Category Archives: lessons learned

ANS’s Corradini testifies to Congress on Fukushima

On Wednesday, April 6, Dr. Michael Corradini is appearing on behalf of the American Nuclear Society before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

The hearing—which begins at 9:00 am ET—is entitled “The U.S. Government Response to the Nuclear Power Plant Incident in Japan.” A  webcast and additional information, including all prepared testimony,  will be available via the Committee website.   Dr. Corradini’s prepared testimony is below.

In his prepared testimony, Dr. Corradini announces that he has been asked by ANS leadership to serve as co-chair of an ANS Special Commission on Fukushima Daiichi.  Dr. Dale Klein will also serve as co-chair.  This ANS Commission will examine the major technical aspects of the event to help policymakers and the public better understand its consequences and its lessons for the US nuclear industry.

Dr. Dale Klein is associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas System and Associate Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2006-2010 and served as its chairman from 2006-2009.

TESTIMONY OF
Michael Corradini
American Nuclear Society
BEFORE THE
HOUSE ENERGY AND COMMERCE COMMITTEE
SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
April 6, 2011

Chairman Stearns, Ranking Member DeGette, members of the
Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Corradini

I am currently chair of the Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I am also involved in a
number of nuclear energy activities for the National Academies, the Department of Energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Specifically, I am a member of the DOE Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee and chair of its Reactor Technology Subcommittee. In addition, I am a member of the French Atomic Energy Scientific Committee and the NRC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards.

I appear today on behalf of the American Nuclear Society, a professional organization comprised of 11,000 men and women who work in the nuclear industry, the medical community, our national laboratories, universities, and government agencies.

On behalf of all ANS members, I would like to express my deepest sympathies to the people of Japan for their loss and hardship. My sons and I were in Osaka in 1995 at the time of the Kobe earthquake and we witnessed the tragic effects of that natural disaster. From what I have seen from news reports and photos on the web, this is a tragedy that is orders of magnitude more devastating and, thus, even more sobering. While we are here to discuss the Fukushima power plants, I wanted to be sure we put this in context to this tragic natural disaster, with over 12,000 dead and over 15,000 missing.

The American Nuclear Society has organized the Japan Relief Fund, targeted specifically to help our friends, colleagues, and their families in Japan who have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami. More information can be found at the American Nuclear Society website.

The leadership of ANS has asked me to serve as co-chair of a Special Commission on Fukushima Daiichi. This Commission will examine the major technical aspects of the event to help policymakers and the public better understand its consequences and its lessons for the U.S. nuclear industry.

It is probably useful to begin by providing some current information and
perspectives about the events and how they relate to the U.S. plants and safety practices. That is my role here today. I want to briefly focus on three general topics:

  • The effects of the natural disaster on the Fukushima-Daiichi plants.
  • The effects of the accident progression on the surrounding region.
  • How we can learn from these events for our U.S. nuclear industry?

To review these topics, I have made use of the information provided on the
websites of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the Nuclear and
Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science
and Technology (MEXT), Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), and the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as discussions with colleagues and specific press reports. Although there is so much that we do not know about what has happened in Fukushima and surrounding areas, I have found the information from these sources to be consistent and helpful to answer many questions. This timely availability of information is a tribute to Japan and its institutions since these nuclear troubles occurred in the midst of the response to the many injuries and property destruction caused by the earthquake on the general population.

