Questions for Dr. MacFarlane

So having posted a list of desirable characteristics for NRC commissioners and chairs, the next step would be to ask Dr. MacFarlane how she measures up to these characteristics. One of the key things to interview questions is to ask about PAST behaviors, not hypothetical performance. This is called behavior based interviewing and provides a better indication of how someone will actually perform on the job.

So, Dr. MacFarlane, welcome to my interview.


  • Ms. MacFarlane, your training is in geology, but much of your career has been spent considering the disposal of used nuclear fuel. Could you tell us how you developed your expertise in this area? Where did you seek out information? What experts did you learn from and why did you choose them?
  • Specifically, you wrote co-authored a paper with Dr. Von Hippel and Mr. Alvarez regarding dry cask storage (Accession Number ML120960695) that the NRC specifically refuted (Accession Number ML052340740). Did this exchange of views in any way modify your views? If so, can you describe this reconsideration?
  • Post by Hugh Gusterson (Dr. MacFarlane’s husband) He considers Ed Markey to be “the middle ground” on nuclear. As far as I’m aware no other commissioners’ spouse in the history of the commission has been active either for or against the nuclear industry. Dr. Gusterson appears to have strong opinions that are not in alignment with the current commission. It is critically important that the chair maintain not even the appearance of bias. How will this be accomplished here?
  • Your work in Senator Reid’s office creates a clear conflict of interest regarding Yucca Mountain. In addition, your published works indicating that you’ve made a decision related to the facility despite the fact that the final submittal had not yet been made to the NRC. Similar to Dr Apostalakis’ recusal, will you also recuse yourself from any votes that may come before the commission in regards to Yucca Mountain?

Subject Matter Expertise

  • Your primary expertise appears to be geology. Could you explain when questions of geology have come before the commission for deliberation?
  • What specific expertise do you possess that routinely comes before the commission for deliberation? How did you develop that expertise? Please provide specific evidence – peer reviewed papers, etc.
  • As Chair, you will be responsible for a broad range of issues, and guiding the commission through a number of critical areas, like the response to Fukushima, completing reviews of a number of proposed designs and combined operating licenses, and other new fuel cycle facilities. What is your expertise related to operating nuclear power plants? Can you describe how the commissions review activities are managed or which areas of the Code of Federal Regulation are relevant? Can you please provide a list of all of your areas of expertise as related to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?
  • Dr. Jaczko’s lack of such expertise led to a number of statements and incidents that required retractions by the NRC. In specific, Dr. Jaczko made recommendations for evacuation in Japan that were contrary to the Japanese government. These statements caused significant confusion and harmed the relationship between our governments.
    In the event of an emergency, the chairwoman of the NRC will be responsible for the NRC’s response. Can you explain how the NRC, the EPA,  FEMA, local officials, and the licensee (utility) are to interact to ensure the safety of the public?
  • You’ve spent a great deal of time working in the non-proliferation community. What is your understanding of the NRC’s responsibilities in this area? (Correct answer: Atomic Energy Act makes Secretary of State responsible for the export control of technology. NRC is responsible for Special Nuclear Material. Commerce and Defense on equipment The NRC cannot make proliferation calls regarding TECHNOLOGY.)


  • As a commissioner, you will have a small staff to manage, but as chair you will be the leader of a 4000 person agency. Dr. Jaczko had some serious management issues that we do not need to repeat. We’d like to know that you’ve managed something larger than your desk before taking the reins of this agency. What experience have you had managing multi-layered organizations?
  • Can you take a moment to tell us about a crisis that you managed a team through. What went well and what didn’t? What did you do to assure team cohesion and functionality?
  • Despite a number of years in academia, you have never achieved tenure. Why? This questions goes to an ability to follow-through on activities that are less interesting and to work within the framework of an organization. Such skills are critical in administrators.


The NRC is an unusual structure for a federal agency. No individual is given ultimate power within the commission, rather five commissioners are expected to work as a team developing consensus and driving toward a science based regulatory policy and enforcement regime. Given recent past history on the commission, both commissioners and the chair must be consummate team players, always seeking to advance the agenda of the team. Individuals seeking personal gain, recognition, or personal agendas should be viewed with great concern.

