Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Post # 100: An Ethos of Reactor Safety (2015)

As is common at the interface between last year and this year, I've engaged in my share of review and reflection.  One subject near and dear to my heart is that of commercial nuclear power safety.

Two years ago this month I posted my personal nuclear safety manifesto.  In Post # 75, I presented a four-point "Ethos of Reactor Safety".  My motivation for doing so was/is my concern over the "graying" of the reactor safety profession, and (what I perceive as) a never-ending seduction in the industry and among regulatory authorities to place our confidence in check lists, regulatory frameworks and guidelines, complex computer codes, "generic industry responses", and our great track record (Fukushima and TMI excepted) – while paying far less attention to the culture and skill of the nuclear safety professional who exercises and navigates through this landscape.

I've had numerous conversations since the original Ethos was posted in January of 2013.  The Ethos also appeared as a postscript in my paper, "The Canary, The Ostrich, and the Black Swan: An Historical Perspective On Our Understanding of BWR Severe Accidents and Their Mitigation," which appeared in the May 2014 edition of the American Nuclear Society's journal "Nuclear Technology" (Vol 186, No. 2).

After two years of discussion and reflection, I've decided the four-point Ethos should really be a five-point Ethos.  The fifth point is actually an elevation of a statement that was embedded in one of the original four points, but, I'm convinced, warrants elevation.

So here you go.  Fresh for 2015, an updated (improved?) version of

Greene's Ethos of Nuclear Reactor Safety (2015):

This ethos is comprised of five ideals, principles, and attitudes essential to the practice of reactor safety:
  1. An acute awareness of one's responsibility to society.  Abundant, reliable, and affordable electricity is the chief technical enabler of the quality of life most of us desire.  Nuclear power is the only energy technology available today with a realistic potential to supply abundant electricity to billions of people around the world living with little or no access to it.  It is also one of the few technologies which, if implemented poorly, has the potential to prevent our neighbors from ever returning to their communities and homes.  These two realities (benefits vs. risk) should provide strong motivation to those who aspire to be a nuclear safety professional;
  2. A chronic sense of uneasiness.  This means having a persistent questioning attitude regarding what we know, what we know we don't know, and what we don't know we don't know;
  3. A zeal for fundamental understanding.  The passion for and skills to integrate experimental data, simulation & analysis results, and operational experience to arrive at a science-based understanding of the facts;
  4. A scientific and technical humility.  One who has a "healthy respect" for the limits of our (and their personal) knowledge and the wisdom to operate within these limits.  One who constantly asks themselves, "What if I'm wrong?"
  5. A willingness to challenge the status quo and the Establishment.  The reactor safety professional is, in many ways, the conscience of the industry.  He or she must possess the strength of their convictions to challenge "group think", "easy solutions", and "convenient responses" when their personal knowledge, insights, and instincts compel action – and to be willing to bear the consequences of doing so.

So there you have it.  Five points I feel every nuclear safety professional should have engrained in their DNA – an interlocking set of principles, attitudes, and behaviors that will ensure commercial nuclear power and related nuclear enterprises continue to set the highest standard for industrial safety as we move into the 21st century.

Cheers and Happy New Year.

Just Thinking,

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Post # 99: When New Technology Isn't Better

(WARNING:  This post is not gender-neutral.)

Sometimes new technology isn't better.  It just more expensive.

Evidence the humble "safety razor".  

I grew up watching my Dad shave with an old Gillette "Butterfly" safety razor. By the time I reached bearded adolescence in the late 1960's, "sophisticated" gentlemen were moving away from that century-old technology to the latest greatest method of removing facial hair – the electric shaver.  So, of course, as an aspiring suave and debonair young man in the age of the Apollo moon landings, I went with the electric shaver.  

Funny thing.  It irritated my face and didn't do a particularly good job on the whiskers either.  Never mind.  I was suave and debonair (remember?)  So I stuck with that rotary abrasive machine for twenty years.

Then, in the late 1990's Gillette introduced it's now famous "Mach-3" razor handle and tri-blade razor cartridge.  I had to have one.  (That suave and debonair thing again...).  My original Mach-3 gave up the ghost about 10 years after I purchased it.  I then purchased a fancy red one.  I still have that fancy red Mach-3, and I've shaved with it every day since I purchased it... fighting off the subsequent enticements to move to four-blade razor cartridges, five-blade razor cartridges, articulating razor heads, and (now) pivoting / gimbaled razor heads.  (I'm sure I've left out someone's favorite evolution.)  I'm convinced that if beings from another galaxy landed here and watched a series of today's razor commercials, they would be certain they were looking at micro surgical instruments for brain surgery - not something intended to remove facial hair!