EFFECTS OF NATURAL DISASTER ON THE FUKUSHIMA PLANTS

Fukushima Daiichi, pre earthquake and tsunami

As we now know, the Tohoku earthquake, which occurred at 2:46pm on Friday, March 11th, on the east coast of northern Japan, was measured at 9.0 on the Richter scale and is believed to be the 4th largest earthquake in recorded history. As a point of reference, the next most serious quake was in 2004 off the coast of Sumatra with a tsunami resulting in 227,000 deaths. Following the earthquake on Friday afternoon, the nuclear plants at Fukushima-Daiichi, Fukushima-Daini, and Osonawa plant sites shut down as designed, and emergency power systems were activated as expected; even though the earthquake was beyond the design basis. At the Daiichi plants, the design basis safe-shutdown earthquake was 8.2 as measured on the Richter scale, which is a design base above historical values. The Tohoku earthquake caused a tsunami, which hit the east coast of Japan within the first hour of the quake. The size of the water waves that hit the Daiichi plant were significantly above the design base on which the seawall was constructed (17 ft) to mitigate its effects. The tsunami appears to have been the primary cause of the initial on-site damage, making the backup power systems and associated pumping, electrical and venting systems inoperable for Units 1, 2, 3, 4.

On-site battery power was able to run the emergency control and pumping systems at the plant site until about midnight on Friday and then the plants experienced a loss of all electrical power for an extended period of time. By the afternoon of Saturday, March 12th, portable generators and portable fire pumps were moved onto the Fukushima-Daiichi site and seawater was pumped in to cool the reactor cores for Units 1, 2, and 3. Decay heat was removed by venting the steam from above the containment suppression pools. The initial lack of water-cooling caused the reactor cores to be severely degraded, causing metal-water chemical reactions and hydrogen gas generation. Hydrogen was released during steam venting causing the destructive combustion events in reactor buildings outside of containment.

In addition to cooling the reactors, it has been necessary for plant personnel to replenish the water in each unit’s spent fuel pools that was lost due to water evaporation caused by decay heat. This is especially true for Unit 4, since it was undergoing maintenance at the time of the earthquake and its relatively “hotter” reactor core fuel assemblies were also placed in the spent fuel pool. For reasons that are not completely clear at this time, the water supply at spent fuel pools at these units reached very low levels over the first few days, causing the spent fuel to become severely damaged, resulting in hydrogen generation and combustion, fuel rod cladding failures, and radioactivity releases to the environment. Seawater was then sprayed in to refill these water pools and they now remain cooled.

This mode of cooling continued until fresh water was brought to the site about two weeks after the earthquake. The reactor plants and the spent fuel are now being cooled by injection of fresh water.

EFFECTS OF THE ACCIDENT ON THE SURROUNDING REGION
Immediately following the earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent loss of on-site electrical power, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency declared a site emergency, and by the evening of March 11th, residents within 10km of the Fukushima-Daiichi plant were instructed to evacuate. By Saturday afternoon, NISA advised residents within 20km to evacuate and those between 20km to 30km away to remain in their homes as shelter or voluntarily leave the area. In the first few days after the earthquake, the airborne radiation levels were much higher than natural background (normally around 0.3 to 0.4 microSieverts per hour). By a week after the event, they had already fallen to levels a couple of times above natural background. In fact, the air-borne doses outside of a 60km radius from the plant now have readings close to normal. At this time this event has not become a national health disaster for Japan.

I would also note that we have the technical capability to measure radiation and its elemental sources in extremely small amounts far below any levels that are harmful to the human body.

The source of the radioactive release is not precisely known, but some indications are that it came primarily from the heating, degradation, and subsequent failure of the spent fuel. The levels of radiation on the plant site were much higher, and following the hydrogen combustion events, only a select crew of workers in rotating shifts was allowed on-site to deal with the emergency. Nevertheless, based on reports from NISA, 21 workers received doses exceeding 100 mSv. No worker has received a dose above 250 mSv, which is the allowable dose limit for emergency workers, and this is similar to standards in the United States.

WE CAN LEARN FROM THESE EVENTS FOR OUR INDUSTRY
The safety approach used in designing and testing the plants in Japan are similar to those used in the United States. The U.S. has adopted a philosophy of defense-in-depth, which recognizes that nuclear reactors require the highest standards of design, construction, oversight, and operation. Designs for every individual reactor in the United States take into account site-specific factors and include a detailed evaluation for natural events, as they relate to that site. There are multiple physical barriers to radiation in every nuclear plant design. In addition, there are both diverse and redundant safety systems that are required to be maintained in operable condition and frequently tested to ensure that the plant is in a high condition of readiness to respond to any accident situation.