  • A number of colleagues have attested to your interpersonal style and willingness to work with others. Certainly, those skills speak well of your ability to work well within a team. However, the chairwoman of the NRC, you are “the first among equals.” When we look at highly effective chairmen and women of the NRC, we find leaders who work toward consensus, finding ways to develop common cause and common consent among the rest of the commissioners.
    Have you ever worked in such an environment? Can you describe having functioned as a leader in a peer group? What was the result of this group?


Dr. MacFarlane, we’ve heard that you are a nice woman and a dedicated scientist. What we need is an ethical and knowledgeable leader for the NRC. Capable of guiding the commission through complex issues with clarity and technical astuteness. Show us these traits and we’ll support you all the way. Otherwise, please step aside and allow someone more capable lead the NRC.

Criteria for serving on NRC

There have been a significant number of questions raised about Allison Macfarlane’s nomination to the NRC commission with the stated intent to make her chair of the same as soon as she is sworn in as a commissioner. Lots of comments both for and against her nomination have clouded the issues.

I propose that perhaps a better approach is to create a clear set of criteria for both serving on the commission and serving as chair. Because the chair of the NRC must act as the top administrator for an organization with 4000 employees and has considerable decision making power in emergencies, the degree of expertise needs to be significantly higher as chair. Some of those skills can be learned while serving as a commissioner, but should not be developed “on the job” as chair of the NRC.

I tend to prefer criteria that are verifiable by observable behavior. This allows clear questions that require the candidate to demonstrate her qualifications with past actions.


Ethical behavior is a basic requirement for both commissioners and the chair of the NRC. There are several aspects of Ethics in this context are a requirement to be committed to technical and science based regulatory oversight. A committed scientist would be able to discuss when sound data changed a position, especially in areas beyond normal expertise.

A strong regulator also must set aside political beliefs and evaluate issues brought before the commission without regard to political motivation. If even the appearance of political motivation exists, the individual must recuse herself from any decisions related to such motivations. The NRC is not about policy, only about safety of nuclear facilities. Personal opinion cannot unduly influence decision-making within the commission.

Subject Matter Expertise

Subject Matter Expertise can include technical, legal, or regulatory expertise when considering the NRC.


No one can reasonably be expected to be an expert across the many areas of responsibility within the NRC. However, it is reasonable that all commissioners have expertise in one or areas that routinely come before the commission. It should be expected that the commissioner’s primary area of expertise would be one that at least occasionally comes before the commission. Learning beyond traditional degree programs is certainly an acceptable way to gain knowledge in additional areas. Such knowledge might even be gained during time as a commissioner.


Because the chair has significant influence during emergencies and serves a critical function in the smooth function of the commission, it is important that the chair have broad understanding of the technology, legal, and regulatory considerations over which the NRC is responsible.

Dr. Jaczko’s lack of such expertise led to a number of statements and incidents that required retractions by the NRC. Including, evacuation zone recommendations in Japan, as well as stating oversight concerns that go well beyond what the NRC legally can consider. In addition, there are regulatory and technical areas of overlapping agencies. The chairman should at least be familiar with how the EPA, local officials, and utility interact under emergency conditions. Equally important is an understanding of the division of responsibility between State Department, the DOE, and other agencies for proliferation and export control. This can be learned, but usually over a year or two as a commissioner.


An obvious requirement for all commissioners, since they are each required to both directly manage their support staff as well as provide leadership to the broader industry.


Commissioners have relatively small staff to manage. Some limited demonstration of managing and/or interpersonal skills is sufficient. Public speaking is a skill that, while not necessary to be an effective decision maker and regulator, is important in being effective in advocating for change and adequate oversight within the industry.


Chair is leading an agency of 4000 people. It is important that the person in that position have demonstrated the ability to direct a large team with layers of reporting below. Examples would include: Department Chair or dean of engineering at a university, or a management position in DOE or a national lab would be appropriate.

Open Minded

A demonstrated willingness to consider new approaches, technologies, and innovation to improve safety and performance is important for all commissioners. Commissioners should be open-minded in seeking to understand issues, reviewing innovative solutions and acknowledging that multiple approaches to problem solving are valid.


The NRC is an unusual structure for a federal agency. No individual is given ultimate power within the commission, rather five commissioners are expected to work as a team developing consensus and driving toward a science based regulatory policy and enforcement regime. Given recent past history on the commission, both commissioners and the chair must be consummate team players, always seeking to advance the agenda of the team. Individuals seeking personal gain, recognition, or personal agendas should be viewed with great concern.