I've used that fancy red Mach-3 every day – until about three weeks ago, that is.  On that fateful day, I journeyed down the razor aisle of the local Walmart with my wife.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  The aisle was filled with multi-blade razor cartridges of all colors and shapes.  But it wasn't the colors and shapes that grabbed my attention.

It was the price – $3.50 to $4.50 per cartridge.  That's right.  $4.50 for a multi-blade razor cartridge that one affixes to the end of that old Gillette Mach-3, uses for two weeks (max) and discards.  Why had I not noticed this before?  Because my lovely wife has been purchasing my blades all these years.

Then it dawned on me.  Could it be that the reason the "Mach-3" razor is called the "Mach-3" is that that's about the speed at which it liberates dollars from your billfold for those outrageously expensive razor cartridges?

I was incensed.  Enough already!  It was back to the future.  So, hopping onto Amazon, I ordered myself a modern embodiment of my Dad's safety razor – a Merkur long-handled version (about $30) and a package of 100 (that's right, 100) razor blades for another $14.00.  Total expenditure: $44.00.

And what have I learned in the past three weeks with my Merkur experiment?  

I've been a suave and debonair idiot for 45 years.  

Two weeks into the experiment with the Merkur, I've only nicked myself once (clumsy).  I can tell NO difference between the quality of the shave the "old faithful" Merkur" is giving me vs. that Mach-3 with the nonobtainium blades.  And I'm actually enjoying shaving again.  Oh... and I've just finished my second week on the blade that came with the razor.  So... if this performance is representative, at $14/100 for blades, I'll be spending 1.4 cents every two weeks for blades in the coming year.  That's less than $7 a year for blades – instead of $100/yr I've been spending.

So...some technology lessons here...

1.  When the consumer isn't price-conscious, or isn't the one making the "buy decisions", you can sell almost anything for almost any price.  Just convince them it's a cool piece of technology.

2.  After 14 shaves, I can honestly tell you, I can detect NO difference in the quality of shave between the fancy modern cartridge razor and the old-school Merkur safety razor.  Conclusion(s)? Sometimes, our ancestors got it right.  We need to admit it.  Celebrate it.  Move on.  Put our creative juices into solving some other problem.

And my final advice to you guys out there?  


Merry Christmas!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Post # 98: Kudos to Koonin (More on Climate Change)

Back in my Post # 93:  My Take On The Climate Change Debate, I shared my views that, far from what many individuals and organizations would have you believe, the debate over climate change is not settled – because the climate science isn't settled.  I offered several specific technical reasons why I feel we simply do not understand climate change as well as many in the media, in politics, and (most unfortunately) in the scientific community would have us believe.

And so I was delighted to read Dr. Steven Koonin's (former Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy) lengthy article in last week's Wall Street Journal, entitled, Climate Science Is Not Settled.  In that article, which was quite a bit longer than my post, Dr. Koonin echoed every major argument I presented in Post # 93 – and came to the same major conclusions.

Kudos for Koonin!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Post # 97: Three Threats More Certain, More Imminent, and More Destructive Than Global Climate Change

As I've posted before (Post # 93), I feel our global climate is indeed changing (not a new thing), but the data to support the anthropomorphic (human-driven) climate change argument is inconclusive – at least for now.  However, any good scientist or engineer will leave room and time for the Scientific Method to alter current perspectives.  I certainly do.  But that's not the subject of this posting...

I've recently run across a number of debates on the subject of "global threats to humanity".  This prompted me to consider my short-list of threats that could alter our future in ways we prefer not to think about.  I've concluded there are at least three global threats to humanity that are:
  • more certain
  • more imminent
  • more aggressive
  • more destructive
than anthropomorphic climate change.  Here are my Top Three Threats (not necessarily in priority order):

1. A Global Pandemic - we are long overdue; the world is much more highly integrated (in terms of mobility of pathogenic hosts) than in the past; and the nasty bugs/viruses are clearly evolving in a worrisome direction at an alarming rate.  A pandemic would most likely start in the undeveloped world and spread to the Developed World.