Satellite photo of damage to reactors 4 (left) and 3 (right) of Fukushima Daiichi on March 16, five days after the earthquake struck.

Nevertheless, this natural disaster exceeded the design basis envelope for those nuclear plants at the Daiichi site and we need to learn from this and continually improve our safety posture so that beyond design basis events can be managed. In the coming months, the NRC will do a review of the accident and the safety posture of our plants. Over the longer term, lessons-learned from this event will be used to review the key areas of plant design, operation, and readiness. I know I speak for all the ANS members, that we stand ready to help the industry and the government in this effort.

To promote some further discussion on these points let me suggest some items to consider. First, the events in Japan accentuated the need for the United States to evaluate our entire civilian infrastructure (not just nuclear plants) and  emergency preparedness for extreme natural disasters. Second, for our nuclear plants, we continually need to ask ourselves “what-if” questions and what we may have missed. This was done for the Three Mile Island accident and this resulted in the Severe Accident Management Guidelines being used in U.S. plants today. I expect that these guidelines will be reviewed in light of lessons-learned from these events. The NRC has also pioneered the use of Probabilistic Risk Assessment in WASH-1400 and has been used extensively. This technique can be used for such beyond-design basis events. Finally, we need to reexamine how we manage spent fuel both in its storage on-site as well as its final disposition.

The ANS has recently issued a study on technical options for spent-fuel disposition that may be useful to this end. Also, I assume the Blue Ribbon
Commission will consider these recent events as they formulate their policy
recommendations for spent nuclear fuel as directed by the President.

So in closing, let me offer some final thoughts:

  • First, while there is still much more information to gather, I think we now have an overall understanding of what happened at Fukushima Daiichi.
  • Second, while radioactive materials have been released into the environment, it does not appear, based on current data, that there will be widespread public health consequences.
  • Third, because of differences in U.S. seismology and installed safety equipment, it is highly unlikely that Fukushima-like event could occur at a U.S. nuclear plant. Nonetheless, the U.S. nuclear industry—and every other industrial sector for that matter—should use this opportunity to ensure that it can respond quickly and effectively to extreme natural events.

Thank you.

REFERENCES: IAEA, JAIF, MEXT, NISA, and TEPCO

Is Fukushima a teachable moment for nuclear educators?

By Rod Adams

There are many facets of my chosen avocation as a pro-nuclear blogger and podcaster, but one aspect that has been prominent during the 25 days since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear nightmare at Fukushima has been that of atomic educator. Following the role model of my favorite teachers, I have worked hard to maintain a two-way flow of information—successful educators have to be open-minded learners. There is no doubt that I know a lot more about the design and operation of boiling water reactors with MK I containment vessels now than I knew four weeks ago.

Arial view of units 1-4 Fukushima Dai-ichi March 30, 2011Some nuclear energy advocates might cringe at my use of of the alliterative phrase of “nuclear nightmare at Fukushima,” but I hope they will think hard about all of the implications of that choice of words.

It is hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario than having a multi-unit nuclear power plant installation hit with a massive earthquake, a subsiding coast line, and a massive tidal wave that wiped out a significant portion of the local grid, the emergency diesel generators, and the electrical components required to enable even moderately difficult power restoration. Even the most ardent antinuclear activists with whom I have butted heads would have had to work hard to imagine that kind of initiating event.

Fukushima was truly a nightmare for those of us who favor the increasing use of nuclear energy as a way to reduce our rapid depletion of the earth’s valuable store of hydrocarbons. It was pretty easy to recognize very early in the accident that it had the potential to be the story that the opposition to nuclear energy has been eagerly anticipating for many years.

Even the timing added to the bad dream quality of the event—there was already a steadily increasing drumbeat of reminders from organized antinuclear groups that an explosion and fire at a nuclear power plant had once killed people—25 years ago this month.