Commissioners should be able to demonstrate effective team work. Including working within a team to develop consensus, accepting alternate approaches, the usual give and take of team membership.


The chair of the NRC should be able to provide demonstrated ability to work in a “first among equals” team. Because the NRC’s unique 5 member commission makes all policy decisions as a group, the chair must be able to lead in this environment to develop consensus basis rulings and guidance to the staff performing the work.

Similar working environments would be a leadership role in a team of peers that successfully completed its mission. Such evaluations should be supplemented by team member comments.


Dr MacFarlane may well be a qualified NRC commissioner; she may even be qualified to chair the commission. What I ask for, however, is that such qualification be documented in past performance and demonstrated for the rest of us to see BEFORE she takes office as a commissioner. Even, more importantly, before President Obama (or anyone else) nominate her to the position of chair of the NRC.

Events over the past year or more have made it quite clear the chaos and potentially disastrous consequences of a chairman who lacks understanding of the NRC’s role and an ability to lead such an important commission.

NRC meeting on Laser Enrichment

Last night, I went to the NRC public meeting regarding licensing of a laser enrichment facility at the GE-Hitachi site north of Wilmington, NC. I’d never been to such a meeting before so I was curious to hear what was said and see who attended the meeting.

The meeting was set up in a space at UNCW, the local university. That was the first fun thing, I don’t know all the buildings on campus, so just finding the building and a place to park was amusing. School is still in session at UNCW (finals week, I believe) so there were lots of students around.

The NRC brought in a retired NRC staff person to act as a moderator, which I thought was very effective. It prevented any one individual or group from dominating the proceedings. The meeting started with introductions and presentations by the NRC staff.

I learned a new acronym (we nuclear types really, really love acronyms) IROFS. Item Relied On For Safety. Apparently that’s the term for safety related items in nuclear fuel cycle facilities as opposed to nuclear power plants. Why in the world do we have to have different terms for the same concept? Is this just another way to confuse people?

I thought the NRC did a nice job of going over at a high level all of the various areas they look at in granting a license to a facility. The presenter, Nick Baker, spend some time talking about risk management. In simple terms, if an event has a high consequence, it must be made highly unlikely, or even better “not credible”. Not credible means impossible in regular English. He also explained passive controls as essentially setting up the facility to make safe operation automatically happen without active intervention by people or equipment.

There was some discussion about decommissioning funds. Unlike many industries, nuclear facilities licensed by the NRC must put together a plan for funding the eventual decommissioning of the site. This plan must include protections for the possibility of bankruptcy by the company that is applying to build the facility. The plan is reviewed every few years and updated. If the projections change, the company is required to increase the funding.

Then the NRC reviewed the environmental impact statement in quite a lot of detail that I’m not going to try to repeat here. I was impressed with their thoroughness. Apparently, something of archaeological significance was found on the site, and they are actually shifting the roads to avoid damage to the location.

The NRC expects to issue license September 2012. The folks at GE don’t plant to start construction until 2014. That seems like a long delay, but I presume there’s a business reason on GE’s part.

Finally, they opened the floor for questions from the audience. It was very polite, with several citizens expressing support for the project as well as asking questions in more detail. Most folks with concern were worried about potential contamination with radiation of the environment. The NRC explained how the facility will contain material and sequester any dangerous compounds.

One individual had come from South Carolina to raise concerns about proliferation. The NRC staff tried to explain the law regarding who has jurisdiction regarding proliferation concerns. It is a very complicated subject with 5 agencies having input to the matter. But in the end, the State Department has the final say.

There were also questions regarding the depleted uranium. It will be stored on site as Uranium hexafluoride (UF6), in canisters. At ambient temperatures, the material is a solid and the canisters will be slightly below atmospheric pressure, so if a leak occurs (like a shot), the canister will pull air in, the chemistry within tends to be self-sealing and will likely reseal the leak. Eventually, these tailings will be delivered to the DOE, but GE will have to pay them to handle disposal. That payment is a part of the decommissioning fund.

Since we live in hurricane territory, someone asked what would be impact of cat 4 hurricane? The NRC responded that the facility is designed to withstand it. In fact, it is built to same standard as nuclear power plants.

Finally, apparently the state has recently identified a rare flower and a rare squirrel on the site. This was new information that had only been presented to the NRC on April 23. They are still looking into the impacts.

