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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_%28orthographic_projection%29.svg)

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

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_%28orthographic_projection%29.svg

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,


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Post # 93: My Take On The Climate Change Debate

I am not a climate scientist.  I'm a nuclear engineer.  But having spent over thirty years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), I know good science and good R&D technique when I see it.  I'm frequently asked my views on the global climate change debate.  During my years at ORNL, I "rubbed elbows" with a number of outstanding scientists involved in climate research and simulation.  I approach the issue from the perspective of someone schooled and experienced in the application of the Scientific Method, and one who is intimately familiar with the challenges of understanding and simulating large, complex systems.

So, with some reservations, I'm going to (finally) share my views here. In a Question & Answer interview format.

QUESTION 1:  Do I believe the climate is changing?

ANSWER:  Of course!  During the not-too-distance past, the "temperature" of the earth has been both much hotter and much colder than it is now and has been during my lifetime.  Most of the wildest swings in temperature predate significant human populations and the industrial revolution. Witness:

History of Earth's Temperature (Ref: Glen Fergus @ http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:All_palaeotemps_svg.svg)

QUESTION 2:  Do I believe humans and human activities are a major driver of climate change (i.e. do I believe in Anthropogenic Warming"?

ANSWER: I'm agnostic on this issue.  I've examined a robust sample of the available scientific information on anthropogenic warming. When examined objectively and in the context of issues I'll note below, it simply isn't conclusive.  I'm NOT saying we humans aren't driving climate change.  We might be.  But the available evidence, viewed in context, isn't compelling (at least to me and many technical professionals like me).

Given the emotional charge surrounding this issue, I do feel compelled to offer a bit of my reasoning with regard to why I'm agnostic about Anthropogenic Climate Change.  My reasoning, as simply as I can compress it here comes down to:

1.  HISTORY: As noted above, the Earth's climate has been both much hotter and much colder than it now is – and these swings obviously had nothing to do with human activities.  Therefore, it is reasonable to believe the earth's temperature should continue to vary with time.

2.  KNOWLEDGE: The phenomena and mechanisms determining the Earth's climate are extraordinarily complex, and our understanding of many of these mechanisms is rudimentary at best.  The various phenomena are coupled in extremely complex ways.  Viewed from an engineering perspective, the system contains both "positive" and "negative" feedback effects, and both linear and non-linear phenomenon.  It is neither a closed or an open system, but some hybrid of the classical definition of these systems.  I spent much of my career simulating extraordinarily complex nuclear reactors and severe accidents in nuclear reactors.  That's kid's play compared to the challenge of simulating the complexity of the earth's biosphere and it's climate.

3.  MODELS: Our climate change models simply "aren't there yet".  We cannot yet accurately predict climatic temperature changes for one-two decades – much less a century or more.  (Heck, we can't accurately predict the temperature in East Tennessee a few days in advance.)  As evidence, I'll simply point out that only a couple of some ninety major climate change models used by the global climate simulation community accurately predicted the "pause" in climatic temperature escalation we've witnessed during the past fifteen years or so.  You can easily overwhelm yourself with articles about this development by "googling" "climate models" and "pause".  Here's a compendium of predictions assembled by Roy Spencer (with whom I have no affiliation):

Compilation of Global Climate Model Predictions vs. Observed Data (Ref. DrRoySpencer.com)

The errors between the predictions and the actual observed global temperatures have grown over the past ten years of so.  (Some in the climate modeling community have attempted to explain away the poor correlation between the predictions and the observations by citing any number of unexpected natural phenomena that were responsible for the differences.  But doesn''t that actually support my point? I know from decades of complex simulation work, that the best indicator of one's understanding of a phenomena is one's ability to predict the future behavior of that phenomenon.  Judging by that standard, we have a long way to go in climatic modeling.  The problem is no-doubt some combination of missing physics and phenomenon, physics for phenomena that are modeled incorrectly, missing or incorrect feedback loops, and spatial and temporal smoothing/averaging schemes.   George Box said, "all models are wrong but some are useful".  Sherrell Greene says, "... and the only way to know which models are useful is to get the data."  (Oh... and one other thing I learned during my simulation career is that often the most important thing one gains from a simulation isn't the answer, but rather the ability to ask more intelligent questions.)  This leads to the next issue...