It is hard to imagine a worse situation than the one we faced on March 11, 2011. Not only were there vast areas of devastation and thousands of human casualties caused by the natural disasters, but there was also a highly visible nuclear power plant event. That nuclear event was occurring at the same time that hundreds of eager antinuclear Lilliputians had their updated media contact lists in hand. They were primed and ready to add as many more threads as possible to hold down the atomic Gulliver that they want us all to fear. The confluence of an event with an anniversary brought flashbacks of the incredible coincidence of a nuclear plant event occurring in Pennsylvania within weeks of the theater release of a movie about a core meltdown that actually included a line about causing damage to an area “the size of Pennsylvania.”

The one thing that the professional opposition to nuclear energy had not counted on was the fact that information sharing today is on a completely different plane than it was the last time there was significant damage at a nuclear power plant. In April 1986, as in 1979, there was no Internet and no world wide web. Cable television was only available in very limited markets; CNN had finally broken into the public consciousness, but only a few months before Chernobyl when it was the only television news organization with live coverage of the Challenger disaster.

Within just a few hours of the earthquake and tsunami, informal networks of nuclear energy experts began exchanging information using the wide range of tools that modern communications technology has delivered. Though the initial headlines were breathlessly scary, there were alternative paths through which the real story could be gathered and shared. There was plenty of reason for concern among professionals, but it soon became clear that the many layers of protection and procedural backups were having a positive effect on the net outcome.

There will be lessons learned and additional protective measures implemented, but the fact remains that the loss of life at Fukushima Dai-ichi has been limited to two workers who were killed by the tsunami while performing rounds. One other worker was killed when a crane fell at the separate Fukushima Daini nuclear power station. In contrast to that very limited human toll, the natural disaster has killed in excess of 20,000 people.

As one of my favorite nuclear experts likes to point out, nuclear energy systems are designed to provide many opportunities to respond. Bad things can and do happen, but the basic engineering choices made from the earliest days of the technology were aimed at making sure that they happen as slowly as possible. Slow motion disasters might not be optimal from a public relations point of view, but they are often very beneficial from a public health point of view. It saves lives and property when there is time to take preventive action.

Though there have been many bad moments and plenty of negative press coverage, the accurate information that nuclear energy experts have shared using modern communications paths that include the web and social networks have begun to sink in. Despite all of the gloom and doom scenarios, each day brings us one step closer to stability and each report of injuries brings a growing recognition among the public that their carefully stoked fears regarding a nuclear catastrophe have been misplaced. Professional journalists have begun to recognize that the scary stories they told at the beginning were fictional instead of factual.

On Sunday, April 2, 2011, there was a front page story in the Washington Post titled Nuclear power is the safest way to make electricity, according to study. Similar stories are beginning to pop up in other unexpected locations, including The Guardian, The Australian, the New York Times, and even Treehugger.com.

I chose to enter the nuclear energy profession just two years after the Three Mile Island accident. It has not been the easiest choice I could have made. Young nuclear professionals who harbor a little concern about their future employment prospects can rest assured that Fukushima will not result in another three decade slumber. That is largely due to the efforts of people with real nuclear knowledge and the means, motive, and opportunity to share it widely.

Adams

Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

How to win a debate: A chance to practice what I preached

By Meredith Angwin

In my previous post for the ANS Nuclear Cafe, I described what I had learned from debating nuclear opponents.

Recently, I had a sudden and unwelcome opportunity to practice what I preached.  On February 24, Howard Shaffer was due to debate Arnie Gundersen on the topic Vermont Yankee: Keep It Running or Shut It Down? This Janus Forum debate at the University of Vermont would have hundreds in attendance, press coverage, and so forth.

On the morning of the debate, however, Howard was rushed to the hospital with a life-threatening condition. (He had emergency surgery and is recovering well.)  It was up to me to debate Gundersen. Time to practice what I preached!

What is winning a debate?

At the end of a debate, nobody raises your hand and says “you won.” Nobody gives out a first place and second place ribbon.  So I have to start by defining “winning the debate.”

