Thursday, August 18, 2016

Another WISE Summer:

An Internship for Engineering Students

I am pleased to report the conclusion of another successful session of the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering Program (WISE).  This program, sponsored by a number of national engineering societies, brings a dozen or so engineering students, usually (but not always) rising seniors from colleges and universities all over the country, to Washington every summer to work at the interface between engineering and policy.

I am particularly pleased because, this summer, the faculty member in residence for the program was my husband, Michael Marcus.  I was the faculty member in residence 3 years ago, and I guess he thought it looked like so much fun, he wanted to do it, too.

The program is unusual among internship programs in that the normal arrangement does not involve the student working in a single office.  Rather, most students pick an engineering policy topic and research it by meeting with government officials and others to learn about the issues, then writing a paper to discuss the issues and identify possible approaches.  The students also meet as a group with various government a
nd non-government offices in Washington to get a broad perspective on issues, viewpoints, and all the voices involved in the policy process.

This summer saw a diverse range of interests in the topics pursued by the WISE students, ranging from drones, to our water supply infrastructure, to gene editing, to manufacturing, to high performance buildings, to protecting earth from meteor hits, and more.  The American Nuclear Society has been a sponsor of the program almost from its outset, and this year, the ANS sponsored student was Logan Sit, a nuclear engineering student from North Carolina State University, who studied Small Modular Reactors.  Most of the papers and presentations are available here.

The WISE program has been in existence since 1980, and I am pleased to say that I have been involved with it in one way or another almost from the beginning.  In the early years, I was on the Steering Committee representing ANS.  That position is now ably filled by Alan Levin.

Over the years, many students who have participated in the program have found it had a profound influence on the direction of their further education and their careers.  Some have completely changed career direction.  Almost all have felt that the understanding they have gained of the decision-making process, and the evidence they saw of how important it is for engineers to be engaged in that process, have been important to them.

I would personally encourage engineering students, particularly those in the nuclear field, who are looking for a valuable way to enhance their education and broaden their perspective to look into applying for one of the internships next year.  While it is too early for the professional societies to be soliciting applications formally, in addition to the American Nuclear Society, other societies currently supporting WISE internships are:  AIChE, ASME, ASHRAE, ASTM, IEEE, and SAE.  New to the WISE program this year is the American Ceramic Society.

It has been especially fun for me this year participating with my husband in some of the WISE meetings and activities.  In a way, it renewed my interest in the program, so I really hope to reach students and encourage participation in the coming years.



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Another Nuclear Milestone:

Record Long Run

It's always good news to hear about nuclear power plants that perform well, so the news this week from the World Nuclear Association's World Nuclear News that the Heysham II nuclear power plant in the United Kingdom broke the world record for continuous operation of a commercial nuclear power station was very welcome. 

It achieved that record on August 1, when it reached 895 days of continuous operation, breaking a record of 894 days set by Pickering's unit 7 in 1994.

It also may be of interest that a number of the longest-running plants are not light water reactors (LWR).  Heysham is an advanced gas reactor (AGR), and Pickering is a Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR).  The previous record holders were also an AGR and a PHWR. 

The longest-running LWRs so far have been the LaSalle 2 boiling water reactor (BWR), with a 739-day run ending in 2007, and the Calvert Cliffs 2 pressurized water reactor (PWR), with a 693-day run ending in 2009.

I note that when I wrote my book on nuclear milestones, I deliberately chose to limit the milestones I covered to "firsts."  Thus, I did not cover a number of achievements such as biggest reactor, or performance-related achievements such as highest total generation or longest continuous run.  It was a tough decision, because these are really milestones, too, and they are very impressive and important milestones.  However, firsts stand forever, but, as this achievement by Heysham II demonstrates, milestones related to measures such as size or performance are inevitably broken. 

In this case, the previous record was set over 20 years ago.  In other cases, however, such records stand for much shorter times.  Hence, a book that covered every possible milestone is a book that is likely to become outdated very quickly.  And while one has to hope that the industry keeps exceeding its past performance, it wouldn't be good for book sales!

