Showing posts with label advocacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label advocacy. Show all posts

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What is most important to outreach? Just showing up.

In my prior wrap-up over the Chattanooga MOX hearing, one of the key takeaway lessons for nuclear outreach I found while helping to organize students attending the NNSA hearing on surplus weapons-grade plutonium disposition in MOX fuel is this: Showing up matters.

In fact, there's an old Woody Allen quote circulating around which summarizes this best:
80% of success is just showing up.
In a later interview, Allen would extend upon his prior quip:
I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.
Why bring all of this up again? Namely because I think a recent outreach case organized by Meredith Angwin (of Yes Vermont Yankee) and Howard Shaffer at a recent public hearing in support of the Vermont Yankee reactor so perfectly reinforces this point. Angwin and Shaffer managed to organize a crowd of supporters of the plant for a public hearing on its renewal for a Certificate of Public Good (required for the plant to continue to do business in the state - this in spite of the fact that the actual safety license to operate is controlled exclusively by the NRC). In fact, they managed to do this and then some, with supporters outnumbering opponents three-to-one.

The result? News coverage of the event represents their side and their message in addition to the opponents. They (VY supporters) controlled the tone of the meeting, keeping it civil and respectful. (This is in marked contrast to some meetings where Angwin reports being hopelessly outnumbered - and thus where the tone is decidedly different).

The exact same thing was seen when one contrasts the meeting coverage of NNSA hearings in Chattanooga versus meetings later that week in Decatur, AL (closer to the Brown's Ferry reactor, a TVA candidate site for MOX). With nuclear supporters absent, the "public" consisted of professional anti-nuclear activists going from meeting to meeting repeating the same (debunked) arguments. (Notice that certain individuals, like Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, show up multiple times). The tone of the stories reflects the absence of supporters - as a result, opponents have the narrative to themselves - they are the public. When supporters were present (as in Chattanooga), it is reported as "spirited debate" - the existence of a pro-nuclear side is acknowledged.

In other words, the media won't come find you if you're not there. What makes up much of reporting, particularly at the local level like this, is storytelling. When one side is absent, their story doesn't get told. Reporters aren't going to seek it out - in fact, they're unlikely to even acknowledge its existence. This is why showing up matters so much. Ultimately, the way most of the public will learn about issues like MOX (or Vermont Yankee, etc.) will not be through direct contact with opponents or supporters, but rather through reported accounts in the media - which means if one side doesn't show up, the public simply will not know about it. It's simply not part of the narrative.

As an aside, I am currently at the ANS Winter Meeting in San Diego, CA - do say hello if you catch me sometime while I'm there. (I already had the pleasure of meeting Will Davis of Atomic Power Review for the first time last night, and I'm hoping to run into more folks from the online community). This probably explains my itching to emphasize the importance of outreach so much, of course - namely because I'm also going to be talking about some of these same important lessons with other nuclear professionals while I'm here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wading into the "nuclear zombie" horde

Tomorrow evening, the NNSA will be hosting a public meeting concerning its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the disposition of surplus weapons-grade plutonium (WGPu) as mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel for consumption in power reactors.

This is not a new policy - the decision to dispose of the surplus weapons material was put into place during negotiations with the Russians which took place during the Clinton Administration. The goal was quite simple: with the Cold War at an end, both countries had far greater stocks of weapons material than reasonably necessary for defense, and disposing of this material was determined to be a national security priority. In particular, both the U.S. and the Russians have agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons (about 75,000 pounds) of surplus bomb material.

Such an agreement is similar in form to the "Megatons to Megawatts" program now winding down, in which surplus highly-enriched uranium (HEU) formerly for weapons was down-blended into low-enriched uranium (LEU) for reactor fuel and permanently destroyed.

Scrambled eggs / plutonium
The NNSA proposal works along the same lines - take what is currently a weapons-grade asset and blend it down (in this case, convert the plutonium into an oxide powder and blend it to about a 4% mixture with uranium) and then burn it in reactors. The advantage to this approach is relatively straightforward: by burning the plutonium in reactors, the plutonium isotopic makeup becomes "scrambled" - basically rendering it useless for weapons, even if it were ever recovered from the spent MOX fuel. Further, the irradiated fuel adds a second physical barrier to theft and diversion - namely that now this material is now trapped inside a highly radioactive fuel rod. (The treaty agreement likewise forbids the two countries from reprocessing the spent MOX fuel for several decades.)

So who would object to what sounds like a sensible application of the "swords to plowshares" concept?


Specifically, "nuclear zombies." Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear activists, in continuing their slow decline into generalized misanthropy over any stated concern for the environment, have come out in force against the NNSA proposal, going so far as to set up shop in Chattanooga. Their particular M.O. in this has been a series of "nuclear zombie" theatrics - starting with a TVA hearing on completing the mothballed reactor project at Watts Barr Unit 2. The anti-nuclear critics leaped upon the construction restart as reviving a "zombie" reactor build (once dead, now undead - yes, clever there folks) and have been working with the meme since.

In keeping with the theme, I'll be leading a contingent of trained nuclear engineering students zombie hunters  from the University of Tennessee down to the public meeting tomorrow both as a show of support and more importantly as a resource in trained experts who can sort the facts from the theatrics.

As always though with zombies, it's important to remember the most important rule of dealing with zombies: Always remember the double-tap. As we prepare for the charge into the zombie horde, it's thus useful to put down a few of the "living dead" arguments out there which seemingly seem to lumber on from beyond the grave. As a good companion piece, I also highly recommend Dan Yurman's full frontal assault on the zombie horde.

Zombie argument #1: MOX fuel is unsafe

Several countries, including France and Japan, already use MOX fuel in their reactors. This plutonium comes from recycling the plutonium that is built up in uranium fuel as reactors are operated. (Thus, to emphasize: plutonium in reactors is not a foreign concept - in the course of regular operations, plutonium is built up and burned within the fuel. In fact, near the end of a fuel bundle's lifetime, much of the energy produced from fission comes from the fissioning of plutonium itself, in addition to the depleting fissile uranium in the fuel).

Plutonium fuel does burn a bit "hotter" (fission releases a nominally larger amount of energy for plutonium compared to uranium), but as Yurman points out in the above article, this is relatively similar to how a wood-burning stove works. Certain woods burn hotter (think hardwoods); but control of the reactor power and temperature is governed by many devices beyond the fuel, including burnable poisons and control rods which regulate the reaction rate. The goal of MOX fuel is essentially to use it as a replacement for ordinary uranium fuel - meaning the reactors are to run at the same power level as before. This is a well-understood concept.

Further, the MOX fuel would not compose more than a fraction of the core loading. Yurman points out that TVA's initial plan (if they decide to participate in the MOX fuel program) would likely involve starting out with a loading of about 8 assemblies in the reactor; pressurized water reactors typically will have around 193 assemblies, meaning MOX will start off making up around 4% of the core, with an eventual ramp-up to around 40%.

Zombie argument #2: MOX is an inferior way to dispose of plutonium

Of the more sophisticated "zombie arguments out there, one that seems to arise again and again is the idea that disposing of plutonium in MOX fuel - be it from civilian reprocessing or from disposal of surplus weapons materials - is an inefficient and expensive way to deal with the problem. Instead, they say, we should dispose of the material in glass logs ("vitrification") and then bury the glass logs in a deep geologic repository. Such approach has been vocally promoted by the now-current chairwoman of the NRC, Dr. Allison MacFarlane. (Have the zombies gotten to her too, do you suppose?)

