Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Worker Productivity:

A Look at the Numbers

While this is not strictly a nuclear issue, the issue of worker productivity affects all enterprises, so I will take some liberty with the theme of this blog and report on a recent Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study of worker productivity in a number of countries, as reported by Time magazine.

With the recent attention focused on the French law restricting e-mails to employees after work hours, there has been increased focus on issues of overwork and burnout.  The OECD report looks at the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour worked, and concludes that working more hours does not result in more productivity (as measured by the GDP).  The measure of hours worked is the average for all employed citizens, including full- and part-time work.

In particular, the U.S. came in 5th out of 35 countries in productivity, behind Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, and Belgium.  France, which is famous for its short work week, came in 7th, while Japan, which is famous for its extremely long hours, came in 20th.  What was particularly striking to me was that, with the exception of the U.S. and Ireland, most of the countries in the top 10 group in productivity had an average work week of about 30 hours or less.  Germany, had the lowest average work week (26.3 hours), while the U.S. and Ireland weighed in well above, at 33.6 and 33.5 hours, respectively.  (Remember that all the numbers include part-time workers; hence we don't see the famous 40-hour work week.)  By contrast, the 25 countries following the "top 10" had average work weeks ranging from 30.9 hours (Austria) to 41.2 hours (Mexico).  

Of course, this is one statistic, and I am sure that other statistics might present a different picture.  In particular, I personally wonder how the productivity numbers stack up when one compares particular sectors of the economy.  And one can wonder how much of the difference in hours worked is due to cultural behavior.  I know from my time in Japan that workers felt a kind of social obligation to stay at their desks long into the evening, whether or not they really had something urgent to do.

Still, it is an important indication, particularly in this era of 24/7 connectivity, that we need to rethink some of the assumptions many employees and employers have had about the importance of working longer hours than the nominal work week.

With that off my mind, I promise to get back to discussing nuclear- and other energy-related issues.

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Nuclear History:

A New Addition to the Library

I was pleased to get a message a couple of weeks ago from a friend and colleague in France, Dominique Greneche, reporting on the publication of his book on the history of nuclear reactors.  In the past decade, it seems to me that there have been a number of new books on various aspects of nuclear history (including my own on "Nuclear Firsts"). 

This most recent addition to the nuclear history library looks like one of the most comprehensive of the genre.  Unfortunately for some of us, it is presently available only in French, but it looks like it would be a wonderful addition to the collection of anyone who is a Francophone.  And, given the interest in the book, Dominique hopes to have the book translated into English in the future.

I will let the author describe the book in his own words:
 
I am delighted to announce you that my book on the history and technique of nuclear reactors and their fuels has just been published (with the French editor “EDP-Sciences”).

This 766-pages book is the result of a long and patient work that lasted about five years.

It is the fruit of a vast professional experience which allowed me to enrich the text of numerous personal testimonies. It is also the result of several decades of teaching in engineering schools and French universities as well as in some international institutions. Finally, it is the product of a careful examination of an abundant literature (more than 400 references are cited) including rare documents or materials taken from my extensive personal library constituted during my long career.

The first two chapters (almost 70 pages) are devoted to a retrospective of the great discoveries on atoms and nuclear energy for 2,500 years (Lucretius, Democritus) until the first chain reaction on 2/12/1942 in Chicago (CP-1). I devote a second part to the operation of nuclear reactors, with some reminders of nuclear physics and a concise description of the physics of the cores of nuclear reactors. In a third part (which constitutes the "heart of the book"), I develop all the genesis of nuclear reactors, explaining in detail their structure, especially regarding all possible choices for their main three components that are the fuel, the heat transfer fluids and the moderator. I also explain the history of nuclear power in the major countries (France, of course, but also USA, GB, and former USSR), with paragraphs dedicated to the development of various reactor lines in each country (chapter 14). I describe the major industrial nuclear reactor types: UNGG, MAGNOX, AGR, HTR, RBMK, heavy water (different subclasses), light water (with a direct comparison between PWRs and BWRs and finally the FNRs (chapter in which I examine in particular the "secrets" of FNR physics). I also describe "other reactors" such as naval propulsion reactors (especially submarines) or reactors for space applications (space rockets or spacecraft), again combining the technical and historical aspects. In this part I evoke of course the reactors of the future. Finally, the fourth part is devoted to fuel cycle technologies (including a historical chapter for uranium, for enrichment and for reprocessing) with a special chapter dedicated to thorium.

