Saturday, October 22, 2016

More Unintended Consequences:

Air Pollution versus Climate Change

I recently attended an "off the record" meeting on the subject of energy and environmental challenges.  One focus of the meeting was on the role that nuclear power could play in addressing environmental challenges, and that was why I was there.  But since the topic was far broader than just nuclear power, turned out to be very instructive to me in revealing some similarities that exist in totally different areas.

Since the meeting was off the record, I can't discuss any of the findings and conclusions of the meeting, and I can't attribute any comments or positions to the individuals who made them.  However, some of the discussion referred to information available in the open literature, and that is certainly not off limits.  What particularly impressed me was that there were several examples presented that fit well with my observations about unintended consequences, and about the fact that every technology and every activity has some pros and cons.

I usually think of the pros and cons of different energy sources--coal versus nuclear power, renewables versus baseload power, etc.  But one of the presenters pointed out that there are analogous tradeoffs within the environmental sphere.  In particular, the concern was raised that measures taken to reduce conventional pollution or impacts on the environment could make climate change worse.

The specific example offered at the meeting was that of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  In the 1970s, evidence began to show that CFCs, which were widely used in aerosol cans and other applications, were damaging the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, and that this had adverse consequences for human health, particularly deaths from skin cancer.  A series of national and international measures taken since then has significantly reduced the use of CFCs, and the evidence is that the ozone layer has rebounded.

The problem is that the CFCs were replaced by other chemicals, particularly HFCs, that we now realize are having other consequences.  In particular, it turns out that HFCs are greenhouse gases (GHGs), and may therefore be contributing to climate change.

This is not a breaking news item.  When I went to look it up, I found literature dating back several years discussing the problem.  But for whatever reason, this particular issue  hasn't been on my radar screen lately.  When the presenter mentioned it, though, it immediately struck a resonant chord.  It was really the same exact story I've been grappling with, in my work and in this blog, for the last several years.  It was just a different example.  Coal emits carbon, building dams kills fish, nuclear power plants generate radioactive waste, windmills use rare earths, solar arrays take up large amounts of land.  (And yes, I know this list is incomplete.  I'm just using some examples for illustrative purposes.)  And when we try to substitute one energy source for another, we end up replacing one set of consequences with another.

I pointed out to the group that this was a familiar story.  I also reminded the participants that some of the early enthusiasm for the automobile, when it was first introduced, was that it would reduce the "pollution" from horses in the city.  And when automobiles were few and far between, the tiny amounts of emissions they generated seemed inconsequential, especially compared to the waste from horses that covered the streets of cities.  It was only when automobiles multiplied that people realized that they, too, had environmental consequences.

Of course, the observation of the similarity doesn't necessarily offer a good solution, but it does suggest that we need to look at the bigger picture when we introduce new technologies, particularly if our intent is to use them to address an existing problem.  Admittedly, people like simple solutions, and this observation clearly acknowledges that there are no simple solutions.  While I can't comment authoritatively on the merits of CFCs versus HFCs, in the energy supply field, I know that every technology has its pros and cons.  Therefore, we will continue to have to balance cost, reliability, resource use, emissions, and a host of other factors from different energy sources to achieve a solution that best balances out the pros and cons of each energy source.   


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Self-Driving Cars and Nuclear Power, Part 2:

Echoes of Familiar Themes

When I started my previous blog, I realized that I had also stumbled upon another theme about self-driving cars that echoed the history of other technologies, and that is, predictions about the impacts of the technologies.  In this case, the predictions were about whether self-driving cars would help the environment or harm it.  The answer seemed to be a resounding YES!

The article really highlights the dilemmas of trying to make predictions when the final outcome depends not only on the technology, but on the rules that will govern it, and on how individual and collective behaviors will change.

In this case, self-driving cars conceptually will not need all the safety equipment we have on current automobiles.  This should save weight, and therefore, save fuel.  What the article doesn't address is whether the public and the regulators will even feel confident enough to remove requirements for safety equipment.  We have already seen one fatal accident in a self-driving car.  Will people want the anti-skid brakes and the airbags "just in case"?

But, say that we do eliminate some of the requirements for safety equipment, resulting in a significant energy savings.  The other side of the coin is to wonder what impact a self-driving car will have on individual behavior.  Will people move farther outside of town because the commuting time will no longer be wasted time, thus negating some of the energy savings.  Or, bizarrely, will people let their cars drive around endlessly in cities rather than paying for a parking space!  Or if they can't find a parking space.  (I shudder at the road congestion that would cause!)

The article raises other issues as well--will cars be permitted to drive faster, which is less fuel-efficient; will they be programmed to follow the most fuel-efficient route; etc.

Again, this dilemma reminds me of the fact that automobiles were initially perceived as being a great boon to the environment.  After all, they would eliminate all the pollution from horses on city streets!

Once again, at the very beginning of a technology, it is hard to envision all the ramifications a technology should have.  That's no excuse, of course.  This article does a service in pointing to some of the issues that need to be addressed in parallel with the technology development and the testing.  Further thought needs to be given to other potential impacts self-driving cars could have.  So far, most of the emphasis has been on the greater safety, and that is truly a big factor, but more thought needs to be given to the unintended consequences on energy use, road congestion, urban and rural communities, etc.

The same, of course, can be said of any new technologies.  In fact, another prime example would be power plants for electricity production.  A small number of any type of power plant has very little impact, but once you ramp up the percent penetration, you need to think more seriously about the amount of land required, the materials and manufacturing processes needed and their environmental impacts, the implications for the transmission grid and backup systems, and the impacts on air and water quality.