In particular, some critics have pointed out the formerly proposed "two track" approach first sketched out by scientists and engineers with the Department of Energy at Savannah River, where the conversion of weapons material will take place. There are of course two problems with this - the first being that this approach was originally proposed because of identified problems in handling about 9 metric tons of the plutonium, as it was contaminated and deemed potentially unsuitable. (The remaining 25 metric tons were to be converted into MOX). However, as those problems were overcome, the decision was made to proceed exclusively on the MOX track, thus saving money by not creating two separate facilities.

From a strictly technical standpoint, disposal of surplus plutonium in MOX fuel is the preferred pathway of numerous technical and scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Nuclear Society, as well as numerous academic organizations, including the Harvard Project on Managing the Atom. (It's rare when I agree with the last party, so you know there's something going on when that one happens).

Second, and perhaps more important, is the fact that there is significant diplomatic pressure from the Russians to convert and burn the material as MOX fuel rather than to vitrify it, as they are concerned that the vitrified material encased in glass logs may one day be recoverable. By contrast, once the MOX fuel has been irradiated, not only is the material far more difficult to handle, but the plutonium content itself becomes contaminated with "unfavorable" species of plutonium which render the material unusable for weapons use. Thus, the MOX route represents a more permanent disposal pathway.

Finally, a factor which should not be neglected, is that MOX fuel represents a viable way to extract a useful resource - energy - out of what was formerly simply an implement of mass destruction. One can quibble that the economic costs of the MOX route do not necessarily outweigh the economic value of the electricity produced, but regardless the material would have to be converted into a form suitable for disposal - be it for conversion into glass logs or into reactor fuel. In this regard, it is useful to look at this from a marginal cost perspective - i.e., the benefit of electricity should not be weighed against the full cost of the MOX fabrication facility but against the marginal difference in the cost of the MOX facility versus vitrification. In this regard, MOX begins to look like a much better deal, even if it doesn't break even. (Lacking for immediately accessible numbers, this is difficult to quantify).

Zombie Argument #3: Nobody wants MOX

A relatively specious argument which can be relatively swiftly put down. First, TVA has expressed interest - hence why these hearings are taking place in the first place. In addition to TVA, Duke Energy has also expressed potential interest in purchasing the converted MOX fuel from the Savannah River Site.

Most of the reason U.S. utilities have been reluctant to purchase MOX fuel for reactors up until now comes down to cost - pound for pound, MOX fuel does cost more, and utilities receive no credit back toward fees paid into the nuclear waste fund for any net reduction in waste sent to an (eventual) repository. (The Megatons to Megawatts program, by contrast, produced a fuel which is the same exact form as used in current reactors - hence, it was cheaper and easier).

However, because the NNSA plan is explicitly designed to dispose of surplus weapons material, it is being done with a subsidy to offset this cost. (Again, to emphasize: what is being paid for is to ensure a final disposition of the plutonium.)

Closing thoughts

Like with ordinary zombies, I'm not even really sure we can expect the level of sophisticated arguments that I've deconstructed above so much as a slow grope for brains. (Yes, cheap shot, I know.) I say this only because I remain unconvinced that "nuclear zombie" demonstrations, which Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear organizations have invested considerable resources into, have anything to do with setting the tone for well-reasoned, thoughtful consideration of alternatives.

Ash with his boomstick
If you need to find me at the meeting tomorrow, I'll be the guy with the
. (Note: No one's bringing any weapons. Please don't sue.)
Regardless, I will be there tomorrow, braving the zombie horde. If you're anywhere around the Chattanooga area tomorrow, do consider joining us. One of the key points I have continued to emphasize with my students is the need to simply show up - not only such that groups interested more in theatrics than in debate don't simply carry the day by default, but also such that we can be there as a resource - answering questions from the non-zombified public and putting to (final) rest some of the more putrified misinformation.

The hearing will be at the Chattanooga Convention Center (1150 Carter Street
Chattanooga, TN). Open house starts at 5:30, followed by a technical presentation by the NNSA at 6:30 and public comments following up 8:00.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Risk communication with a tin ear

Quite serendipitously, around the time of my prior post looking at how the public perceives risk when it comes to nuclear energy, two interesting pieces appeared around the same time which serve to reinforce some of the points I had made. (I've been somewhat remiss in getting them only until now, mostly due to both a recent conference and now travel.)

The first, "Risk, Fear, and Nuclear Power" by David Ropeik discusses the role emotions have played in shaping public opinion in a (now-defunct, due to lack of signatures) effort to use California's initiative process to close down its two nuclear generating stations. Specifically, Ropeik brings into play some of the same "fear factors" which I discussed prior, including voluntariness - which is why, he points out, the public accepts radiation from medical sources with little complaint while the same cannot be said for nuclear power. Much of his essay delves into the same issues of how cultural and emotional factors influence and amplify public perception of risks, based risk characteristics (i.e., the factors like unfamiliarity, invisibility, "dread" factors like cancer, trust in institutions, etc.).

The second, "Fear of Nuclear Power out of proportion to actual risks" by Dr. Melanie Windridge serves as a useful companion piece, namely by framing the issue of the impact of public perception of risk - namely, in that how the public reacts to the health risks associated with nuclear is entirely out of proportion with other health risks, including both those from natural and medical uses of radiation as well as health risks associated with other energy sources like coal.

Unfortunately, I think Dr. Windridge's piece, while well-written, also serves as an example of how typically the conversation moves to individuals talking past one another. The aim of her article is to demonstrate how, even in the case of a serious accident like Fukushima, perceived risks tend to be held out of proportion with actual, everyday risks we blithely accept without protest. In this regard, she does quite well; and indeed, it is a refreshing reminder for those oriented in a more "technical" understanding of risk.

As I read it again however, and especially as I read the reader comments (again, perhaps one of the most discouraging things one can do), it becomes more and more clear to me that this piece represents the same mistake being made over and over again in nuclear communication - we're convincing those already predisposed to our position. To wit: those predisposed to hear the message that the public perceives nuclear risks out of proportion to other risks are likely those already predisposed to favor nuclear energy. The people who perceive these risks in disproportionate fashion are not going to be convinced by this alone. (Again, have a look at the reader comments and see if you don't agree. You may however wish to pour yourself a stiff drink first...) To emphasize, Dr. Windridge's piece is extremely clear and well-written but at the same time sails right past half the audience (those predisposed to oppose nuclear), who immediately dismiss anything she has to say.

Slogging through reader comments like these, it becomes again evident in the extreme that there are two completely divergent narratives going on here, with their own respective experts and "facts." (It goes nearly without saying that the divide could not be more stark - on one side one are trained nuclear professionals and experts in their field, the other populated by hucksters and cranks. On a personal note, it sometimes drives me positively insane in the regard that in the realm of climate science, there is a loud and well-publicized push-back against "bad faith science" but many of these same individuals remain silent when it comes to attacks on science by anti-nuclear activists.) That being said, none of this matters until the communicator can establish the one thing that matters most with their audience: credibility.

In this regard, despite the valiant efforts of numerous pro-nuclear communicators, we seem to be failing - badly. This is not to say that the efforts have been for nothing - certainly, pro-nuclear communicators have helped to profoundly shape and influence debate, pushing back against a narrative dominated by snake-oil salesmen bent upon selling cockamamie theories of radiation health effects with zero basis in sound science. And indeed, this has tremendous importance in capturing the otherwise "uncommitted" - those whose opinions on nuclear energy tends to be weak in support or opposition.

"Technically correct... the best kind of correct."
But part of the problem - at least as I see it - is that we are failing to directly engage our opponents themselves. In fact, too often am I realizing that nuclear risk is communicated with a tin ear to public perceptions - a fantastic example of this is Andrea Jennetta's recent (and somewhat amusing) rant in the Richmond Times-Dispatch to this regard, castigating nuclear professionals who, channeling the spirit of the bureaucrat - gave answers that were technically correct but contextually useless.