With that the meeting ended. I was pleased by the polite interchange between the public and the NRC. Having heard of some terrible meetings where protests and abuse of presenters occurred, I was encouraged by the way the meeting was conducted and the behavior of everyone in the room.

Back in the Saddle, almost…

Finally back to blogging after a couple of weeks off. While my vacation was great fun, flying back to the east coast from Hawaii is a harsh trip and then catching up on everything took more time than I thought it might.

However, this week I’m offering up something a little different for you, my readers. Last summer, I worked on an article for publication in the International Association of Energy Economists newsletter with a friend of mine, Rob Graber. That article was published this week in a newsletter dedicated to looking at how Fukushima affects the world’s energy supply. I’d like to invite you to read these articles and comment here.

Here’s the link:

Vacation Blog #3: Almost there!

The cruise take five full days from Vancouver to Hawaii, I’m sitting on my balcony on the 4th day of open cruising enjoying the first truly tropical feeling day of the cruise. The wind has died down to about 5-6 knots of direct head wind.

We’ve been experimenting with and observing science though, as that is just a part of my nature. With so much open ocean and equally open skies, one can make observations on the effects of light. And experiment a little with polarizing lens. Your typical polarized sun glasses are set up to stop glare from horizontal surfaces, like car hoods, chrome bumpers and things like that. When you rotate them 90 degrees, the light that passes through changes. You’ll see the sky change colors as well as the clouds and the contrast in the sea changes as well.

I have a circular polarizing filter on my camera that allows me to change the orientation of the light as well, and so I took pictures of the same scene from our balcony with the filter turned 90 degrees. You can see the significant difference in the same scene below.

Pacific Ocean view 2Pacific Ocean view 1

It is this trick of light orientation that is used in modern 3D film making, by putting on glasses with the light polarizing at 90 degrees difference, the filmmaker can take advantage to cause one eye to see something slightly different than the other. Our brain combines these two images to create a 3 dimensional view of whatever is on the screen.

Seeing things in different ways is one of those things that engineers are supposed to do. We are trained to solve problems and find better solutions to problem presented to us. However, there are three traps that affect our ability to get to the best solution.

1)      We get stuck in a rut of seeing the problem in only one way and thus seeing only a single solution. The definition of idiocy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

2)     We have a solution, but no corresponding problem. solution in search of a problem

3)     Sometimes we are only comfortable with a few solutions so we try to make our problem fit. If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

Even people in policy making positions that are supposed to spend their time finding innovative solutions to difficult problems can get caught in any of these three traps. Worse, for some policy-makers and organizations it becomes more about keeping a reason for the organization’s existence alive. It becomes more important to sustain the agency that to solve the problem for which the agency was developed. Or the founders of the organization can’t see changing circumstances that make their pet solution or problem irrelevant.

I have spent many years taking my problem solving skills and applying them to problems in unique ways. One thing I’ve found is that by spending time ensuring that your organization truly comprehends and agrees on the problem that is being solved, you are much more likely to find creative solutions that actually fix the problem rather than the symptoms. So many times an organization gets caught up in the way things “should be” or the way people want them to be rather than the way things really are. When an organization spends the time understanding this, it can be a powerful tool for recognizing when a profound change in direction is required and finding ways to make that change happen.

The energy policy of the United States is in need of such an effort. Too many people have their polarizing sunglasses on and oriented in only one direction so they see solutions only in the light their eyes are receiving. The lack of a comprehensive long term strategy for the nation is putting us at peril for our ability to remain leaders in the world. Our country’s policy has been at the mercy of too many shortsighted interest groups and politicians looking for short term gains in order to win or maintain power in the immediate term. We desperately need leadership in government that can stand up and look at the science and the need and develop a road map to the next millennium.

Vacation Blog #2: Smooth Sailing (finally)

Still on vacation, on a cruise ship somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This cruise is called a repositioning cruise, the ship we are on the “Radiance of the Seas” does an Alaska cruise in the summer months and an Australian cruise in the winter months. So, spring and fall are an opportunity to take what are called repositioning cruises. In this case, we’re sailing from Vancouver, BC to Hawaii and then around the islands for about a week. The ship will then go on to Australia, via Bora Bora and Tahiti. We will, sadly, get off the ship in Hawaii.