In short, this book is a broad technical-historical portrayal on nuclear energy and nuclear reactors. It explains in particular the choice of reactor lines and especially the reasons for the dominance of light water reactors today in the world. It has no equivalent in France (and abroad I think), by the extent of the subjects treated and the very close ties that are established between history and the discoveries or founding inventions as well as the development of the nuclear reactors themselves. So I consider that it will be a solid and unique reference in the field of nuclear energy.

It is very successful and is extremely appreciated by those who have started to read it. Besides, I have received praises from several high-level persons in nuclear sector in France.

The book is available from the publisher.

This comprehensive volume looks like an outstanding addition to the growing set of books on the history of nuclear power, and I certainly hope it is successful enough to merit a future edition in English.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Conferences and Technology:

Intellectual Property in the Digital Age

I came across an interesting opinion piece recently by Wolf Frommer from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, that criticized the growing trend of people taking digital photos of slides at conference papers--and then posting the images on social media.

The concern was that some speakers present work at conferences that has not yet been published, and rampant unauthorized publication could ultimately drive such authors away, and thereby undercut the value of technical conferences.  This, of course, is an issue that affects all scientific and engineering disciplines, so I thought the topic might be of interest to those reading this blog.

I, too, have been noticing people taking photos at meetings instead of taking notes, but I had not thought that they might be sharing this material.  And I hadn't thought about the potential implications of such sharing.  My own concern was really limited to whether someone raising their arms over their heads to take a picture would block my view!

I therefore found this broader concern something worth thinking about, and shared it with a couple of my colleagues.  The reaction convinced me that there were more dimensions to this issue than I first thought.

One person pointed out that some meetings have begun posting the presentation slides.  For example, the NRC Regulatory Information Conference does so.  Of course, in such cases, the conference organizers normally make it clear in advance that they plan to post the slides, and presumably, they allow presenters the option for their slides not to be posted, or to provide a redacted version for the website.  And I did get a couple of reactions that organizers should provide advance warning if they plan to post the slides or record the session, and not pull it on the speaker at the last minute. 

Some felt that it is the responsibility of the conference organizers to establish guidelines for conduct at their meetings.  They can either ask people not to photograph slides, or to remind people that slides shouldn't be shared without the author's consent.  And/or, the speaker can make such a statement at the start of his/her presentation.  People taking this view liken the unauthorized distribution of slides to the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted music downloaded from websites.

When people understand potential copyright and other issues, most will respect the boundaries.  Everyone acknowledged there will always be people who don't respect such restrictions, and that it will be very difficult to get 100% compliance.  Expelling people from meetings, as Frommer suggests, requires more oversight of audiences than is likely to be possible.  However, if people become aware of material posted without authorization, they can request that it be taken down or contact the employers of the individuals violating the rules.

This is not a perfect solution, of course, but the issue appears to be one more example of the fact that we have to adjust all our practices to the realities of the ability of modern technology to allow everyone to record and distribute material.  This seems to be a situation that merits more attention, and the development of explicit guidelines for conference organizers, speakers, and attendees. 

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Dammed If They Do:

...Dammed If They Don't

An interesting news item crossed my desk--OK, my computer screen--recently.  It was an article about a new dam in Ethiopia, Gibe III.  The article details impacts we have heard before about dams affecting agricultural lands and fisheries downstream.  It also brings out the conflict between modernization and maintaining old ways.  The opponents complain that the project threatens the way of life of the people downstream of the dam, and resent that way of life being characterized as primitive or backward.  The proponents point out that the dam will bring power to a power-impoverished population, and will give them a product to export to neighboring countries.  They complain that the opponents “don’t want to see developed Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as a museum.”

At the risk of using a bad pun, this seems like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.  While the rhetoric sounds like it's gotten rather heated in Ethiopia, and I don't know enough about the politics there to judge either side, I can guess that they would have been subject to criticism no matter what they did--had they decided not to build a dam, they could have been accused of holding their entire population back.  Having decided to build the dam, they are accused of ignoring the interests of the local communities affected.  

But as I thought about it, I felt that this kind tension between different interests had a very familiar ring.  I know these kinds of reactions most of all from the nuclear power side--local communities that worry about the local impacts versus the larger population that needs reliable, cost-effective electricity.  But I have also seen similar issues play out in the siting of gas pipelines, wind farms, and even of solar power arrays.  In the case of dams, the impacts on people's homes and livelihood may be more direct and more severe than in some other cases, but for the local populations, all of the impacts are important.

As in all things related to our infrastructure, there are no easy answers.  Decisionmakers have to balance many factors in making decisions--the need for a secure and adequate supply of electricity for the overall population, the interests of local communities affected, the environment, etc.  No decision is without some negative impacts.  The continuing challenge is to find ways to balance the benefits and the shortcomings.  The decisions will always be subject to criticism from some quarter, but failing to make a decision, or making a decision based on the loudest voice or on other faulty grounds will, in the long run, always prove to be a worse choice. 