No technology is going to be perfect.  No technology is going to be optimal in all respects.  However, anticipating and planning for new technologies can help society make informed determinations about which technologies to use, where and how to deploy them, and how to minimize their negative impacts.   


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Self-Driving cars and Nuclear Power, Part 1:

Echoes of Familiar Themes

No, I'm not going to advocate nuclear power for self-driving cars!  I was just struck by a couple of articles I've seen over the past few days that demonstrated to me some fundamental similarities among diverse technological developments.

In the first case, someone pointed me to a couple of articles in IEEE Spectrum about the history of self-driving cars.  One article cites reports dating as far back as 1958, while the other references a previous IEEE Spectrum article in 1969.  Both articles are optimistic about the future of self-driving cars, and to read them now, one would have thought the technology was around the corner.  And this was before all the modern computer and other technology that is being applied to the current demonstration models of self-driving cars.

As it happens, these two articles were sent to me just days after someone else sent me a list of predictions being made today in a variety of areas.

My point here is not to delve into the the pluses and minuses of all the recent predictions, or to try to assess the details of self-driving cars, then and now.  I am not an expert in most of these areas, and will leave that assessment to others.  But what did strike me is that elements of both these discussions seem eerily similar to the expectations for nuclear power in the early days.

When I worked at DOE in the early 2000s, I often gave talks on the Generation IV activities we were then just beginning.  One of my points addressed the "new" nuclear reactor technologies we were planning to pursue, such as molten-salt technology.  I remember one memorable evening when the first person that I recognized in the Q&A session after I completed my talk chided me gently for calling molten-salt reactor technology "new."  He himself, it turned out, had participated in the early work on molten-salt reactors--some 50 years before my talk!

And furthermore, that work on molten-salt reactors was associated with an ambitious program to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft, an effort that, for a number of reasons, never came to fruition.

All of which brings to mind that famous quote:  "It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future."  (I had always seen this attributed to Yogi Berra, but I have recently seen claims attributing it to a number of other people, including Neils Bohr.)

This is not to say that all predictions are wrong.  Far from it.  Clearly, the successful implementation of a ground-breaking new technology depends on a number of factors.  Sometimes, the technology just isn't advanced enough.  Sometimes it costs too much.  Sometimes there is a better alternative introduced at the same time.  Sometimes the need isn't there yet.  Sometimes, politics or public opinion or unexpected current events create barriers.  Sometimes, some or all of these factors change over the course of 50 years, and what didn't succeed before ends up succeeding the second time around.  Or the third time.

I personally am very hopeful about this current generation of self-driving cars, and I am very hopeful about the current round of development on advanced reactor technologies.  But I take heed of the lessons of history to note that all new technologies face challenges and potential roadblocks, some from the technologies themselves and some from other sources.  This is not pessimism, it is realism, and it suggests that proponents and advocates need to understand all the complex factors that may affect their plans and try, wherever possible, to address them in a timely fashion.  

I can only end by invoking another quote, this one, I'm pretty sure is only attributed to Yogi Berra:  "It ain't over 'til it's over." 


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Women and Engineering:

Still a Long Way to Go

I started my education, and a few years later, my career, in an age where women were still a relative rarity in the sciences and education.  My undergraduate class at MIT was only 5% women.  As a graduate student, I was the only female student in the entire nuclear engineering department (at that time, only a graduate department).

Therefore, I tend to view the current statistics on women in science and engineering as nothing short of miraculous:  Recent MIT entering classes have edged near 50% women.  Wow!  I am now seldom the only professional woman at a meeting.  Super!

Thus, I read with interest an article in the Harvard Business Review noting that many women who enter the engineering profession end up leaving the field.  As a result, while considerable progress towards equal representation has been made in other technical disciplines, nearly 40% of women who study engineering never enter the engineering workforce, and women still constitute only 13% of the engineering workforce.  By contrast, the article points out that the number of women in medicine and law is approaching the number of men in the field, and the number of women in the basic sciences is on the rise (although they give no numbers).  Clearly, I had been looking at one set of numbers that looked very promising, but digging deeper, the picture gets murkier.

The article cited several factors behind these trends.  They focus most on subtle forms of discrimination in team-related and internship activities.  These include things like the teams assigning the female members the more routine, non-technical tasks.  Certainly, being cut out of the most interesting work must make engineering seem like a less exciting profession.

The article also indicates that women, more than men, seek "socially responsible" work, and they feel they do not find that in the engineering profession.  I must admit that I find this argument a little puzzling, as I've always felt that engineering professions offer more opportunities than most professions to provide direct benefits to society.  While it is not the only profession that benefits society, it offers a broad range of possible ways of improving people's lives and welfare, whether by helping provide more energy, cleaner water, safer transportation, better labor-saving devices, or in a host of other ways.

I know that some will observe that the study doesn't say much about what happened to the women who left the engineering profession.  Did they, indeed, end up doing work that benefited society more directly than they could in most engineering positions?

While I can agree that would be nice to know, the fact remains that in the year 2016, we still have behavior in academic settings that effectively sends a message to women that they are not equal, and that takes away from them the full opportunity to contribute to projects and to enjoy the challenges of the profession.  This doesn't do anyone any good, and I hope this study causes the academic community to look more closely at the team projects and how they are run, and to seek ways to address the types of behavior the study found.  In addition, I would hope that the professors and others make an effort to explain the value of engineering activities to society.  It is apparently not as obvious as some of us in the profession think it is.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Another WISE Summer:

An Internship for Engineering Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Another Nuclear Milestone:

Record Long Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, July 17, 2016

From Fusion to Poetry:

Bridging Different Interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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