So for the first five days of this cruise, which my husband chose quite intentionally, the idea was to unplug and unwind from a very eventful year and a sometimes stressful life. Of course, the first two days, the Pacific was anything but pacific. We had pretty big waves and rain and wind and even some of the crew was a bit seasick. Mark and I are pretty insensitive to such things, but none-the-less, I was glad when after two days, we could see the moon through the flying clouds, and the morning dawned with a few puffy white clouds.

I’m sitting on our balcony on the aft of the ship looking at the ships wake and a beautiful blue ocean, no land in sight at all, no other ships, just our cruise ship plowing forward at 18 knots at a heading almost due SW toward Kona, Hawaii. The in room TV has a display of the ship’s position on a globe along with information about the weather and our speed and the ocean depth (it’s now over 3 miles deep below us).

The ship I’m on is powered by huge diesel engines. In fact, we were late getting out of port while enough fuel was loaded for a trip from Vancouver to Hawaii. It’s a long ways and running out of gas in the middle would not be a good thing. There are no sails on this ship as a back-up plan if something happened. I’m not sure they would do any good anyway. This is a mid-sized cruise ship by todays standard, but she’s bigger than the Titanic.

I’ve considered before the possibility of using small modular reactors in the transportation sector. There are several areas for which such machines are great application and a natural fit. Big ocean-going ships are one of the most obvious. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to consider that nuclear navy ships are still just ships. Cargo ships like large container ships and tankers would seem like logical ships to use nuclear power, but there’s always a security risk with such ships in unfriendly waters. Cruise ships tend to stay in friendlier parts of the world and could also benefit from the cleaner form of transportation. One could envision a system much like the navy where the ship is refueled perhaps once every five years or so, about when these ships require some refitting and updating of the interiors anyway.

When the first nuclear cruise ship is built, I hope I can sail on her maiden voyage. That would be an exciting day!

Vacation Blog #1: Of watches and ships

Thursday Sept 15th, we left Wilmington for a 12 day cruise from Vancouver, BC to Hawaii and around the islands. We’ve been planning this trip for more than a year as 2011 marks our 25th wedding anniversary! In honor of being on vacation, I’m doing blogs for the next two weeks that have little to do with my normal areas of expertise, but are more philosophical and more creative (I hope)

As I lay awake the night before, I was thinking that I should take a watch. I haven’t worn a watch in over a year for various reasons. My cell phone has sufficed as a kind of oversized pocket watch. But on board ship, especially for the several days of open cruising, the cell phone is somewhat superfluous – except for telling time and playing “Angry Birds”.

So in the morning I dug around and found my wristwatch. Of course, the battery was dead. At 5am, I didn’t think I’d find any place open to get a new one. I thought about bringing the watch along and hoping I’d have time in an airport, or something to get a battery. Then I remembered something special.

Way back when we married, we managed to take our honeymoon in Europe. A few days each in London, Geneva, and Zermatt, and finally a week in Zurich. I pretended to work in Zurich and my employer paid for my airfare and our hotel in Zurich. As my wedding gift to my husband, we shopped on Bahnhofstrasse for a special watch. We thought being in the land of the famous Swiss watchmakers made it the appropriate gift.

Pocket Watch

Pocket Watch

We purchased a beautiful pocket watch with a clear casing and watch face so that you can see the inner workings. The hours are not marked except a small indication of 12 o’clock, so one only knows the approximate time. Mark has never used it much, because such a watch demands the right kind of clothes to wear and Mark never really liked wearing a vest with a watch pocket.

However, for this trip, it is perfect for us. I wound it up and tucked it into my jeans watch pocket and fastened the chain around a belt loop. While waiting for a flight, I was studying it again, such a precision instrument and yet such an old technology. I began thinking about the beginnings of watches and why they were invented in the first place – to keep accurate time on sailing ships so that they could know where they were even without a coastline.

You see without an accurate way to tell the exact time, mariners couldn’t take a reading from the stars or the sun and know where they were from east to west. They could always tell how far north or south they were by the declination of the sun at noon (the sun’s highest point in the sky). But the early explorers were never exactly sure where they were in longitude without accurate timepieces. To be sure, there were a number of very accurate clocks in the world in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they used gravity and/or pendulums to maintain accurate time. On a swaying sailing ship, these devices were useless.

So the British Royal Society offered a huge prize for the time for someone to invent a timekeeping device that would work on the rolling decks of a sailing ship. The prize stood for many years until a carpenter named John Harrison invented a spring balance system in 1730. His first designs didn’t work as well as needed and the Royal Society couldn’t believe someone from such a lowly profession could have created such a complex device. So he kept refining it and finally in 1761 he submitted a winning design. As he continued to refine it, he ended up with something that looks a great deal like a modern pocket watch. The prize was £20,000 (several million dollars in today’s currency).