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nuclear History and ANS:

American Nuclear Society Presidents

I am pleased and proud to report that the American Nuclear Society (ANS) recently completed a project to post brief bios of all 61 ANS past presidents (plus the current president).  Pleased, because many of the past presidents were icons in the early development of nuclear power, or played key roles in the evolution and growth of the nuclear industry, and it is wonderful to have so many of their stories in one place.  Proud, because I had a role in helping solicit biographical information from the living past presidents and in searching for information on the deceased past presidents.  But let me quickly add that this was not a solo effort.  It involved the contributions of many people, both other ANS past presidents, ANS staff and others I contacted in the course of my research.

I had known the history of a number of the past presidents before I started the effort, and after I was elected ANS president (I served in 2001-2), I was always awed and humbled to be in such company.  So many of them were either founding fathers (yes, they were all men in the early days) of the industry, or leaders in its development and evolution. 

In fact, what I did know about some of the past president is probably what spurred me to initiate the project.  I wanted to share the history I knew with others, and to fill in the history of the ones I didn't know much about.  Assembling the activities and accomplishments of all the past presidents, and fleshing out more details on those I did know, provides a much more complete picture than I previously had and provides an impressive view of the important roles in nuclear power development played by the leadership of ANS.  I do encourage people to click on the link above and then click on the links for individual past presidents to get a glimpse of this history. 

In the meantime, a few of statistics will provide some idea of the scope and nature of the accomplishments: 

More than 20 of the past presidents, including almost every one of the earliest presidents, had some role in the earliest stages of nuclear power development.  Many worked on aspects of the Manhattan Project or on the earliest nuclear submarines.  Among the specific early reactors and facilities that were mentioned in articles I found on the early work of the ANS past presidents were such familiar names as the Daniels Pile and the EBR-I, to name just two.  

From the earliest days through the present, a number of ANS presidents have come from the academic community or have served a stint in academia.  Several of these early past presidents were instrumental in the establishment of the first academic departments in nuclear engineering, and several, both early presidents and more recent ones, have headed nuclear engineering departments.  We have also had past presidents who, before or after their term as ANS president, have held high leadership positions in all parts of the nuclear industry--for vendors, for utilities, for architect-engineers, for government, for an industry trade group, and even in a law firm.  A number of the past presidents have worked in more than one segment of the industry, and quite a few were in the nuclear Navy early in their careers.  

Many past presidents have been recognized with some of the most prestigious awards in the nuclear industry, as well as in the entire science and engineering community. 

Unfortunately, several of the bios are a bit sketchier than I would have liked.  This is in part due to the lack of much material in some cases, but it is also due to time limitations, both on my part and on the part of the ANS staff who helped edit, format, and post the bios.  As it is, it took just about a year to assemble everything.  For this, as well as for other reasons, we made conscious decisions not to make the bios too long or detailed, and to limit them to professional activities, accomplishments and recognition.    

It should also hasten to add that we have many other ANS members, past and present, who have made similarly major contributions to the industry.  This effort focused only on past presidents, and is not intended to suggest that they are the only ones who made such contributions.  Nor is it intended to suggest that the only measure of the accomplishments of these past presidents is their titles and awards. 

Finally, I want to thank all the people who helped make this project possible--all the living past presidents who provided me their biographical information; a couple of past presidents, most notably Ted Quinn and Jim Tulenko, who provided me with bios for several deceased past presidents; a number of people in companies and organizations I contacted where some of the deceased past presidents had worked who provided me with information I couldn't find on the Web; Linda Zec of the ANS staff, who sandwiched this effort between all her other duties (and, I might add, who got very interested in the project and sometimes even worked on it on weekends); and several people Linda worked with who formatted and posted the bios as we finished them. 

This project never would have been completed without all these contributions.  I hope the effort will allow more people a glimpse into some of the many accomplishments of the leadership of the American Nuclear Society.

 ***

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Waste from Solar Panels:

End-of-Life Challenges

I have commented a number of times on the fact that every source of electricity has pros and cons.  For example, both fossil fuels and nuclear power provide reliable baseload electricity, but fossil fuels create air pollution and emit greenhouse gases, and nuclear power generates long-lived radioactive waste; the "fuel" for solar and wind power is free, but solar and wind power have intermittent availability and require vast quantities of materials. 

Recently, I've become aware of a new issue related to solar panels.  At least, it's new to me.  Solar panels create large volumes of waste when they reach the end of their working lives.  Since solar panels have no moving parts, I had never thought of them as having a limited life span. 