I have won if I have persuaded people in the audience to think more highly of my position. Since there are many people in the audience, some may be persuaded for one side, and others persuaded for the other side. In other words, both debaters can win. I realize that this is an unusual way to look at a debate—everybody wins? But a debate is not a boxing match or a court of law. It is a public forum, and the point is to persuade the audience.

In this case, there is no doubt that I won. An older woman came up to me after the debate and said, “I was convinced we had to shut down Vermont Yankee. After listening to you, I realized it is an important asset, and shutting it down isn’t so simple.” She now thought that we should probably keep the plant operating. Now, I would love to say that she had been convinced that we should keep it running, but I don’t think I can change someone’s mind completely by showing them a couple of slides in 45 minutes of airtime. I certainly influenced her opinion, however.

Another person I influenced was a man who asked a question. When I first saw him, his long-haired appearance seemed to announce his political persuasion. As a matter of fact, when he stepped up to the microphone in the question period, my internal reaction was “Brace yourself, Meredith, here it comes.”

Instead, this man addressed Arnie. He asked if it was correct that grinding up an exit sign and putting it in the ground and pouring water over it would lead to more tritium in the environment than Vermont Yankee had spilled? (This exchange begins at about the 1 hour, 24 minute mark on the audio, right after Gundersen boasts of firing 47 percent of a group of managers when he was in the nuclear industry.)

Posted using Mobypicture.com

The Janus forum debate (Posted using Mobypicture.com)

Arnie is a good debater, and he slid from the tritium question without answering it. Arnie started with a comment about not eating yellow snow and not drinking water that glowed. Then, he said that tritium is a marker, and really bad things like bone-seeking strontium follow the tritium into the environment. The man who asked the question was not particularly impressed with this answer, and responded “But the tritium itself isn’t going to hurt us?” That man talked to me at the reception afterward, thanking me for putting tritium into perspective.

Several young women came up to me after the debate. They said that they were very happy to see a woman up on the platform, and they thought that both debaters had done well and they didn’t know what to believe. Since they were students at University of Vermont, I suspect they started out with generic anti-Vermont Yankee beliefs and the debate modified their view. (Greenpeace engages in major outreach activities targeting the University of Vermont, specifically because of Vermont Yankee.)

At the reception, I was surrounded by people who had liked my talk. There were some men who said they were engineers, some women, some students, some older people, especially several older women. I looked over at Arnie, and he was also surrounded by people, presumably people who had liked his talk. As far as I could tell, however, many of the people around Arnie were serious anti-nuclear people, a group that show up at so many meetings. I recognized several of them.  Probably, however, Gundersen also “won” and persuaded some new people.

So, how did I win?

I feel that I won (persuaded people) by doing two things:

  • Putting facts in perspective (where electricity comes from, the overstated dangers of tritium)
  • Contradicting only some of the most egregious statements that Arnie made. Fighting him non-stop would have let him control the topics.

Mostly, I concentrated on my message, and found that Arnie couldn’t counter it directly. Oh, he could slide away into strontium, but open-minded questioners saw through that device.

And it all means?

It all may mean very little. My words changed a few minds. When the video of the debate is out, it may change a few more. Gundersen slid away from tritium questions, because my presentation had made it hard for him to answer them with the usual set of scare stories. And yet, it was just some people, in one room, at one time. Who knows?

At this point, I go back to what Howard Shaffer said about the pro-nuclear cause. This quote is from the February interview in Nuclear News magazine:

For energy solutions and environmental solutions, there is no silver bullet—it’s silver buckshot. …. We do everything we can all over the map in this big free-for-all called politics.

Additional information: The debate itself

If you want to know more about the debate, you can read about it on my Yes Vermont Yankee blog, and listen to it on Vermont Public Radio streaming or downloadable):

_________________________________

Angwin

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.

Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Talking about my (nuclear) generation

By Meredith Angwin

I was not born a geek, but by the time I was a 10-year-old buying books at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, my path was set. Some considered this as an unfortunate background, so I had to learn the hard way how to handle myself in debates  and how to answer aggressive questions. Below, I share what I have learned in defending my position, in the hope that it will help others.