But since I didn't cover such milestones in my book, I am especially happy to be able to celebrate such a significant achievement in this blog.  Congratulations to EDF Energy, the Heysham II operator and to all who contributed to achieving this milestone!


Sunday, July 17, 2016

From Fusion to Poetry:

Bridging Different Interests

I always enjoy learning about people whose careers take unexpected turns, so I was delighted to read a story in an MIT publication about a nuclear engineering major who is now the poet laureate of Hawaii

When I was much younger, I dabbled in poetry myself.  Although nothing ever came of it for me (well, OK, I did win a minor award in an undergraduate poetry writing contest), I was always perplexed when people laughed when they learned that I liked both science and poetry.  Not only did they find it contradictory, they apparently found it funny.

From my own perspective, it gave me a chance to exercise different interests and think about different things.  And maybe I thought that the idea of being creative transcended the particular area of endeavor.

I never really lost my interest in poetry, but for me, it was never more than a hobby, and over the years, I found less and less time to pursue it at all.  So, I don't claim to be a poet.

But I have to admire others who manage to pursue more than one passion, and who even manage to marry the two.  Thus, I was fascinated to learn about how Steven Wong (now called Kealoha), MIT Class of '99 and nuclear engineering major, has ended up as the first poet laureate of Hawaii, and how his work melds science and art.

In fact, he now has a show, complete with musicians and dancers, that starts with the Big Bang, includes dancers building the periodic table with disco moves, portrays human evolution and migration across the planet, and looks at climate change and the future "through the lens of science."

This sounds fascinating enough for me to try to look for an opportunity to catch the show.  What an excuse for a visit to Hawaii!


Friday, June 24, 2016

Women at ACRS:

Another Step Forward

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just announced the appointment of 4 new members of its Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS).  They are:  Margaret Sze-Tai Chu, Walter Kirchner, Jose March-Leuba, and Matthew Sunseri.   Their bios can be found in the above NRC news release and will not be repeated here.

What is particularly noteworthy about the new appointments is that it will be the first time there will be more than one woman serving on the Committee at one time.  Margaret Chu joins Joy Rempe, who is the only other woman to have served on the ACRS since its inception in 1947 under the Atomic Energy Commission.

I have had the privilege of knowing both of these women.  Joy Rempe has been serving with distinction on the Committee since 2003.  Margaret Chu joins the Committee after a distinguished career, and I know will bring a lot to the Committee as well.

Not mentioned in this announcement is the fact that the former Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste and Materials (ACNW&M) had a female member long before the ACRS did.  The first--and only--woman to serve on the ACNW&M (which began in 1988 as the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste, or ACNW) was Ruth Weiner, who at that time was at Sandia Laboratories.  Ruth Weiner, who I also have had the privilege of knowing, served with distinction on the ACNW&M from 2003 to 2008, when it was disbanded and its responsibilities absorbed into the ACRS.

While I like to celebrate the successes of women in the field and am delighted to see a step forward, I have slightly mixed emotions in this case.  I have to scratch my head and wonder why it took so long to appoint a woman to either body, and why there are still only 2 women out of the more than a dozen members of the ACRS.  When you think about it, there have at times been two women serving as NRC Commissioners at one time, and that is a body of only five people.

With a growing number of women now in the technical workforce, I look forward to a time--hopefully, in the not-very-distant future--when it is no longer so unusual when a woman is appointed to the ACRS.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Too Cheap to Meter--Take 3

The Beat Goes On

I was delighted to find a message in my mailbox a few days ago from Thomas Wellock, the NRC historian, pointing me to his NRC blog on the frequently cited "Too Cheap to Meter" speech that has haunted the US nuclear industry for more than 60 years.  I was pleased because this was a subject of longstanding interest to me, and I had previously written on the topic.  In fact, my blog had elicited so many thoughtful comments that I did a followup to reflect and respond to some of the comments.  I was grateful both that he had remembered my interest, and that he had done some more definitive research into the issue than I had previously seen.   

For those who may not recall, the phrase was uttered by Lewis L. Strauss, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in a September 16, 1954 speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York.  For years, that phrase has been interpreted by many as a promise that fission power would make electricity free, a promise that, by implication, the nuclear industry has failed to meet.  Others have countered that he might have been talking about fusion, rather than fission.