In this case, it concerned a debate over lifting the moratorium over uranium mining in southern Virginia - which to anyone familiar with the region, would be a much-needed economist boon to the region. What resulted instead was an unedifying spectacle involving quasi-religious questions and comments from anti-nuclear activists and tin-eared, highly abstract responses from the nuclear professionals tasked at handling questions from the public.

It reminds me of an old joke about engineers:
A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts: "Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?" The man below says: "Yes, you're in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field." "You must be an engineer" says the balloonist. "I am" replies the man. "How did you know?" "Well," says the balloonist, "everything you've told me is technically correct but useless to anyone."
 Of course, then there's the real punchline:
The man below says "you must be in management." "I am" replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?" "Well," says the man, "you don't know where you are, or where you're going, but you expect me to be able to help. You're in the same position you were before we met, but now it's my fault."
It again reinforces a point which I made previously which I am coming to realize the importance of - technically correct simply isn't enough - we, as nuclear communicators, must speak to values. One of the greatest scandals in nuclear communication has been in allowing the anti-nuclear opposition to take the field entirely unopposed in dressing their arguments in the ethics of care and concern - namely by painting both nuclear operators, and by association, nuclear advocates - as cogs in a rapacious, uncaring capitalist enterprise. (Not that there's anything wrong with capitalism...)

[Aside: I recently spent the evening with some very good friends of mine, one of whom works closely with the medical profession. She pointed out to me how much some of these same issues of risk communication overlap in the issues of public acceptance of vaccines - or rather, overcoming a small but dogged vaccine refusal movement. Fundamentally, many of the same issues are at play here - a series of parallel "experts" and a contingent doggedly set against the mainstream scientific establishment. What is at stake here is perhaps yet more important than the challenges faced by nuclear energy, given the dynamics at play with phenomena like herd immunity. But fundamentally the same issue is at play, that being the need to engage with individuals, particularly by addressing values as a means of understanding how to reach these individuals in order to accurately convey relative risk. End aside.]

tin manA great number of nuclear professionals are in this line of work precisely because they care about creating a better world for their families and children (myself included). However, one likely reason nuclear professionals have ceded the issue of personal concern to the anti-nuclear activists has likely been a victim of technical culture - technical arguments are won and lost not over demonstrated concern or espoused values but upon facts alone. Engaging with the public thus almost requires a deprogramming for some - allowing technical experts to express their humanity and concern alongside their sound technical arguments.

No doubt, some resistance comes from the perception of falling into the same trap as the anti-nuclear movement - preying upon appeals to emotion rather than logic and couching arguments in terms of clever sound bites rather than in actual, robust appeals to science. Yet it doesn't need to come to this (and indeed, over the long run I believe strategies which focus upon this are doomed to failure as they serve to further undermine trust by coming across blatantly manipulative.) But falling down on the other extreme - communicating with a complete tin ear with regards to the audience - is clearly doing the nuclear movement no favors, either.

What it again fundamentally comes down to understanding the values of the audience. It means understanding why certain experts and arguments seem to hold sway (rather than simply dismissing these folks as cranks - again, something very hard not to do sometimes). Ultimately, it involves a great deal of listening - something which is not that easy, given the nature (and yes, ridiculousness) of some of the arguments put out there. But if nuclear advocates expect to sway those not already favorably predisposed toward nuclear energy, this is what it's going to take.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cultural cognition of risk and perceived risks of nuclear

In a bit of a departure from the typical discussion, I wanted to delve deeper into a topic of some personal interest to me and of particular relevance to nuclear communication - that of risk perception by the public. As a scientist, people like me are trained to view risk in objective, impersonal terms - i.e., evaluating risk in strictly scientific, quantitative terms. One of the unending sources of frustration for the technical community is in the fact that this is not how the general public perceives risk - in fact, quite the opposite. Many times, people will blithely accept particular risks - driving, air travel, smoking, certain recreational activities - and yet recoil in horror at the unarguably lower risks presented by technologies such as nuclear energy (especially in comparison to energy alternatives such as coal and even natural gas).

Often, it's the first inclination of technically-minded folks to simply dismiss these people as irrational, even stupid. And yes, this is certainly easy - even satisfying (particularly on days when I'm feeling especially curmudgeonly...). It's also terribly unproductive. In light of this, I wanted to dig deeper into the idea of how public perceives risk, drawing on an established body of literature (again, perhaps most famously through projects like the Yale Law School's Cultural Cognition Project).

Understanding "perceived risk"

A particular school of thought in the social science of risk perception, known as the Cultural Theory of Risk, purports that the relative perception of risk - and ultimately, the determination of "acceptable" risk, is governed by cultural factors exogenous to strictly technical evaluations of risk alone. In other words, despite the fact that flying is safer than driving, people perceive the latter to be less safe due to other, outside factors. Thus a key element in understanding how risk is perceived by members of the public (i.e., the "non-technical" community) requires understanding the factors which tend to weigh upon evaluations of risk - in other words, factors which promote perceived risk. These include:

  • Involuntary exposure
  • Lack of personal control
  • High/catastrophic consequences 
  • Inequitable distribution of risk
  • Lack of familiarity
  • Lack of perceived benefit
  • "Dread" factors (e.g., cancer)
  • Irreversible consequences

In this way, risks of higher probability but more moderate consequences (e.g., natural gas explosions, coal waste accidents, etc.) are viewed as more "acceptable" despite much lower probabilities of harm from sources such as nuclear accidents. By the same token, risks which are mundane and taken up voluntarily - think smoking, etc. - are viewed as acceptable despite well-known and demonstrably higher probabilities of harm. 

Values and risk perception

An outgrowth of the Cultural Theory of Risk (or perhaps simply an alternative model altogether, although arguably not entirely incompatible) is the theory known as Cultural Cognition of Risk, which posits that deeply-held values influence how risks are perceived and processed by members of the public - and thus, which risks are seen as more prominent. Cultural Cognition (and the Cultural Cognition Project) seek to explain gaps in public perception of risk by looking at the correlations of risk perception to values - in other words, looking at why different political and cultural groups show wide disparities in perceived risks of large social issues, such as global climate change and other divisive issues.

value axisCultural Cognition divides value systems into two main axes. Roughly speaking, the vertical axis corresponds to values about how social goods (wealth, power, duties, and entitlements) are distributed, with "hierarchical" orientations favoring their distribution according to relatively "fixed" social markers - age, sex, race, etc. - and thus seeking to maintain these orderings. Conversely, egalitarian values tend to reject the idea of ranked hierarchies in the distribution of social goods. Along the horizontal axis is the relationship of the individual to society - leftward emphasizing a higher emphasis upon individuals and competitiveness, rightward emphasizing group solidarity over the individual. (An example of this can easily be observed in Eastern versus Western cultures, and in particular the expectations of individuals with respect to their societies.)

For those familiar with the Nolan Chart, or its variant, the Political Compass, there is a relatively intuitive mapping between the values proposed by Cultural Congition and the Personal/Economic liberty axes in each one (i.e., at the top left would be considered "conservatives," bottom right "liberals", bottom left "libertarians," and top right "populists"). Thus, the familiar partisan splits in nuclear energy support begin to grow more clear as one draws associations between the commonly held values of self-identified liberals, conservatives (and of course, libertarians!).