4.  DATA: Our climate data sets aren't yet sophisticated enough to validate the models.  It is virtually impossible to validate climatic models in the classical engineering sense of the term.  The problem has to do both with the specific parameters (variables) the models predict (spatially and time-average variables) and the limitations of the parameters we can actually measure and the data we can actually collect.   Put simply, due to the enormous geospacial and temporal data averaging/smoothing required in the simulation models, it's extraordinarily difficult to define a data collection paradigm that accurately samples the actual parameters the models are calculating.  After all, what is "the Earth's average temperature"?  This challenge is not unlike having a model that predicts the "average heart rate" of an American.  Exactly what data does one collect (and where and when does one collect it), to obtain a suitable data set for validation of the model's predictions?  And once we have the "average heart rate", how do we interpret and use the information?  When you can't actually measure what you are predicting, you are forced to synthesize values for the predicted parameters from parameters you can measure.  This "data synthesis" problem as been the source of countless pains and sorrows in the simulation business since the inception of computer simulation.  Data measurement uncertainty, instrument bias, spatial averaging, time averaging, data interpolation, and data extrapolation of actual measured values can be the devils' workshop (wittingly or unwittingly).  One simple case in point:  Steve Goreham, the Executive Director of the Climate Science Coalition of America (with whom I have no affiliation) has shared two posts (here and here) that articulate the common-sense concerns many have today with the prevailing "scientific community" (whatever and whomever that is) view on global warming...

5.  ORGANIC "PRESSURE" IN THE CLIMATE RESEARCH ENTERPRISE.  There are many, many fine scientists conducting climate change research. They are professionals of the highest skill and integrity.  (I believe the vast majority of researchers fall into this camp.)  However, any "society" produces more of what it rewards.  In the scientific research community, one of the most important metrics of professional success is the level of research funding one secures and sustains.  And in this, the squeaky wheel does usually get the grease.  Speaking as one who spent over thirty years in the federal research complex, I know it is far easier to attract and sustain research funding to attack an imminent crisis, than it is to attack a slowly evolving issue with uncertain consequences.  The result of this reality is that the "organic" pressures (often subliminal) within the international climate research enterprise will naturally tend to promote an atmosphere of doom and gloom.  It is simply a fact that many of those in the scientific community who most loudly trumpet the scourge of man-made climate warming are the one's whose careers depend on the flow of national and international dollars into climate change research.  (Cautionary Note: this doesn't, by the way, mean  the doom and gloomers are wrong – just that one should maintain an healthy scientific skepticism about the entire matter.)  This relates to my final issue...

6.  DOGMA vs. THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD.  Finally, I'm extremely concerned about the defensive and unprofessional attitude some in the climatic research community take with regard to those who question the status quo or their definition of the scientific community's "consensus opinion" on climate change.  (The emails revealed via the highly-publicized and unethical hack into the emails of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in 2009 spotlighted this type of behavior.)  Be careful when the first response to questions or criticism by anyone claiming to represent the scientific community is to disrespect, disparage, and otherwise question the intelligence or honesty of the one posing the question.  This is a sure sign the "expert" has abandoned the Scientific Method in favor of his or her adopted dogma.

QUESTION 3:  What should we do about climate change?

ANSWER:  First, we should continue our climate simulation and climatic data collection activities.  Simulation models are the ultimate laboratory for integrating our knowledge and testing hypotheses – but only when the correct data is available for validation of the models.

Beyond that, the answer to this question really deconvolves into a series of other questions:
  • How credible are are current long-term climatic predictions (and in particular, are they sufficiently credible to inform and/or drive national and international policy decisions)?
  • Presuming current global warming predictions are credible, what are the implications of these predictions for humans & the biosphere (barring a change of course)?
  • What can we really do about the factors that may be driving climate change?
  • What are the negative and beneficial impacts of global climate change, and WHO/WHERE are the "winners and losers" (and there are both) if the dire global climate change predictions are true?
  • What are the cost/benefit parameters for identifiable mitigative actions?