Tom's blog addresses the various comments and records he has unearthed that help us delve into what Strauss might have been thinking about.  He recounts the evidence I had cited that Strauss was aware of a still-secret fusion program.  However, he also finds several bits of evidence that I had not seen before that suggest that Strauss was very bullish, and outspokenly so, on fission power at the time. 

But I was most pleased that Tom provided a link to the entire original speech.  Previously, I had seen only the famous excerpt in which he talked about electricity being too cheap to meter.  While the speech doesn't answer the question definitively, of course, it does shed a little more light on his statements, at least for me.

In the first place, the speech does talk extensively about recently declassified work on fission.  For this reason alone, it is not unreasonable for someone to conclude that everything in the speech relates to fission.  He does not mention fusion (which, of course, he would not do if it was still classified).

But the most telling thing to me is that, early in the speech, he alludes to knowing what his audience would like to hear, and he says, "This, of course, involves forecasts, and the Commission as a serious governmental body ought not to indulge in predictions.  However, as a person, I suffer from no such inhibition and will venture a few predictions before I conclude."

If this statement does nothing else, it makes it very clear that Strauss thought he was speaking for himself, and not for the Government.  This may sound quaint to us, in this day and age, when even the most casual remark by a government official can be blown out of proportion--and government officials have, consequently, become exceptionally careful about their public statements.

I couple this with the actual language of the paragraph in which he uses the phrase "too cheap to meter," and I think about how many of his other predictions have come to pass: 

Transmutation of the elements, unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered--these and a host of other results all in 15 short years.  It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.  This is the forecast for an age of peace.

Yes, we enjoy more power today than in 1954.  Yes, we have faster airplanes and a longer average lifespan.  But even though most of the developed world no longer faces famine, there is still widespread famine in the developing world; travel under the seas has not become widespread; and there are many diseases that we have not yet conquered.

So, in the end, we are still left to guess what Strauss really had on his mind 62 years ago.  Certainly, he thought he was speaking for himself, and he made it clear that his views did not represent the position of the AEC.  Clearly, he was thinking much more broadly than just fission or fusion reactors, as some of these visions don't involve electric power at all.  And very obviously, none of the visions he outlined have been fully achieved.

But after 62 years, it seems to me it is time to recognize that a prediction is not a promise, that a personal viewpoint is not a government commitment or a yardstick by which to measure an industry, and that the time is long overdue for us to refresh our visions for the future based on what we know today and not try to make judgments based on the predictions of one individual made long ago.



Friday, May 20, 2016

Positive Signs for Nuclear Power:

Views from ANS Officers

This week, the Washington, DC local section of the American Nuclear Society had the unusual pleasure of hosting both the ANS President, Gene Grecheck, and the ANS Vice-President/President-Elect, Andy Klein.   What was particularly interesting is how many positive signs both speakers highlighted during their presentations.  They did acknowledge that all was not rosy, but overall, their comments reflected the fact that a lot of positive things have happened in the past year or so.  Taken one at a time, we sometimes don't realize that there are some changes on the horizon.    

Gene kicked off the session by stating that over 2 billion people in the world today have zero access to electricity, so talking about reducing demand globally is not meaningful.  He also noted that, while the Germans boast about shutting nuclear power plants, Germany's per capita CO2 emissions last year were higher than those of the US.   

I have been particularly interested in how the international market seems to be evolving, so I was quite interested when he shared with us some discussions he had at the COP21 with the leaders of some of the developing countries poised to buy nuclear power plants from Russia.  Gene said that they acknowledged to him that they don’t like the idea of being dependent on Russia.  However, their countries need power now, and any problem that may happen with the Russians will be after their term of office!  This seems like a reverse riff on the NIMTOO (Not In My Term of Office) mantra, that in the United States, has usually been interpreted as politicians delaying decisions on nuclear power plants (or other controversial infrastructure) until they get out of office.