Get asked a question, give a long repetitive answer

I am a scientist, which means that if you ask me a technical question, I try to give an accurate and concise answer. When I do this in debate, the opposition usually runs right over me. Anti-nuclear activists are very willing to fill airtime with their own voices. They are often paid professionals, trained in debate. Sometimes a strong moderator can help keep things fair, but not always.

I once watched a videotape of myself debating, and I was astounded at how little speaking time I had. (For what it is worth, this problem is not just mine. When NRC Chairman Jaczko came to Brattleboro, many people noted that he spoke for less than two minutes at a time before getting interrupted.)

Advice: When you get the floor, hold it. Say everything at least two  different waysDo your best to prevent people from interrupting by pointing out that they ARE interrupting.

You deserve equal time, but you won’t be given equal time. You will have to take it assertively.

Learn to get your message across with blocks and bridges

Your opponents will rarely answer the question they were asked. Instead, they block the question, and bridge themselves back to whatever point they were planning to make anyway. In a recent debate in Vermont, State Senator Dick McCormack was a master at this. His main point was “a deal is a deal, and the Vermont Yankee deal [to close the plant down] was for 40 years.”

Almost everything led him back to his point. If you talked about economic impact of Vermont Yankee closing, he was quick to say that “Everybody knew the deal, so why are people surprised at the job loss?” No discussion of economic consequences for him: everything leads back to “a deal is a deal.”

You can’t make the opponents answer the questions, but you can block and bridge yourself as necessary.

(I know that it goes against the grain). You should learn to do this,  and keep this method in your arsenal of responses. It’s about getting your message verbalized and out there, not about convincing your opponents of anything by logical argument simply because they really won’t be listening. They will hear your words, but not digest them.

The audience may be convinced by your steady, repeated message. The opponents won’t be convinced by anything you can say.

Be ready for the shotgun questions

There is one situation in which you must block and bridge. If someone asks a reasonable question, you may well choose to answer that questions. When someone approaches with a loaded shotgun, you must block and bridge.

For example, on a radio talk show, some people called with single questions.  The question might not have been exactly flattering: “Doesn’t that cooling tower collapse prove Vermont Yankee is falling apart?” I usually answer single questions directly, however.

Other questioners loaded up their shotguns and asked multiple questions. They want to know about tritium, the fuel pool, the cooling towers, the Price Anderson act, etc. I have counted up to eight questions in a string. If you try to answer all of them, you will take up the rest of the show with their laundry list of concerns. Or, if you answer the first three, for example, you may be accused of ducking the later questions. So, what to do?

Don’t even begin to respond to a shotgun question. When you meet a shotgun, block and bridge.

“Thank you for your questions. It is clear that you are concerned with nuclear safety, and I am happy to tell you that nuclear is the safest form of energy production…” etc.

A shotgun question is an opportunity to get your own point across.

My final advice: Forgive yourself

My last advice is to forgive yourself. You go out there, and you do better than you think you do. Yes, you should have blocked that one…you will do it next time. Yes, the opponent interrupted and said something outrageous and you couldn’t stop him. Yes, it wasn’t perfect.

Face it. You are usually up against paid professional activists who have training in debate. You are up there as a geek, and you are saying what needs to be said and saying it to the best of your ability.

By being in the public forum and telling the truth, you are doing a service for the future of the world. Forgive  yourself for not doing it perfectly.

Angwin

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.

Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Public opinion has changed. So has nuclear power.

By E. Michael Blake

The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not represent the editorial position of Nuclear News magazine or the policy of the American Nuclear Society.

Public opinion surveys on nuclear power in the United States have shown, in recent years, a growing majority in favor of existing reactor operation, and upward trends on whether new reactors should be built. Within the nuclear community, this is usually portrayed as part of a general shift in public attitudes. While this may be true, I suggest that there’s another factor as well: Nuclear power management and regulation have changed dramatically in the past 30 years, for the better. And, yes, I mean that previously it wasn’t very good.