2. A Geomagnetic Storm - we are really long overdue for a high-magnitude storm, and developed societies are far more dependent on the electric grid than we were when the last great storms occurred in 1859 (the so-called "Carrington Event") and 1921. A large storm could bring down continental electric grids (and everything that depends on them) for periods of time ranging from many months to many years. This would reduce developed countries to barbaric conditions almost "at the flick of a switch".  The Developed World is much more vulnerable than the Undeveloped World to this threat.

3. Geopolitical Instability Due To Lack of Access To Electricity.  A billion of our fellow inhabitants of this globe have virtually NO access to electricity TODAY, and another billion or so have such limited access that only their most basic needs are infrequently met. The growing impact of this lack of access to abundant, reliable, and affordable electricity is a current, and growing problem of colossal humanitarian and geopolitical import.  This dynamic, along with all the associated induced phenomena, is destined to be a growing source of geopolitical instability throughout this century.  But it is first and foremost, a CURRENT humanitarian crisis.  The Undeveloped World is currently suffering from this "threat", and the Developed World seems to lack both the conviction, the wisdom, and perhaps the means to effectively attack the issue in the near-term.

Personally, I believe these three threats are more likely to significantly impact human life on Earth over the next several decades than anthropomorphic global climate change.  I believe an objective, risk-based analysis that includes appropriate treatment of uncertainties would confirm this conclusion.

My conclusion, if correct, does not imply we shouldn't be paying attention to global climate change.  It just means we should be paying more attention to these other threats.  All three threats have many intersections with science and technology.  But that's fodder for future posts...

Just Thinking,

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Post # 96: Africa - A Continent In The Dark

 (African / Globe graphic source: Source:

Those of you who know me know I feel the highest use of technology is to alleviate the suffering of my fellow human beings.  I've previously shared here that the two parameters most impacting quality of human life on this planet are: (1) social stability (peace); and (2) access to abundant, affordable, and reliable electricity.  Think of all the ways we use electricity.  We "flip the switch" and we're shocked if the lights don't come on.  We rarely think about the "around the clock" duty our home and office space conditioning equipment is serving.  We turn the faucet and we're surprised if clean, clear water doesn't immediately issue forth.  Then there's our internet service, cable TV and, of course, our cell phones.

I discussed in Post # 94 the plight of those living today in Africa in terms of their prospects for a quality of life most of us in the "developed countries" take for granted.  Put bluntly, their prospects for a life you and I would want for ourselves and our children are very dim - literally.

In Post # 94, I pointed out that a heartless and unthinking push to globally decarbonize electricity could doom hundreds of millions – probably well over a billion – of our fellow humans to a life of misery.  Why?  Because low-carbon means no coal-fired electrical generation - the one source most likely to enable African nations to bootstrap themselves into the modern world.  Don't get me wrong.  I know coal is dirty.  I lived the first ten years of my life in a home heated by a coal-burning stove in rural East Tennessee.   I prefer nuclear power to coal-fired power - all things being equal.  But often, all things aren't equal – particularly in undeveloped countries.

I want to expand my discussion in Post # 94 by sharing some numbers I calculated this morning to quantify the mass of humanity whose lives are at stake in this argument...

I began with World Bank Data (herehere, and here), detailing country-by-country access to electricity for the nations of the African continent.  I chose to focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, whose total population was around 800 million souls in 2007 and is approximately 1.1 billion today.  A new report from the Population Research Bureau, predicts the population of this region will double by 2050.

I selected 25 countries, whose combined population in 2011 totaled 743 million or about 75% of the (then) population Sub-Saharan population.  For those interested, the countries on my list were: 

  • Angola
  • Benin
  • Botswana
  • Burkina Faso
  • Cameroon
  • Congo Republic
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Ethiopia
  • Gabon
  • Ghana
  • Kenya
  • Lesotho
  • Malawi
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • Nigeria, 
  • Senegal
  • South Africa
  • Sudan, Tanzania
  • Togo, Uganda
  • Yemen, Zambia
  • Zimbabwe.

Nigeria leads the nations on my list in terms of total population (164M in 2011).  Four countries on the list have (had) populations exceeding 50M (Nigeria, Ethiopia, Dem. Republic of Congo, and South Africa).  Tanzania probably has a population of 50M today.