The central thesis of Cultural Cognition is that risk perception tends to be oriented along lines that remain harmonious with one's social values - risks which appear to challenge one's social values are minimized, which risks which speak to concerns of social values are heightened. Many of the topics studied under these lines of thought tend to include divisive social issues such as the role of gun ownership, abortion, nanotechnology, and indeed, nuclear power (in particular, nuclear waste management). Thus Cultural Cognition theory posits that differences in perceived risk due to major social issues comes from a reconciliation of information about risk with deeply-held personal values, thus explaining the gap in risk perception between different groups.

Education alone is not enough

Bringing this back to the subject of nuclear, it seems like once we understand what drives perception of risk, this should be enough to influence such perceptions more in line with actual facts. Yet one of the most discouraging findings in the literature on cultural cognition of risk is in that simply educating people is insufficient on its own, despite the naive assumption that such efforts bring about familiarity, thus diminishing outsized perceptions of risk. Why is this? Cognitive dissonance. For individuals already negatively predisposed toward a subject (i.e., nuclear energy), the presentation of new information produces an uncomfortable state of dissonance, which the natural mental reaction is to resolve. Typically this is done by dismissing the conflicting information and seeking reinforcing information from "trusted" sources, thus perhaps illustrating why, in spite of repeated debunking, some myths just won't die. And indeed, this is something we've seen before - again and again.

Going yet further, proponents of the Cultural Cognition hypothesis posit that educating participants on topics to which they were begin previously uninformed can actually produce a polarizing effect in attitudes. An example of this is a study in participant attitudes in nanotechnology, where most individuals have little starting information. The presentation of educational materials on the risks and benefits of nanotechnology actually had the effect of polarizing these individuals, despite the same information being presented - again implying that education on its own does not necessarily lead to broad accord.

Does this mean education is hopeless? Not at all - but what it does mean is that education must be carried out in a way which minimizes cognitive dissonance, namely by engaging with the value system of the listener.  That is, in presenting information in such a way which affirms rather than challenges the deeply-held values of the audience, said persons are more likely to be open to processing this new information and challenging previously-held beliefs.

In my last post, I alluded to the fact that individuals holding an "individualist" value persuasion were more likely to be open to evaluating risks of global climate change if nuclear power is presented in this context as the solution to climate change, rather than regulation. (Joe Romm, are you listening?) In this case, it is a matter of a message speaking to the values of the listener - individualists tend to be more prone to considering technological solutions to social problems and disinclined to solutions which encroach upon private, market-oriented mechanisms to social ordering. 

As a personal aside, I will say as someone with a similar worldview, the connection between nuclear energy and climate change made a similar impression upon myself - that is, in evaluating climate change as a problem to be solved through human ingenuity rather than imposed impoverishment, a discordance is removed - it is possible to reconcile a concern for climate change with previously-held values.

Obviously, this works with different value orientations as well - those with egalitarian value systems can arguably be brought around to support nuclear energy if it is seen as affirming egalitarian social values - two examples which come to mind are those of energy poverty and the inherently unequal outcomes of climate change, which would disproportionately impact the world's poorest nations (i.e., those incapable of adapting to climate change through economic and technical means).

Summing it up

To summarize - providing education and facts are good, useful even - but on their own insufficient without presenting those facts in a context which engages with the deeply-held values of the audience. To produce actual engagement - and even inducement to support - requires a producing a context of facts compatible with the values of those one is trying to reach. In other words, for the case of nuclear, it means going beyond education and comparative evaluation of risk (again, to emphasize, both of which are valid in and of themselves) and placing these within the framework of how this speaks to the values of the audience.

For individualists (who the research shows already tend to have a lower perceived risk attached to nuclear energy), this might mean presenting nuclear energy as a practical solution to climate change - something which has the spillover benefit of bringing about thoughtful consideration of the issues of climate change itself. For communitarians and egalitarians, this might mean both engaging in a demonstration of how nuclear energy can serve to mitigate much larger, more inequitable risks while meanwhile also honestly engaging concerns over safety and inter-generational equity issues like waste management. In other words, validating these concerns while demonstrating that these are issues which we take seriously and continue to devote considerable attention to.

None of this is a silver-bullet solution for engaging with the public, but it provides an illuminating context for which to facilitate a more productive discussion over energy.

A passage which struck me while I was researching this topic was when one proponent of cultural rationality (i.e., arguing that emotional reactions to risk have validity as moral, "normative" evaluations, alongside strictly technical, "positive" evaluations of risk) argued that members of the technological community do not have a privileged view of the normative factors associated with risk, particularly with respect to nuclear (the paper was on perceptions of nuclear risk in light of Fukushima) - that is, while members of the technical community have a privileged view of technical facts, they do not have a privileged view of overall assessments of what constitutes acceptability in risk - a normative judgement.

All of this of course is true. In as much, in my mind it is the job of the nuclear professionals (as members of the "technical community") to do our best to provide an accurate technical framework for these evaluations of risk by the public, such that they can make the most sound decisions on risk. Meanwhile it is the job of nuclear communicators and advocates to speak to values, as to produce more fair evaluations of both the benefits and risks of nuclear, particularly in the context of available energy choices.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Support for nuclear: Broad but shallow?

Coming just upon the heels of a recent post about public opinion on energy sources, I couldn't help but also notice this poll by Gallup which NEI points to, indicating a relatively constant support for nuclear following Fukushima. The takeaway? Despite a small uptick in opposition to nuclear following the events at Fukushima (from 38% to 40%), public support for nuclear is still high, sitting at 57% in favor or strongly in favor of nuclear energy. While Republicans (and Republican-leaners) more strongly favored nuclear energy (65% supporting vs. 34% opposed) compared to Democrats (and associated leaners - 50% support / 45% opposed), support across the Gallup poll appears to generally be broad across parties.

The starkest reported differences in opinion were between men and women - 74% of men vs. 42% for women.  Tellingly, a nearly parallel trend occurs for the perceived safety of nuclear (with 72% of men believing nuclear is safe compared to 43% of women).

Given the somewhat less sunny projections from the recent Pew poll, how does one square the difference?

nuclear strength
Digging into the Gallup data, one observes that strong support and opposition have both historically ranged around 23% and 21%, respectively; the bulk of support and opposition has been in the more moderated "somewhat support" (33%) and "somewhat oppose" (19%). How has this changed in the events following Fukushima? Overall, not much - overall support remains constant at 57%, although one observes some erosion in self-identified "strong" support. Meanwhile, strong opposition has hardened (growing from 18% to 24% in the last polling period). 

One might square this against the Pew data in the sense that Pew specifically asked about the expansion of nuclear energy (particularly in comparison to other energy sources), while Gallup simply gauged overall public support. If one takes both trends as true, it paints a picture of public opinion over nuclear as stuck in neutral - a public which overall supports nuclear energy but is divided about its expansion in light of other perceived alternatives. 

Meanwhile, going back to the Gallup results, overall public perception of nuclear safety is relatively unchanged (57% responding that U.S. nuclear plants are safe, while 40% respond that they feel U.S. nuclear plants are unsafe). While the continued (accurate!) perception of the safety of the U.S. nuclear industry is encouraging, it speaks to the need for further outreach efforts, as well as perhaps the unique perception of nuclear compared to other sources (i.e., where constant, elevated risk - such as hazards presented by sources such as coal - is tolerated much more readily than low-frequency, highly dramatic events, even if the ultimate public health consequences are minuscule).