At this point, I'm prepared to say that pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere isn't a good idea.  I just don't know how bad the consequences of doing so actually are in light of all the other uncertainties, unknowns, and known factors impacting global climate change.  So it's almost impossible to quantify the "cost/benefit" ratio of various proposed climate change mitigation actions.  Thus I'm skeptical about the wisdom of extremely costly mitigative actions. 

Frankly, I'm also skeptical we can do much, on a global scale, to reduce net green house gas emissions over the next few decades.  We should extract every reasonable benefit from new behaviors and new technologies.  But, we must stay grounded in "the possible" rather than in a dreamworld that will never be.  Fossil fuels are king and will remain so (globally) for many decades.  Clean coal technology isn't here yet.  So the most important question may well be:
  • How can we best adapt to expected climate change scenarios?
I'm encouraged by signs that the dialog is beginning to shift to this question (see: today's post by Uri Friedman and Narula at theAtlantic.com ).

Well, this post became much longer than I had planned.  To sum it all up,
  • Yes, the climate is changing, 
  • It isn't clear humans are the major contributors to the change, and
  • I feel our time and treasure is best spent seeking realistic strategies to adapt to the most probable climate change scenarios, rather than pursing unrealistic and costly schemes that have little real chance of reducing net global green house gas emissions to the levels many in the climate change community feel are required to halt global warming.
Above all, respect the Scientific Method.  It keeps us honest.

Just Thinking,

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Post # 92: Grid Vulnerability and the Prepper Next Door

There's a disturbing article in today's Wall Street Journal discussing the results of a tightly-held study completed last year by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  According to the Journal, the study, which was focused on U.S. electric grid vulnerability, concluded that a coordinated attack on as few as nine of the country's 55,000 substations could bring down the entire U.S. grid (Western, Texas, and Eastern).  Not only that, but the study apparently concluded the grid would likely stay down for eighteen months or longer! 

All of this, of course, in the wake of last year's "wake up call" attack on PG&E's Metcalf, CA substation.  During that attack, vandals cut underground phone lines, and fired over 100 rounds into the substation over about an hour, destroying or disabling some seventeen large transformers.

Today WSJ article immediately raised three related trains of thought in my mind.

First, the threat of physical and cyber terrorism must obviously be seriously considered – along with other threats such weather and seismic-related phenomena, electromagnetic pulse (natural and man-made), and solar storms such as the 1859 "Carrington Event", which reportedly not only crashed continental telegraph systems, but actually set telegraph poles on fire in New England.  (There is data from Greenland ice cores that suggests solar storms as large as the Carrington Even can be expected every 500 years, and storms 20% this size are to be expected every few decades.)  It's hard to imagine the destruction such a storm could cause to our modern electrical and telecommunications grids.

Secondly, the urgency with which we must proceed to strengthen, modernize, and protect our electrical grid is increasing every day.  From my perspective, the vulnerability of the grid to physical (not cyber) attack isn't really that different than it was decades ago.  What appears to have changed is (a) the fact there are those out there who actually would seek to attack the grid, and (b) our society is so much more dependent on the grid than we were several decades ago.  And of course the cyber vulnerability (not my area of expertise) is a new vulnerability driven by the ever-expanding integration of digital and network technologies into the grid.  The big question, of course is, exactly how does a society proceed to effectively protect such a vital, fragile, exposed, and accessable infrastructure?

Finally, I was reminded of a "Doomsday Prepper" episode I saw some months ago.  (Full Disclosure: I'm not a real prepper, but I do feel it's only prudent to at least follow FEMA's recommendations to prepared for the occasional several-hour to a few days or so of power/water outage.)  I recall that episode focused on how society and individuals could prepare for and cope with (1) a global health pandemic, (2) and asteroid impact, and (3) an alien invasion.  The experts interviewed for the first and second segments were credible and thoughtful individuals.  Unfortunately, the third segment seriously eroded the credibility of the entire program.

Many, with no small amount of justification, discount the entire "Prepper Movement" as a fringe, bizarre, and irrelevant community.  In today's world of cyber attacks and physical terrorism, and with our improved understanding of the expected frequency of natural disasters (such as pandemics, solar storms, asteroid impacts, etc.) a good case can me made that it's unreasonable to live as if these risks don't exist.  These risks are real, but most of us simply choose to act as if they don't exist, or to fatalistically resign ourselves to being a victim if they should occur.