What changed? Any number of things, but some matter more than others. What follows are mainly inferences I have drawn from observations of civilian nuclear enterprise over the past 35 years, and only the first is supported here by hard numbers.

  • Reactor operation is much better now. Maybe better than anyone expected when the plants were ordered. The chart below (from the May 2010 issue of Nuclear News) shows (deep breath) median three-year design electrical rating net capacity factor for power reactors in service during each period, and still operating now. The numbers may not show up clearly on your screen, but the bars show the trend. Even before the Three Mile Island-2 accident in 1979 (shown by the first bar and most of the second), factors were in the low 60s. There followed two decades of steady improvement, and the median has been around 90 for the past decade. This has been achieved with much of the plants’ original equipment.

Net Capacity Factors for Power Reactors

  • Everyone who’s here now, wants to be here. A great many power reactors were ordered and built by utility executives who gave little thought to the specifics of nuclear power, and assumed reactors would be like any other power plants. Over time, these executives learned otherwise, and didn’t like what they saw. In the late 1990s, companies that understood and valued nuclear power started buying reactors from those that didn’t. This ended the trend from earlier in the decade toward early closure of reactors, several years before license expiration.
  • Attitudes have changed as technical professionals have risen. From what I’ve seen, nuclear engineers and scientists, in general, are receptive to insights from other fields of learning, including the environmental sciences. People with this kind of background are now calling the shots in much of the industry, because of transfers of authority to new positions (chief nuclear officer, site vice president, etc.) and, as noted above, the purchase of reactors by organizations that really want them. As a result, I now see very little influence from traditional, nontechnical businessfolks’ attitudes from the early 1970s: Dismissal of technical concerns if they interfere with making money, hostility toward regulation of any kind, and indifference to environmental concerns or the effects of technology in the world in general.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission now has its own identity. For years after the Atomic Energy Commission was split into separate promotional (ERDA, and later DOE) and regulatory entities, the NRC carried over many of the traits of the old AEC, where the weapons complex had long been the main focus and civilian nuclear enterprise was relatively new. Commission seats and major staff positions often went to people from outside the nuclear fields (from places such as the Pentagon) who would put in time and then move on (sometimes back to the Pentagon). The TMI-2 accident was a shock to this system, and afterward the mission of protecting public health and safety was pursued aggressively. (Whether it was always pursued wisely is another matter.) More recently, the NRC has broadened its stance to seek partnerships with licensees to advance technologies and resolve issues. The agency is now at or near the top in surveys of the best places to work in the federal government.
  • A community coalesced. The more that nuclear power came under the influence of nuclear professionals, the more these professionals saw that they could work together in larger groups and pool their expertise. Before TMI-2, there was the Electric Power Research Institute, standards development by ANS and others, and collaborations between industry and national laboratories. After TMI-2, there was added the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. Also, the Atomic Industrial Forum split into promotional and technical organizations. The latter, NUMARC, developed an identity, much as the NRC did. NUMARC was later gathered into the single Nuclear Energy Institute that represents industry interests today. From my limited perspective, technical expertise and validity appear to matter much more in NEI than they did in AIF.

Readers of Nuclear News may be aware that I could continue in this vein for a very long time, but blogging requires brevity, so I must withhold any further points, or additional supporting arguments.

Chernobyl-4 with its enclosing sarcophagus

Improved poll numbers for nuclear power may have to do mainly with the lack of major incidents. The Chernobyl-4 accident was almost 25 years ago; put that together with TMI-2, and you have all (that is, both) of nuclear electricity’s core damage accidents. Public support may be nothing more than acquiescence by apathy, and few citizens are probably aware of any of the developments cited above.

When nuclear power comes up in any public forum, however, advocates can now point to a technology that works well and decision makers who understand it. Everyone involved can be justly proud of what they have accomplished, overcoming a past that was like a yearbook photo with disco hair.