While Gene did not shy away from pointing out recent negative events (nuclear power plant closings, low natural prices, counter-productive pricing mechanisms in the electricity market), he also noted a number of events in the past year or so that had at least some potential positive impacts for nuclear power:  COP21, EPA's Clean Power Plan, Wisconsin’s repeal of their nuclear power plant moratorium, the efforts of the New York Public Utilities Commission to assure the continued operation of some of their nuclear power plants, and recent high-level events in the United States, including the White House Nuclear Summit last November and the DOE Summit this week.

Andy Klein picked up on the positive theme in his remarks, noting several groups that have had  pro-nuclear events and messages, including Third Way, Breakthrough Institute, and others.  He noted that the message from some of these groups is particularly persuasive because they are not perceived as being part of the nuclear industry.  

He also discussed advanced nuclear technologies and small modular reactors, and their potential benefits, although both he and Gene were careful to note that more needs to be done to prove such technologies.  His comments about the start of the NuScale reactor were particularly interesting.  He credits DOE's Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) with helping get the project started, but he points out that, like many large research projects, the initial efforts were not without some glitches.  Since he will undoubtedly be telling this story to other audiences during his coming term as ANS President, I will not share all the details here.

Andy ended his discussion of advanced reactor R&D by showing the wide assortment of projects underway outside the United States involving different countries and different nuclear technologies.  Unfortunately, there was not enough time in the session for him to describe those in any detail, but the shear number of initiatives makes it clear that there are still a number of countries and organizations committed to developing the next generation of nuclear power.  

The two talks were followed by a brief Q&A, with both speakers addressing the questions.  During the Q&A, Gene made one particularly interesting observation.  He noted that there is an imbalance in the requirements on utilities when they build a power plant versus when they close one.  When a utility wants to build a power plant, they have to address all its impacts--the environmental impacts, the impacts on the community, etc.  They are not permitted to build or operate the plant until they demonstrate compliance with requirements and receive approval.  But when they want to shut a plant down, no approvals are required.  Shutting a power plant certainly has impacts on the environment (due to replacement power), on the local economy (employment), etc., but there is no requirement to address them.  It is the utility operator's economic decision.

Both speakers concluded with optimistic messages.  Gene's final slide read, "The world needs nuclear, and nuclear needs ANS."  Andy repeated that, and laid out some of his plans for ANS in the coming year.  Both Gene and Andy encouraged the active involvement of the nuclear community in ANS as a way to contribute to the positive message about nuclear power.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Nuclear Firsts, DNFSB, and More:

A Month of Personal Milestones

April was a pretty exciting month for me.  While I usually don't blog about myself, two of the three "milestones" in my personal life have a nuclear connection, so I thought it was worth sharing some recent news.

First, my father turned 95 early in the month--and was even able to travel to my house for a visit.  While there is no direction connection to things nuclear, I think that's a pretty special milestone and deserves a mention.

The second event was that my book, "Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development," was published as an e-book and is available on Amazon.  I should note that it has been significantly updated, with a chapter covering Fukushima, and with the tables and other information updated to reflect recent plant start-ups and closures.  In addition, since the publication of the hardcover book in 2010, I have learned about a couple of firsts that I hadn't know about before, and I have added them in the updated e-book.

I'm pleased that I've already gotten good feedback on the changes.  I know that a number of nuclear engineering professors were using the hardcover edition in some of their classes, and I hope that the e-book will make the contents more accessible for students, researchers, and others.  I am also asked, from time to time, if the book is suitable for a non-technical audience.  I think it is.  The focus is on  the historical events themselves, and touches lightly on the technical underpinnings involved.

The final event of the month was the most exciting for me.  On April 28, President Obama nominated me to serve on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent organization within the executive branch responsible for providing advice and recommendations to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy defense-related nuclear facilities.

As some readers may know, this is a position that requires confirmation by a vote of the whole Senate.  Therefore, I am not yet serving in the DNFSB position and will not do so until such time as the Senate acts on my nomination.  I am currently beginning the process that will hopefully lead to a vote of confirmation by the Senate.

It is a great honor to be selected by the President for nomination to such a post, and of course, it will be even more of an honor to be confirmed by the Senate, so I am looking forward to undergoing this process in the weeks ahead.