Given the above, clearly nuclear is not in danger of a German-style phaseout. Yet the obvious challenge for public support of nuclear - beyond simply tolerating it, but in expanding it - is in making the case to the public that nuclear is both safe and essential - the latter of which comes down to arguments both over economics and the environment.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Small modular reactors meet "Iowa stubborn"

The land of Iowa - home of hogs, corn, windmills, and... SMRs (i.e., small modular reactors). Or at the least, that last part may be true pending a proposal before the Iowa Legislature (HF 561) is passed, allowing for among other things, recovery of costs while construction is in progress on nuclear projects (known as "CWIP" or "construction work in progress" financing). Iowa's electricity market is a regulated market - which means rates are ultimately set by the Iowa Utilities Board.

Iowan electricity profile
As a former long-term resident of Iowa and still self-identified Midwesterner-in-exile, I have a keen interest in seeing where this one goes. Despite the characterization of the bill's opponents (which, by sheer coincidence, also seem to be almost identical to those who oppose nuclear energy writ large), Iowa's "abundant energy alternatives" generally consist of coal (about three-quarters of Iowa's electricity capacity), followed by wind (about 16%) and nuclear (about 8%, from the state's lone nuclear unit, Duane Arnold, north of Cedar Rapids), per 2010 EIA statistics, shown on the right.

Given the highly-touted wind resources of the Iowa (i.e., from the hundreds of windmills which dot the rolling plains of Iowa), wind makes up a significant share of Iowa's energy. However, given the sheer enormity of coal's share of Iowa's energy portfolio, it is difficult imagine wind displacing Iowa's heavy reliance upon coal for electricity, particularly when one looks at penetrations beyond 20%, where wind's intermittency begins impact grid stability (thus requiring changes to grid infrastructure in order to accommodate further wind generation). Instead, wind is appears serving the role of taking required load away from "peaking" sources like natural gas - one notices that contra the national trend, natural gas makes up a tiny share of Iowa's energy mix. Ultimately however, if Iowa is to become in any way serious about doing its part on carbon emissions, weaning itself off its dependence of coal (specifically, anthracite low-sulfur bituminous coal shipped by the trainload directly from Wyoming) is of paramount priority. Given its inherent intermittency, doing this with wind seems highly improbable, while few other sources appear ready to fill the gap here.

Enter the small modular reactor - in an attempt to obviate the issues of high up-front capital cost and large "step-wise" investments (i.e., traditional nuclear units start around 1 GWe), small modular reactors miniaturize nuclear reactors into a relatively small, self-contained unit - one which is manufactured off-site and produces power at a lower scale (typically on the order of 1/10 to 1/3 of a traditional unit). To wit - the concept of the "small modular" part of the SMR is that in many cases, such as in more conventional designs, the same fundamental designs as their larger cousins are employed (e.g., uranium fuel cooled by ordinary water) - simply scaled down into a smaller package which can be manufactured in a factory and shipped by truck or rail to the installation site. As a result, SMRs avoid the uncertainties due to construction delays while scaling down a nuclear investment into a more tractable size, one which allows for a more granular addition of nuclear capacity than the traditional gigawatt-scale traditional reactor.

Indeed, one of the reasons SMRs are appropriate for unique energy markets like Iowa is in their ability to be "right-sized" for the kinds of municipal utilities and electricity cooperatives that make up the Iowa market. Unlike large, multi-state utilities, most electricity retailers in Iowa are unlikely to be willing or able to support the large investment for a traditional unit, nor do they have the need for such large generating capacity. In as much, smaller, scalable units provide an alternative which affords the capacity of carbon-free baseload generation at low operating costs. Outside of the jaundiced view of nuclear which seems to color this discussion, this would seem to be boon to Iowa's energy producers an consumers.

Given these factors, the introduction of SMRs to Iowa as an alternative to coal should seem to be a no-brainer. Of course, as usual with anti-nuclear politics, it doesn't always seem to work this way; in a way of cutting off their nose to spite their face, many nuclear opponents will cast aside the issue of carbon constraints aside to attack nuclear on any and all fronts. Take this example from a left-wing community blog, "Blog for Iowa," where author Paul Deaton criticizes the CWIP proposal on the grounds that it might indeed do just what it's slated to do - attract the development of small modular reactors to serve Iowa's largely rural electricity markets. Deaton brings up many of the usual anti-nuclear arguments, however he turns his attention specifically to several criticisms of SMRs which on the face of it simply don't make much sense.

For example, Deaton argues that the modularity of SMRs are self-defating in nature:
When proponents of SMR technology talk about it in public, what they say doesn’t make sense. On the one hand they talk about the efficiency and flexibility of modular reactor technology. On the other hand, they talk about the need for centrally located “baseload” power where economies of scale are important to keeping the cost per kilowatt hour low. What this means to consumers is that while a single town or large-scale user may be able to have their own nuclear reactor on-site, if this were done, the cost of the ancillary charges would be much higher per kilowatt hour because efficiencies of scale would be lost. Installing SMRs only makes sense, from a cost standpoint, if they are constructed in clusters as the Nu-Scale and Babcock and Wilcox designs are intended.
Unfortunately, much of this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues at hand. For one, part of the cost advantages of SMRs is that so-called "energy parks" can be developed in staged fashion - in other words, installing one or two units at first in order to allow cost recovery, then installing more units later, "scaling up" the energy production without having to attempt to swallow the entire capital cost in one fell bite, thus avoiding both the high borrowing cost and financial risk of the large, single-unit traditional equivalents. Further, each SMR is still generally on the order of 100-300 MWe - again, about 1/10 to 1/3 the size of a traditional nuclear facility. For comparison - the average wind turbine puts out less than 10 MWe at rated capacity - so how precisely is it that SMRs fail the same test which one can infer our author has no problem with when it comes to other energy sources?

Finally, this argument ignores one of the chief advantages of SMRs, in that they can be manufactured almost entirely along an industrial process line within a single facility - eliminating the need to build on-site with its attendant construction costs and delays while affording efficiencies of scale at the actual manufacturing process (along with the respective enhancements to quality control that can come with it). Thus, where SMRs push on nuclear's chief weaknesses - high up-front capital costs and financial risk due to construction - are factors entirely unconnected to the points Deaton brings up.

Deaton goes further, arguing in several places that SMRs are too "under-developed" to make them viable for energy markets, arguing:
While the paradigm of SMRs fits into the hyperbole of the recent discussion, the reality is that no SMR design has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nor is approval imminent, with talk of the earliest likely approval of SMR design being ten years from now.
The purpose of a TVA SMR would be to further the NRC design approval process and develop field data about SMR design efficacy. Without government subsidy of this kind, the SMRs seem unlikely to move forward in the United States in the near future.
Of course, this argument ignores the inherent problem - the issue is not that SMRs aren't ready for primetime, but rather that the NRC lacks the will or capacity to make such regulatory analysis. How this is the fault of the industry or specifically SMR manufacturers remains to be seen. Absent the NRC's dithering, it remains to be seen why such a "subsidy" as he terms it would even be necessary. Again, the problem here is not that the so-called "subsidy" is necessary but that some degree of expedience on the part of the NRC (one Deaton is silent on) is warranted. Assigning the blame to the technology for bureaucratic inaction is thus a non-sequitur.

Finally, Deaton assails nuclear as a non-starter in a free market for energy, arguing that it should succeed or fail on its own financial merits. All fine, again - although somewhat odd, given both that Iowa is a regulated electricity market and other sources like wind are given particularly favorable treatment in said energy market. Given the leftist orientation of the blog, one is left to doubt we'll be hearing calls for a deregulated Iowa electricity market or an elimination of similar subsidies for wind and other politically favored sources, so one is left to question the sincerity of this particular rhetorical strategy. Indeed, nuclear seems to be the unique case in which your average nuclear opponent begins to act as if they would fit in at a Tea Party rally - with such situational preference for laissez-faire disappearing once the topic changes to energy mandates and subsidies writ large.