So... given the results of the new FERC grid vulnerability study, you might just want to cozy up to that "Prepper Next Door", buy a generator and a lot of fuel, install some solar panels, or ... ???

Really... how would you cope with an 18 month power outage?

And oh by the way, where did I store that flashlight and those jugs of water?

Just Thinking,

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Post # 91: Nuclear Power – Out With The Old & In With The New?

Some old things we call "masterpieces".
Some old things we call "vintage".
Some old things we call "antiques".
Some old things we call "classics".
Some old things we call "quaint".
And some old things we call "obsolete".

What do we call old nuclear power plants?

There's been an interesting discussion thread going recently over on my colleague Rod Adam's Atomic Insights Blog regarding decommissioning of commercial nuclear power plants (thanks to Joel Riddle for alerting me to the thread)...  Much of the dialog there expresses the angst of the pro-nuclear community concerning the collective impact of
  • shutdowns of "perfectly good" commercial nuclear power plants that are not profitable
  • shutdowns of plants that require major investments to continue to operate
  • shutdowns of plants that simply are "worn out"
  • the aggressive pursuit of decommissioning business by nuclear reactor vendors
  • the conversion of nuclear power plant sites to non-nuclear generation uses
I want to offer some semi-random thoughts on the subject here, as this post is really too lengthy to fit nicely into a comment on Rod's blog...


In my view, it is reasonable, proper, and to be expected that our current nuclear plant vendors would aggressively pursue nuclear plant decommission business.  Who better to do it?  Hurray for Westinghouse!  If it needs to be done, I want the guys doing it who know the technology.  There seems to be some subliminal fear in some quarters that success in the decommissioning business will steal the hearts of the reactor vendors.  Personally, I don't worry about that.  It's a business.


Our current fleet of Gen-II nuclear power plants were simply not designed and constructed to accommodate major plant component replacements, upgrades, and improvements.  The idea back in the 1960s and early 1970s was that we were entering into a golden era of commercial nuclear power. The "status quo" fleet would be continually evolving to newer and better technologies and plant designs.  The nuclear power enterprise would continually renew itself.  Plants would run for 40 years (a commerce-based decision – not a technical limitation) and then be replaced with something much better.  That didn't happen for a variety of reasons.

The financial woes of the current nuclear fleet are primarily a function of two things:
  • "too-cheap-to-meter" natural gas 
  • electricity market deregulation
The first factor (cheap natural gas) appears here to stay for at least a decade or two.  It's hurting renewables (or would be if they were not so heavily subsidized) and it's gut-punching nuclear power.  From a business perspective, who wants to fight the nuclear battle when it's comparatively quick, easy, and cheap to go with natural gas and rake in the profits with practically no tangible downside?  The second factor (deregulation) has put a real squeeze on merchant plants – who are finding it increasing difficult to sell their power to customers who have an option to purchase cheap gas-generated power.  (This pressure is only going to increase in the foreseeable future.)


I am not among those who are sanguine that continued nuclear power development elsewhere in the world (outside of the U.S.) will save the nuclear power option.  (I wish it were true.  I just don't believe it is.)  From my perspective, nuclear power plant vendors are continuing to apply the development paradigm that has failed inside the U.S. to international markets.  (Any size you want as long as it huge.  Any cost you want as long as it's huge...) Very soon, the international market will start to behave more and more like the U.S. market.  Factors such as plant cost, plant size, operating complexity, etc., will become at least as large an obstacle to expanded nuclear power deployment elsewhere as they have become here. What is needed is a fundamental change in the way nuclear power is deployed.  With all due respect, China (not withstanding its recent advanced reactor aspirations) and South Korea cannot succeed in creating a new future for nuclear power by pursuing a worn-out deployment paradigm.