It turns out that, unlike many other electricity-producing technologies, which can operate for decades, solar cells slowly lose efficiency, and therefore, are expected to need to be replaced after only 20 or 30 years of operation.  This is much less than the lifespan of fossil plants or nuclear reactors.  And because solar energy is diffuse and large numbers of solar cells are needed, the increasing use of solar energy will result in huge volumes of waste in the coming decades.

The cited study comes from Japan, where they are trying to increase the use of renewable energy dramatically following the closure of a large fraction of their electricity supply after the Fukushima accident.  Their estimate is that, a couple of decades from now, solar energy will result in around 700,000 to 800,000 tons of waste annually.  Dealing with that would require getting rid of 110,000 panels per day.

Efforts are being made to figure out how to handle this waste, but all options have complications.  Panels may be recycled for less intensive uses, but panels degrade at different rates and would need to be tested before determining if they have enough remaining capacity to justify transporting them for reuse, perhaps to other countries.  And ultimately, of course, they would decay further and still need to be recycled or disposed of.   Recycling the materials from the panels is also complicated.  Panels are composed of several layers which would need to be separated, and existing processes for doing so are fairly costly. 

Work is underway to improve all these processes, and no doubt the coming years will see improvements in the technology for handling "spent solar panels."  But even with improvements, it is clear that the issue of dealing with old solar panels will be a significant part of the life cycle for solar panels, and the cost, energy use, and necessary infrastructure to move and process hundreds of thousands of solar panels will need to be considered. 

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Innovative Nuclear Energy Systems:

A Fascinating Symposium

I recently had the pleasure of participating in INES-5 in Tokyo, Japan--the fifth Innovative Nuclear Energy Systems symposium held since 2004--and wanted to share my observations from that meeting. 

I participated as an invited speaker in a special memorial session in honor of MIT Professor Mujid Kazimi, who died last year.  Although that session started the meeting on a somber note, the rest of the meeting was more upbeat, as it highlighted innovative developments and initiatives in all areas of nuclear technology.  I'm sure Mujid would have been pleased to hear of some of this work.

The meeting was a special delight for me, as it was held on the campus of Tokyo Institute of Technology, where I had previously spent a year as a visiting professor in the Research Laboratory for Nuclear Reactors (now the Laboratory for Advanced Nuclear Energy).  It was fun to return to the campus, to pass some familiar spots and reminisce, and to see all the new buildings and other changes.  And to reconnect with several of the professors I had worked with while I was there.

The meeting was a trip down memory lane in another respect as well.  I was a participant (along with Prof. Kazimi) in the first INES conference in 2004.  I participated again in the second INES conference in 2006.  

The meeting had speakers and participants from around the world.  The vast majority were from Asia, particularly Japan, of course, but some were also from at least a half dozen other countries in Asia. Other countries represented ranged from countries with operating nuclear power plants, like China, Korea, and India, to countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Mongolia, that currently have nuclear research programs, and may have possible future ambitions for nuclear power plants.  In addition, there were also participants from the U.S. and from several European countries.  What was particularly impressive was that the symposium included a lot of students and highlighted some of the interesting work they are doing. 

The special session on Prof. Kazimi covered some of his work, and also highlighted his character.  The session was introduced by Prof. Yukitaka Kato, one of the chairs of the symposium, and the speakers included Prof. Emeritus Hiroshi Sekimoto, a former professor from TITech, Professor Ron Ballinger from MIT, and myself.  Sekimoto, who had worked with Kazimi, recognized the long-standing ties Kazimi had with TITech, and recounted some of his personal memories of Kazimi.  Ballinger described Kazimi's research activities, and also commented on his outstanding relationships with students and MIT faculty.  I tried to put some of his work in the context of what is happening today in the U.S. in the advanced reactor area.  I had known Mujid for many years (the photo below shows us both participating in a summer course at MIT in 2000), but had not worked with him as much as the other speakers, so felt particularly honored to be included in the session.



The technical program featured several sessions on innovative nuclear reactor technologies, and also sessions on related technical areas, including advanced nuclear materials, measurement and detection, radioactive waste treatment technology, innovative separation technology, heat transfer and hydraulics in innovative nuclear systems, innovative energy utilization, safety and security in nuclear systems, nuclear fundamentals (cross section measurements, spallation reactions, etc.), and accelerators and plasmas.  There was also a large poster session featuring a lot of the students' work.

 As noted, this event was the 5th in a series of symposia that have been put on over a period of about a dozen years, starting in 2004.  I look forward to the 6th INES symposium, which is now being planned for 2019, and will no doubt continue the tradition of highlighting innovative work in a broad spectrum of nuclear areas. 

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