This invention allowed a huge leap forward in the ability of exploration and commerce to move around the globe. The ability to know precisely where one was made it possible to travel more swiftly and safely across large stretches of open ocean thus expanding the British Empire into Asia and the Americas much more rapidly that they had been able to before.

Civilization changing inventions don’t come along every day and many times civilization doesn’t recognize them when they do. Clocks had been around for a long time slowly increasing in accuracy and decreasing in size, but Mr. Harrison took a different look at things and realized there had to be a way to make a chronometer that was both compact and accurate. He kept working on it until he was successful.

As we look back in history, we can see these major inventions and their impact pretty clearly. Gutenberg’s printing press, Samuel Morse’s telegraph, Alexander Bell’s telephone, Edison’s light bulb are among those inventions that changed the world. What inventions of recent times are equally world changing?

PEST(EL) in the Nuclear Industry – Social Factors (part 7)

Last time we examined the industry demographics affecting development and growth of the industry. This week, we’re going to look at the social factors affecting acceptance of nuclear industry around the world.

Anti-Nuclear Movement

The nuclear movement has long had detractors that consistently find ways to try to eliminate the industry. Looking at the history of some of the major organizations and understanding the motivation can be instructive.

Friends of the Earth (FOE)

FOE was founded in 1969 when David Brower split with the Sierra Club over nuclear power. Today, they claim environmentalism and human rights as their focus areas with a loose coalition of member organizations around the world. Campaigning against nuclear power continues to be one of their prime focusses.

While they claim to be concerned about global warming, nuclear power is considered to be a “false” solution without


Founded originally to protest nuclear weapons testing in Alaska using peaceful means (ref. Wikipedia article), GreenPeace currently states it goals as follows:

Greenpeace is an independent global campaigning organization that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace by:

  • Catalysing an energy revolution to address the number one threat facing our planet: climate change.
  • Defending our oceans by challenging wasteful and destructive fishing, and creating a global network of marine reserves.
  • Protecting the world’s remaining ancient forests which are depended on by many animals, plants and people.
  • Working for disarmament and peace by reducing dependence on finite resources and calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
  • Creating a toxin free future with safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals in today’s products and manufacturing.
  • Campaigning for sustainable agriculture by encouraging socially and ecologically responsible farming practices.

Greenpeace International

This list of priorities is most interesting in that dealing with climate change is stated as a top goal, but ending the use of nuclear power is not. When one looks further into the Wikipedia article, much is said about stopping the use of coal or oil. The article states that Greenpeace considers the nuclear industry to be a minor industry with major problems. Greenpeace has, however, launched several anti-nuclear campaigns, including terrorist acts against nuclear power plants in Spain.

This stance appears to be totally inconsistent. If climate change is a key concern, it would seem that using nuclear to lower carbon emissions and providing energy to countries desperate for more electricity (like India and China) would be far preferable to building more coal plants.

Sierra Club

Although the Sierra Club was initially not strictly anti-nuclear and actually supported the construction of Diablo Canyon. However, by the 1980’s the Sierra Club became firmly anti-nuclear. In fact, they oppose both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion.

As an aside, when I was a new engineer in California in the early 1980’s, I tried to join the local chapter of the Sierra Club, thinking that the best way to change their opinion was from the inside by convincing the local chapter that nuclear power was in alignment with their goals. When I attended the first meeting and they found out what I did for a living, I was politely asked to leave the meeting and my check for membership dues was returned to me.

Union of Concerned Scientists

Also founded originally to stop nuclear weapons testing, UCS nearly dissolved in the early 1970’s. It re-emerged as a “Nuclear Power watchdog” organization. While it claims NOT to be anti-nuclear, nothing in the records for UCS ever acknowledge positive aspects of nuclear power. When interviewed or quoted in the press, the UCS give a consistent, negative message to the public regarding nuclear power.


It is interesting to note that two of the four started out opposed to nuclear weapons and drifted into opposition of nuclear power. At least in the case of the UCS, this move was mostly to save the organization from oblivion. Of these organization, three claim to be concerned about global warming and yet continue to oppose nuclear power. It is mostly these groups that form the loudest anti-nuclear voices. While the organizations are quite large, many of their activities are not in direct opposition to nuclear power (with the exception of the UCS). Thus their membership does not reflect a referendum on nuclear power.