I believe the "magic recipe" for the eventual re-emergence of commercial nuclear power has several elements:
  • Continued safe operation of the current commercial fleet –  all bets are off if we sustain another "Fukushima-like" accident.  Continued accident-free operation is a prerequisite for a nuclear revival.
  • Financial – the capital cost of nuclear nuclear power plant options has to come down radically, or a radical new model for power plant financing must evolve.  I'm not a financial guru, and have no magic answers, but I know that $10B market cap companies aren't going to purchase $6B assets solo.  It isn't really reasonable in free-market economies for us to expect a technology to prosper if it's entry and incremental capital cost is so large it can only be afforded by 10% of the prospective customers for the technology.
  • Choice in plant sizesSmall Modular Reactors are essential to match diverse grid sizes, variable demand growth, and generating company budgets.
  • Longer Plant Lifetimes – I originally shared some thoughts about my concept of "Centurion Reactors" back in 2009 here on this blog... Those thoughts were based on some initial thinking I had done a few years before with Dr. Alvin Weinberg here in Oak Ridge and a paper I presented on the topic at the 2009 Winter American Nuclear Society Meeting.  The inter-generational benefits of plants with 100-yr lifetimes is immense... but there are serious challenges and conflicts to confront (I'll post more on this in the future).
  • Wise management of nuclear sitesCertified nuclear generation sites are a great resource and a terrible thing to waste.  This is a growing issue in the U.S. and Europe.  As current generation nuclear plants are shutdown, we need to maintain the ability to repopulate current nuclear plant sites with newer nuclear capacity.  This is a particularly thorny challenge because (a)  generating companies need the site to generate revenue, and (b) creeping development and population growth around existing sites will make it ever-more difficult to maintain nuclear capacity at some sites.  And then there's the question of new nuclear sites – can we make them both "grid accessible" and locate them where they are immune to future population growth around the plant?  (This is a major threat to the viability of the Centurion Reactor concept...)
  • More efficient licensing & regulation of nuclear power plants – plants that may look very different than our present Gen-II fleet.


We have to face our personal demons and inconsistencies as a pro-nuclear community.

Many in the pro-nuclear community espouse fiercely free-market / low regulation philosophies while, at the same time, advocating what amounts to a strong top-down federal direction of energy policy.  Businesses are in business to make money for their owners by providing value to their customers – not to serve as a instrument of national policy.  Public utilities are monopolies who exist to serve basic societal needs in a manner that does not compete inappropriately with the private sector. (Though many would argue this model has been obliterated by the cable TV business – but that's another story...)
  • Is electrical energy (and nuclear power in particular) so strategic in terms of our national interest that it should be nationalized (whatever that means)?  Most us us would answer "No!" to that question.
  • How can a free-market drive us or evolve to an "optimal solution" (whatever that means) with a traditional "one size fits all" product placement strategy?

After all... Why is there no nuclear power equivalent to Moore's Law ?  Really.

Just Thinking...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Post # 90: Nuclear Power, Natural Gas, Lemons, and Lemonade

Everyone reading this blog knows I'm a strong advocate of nuclear power.  I've spent much of my career in the commercial nuclear power safety and advanced reactor concept development arenas. But I like to think I'm a realistic and honest advocate.  Thus the following thoughts...


Readers of this blog are aware the technology of fracking has unleashed hitherto unrecoverable reserves of natural gas and petroleum in the U.S.  Barring any unforeseen complications, it appears two of the most significant impacts of the attractive price and availability of these new-found fossil resources in the U.S. will be:
  1. the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of electricity production in the U.S. will be significantly reduced on a "per MWhr" basis (that's good); and
  2. the sense of urgency and support for development of new non-fossil electricity production technologies will be reduced (that's bad, because if results in over-dependence on a single energy source). 
The U.S., for all its strengths, has a lack-luster record of innovation during periods in which two conditions exist:

     (A) there is no imminent threat to our lives and livelihoods, and

     (B) a low-risk, financially-attractive option exists to meet our immediate needs.

Thankfully, there appears to be no "A" on the horizon, and fracked natural gas wonderfully fits the condition "B".