Likewise, when it comes to anti-nuclear politics, some rather specious claims tend to be made. For example, this one - that CWIP financing would mean, "An average ratepayer who paid $67 a month in 2009 would pay an estimated $135 a month" - are repeated entirely uncritically. Going to the data, Iowans pay an average of 10.34 cents/kWh - comfortably below the average of 11.88 cents/kWh. For a monthly bill to jump from $67 to $135 per month would require a rise of the cost of electricity to 20.83 cents/kWh - a rather difficult claim to sustain in the absence of compelling evidence.

None of this of course is to say that Iowa's specific legislation is perfect - a legitimate criticism can be made that processes such as CWIP financing should be carefully balanced to avoid totally offloading risk onto consumers and undercutting incentives to avoid cost and schedule overruns. Ultimately, these kinds of discussions only go on in regulated electricity markets - where producers are generally guaranteed a fixed rate of return on investment, becoming moot in deregulated ("merchant") electricity markets, where in fact electricity prices are set by the market. The key point to take away however is that in regulated markets at least, it's a matter of pay now or pay more later when it comes to energy investments. Carefully structured, allowing for cost recovery mechanisms while construction is in progress can ultimately lower the total amount  retail electricity customers ultimately pay.

*For those who don't get the title, a viewing of "The Music Man" is highly recommended - if only to give you a feel for an Iowa which is not about corn, livestock, or hyped-up fabulism of Iowa as a methamphetamine-fueled wasteland. Really, it's quite nice.

Updated 2/28: An anonymous commenter noticed the statistics I'd had were for total U.S. production, rather than Iowa - a tremendous goof which has now been fixed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rent-seeking and Greenwashing: The Case of Sierra Club and Natural Gas

Recently, the Sierra Club was outed for accepting massive amounts of bribes donations from Chesapeake Energy (a major natural gas producer heavily involved in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking") along with others to the tune of over $25 million, money used to fund Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign. As a part of the same campaign, Sierra flogged natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to an renewable energy-powered future (however implausible). In response, current Sierra Club head Micheal Brune posted a hand-wringing essay about just how hard it was to accept piles and piles of cash from the natural gas industry, why it really was all in the service of a higher good, and finally why they have decided to refuse future, yet larger donations from the same industry. To use his words:
It's time to stop thinking of natural gas as a "kinder, gentler" energy source. What's more, we do not have an effective regulatory system in this country to address the risks that gas drilling poses on our health and communities.
In other words, "We got caught with our hands in the cookie jar, so now we need to make good."

To wit: is it wrong for environmental groups to accept funds from competitor energy sources? In itself, no - where Sierra crossed a serious ethical boundary was in their refusal to make their clear conflict-of-interest known. In accepting money from natural gas and then using that money directly in service of the interests of that industry (i.e., campaigning against coal), Sierra had exposed itself to a tremendous conflict of interest in its advocacy - one which they deliberately chose not to disclose. They, along with their patron, had a direct economic interest in their lobbying campaign.

[An aside: Notably, when market-oriented groups like Cato accept money from the petrochemical industry, they are assailed as shills for "secretive oil billionaires" - despite the fact that their pre-existing libertarian agenda does not directly favor - or disfavor - any one specific industry. It will likely be a cold day in Hell before the same standard is ever applied to groups like Sierra.]

But perhaps the bigger issue is how the whole case exposes simply how pervasive the notion of rent-seeking is within the energy market as a whole. In this context, "rent" is not used in the meaning of say, a landlord, but rather in the economist's jargon, where these types of "rents" are wealth created through exploitation of the political system - think locking out competitors and the creation of cartels which drive up prices from their normal equilibrium. (Conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Lane also recently devoted a column exclusively to this topic.)
Captain Renault
Captain Renault is shocked, shocked to find that
rent-seeking is going on in energy markets.

What the Sierra Club case shows is just how rife the intersection of environmental politics and energy is with rent-seeking behavior. The only mystifying feature is how shocked anyone seems to be - almost like Captain Renault in Casablanca, who was, "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here." Anyone who has paid attention to these issues (and in particular, I will give the nod to Rod Adams) knows this kind of behavior has been going on for some time.

For Chesapeake, funding Sierra's "Beyond Coal" campaign was a no-brainer in terms of economic self-interest: not only did they have a chance to kneecap a direct energy competitor (coal); equally as important they purchased vital environmental credibility - in essence, "greenwashing" their behavior. As a special bonus, they were able to accomplish all of this via proxy - it wasn't the natural gas industry attacking their logical competitors, it was a disconnected third party with ostensibly pure economic motives.

In a certain sense, such activities can be viewed as the direct parallel of conventional lobbying, along with its corresponding perspectives. Taking Sierra strictly at their word, Chesapeake's activities are simply like those of psychological conditioning through positive reinforcement - rewarding and promoting behaviors which so happen to benefit their interests, the same way individuals and industries might support candidates whose actions and beliefs correspond with their own interests. The other perspective of course is that Sierra and others become beholden to their donors, altering their message and focus to keep the money coming - something which Sierra's Brune takes great pains to attempt to dispel, particularly by refusing future funds from Chesapeake in rather pharisaic fashion.

Yet at the heart of this is what has fundamentally begun to go awry with American capitalism - it has become, in essence, "political capitalism" (aka, "Crony Capitalism") particularly when it comes to energy. Resources otherwise devoted to research and development of more abundant resources are instead poured into games of political influence-peddling, a game in which the winners reap privilege and favor from regulators, all to the detriment of consumers.

Meanwhile, funneling money into environmental lobbying organizations has been fundamentally dual-purpose - for one, "buying off" groups in a mafioso-like protection racket as well as hiring them on as mercenary lobbyists to rig the regulatory regime in their favor. This raises obvious problems across the political spectrum - unlike the way Rod Adams characterizes the issue as market advocates as blithely dismissing the matter as, "This is what you get when you play with fire," political capitalism - particularly in energy markets - should be worrying to anyone with a vested stake in environmental and energy security issues.

And unfortunately, no one's hands are really clean when it comes to this one. The fossil fuel industry continues to profit handsomely from uncaptured externalities in their products - everything from the carbon dioxide they are allowed to freely spew into the air to the pollutants which come out the flue of every coal plant - especially egregious when one examines how existing coal plants have been grandfathered in to more stringent environmental regulations. And indeed, the natural gas industry has proven expert at playing ahead of the curve on this one, when it comes to both paying off environmental organizations to promote natural gas as a "bridge fuel" as well as positioning themselves as the "clean(er)" source of energy. Those with slightly longer attention spans might remember fossil fuel magnate T. Boone Pickens' implausible wind corridor plan - in reality, a plan to reap tremendous benefits by hawking natural gas - something he just so happened to have a large vested interest in.

Nor coal has been a shirking violet, both with their "America's Power" campaign as well as their steadfast opposition to any carbon pricing scheme.

And indeed, it goes without saying that renewable sources have their heads deepest in the trough, both in advocating for political mandates for producers to buy their products (renewable portfolio standards) as well as demanding outrageous subsidies (electricity feed-in tariffs and above-market energy price contracts) in order to keep an otherwise unsustainable business plan afloat.

Finally, an area where I at times am forced to part ways with my nuclear advocacy colleagues - yes, nuclear too is at times guilty of the same behavior (if to a lesser extent), particularly in the face of high-stakes "energy policy" legislation. The counter-argument many nuclear advocates make is that nuclear is uniquely hamstrung as an energy source by federal regulations - which is indeed true. Nuclear plants requires years of licensing approval before construction can even take place and must maintain a record of safety and waste stewardship unheard of in any other energy sector. But in my mind, the answer is not more special pleading with the government to offset these requirements, but to simply level the playing field - let the same standards apply across the board and then we'll see how "cost-competitive" other conventional energy sources are. (Don't hold your breath for Congress to move on that one.)