Now for the shocking results:

  • Over 85 million people in Nigeria (a nation with significant coal reserves) have no access to electricity.  More people are without electricity in Nigeria today than live in the states of California, Texas, and New York combined.
  • Over 69 million people in Ethiopia have no access to electricity today.  This is more than the current population of Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Georgia combined.
  • Over 58 million people in the Dem. Rep. of Congo currently have no access to electricity.  This is equivalent to the entire population of Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Massachusetts, and Arizona.
  • Just over 39 million people in Tanzania (nearly the combined population of Indiana, Tennessee, Maryland, Missouri, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) have no electricity.
  • Thirty-four million people in Kenya (almost the combined population of Colorado, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Connecticut) have no electricity.

All told, over 480 million people in Sub-Sahara Africa were without electricity in 2011.  That number easily exceeds 500 million people today.

Think of it... half a BILLION human beings without electricity – just in Sub-Sahara Africa alone!  That's close to the entire population of the US, Canada, and Mexico combined... 
  • without electricity
  • all day
  • every day.
Men, Women, Boys, and Girls.  The aged and infirmed.  Newborns and toddlers.  People who have dreams of a better life for themselves and for those whom they love.  People just like us.


Whatever approach to global carbon management we take, we have a moral obligation not to pursue an agenda that dooms a billion people to a life of squalor, sacrifice, and suffering without electricity. I'm pro-nuclear.  But, as I discussed in Post #94, nuclear power simply isn't a good near-term fit to the ground reality in some circumstances.  As dirty as they are, fossil fuels have an important role to play in the here, now, and near-future – especially in underdeveloped countries.  Creating extra barriers for hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings who desperately need electricity, while those of us in developed countries sit in air-conditioned offices with high speed internet connections, drinking our favorite thermally-tailored drink, promoting and even dictating a low-carbon energy future, is cruelty – plain and simple.  And cruelty in the name of a low-carbon agenda (no matter how noble the goals) simply cannot be condoned or supported.   

So once again I echo the sentiment of a growing number of pro-environment technologists who say...

We must not sacrifice Africa on the altar of a low-carbon agenda.

Just thinking,

Friday, June 13, 2014

Post # 95: Now Showing – The Canary, The Ostrich, and The Black Swan

Finally, after a year and a half, my complete paper, "The Canary, The Ostrich, and The Black Swan: A Historical Perspective On Our Understanding of BWR Severe Accidents and Their Mitigation," is on the street.  Check it out in the May 2014 issue (Vol 186, Number 2) of the American Nuclear Society's Journal, Nuclear Technology.  The abstract...

Between 1980 and 1995, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) was engaged in an intense effort to understand commercial boiling water reactor severe accident phenomenology, severe accident progression, and the potential role of the reactor operator in severe accident mitigation. This paper presents a summary of the major findings and conclusions from that period. Both detailed accident- and plant-specific results are discussed. The author, who was a member of the ORNL research team that performed the work, offers a historical perspective on lessons learned, lessons ignored, and lessons forgotten from that period. The relevancy of these findings in the post-Fukushima world is addressed. The author discusses the evolution of the current risk-informed regulatory framework, and identifies some key questions to be addressed and critical steps to be taken to inform the development of the new nuclear safety construct required in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Finally, the author closes by sharing an ethos of nuclear reactor safety that can guide a new generation of reactor safety professionals in the post-Fukushima era.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Post # 94: Sacrificing Africa


By now, most of you have (I hope) read my last post (#93).  In that post, I discussed "my take" on the climate change debate.  I won't rehash that discussion here, but I do want to draw your attention to a related and thought-provoking Op Ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal by

Rossiter's article contrasts the UNCERTAINTIES regarding climate change and options for mitigating it, to the CERTAINTY that restricted access to fossil fuels will doom many hundreds of millions of human beings to a short life filled with struggle and suffering. 

The picture I have in my mind is that of a physician who refuses lifesaving radiation treatments to his cancer patients because the physician is concerned about the possible impact of background radiation on the public at large.  Dare I say it... "misplaced priorities"?

Personally, I believe it is immoral to deny (or work in opposition to) a technology that will save lives TODAY, based on an (uncertain) fear that other lives may be impacted in the FUTURE.  It's (as always) about risk and risk management.

Rossiter's article is a sobering reminder that intellectual humility (freely admitting we don't know what we don't know) and empathy for our fellow man are not optional for those of us in the scientific and technical enterprise.  Please read the article... an important commentary on technology and culture in today's world...

Just Thinking,