I've blogged before (November 2011, Post # 57: Energy Technology: The Innovation Challenge)  about the embarrassingly-low rate of innovation in the nuclear energy business and the reasons for it.  As I said then,

"The environment in today’s nuclear energy enterprise is hostile to innovation.  Not by intent, but in reality nevertheless.  The industry is highly regulated.  It is very costly to do research, development, and demonstration.   It’s a very capital-intensive business.  The barriers to entry are incredibly high.  The down-side risks of innovation are more easily rendered in practical terms than the upside gains.  Often it seems everyone in the enterprise (federal and private sectors) are so risk-averse that innovation is the last thing on anyone’s mind.  In this environment, “good-enough” is the enemy of “better”.  Humans learn by failing.  It’s the way we learn to walk, talk, and ride a bicycle.  Our environment today has little tolerance for failures at any level.  There’s no room for Thomas Edison’s approach to innovation in today’s world.  On top of all of this, or perhaps because of it, the nuclear industry invests less on R&D, as a percentage of gross revenues, than practically every other major industry you might name."

This reality, in combination with the absence of an imminent threat or external forcing function, and in the presence of an abundant and "cheap" supply of natural gas; leads me to conclude:

the "U.S. nuclear renaissance" so longed-for by those in the nuclear power community is dead – for the foreseeable future. 

Stated differently, we seem destined to see, at best, only a handful of large commercial nuclear power plants, and a few evolutionary small modular light water reactor (SMR) power plants constructed in the U.S. over the next twenty years...

That's the "Lemon"This is the "glass half-empty" view.


You've heard the old adage, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade..." ?  So, what's the "Lemonade"?

The era of cheap, abundant natural gas will eventually come to an end.  What then? What arrows will we have in our "energy quiver" to replace it?

  • no major commercial nuclear accidents occur that impact public health and the environment;
  • the Vogtle and Summer construction projects are successful;
  • the world-wide deployment of current and near-term nuclear power plant technologies continue; and
  • someone(s) actually deploy evolutionary Small Modular Light Water Reactors...
nuclear power will remain an important element of the energy generation mix in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.  Thus, nuclear power will have an opportunity to win its way back to the deployment table when conditions change if suitable technology is available at that time.

The question, then, is "What will/should that future nuclear energy option be?"  Can we do it better - far better – that we've done it to date?

Thanks to fracking and natural gas, we now have the luxury of considering different approaches to nuclear energy.  It appears we will have at least a few decades to ponder that question and to develop the answer.

This grace period to incubate and develop improved nuclear energy options is the "Lemonade".  This is the "glass half-full" perspective.


So, what are the functional attributes of my imagined future "Generation Phoenix" nuclear power plants?  

F. J. Bertuch (1747-1822)
I suggest nine attributes that combine to provide a starting point for those who wish to tackle the grand challenge of reverse-engineering Generation Phoenix nuclear energy system concepts for the latter half of the 21st century:
  1. SAFETY/RISK: the plants should be much "safer" (measured in terms of public health risk, investment risk, and environmental risk) than today's plants.  The risk of an accident that would result in major land contamination and long-term relocation of surrounding human populations, or major investment loss in the plant, should be significantly lower than that presented by today's plants.
  2. CAPITAL & OPERATING COST: the plants must be affordable and, yes, even attractively priced in terms both of their capital and their operating costs.  This implies an attractive cost of electricity and process heat delivered to the customer.
  3. SIZE: the technology should be scalable. The plants should be available in sizes appropriate to meet the needs of diverse deployment strategies;
  4. LOAD FOLLOWING CAPABILITY: the plants should have the robust load-following capabilities required to meet dynamic, mixed-generation electrical grids (i.e. grids with significant wind/solar generation components);
  5. DUAL USE: the plants should operate at sufficiently high temperatures to supply the process heat requirements of the (then) current major industries required high-temperature process heat;
  6. RELIABILITY: the plants must be at least as reliable as today's fleet of commercial light water reactors – preferably even more reliable;
  7. PLANT LIFETIME: the plants should have a design lifetime of at least 100 years.  They should be designed in such a way that major components can be replaced easily.  (I coined the term "Centurion Reactors" a few years ago to describe such reactors.)
  8. WASTE: the plants must have a radioactive waste management approach that society (not simply the industry) embraces as acceptable and sustainable;
  9. PROLIFERATION: the plant designs and their operating strategies, when combined with (then) extant nuclear proliferation protocols, must not present an unacceptable nuclear proliferation threat.
So there you have it.  My nine performance criteria / functional requirements for future Generation Phoenix nuclear power plants in the "post fracking" or "post-natural-gas" era...


Just Thinking...