Much like the Game of Thrones, in the game of political capitalism, you win or you die. (And either way, consumers lose.) But the only surprise in this debacle is in how long it has taken anyone to notice that game has already long been in motion.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What's your alternative?

As I've gotten older, a particular strategy for more illuminating and constructive discussions and debates I have found when someone expresses deeply held hostility or opposition to an idea is, "So what's your alternative?" Not only does this serve as a test of the seriousness of the individual opponent, but it also has the effect of turning the focus of the discussion from being one solely focused upon defending one idea to evaluating the relative merits of multiple ideas in context.

This of course has particular relevance to many aspects (and objections) to the nuclear fuel cycle, especially when it comes to the most serious objections, such as what to do with spent nuclear fuel. For example, a nascent tactic of anti-nuclear activists has been to insist that no solution exists for waste, something which both demonstrably false (e.g., deep geologic disposal - think WIPP or Yucca Mountain, or even deep borehole disposal - is both technically sound and readily achievable, despite being in my opinion wasteful; in addition, strategies such as reprocessing remain immediately viable and advanced reactor concepts and technologies, including thorium-based concepts - think LFTR - are clearly on the horizon) in addition to being entirely myopic.

To wit - if the waste problem is unsolvable, not even shutting down every reactor tomorrow will rectify this, while solving the above problem makes the objection moot. In as much, a good test for the seriousness of the objector's environmental (or other) principles is in whether they are interested in solving the problem or finding a new objection.

The above can be couched as example of the alternative hypothesis strategy in action. If geologic disposal is out of the question, what is your proposed alternative? If reprocessing in unpalatable, what do you propose to do instead? The purpose here is manifold - in addition to testing the seriousness of the objector themselves, the focus is now placed upon the search for a satisfactory solution rather than assuming a defensive posture.

And of course, this applies more broadly as well. Inevitably, there is the objection that nuclear is "too risky." Despite my obvious disagreement, what is your proposed alternative? More natural gas turbines - taking with it both the direct risk to safety as well as the overall increase in greenhouse gasses? A panoply of intermittent energy sources like wind and solar with their attendant infrastructure requirements, high costs, and requirements for backup given their rather limited scale and availability factors? It may well be that no common agreement can be found, given the emphasis different individuals will place upon specific factors (economics, risk, environmental impact, etc.). But putting the problem into the context of evaluating proposals like nuclear energy not in the context of a perfect (and perfectly fictional) alternative but against the very real alternatives available (with all of their attendant limitations) can provide an extremely clarifying aspect to the discussion.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Interminable innumeracy: "renewables" versus nuclear

Back to the Future Delorean
Interestingly, Doc Brown's modified Delorean was also the
equivalent output of a modern nuclear plant. Heavy.
A confession - I listen to and read a fair amount of science stories. (Yes, self-outing as a nerd right out the gate). And whenever the topic of renewable energy sources comes up, invariably a spurious comparison to the generating capacity to nuclear plants will come up. For example, identified resources for say, offshore wind will be identified somewhere in the realm of tens of gigawatts, to which the guest will inevitably state, "That's the equivalent of dozens of nuclear plants!" (i.e., about 1 GW each). Naturally, no clarification is given to the important factors here - as in, just how many wind turbines / solar cells / magical crystal arrays (okay, so maybe I'm exagerating with the last one) are required to accomplish this task, much less the inherent capacity factor in such a generating system. (In other words, the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow all the time, meaning these generators sit idle for more time than they actually generate power).

A basic unfamiliarity with these concepts (i.e., the scale of individual energy generators and their respective availability factors) tends to produce a pervasive level of innumeracy, which in turn leads to genuinely terrible energy policy positions, such attempting to displace some or all of baseload capacity (including nuclear) with intermittent sources. In an effort to combat this epidemic (and inspired by the old Total cereal commercials which used to air back when I was growing up) I've put together an infographic to demonstrate just how many of these types of generators one needs to replace just one baseload unit.

Comparison of generating requirements of nuclear, solar PV, and wind

I've made high-resolution versions available for download and reuse as well (svg and pdf).

The next time someone claims that renewable energy sources can somehow "displace" nuclear sources for baseload (such as say, Germany is attempting to do), I invite you to ask just how many units (and at what assumed capacity) will be required to accomplish the task. Chances are very good the advocate either doesn't know or simply isn't being honest with the numbers.

An aside: Does this mean I don't think we should use renewable sources at at all? Not really - if sources which coincide with peak demand (such as solar) can shave off demand for "peak unit" power (typically provided by fast-response units like natural gas turbines) and do so at an economically competitive price, more power to them. But don't count on inherently diffuse sources of energy providing baseload power needs anytime soon.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Vermont Yankee lives to power another day

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, supplier of 73% of Vermont's emission-free electricity (and approximately one-third of the state's total electricity), won its day in federal court today, thus granting it the right to keep the doors open and the lights on (for the rest of the state). Vermont resident Meredith Angwin has been tirelessly championing Vermont Yankee's cause, both in person and through her blog, "Yes Vermont Yankee."

Entergy's Vermont Yankee plant had been under siege by a nuclear-hostile governor (Pete Shumlin) and in particular targeted by anti-nuclear groups hoping to seize upon a legislative window to shut down the plant for good. To give some background: when the plant changed ownership to Entergy in 2002, a condition of the deal  (signed in a memorandum of understanding with the legislature) was that Entergy agreed to submit an application with the Vermont Public Service Board (VPSB) for a "Certificate of Public Good" - in essence, a license required of all power operators. Vermont Yankee's current CPG expires on March 12, 2012.

Lando Calrissian
Pray that Vermont does not alter
the deal any further.

Fast foward to the present. Entergy recently received an approval with its application to the NRC to re-license Vermont Yankee for another 20 years of operation (ending in 2032). (Side note: It cannot be over-emphasized that the original licensing period for reactors - 40 years - is one governed historically by anti-trust and economic considerations, rather than any scientific basis. Relicensing appliations are handled by the NRC on a case-by-case basis, wherein operators must prove the plant is physically capable of safely operating to NRC specifications over the extended time period.)

Then, in perfect keeping with Darth Vader's preferred negotiating style, the Vermont Senate passed a law blocking the VPSB from issuing such a certificate, thus attempting to circumvent the NRC and block the plant from operating. Again, this all is in spite of the fact that the NRC (staffed by trained engineering professionals) evaluated Vermont Yankee and determined it safe to operate; instead, this judgement was over-ruled by the governor and legislature of Vermont, distinctly lacking in such engineering credentials.

The full ruling turned essentially on how binding the MOU Entergy signed with the Vermont legislature was; in essence, the court's ruling was that this agreement bound Entergy to the jurisdiction and decision of the VPSB (i.e., obligating them to seek a certificate of public good), however such an agreement did not grant the legislature the right to pre-empt the decision process from the board. Thus, the legislature's move to circumvent the VPSB's process amounted to a change in the implicit contract with Entergy after the fact. (Such shenanigans were not limited to altering the deal after the fact - as has been covered in depth by Angwin, the legislature attempted in mafioso style to impose other conditions for receiving the certificate, such as requiring Entergy to sell electricity to the state at below-market rates.)