The NRC’s review process favors the interference of anti-nuclear groups. It does not take significant numbers of supporters, but only a few with relatively modest cost to develop arguments and submit contentions to the process. These contentions drive the cost up and increase the time required. The anti-nuclear organizations then claim that nuclear power is too expensive and takes too long.

Pro-nuclear organizations operate at some disadvantage. Except for unique situations like the current VY court case, there are few venues to stage a rally. Since the NRC doesn’t really have a mechanism to file “anti-contentions” to annihilate contentions (like matter and anti-matter), there is no easy way for pro nuclear grass roots organizations to directly support nuclear power in their community.

We who believe in nuclear power need to find ways to communicate about it and to publicize the positive aspects of nuclear power in responding to global warming, environmental effects of coal, and economic benefit to the community.

I’m headed out on vacation for the next couple of weeks. You may or may not see a blog from me while I’m gone. I’ll be back for sure in October.

PEST(EL) in the Nuclear Industry – Social Factors (part 6)

The “S” in PESTEL is for Social. In a classic PESTEL analysis of the macro environment (in this case the Nuclear Industry) one looks at changes in social trends that can impact on the demand for products and the availability and willingness of individuals to work. In this first analysis, I’m going to look at the industry demographics affecting development and growth of the industry. Next time, I will be looking at the social factors affecting acceptance of nuclear industry around the world.

Nuclear Industry Demographics

The impending retirement of the baby boom generation has begun to have a significant impact on many industries in the US. This impact is magnified in the nuclear industry by two unique factors.

  1. Because nuclear was perceived as an undesirable career choice from 1980 to 2005, there is an entire generation largely missing from the ranks of the utilities, vendors, and regulators.
  2. In the last 5-8 years there has been a significant increase in interest in nuclear energy. Driven by climate change, peak oil and other fossil fuel concerns, this sharp increase has put intense pressure on the industry to hire more workers.

These three factors have combined to create some very unusual demographic curves within the industry. As late as the early 2000’s an analysis of the age demographics in the nuclear workforce showed what is called a J-skewed distribution. The figure demonstrates the age demographics for a typical nuclear company in the time frame. Working age is typically from about 22 until 65, with some folks delaying entry into the work force and some leaving before traditional retirement at 65. You can see in this curve that the peak number of workers was between 50-55 at the time this analysis was performed. The youngest quartile ranged in age up to more than 40 years old.

nuclear demographics

Age demographics of nuclear industry in 2002

These graphs were generally moving up one year for each elapsed year as the employee population continued to age. In fact, many company were driven to hire people as qualified as those who left in order to avoid extensive training time. Such practices continued to skew the curve upward.

In “normal” industries one expects a more bell curve shape to the employee population with the peak somewhere near the mid range of employee ages. As nuclear tends to require at least a basic 4 year college degree, the average total career should be something around 40 years, with a median workforce age of 42, a few folks working beyond 65 and a few folks starting out a little less than 22.

With the renewed interest in nuclear power starting in 2003, companies began much more intense hiring campaigns and began to hire younger staff. For many companies this began to lower the age distribution. However, the age demographics are still not normal with a large population under 30 and a large population 50 and over and few people in the middle, highly productive years of their career.

This bi-modal distribution has a profound effect on the transfer of knowledge and leadership as well as the efficient restart of the industry. In some parts of the industry, significant formal training programs have been developed to bring these younger workers up to speed more quickly. In addition, efforts to hire mid-career employees from other industries with required technical skills and train them on the specifics of the nuclear industry has been helping to fill the gap.

Educational Levels

The nuclear industry tends toward a highly educated workforce. A significant fraction of the employees, especially at design firms, have advanced technical degrees. In order to provide such education, universities have to maintain vigorous nuclear engineering departments with access to test reactors and facilities. Many universities operate in partnerships with national labs or other government facilities in order to support such programs.

However, in the operations staff, less formal education and more rigorous technical training is used. Many nuclear plant operators have come out of the navy programs in the US where they are trained to operate the smaller reactors used on navy ships. Training requirements can be fulfilled through formal education or through more industry oriented courses taught by organizations like INPO or companies that specialize in industrial training.