This post first appeared at ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Blake

E. Michael Blake is a senior editor of the American Nuclear Society’s Nuclear News magazine.

The oil spill: Nuclear, take note

By Margaret Harding

A few months ago, I had the honor of leading a class of future engineering leaders at Iowa State University. The dean, Dr. Jonathan Wickert, occasionally asks alums and others who have done interesting things with their engineering degrees to come in and lead the class in a case study. Events in the Gulf of Mexico that started in April 2010 with the Macondo oil spill provided an excellent opportunity to talk about crisis management and communications, with the added benefit of current technology relevance. This is an area that the nuclear industry also needs to study and understand.

The Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire after the explosion

Some bounds: We ignored anything that happened BEFORE the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The fact that BP, the company that was drilling in the Gulf’s Macondo oil field, may or may not have had adequate preventive measures is out of scope for this assessment.

An oil containment dome under construction

The class and I first looked at the actions of BP, separating its actions from the comments and media frenzy. The Wikipedia entry for the event forms a good, neutral review of the events. Once we got away from the natural bias the students had formed and looked at BP’s actions, we saw a pretty good response to the crisis. BP had multiple teams working in parallel on a variety of solutions to cap the gushing well—some solutions were dubbed Top Hat, Top Kill, and Bottom Kill. Each effort was carefully attempted with due caution to ensure that it didn’t make things worse. Each action that didn’t work resulted in lessons learned. BP avoided extreme responses— “Nuke the well?”—and came up with temporary options to mitigate the impact as quickly as it could. In addition, BP engaged quickly in cleanup and mitigation actions for the oil that had already spilled.

So why did Tony Hayward lose his job?

We examined a number of news clips, commentaries, and some pretty funny riffs on BP’s response. Just Google “BP” and “oil spill” and you will come up with more than enough reference material to fill the space. The fundamentals we came up with were:

Hayward

  1. The fact that Tony Hayward, who is now the former chief executive officer of BP, was not an American, but was born in the United Kingdom. We Americans have a love/hate relationship with the British, and his accent constantly reminded us of that. In fact, the chairman of BP, a Swede named Carl-Henric Svanberg, later made some similar faux pas when he talked about “small people.” Hayward didn’t fully appreciate some of the nuances of American culture, and he made several remarks that did not play well in the United States.
  2. “I want my life back too,” said Hayward. This was an attempt to show empathy with the people who were affected, but delivered in a British accent with the knowledge that he probably wouldn’t go bankrupt or lose his livelihood did not play well.
  3. BP attempted to downplay the significance of the spill before it had a grip on the real magnitude and a real plan to cap the flow and mitigate the effects. By significantly underestimating the flow rate and overestimating the company’s ability to cap the flow, BP undermined its own credibility and contributed to the sentiment that the company didn’t care and wasn’t doing enough.
  4. BP was not prepared for 24/7 media coverage, nor did it understand the ubiquitous nature of the Internet. When Hayward took a weekend off to be with his family, he went yachting off the coast of England. Someone snapped his photo and it was splashed across United States. The same weekend, in the midst of an environmental crisis, President Obama played golf with some friends. No pictures and no bad press ensued there.
  5. BP was slow to understand the power of social media. A phony BP Twitter account was online far too long without a response from BP, nor did the company manage the ensuing parodies and other easily managed pot-shots. When finally the new chief executive officer, Bob Dudley,  stepped up and talked about how much some of the parodies hurt the employees of BP, who had finally been in the media and were made human, much of the negative press was halted.

The list of things one can learn from the event in terms of crisis response and communication can go on and on. What did you (or your company) learn from the event? What can the nuclear industry learn?

Harding

Margaret Harding has almost 30 years of experience in the nuclear industry in technical design, licensing, and quality issues.  She worked for GE-Hitachi for 27 years with positions of increasing responsibility, leading to vice president of Engineering Quality. Two years ago, she left GE-Hitachi to start her own consulting business to help companies with business ventures in the nuclear industry. She is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.