So what does this mean in the end for Vermont Yankee? Ultimately, the fate of the plant still rests in the hands of the VPSB, where Entergy must make the case to the board that Vermont Yankee provides an adequate balance of safety, environmental, and economic concerns relative to other sources in its continued operation.  However, today's ruling now grants Entergy that opportunity, the same one afforded to all other energy producers in the state. Finally, unlike the Legislature, such a case in one judged by findings of fact rather than political arm-twisting.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why does Rep. Markey oppose natural gas exports?

It is often stated that politics makes for strange bedfellows. And energy politics makes for perhaps the strangest.

The Research Triangle Energy Consortium blog recently reported on a letter Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) sent to Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging him to reconsider licensing natural gas export terminals. Markey, a ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, is known to be a notorious (and notoriously opportunistic) nuclear opponent.

Markey states in his letter than his concerns are twofold - first, the oft-declared view of natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to solar, wind, and other alternatives (so long as those "alternatives" leave the atom unfissioned as God and nature intended...) as well as a matter of keeping energy prices affordable. Given Markey's track record of outright hostility to one of the cheapest forms of zero-carbon baseload energy around, his sudden concern for energy affordability - particularly in light of the high production cost of wind and solar - is almost laughable.

Opponents of exporting LNG cite a panoply of arguments against allowing U.S. companies to allow exports, the impact on energy prices notwithstanding. One is the possibility of producing higher-value products than the raw gas exported (e.g., ammonia-based products such as fertilizer, of which natural gas is a chief component). The second, cited by Markey and others, is the impact of rising natural gas prices on its direct competitiveness with coal (again, nevermind nuclear...).

Yet both of these arguments are equally specious. For one, given that the asset in question (i.e., LNG) is privately-owned, one should be asking where the government has the right or authority to assert that private producers can no longer sell their products to those who bid at the highest price (i.e., LNG importers), but rather must sell it to businesses deemed "suitable" to the current political agenda. Without going full Galt, it has all the creepy vibes of a stock villain from an Ayn Rand novel.

Second, with regard to concerns over the potential "bid-up" of natural gas prices, it beggars belief that such a similar phenomenon would not also occur as demand rose with increased consumption of natural gas for manufacturing, energy production, and as a transportation fuel. In other words, LNG boosters simply can't have it both ways: cheap natural gas will inspire demand across multiple sectors (energy, manufacturing, and export), and thus the price will not forever remain "cheap." Further, in a market economy, producers will sell their product at the highest margin - be it direct export, manufacturers, or energy companies.

And now, a plot twist

One interesting snag in all of this is something Rod Adams at Atomic Insights pointed out awhile ago as a speculation as to Markey's anti-nuclear fervor: Markey's district represents Everett Marine Terminal, the only operating LNG terminal in the U.S. (note this is a major source of LNG import activity). While I don't share Rod's enthusiasm for pinning down financial interest in the fossil industry as the sole and principle reason for organized opposition to nuclear energy (I find that there is far greater room for ideology in energy politics), it certainly does raise eyebrows. In Rod's thesis, opposition to nuclear naturally drives up demand for natural gas imports - good for Markey's constituency, which makes it good for him.

Yet the shale gas boom throws a wrench into all of this - petroleum companies like ConocoPhillips are already putting in applications to become natural gas exporters. At first glance, one has to wonder then why Markey remains in strident opposition to what would appear to work just as well for his district.

And so we go back to Markey's letter, in which I am forced to wonder perhaps if his intent is to push natural gas prices down, namely by shutting out alternative markets for natural gas consumption. In as much, by keeping the prices low, Markey hopes to outflank competition to alternatives (again, where I part ways with Adams - I truly believe that Markey does want to see an all-solar/wind future, and to hell with the consequences) by undercutting the competition through natural gas. Thus, the "bridge" - natural gas as a vehicle to drive out all future competition to renewables. This line of logic is readily apparent in his letter, where he describes natural gas being used to displace coal (although the term "nuclear" is not present at all in his multi-page letter to Dr. Chu). In as much, Markey's strategy becomes quite clear.

Ultimately, a new abundance of shale natural gas is a boon for energy consumers. While I am a feverent believer that safe and affordable nuclear energy offers the best path toward long-term reductions in carbon emissions and a better environment, the other thing I recognize is the need for affordable energy all-around, of which natural gas clearly does have a role to play. However, Markey's ham-fisted attempts to shunt supply solely to energy production under the guise of "affordability" (and ultimately as a means of manipulating sources of energy production over the long-term) could not be more readily transparent.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Effective and ineffective advocacy

Recently, there's been a push among supporters of nuclear energy to try and promote nuclear energy-related petitions in the White House's recent propaganda stunt online citizen petition initiative, "We the People". Some of these petition topics included advocacy of specific nuclear prototype projects (such as the integral fast reactor [IFR], liquid fluoride thorium reactor [LFTR], and others), others advocacy for nuclear energy education, and so forth.

Rather cynically, the White House decided to raise the signature petition threshold from 5,000 to 25,000 signatures in 30 days. Even still, a few petitions - particularly those related to marijuana and general drug-policy reform, managed to squeak through, along with others tied to topics such as the "Fair Tax" plan and the topic of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Taking a look at the official White House responses - released on a Friday (in other words, "trash day" in media parlance), one can tell that they simply wanted these topics to just go away. The White House takes these kinds of matters no more seriously than a local Congressional representative takes unsolicited letters from individuals: a boilerplate response that simply says, "Thanks, but we still disagree. Now please go away." Pretty clear and convincing evidence what kind of Potemkin Village propaganda fronts initiatives like these are - and a distraction from real advocacy efforts.

Contrast this with actions such as that organized by Meredith Angwin in support of the beleaguered Vermont Yankee nuclear facility. In addition to her blog, "Yes Vermont Yankee," she recently organized a pro-VY rally as a counter to some of the recent anti-VY rallies going on. Originally she expected a turnout of about 25 - and through the power of social media, managed to get over double that (60 total).

This is what effective advocacy looks like. Going out and talking to people - family, friends, and neighbors. Directly engaging with peoples' concerns, many of which are legitimate at their root (in the sense that health, safety, and economics are all legitimate concerns). And they're concerns we have answers for - especially those of us who are educated nuclear professionals.

Some of the most effective actions we can take are simply to educate people - not even evangelizing, but reaching out to organizations like schools, scouting groups, and so on. (Some of the most enjoyable teaching moments I've had so far involve teaching basic nuclear concepts to scouting groups.) One of the chief motivators behind the fear of nuclear energy and radiation is the fact that these issues are poorly understood - the more ordinary mundane they become, the less opportunity there is for the professional scaremongering class to stir up boogeymen.

It isn't always easy - people will often get intimidated when I tell them I'm a nuclear engineer. But the most common way I've found to deflect that and put people at ease is this - I tell them, "Really, it's just a very sophisticated way of boiling water to make electricity." And, bland as that sounds, that really is the root of nuclear energy - controlled nuclear fission which produces heat, which in turn boils steam and turns turbines. That's it.

Getting people to understand this, and the fact that radiation is all around them in nature, are key to allowing the public to make informed decisions on energy, rather than being emotionally manipulated by ignorance and hype.

Online petitions run for the cynical political benefit of their sponsors just won't do this. At best, they are simply used at the discretion of their political puppetmasters, and at worst fruitless efforts like these rob advocates of time better spent on more effective education and outreach efforts.

11/8/2011: To clarify a bit, following a conversation with the creator of the LFTR petition - I'm against petitions as a means of impacting governmental policy (which is next to useless). Petitions as a medium for education - which I still think is relatively limited by the medium itself - is still fundamentally the right idea, in that the goal is to begin a conversation. (Unfortunately, the LFTR petition recently expired, per the 30-day rule of the White House petition system, or I'd have otherwise provided a link.)