International Views

For the developed countries that already have nuclear power well in hand, the demographics of the US are quite similar. Differences occur in countries with larger population growth and/or having maintained a growing nuclear industry. Japan, for example, has continued to build new plants on an ongoing basis and has encouraged new employment in the field throughout the past 30 years. There is less skewing of age in the workforce and more continuity in training and development.

Countries trying to develop new nuclear programs have found the education levels required to manage a program entirely within country to be quite challenging. The NonProliferation Treaty limits the use of nuclear power for military purposes, further limiting access to some basic research and educational programs. Countries developing nuclear power must look to other non-weapons states to develop models for educating a work force for supporting a nuclear energy policy that is both efficient and safe.

PEST(EL) in the Nuclear Industry – The Economic (part 5)

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Last time we looked at the US economics of nuclear. The international view is more variable and worth a look at the same issues.

It is interesting to note that most countries (with a few notable exceptions) have not changed their stance on building (or not building) new nuclear plants since the events in Japan. Economics seem to be a key driver in those decisions.

Western Europe is much like the US in regards to economics at this time. Some countries are in more financial trouble than others, but stagnant economic growth and low interest rates dominate. However, there are some key differences that are driving different behaviors in different countries.

United Kingdom

The UK’s economy is much like the US, but with some key differences in the electricity and energy demand market. The UK was more strongly building wind turbines both onshore and off. With such efforts, the inefficiency of wind to meet energy needs has become more obvious. Solar was never really much of an option in the British Isles, and the decline in the North Sea oil and gas reserves as well as rising natural gas prices has given the country notice that other alternatives are needed.

The UK also had to shut down much of its aging nuclear fleet. The technology used in many of the reactors has not been as robust as was initially believed. In shutting these reactors down, the need to develop significant suitable replace power became much more obvious to policy makers and thus made nuclear as more acceptable option.


The French have maintained a nuclear program and have not indicated any rejection of nuclear. However with 75% of electricity already generated by nuclear, France has not indicated a plan to embark on any major building programs. As the current fleet ages, it is not yet clear how France intends to manage the impact. Some plant life extension, which is less expensive is clearly possible, but currently, there is little economic incentive for new build.


Germany has been quite divided about nuclear power with the industrialized south generally more supportive of nuclear due to its low cost and generally high reliability. However, politics seem to have driven the country to drop the nuclear option. There is an economic factor that should not be ignored. Germany has considerable in country coal deposits as well as significant economic interests in Russian natural gas. Together with low growth rates, and some that are willing to try to make wind and solar work, these unlikely interests come together to eliminate nuclear from their current strategy.


The Swiss had an initial knee-jerk reaction to follow in Germany’s footsteps, but at a much more measured pace. The Swiss have little outside resources beyond the hydro-electric system that they operate so well. Swizterland is a mature economy with limited growth and so has some time to make these decisions.

Eastern Europe

Several eastern European nations have looked at Germany’s announced exit from nuclear power as a potential opportunity to provide energy in the shortfall. Poland and the Czech Republic both continue to be strongly supportive on nuclear programs. With the drop in production in Germany, the economic potential of new nuclear in both countries seems to tile more in favor of building new nuclear plants.

Of course, there is a political aspect to any programs in these generally smaller countries within the EU. There is significant pressure from both Germany and Austria for these countries to give up their nuclear ambitions. In order for them to be able to fully leverage such opportunities, some support from pro-nuclear governments is needed.

Emerging markets

I include here China, India, the Middle-East, and other countries rapidly moving up the economic ladder. In all of these countries economic growth is enormous and in many there is significant shortage of energy. The choices to get large amounts of reliable power and still hold GHG emissions and cost within some reasonable limit are few. Thus, most of these countries have looked at what happened in Japan, concluded that modern designs are less prone to similar failures and are proceeding with new nuclear as quickly as they can safely do so. In many of these countries, alternative energy supply are also being pursued aggressively, but in the middle east, for example, the goal is to stop using oil for energy production so that it can be sold to other nations to continue economic growth at home.


This is a quick summary analysis of extremely complex economic drivers in the international arena. However, it is clear that in general the drive to build new nuclear around the world is more clear in economies with considerable growth. Unfortunately, many of these countries do not have as clear a track record in safe operations of such complex facilities. Countries with well developed programs need to remain engaged in the construction and operation of nuclear power plants in order to remain in a position to influence developing countries despite the unclear economic drivers for nuclear power.