Dog Days of Summer

The phrase is used to describe those hot, sultry days in July and August. Here in the southeastern U.S., these days are typically almost unbearable with the heat and humidity. We welcome the break in weather that comes in the fall that allows us to open the windows to enjoy fresh air.

The Greeks and the Romans believed that the “Dog Days” were an evil time. Here’s how Brady’s Clavis Calendaria put it: “The Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies,”

I made the mistake of traveling during this evil time over the past couple of weeks. My odyssey of weather, mechanical problems, delayed flights, missed connections and luggage was almost worthy of Homer.

I know that everyone reading this has experienced the same. I try to use these experiences as learning opportunities. While it is tempting to say “I learned never to travel again,” I know that I will be on planes and going places within a few weeks. So what were my lessons?
The airlines are using some kind of optimizer to minimize the number of planes and maximize their time in the air. Makes sense. They don’t make money if a plane is sitting on the ground.
The optimum the airlines are finding is a “brittle optimum.” If you think of optimums as either a peak or a valley, where a ball will sit still, the airlines have chosen a “peak” where once the ball shifts even SLIGHTLY off the optimum, it will roll further and further away.

A “valley” is a stability point; the ball moves away, but rolls back to the optimum with no external forcing mechanism.

They count on the overnight reset to bring the system back to “optimum.” In other words, they roll the ball back up the hill overnight, but that’s a different Greek myth (Sisyphus) for another day.

We passengers are at least partly to blame. Few travelers are willing to pay even a few dollars more for an improved on time rate. In the world of deregulated air travel, we’ve demonstrated to the airlines that the only thing that matters is the cheapest fare.
From now on, I will try to remember Harding’s First Principal of Travel: ALWAYS FLY IN THE MORNING.

Cheapist Aint Best. What does this have to do with nuclear energy? The electricity system in the U.S. is in real danger of doing EXACTLY the same thing. Ratepayers, public utility commissions and independent system operators are always looking for the cheapest electricity.
The fact that some of the players get outside subsidies, or that some players get state mandates to support their chosen form of generation, are inadequately considered in electricity markets. Also improperly considered is the need for capacity to be available whenever the demand is there.

The capacity issue is the one that haunts the nuclear industry the most. Flying a plane half full to get equipment to the right place, and to have some extra equipment in the system to allow for potential failures, is the right thing to do but it costs money.

If the airline cannot get compensated by the passengers for having extra planes available when and where they are needed, they eliminate those flights that don’t pay enough.

Base load plants operate best when they run flat out as much as possible. Having them on line and operating gives the system cushion for when other generation isn’t available or demand peaks high enough.

The problem is that the markets will not pay (reward) these plants for their capacity to generate electricity when demand is low or their ability to stabilize the grid, or they don’t pay enough to keep the plants running.

This is where the analogy ends. There is a profound difference between the airlines and electricity. If passengers decided that on time performance was worth paying for, airlines could quickly add planes to their fleets and improve that performance over a matter of a few months.

If nuclear plants are closed, and their licenses withdrawn, there is no way to bring that generation capacity back. New plants take time to build.
If we allow nuclear plants to continue to close for economic reasons alone, we’re going to wake up one day and realize that we allowed a terrible decision process to destroy our way of life.

We have to stop talking to ourselves and get out there and start shouting to the world about these issues. Too many people are asleep and dreaming of a make-believe world where windmills and solar panels will keep them warm and dry and well fed.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week Vol 13 #582, 08.28.2014 where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to or contact the publication at

Liar’s Poker and Other Games of Chance

According to the Urban Dictionary, Liar’s Poker is an American bar game played with one-dollar bills. Each player picks from a pile of face-down bills, and uses the eight-digit serial number on the face of the bill (kept private) to shape a playing strategy.

This is a consecutive bidding game where players “bet” on the total number of occurrences of digits on all bills involved in the hand. The winner of each hand is decided when a bid is challenged by all the other players. If the bid is successful the bidder wins all the one-dollar bills. If he loses the bid he pays everybody a dollar.

Why am I writing this month’s column on Liar’s Poker? Because it is (1) a game of statistics and combinations, and (2) makes a point about bluffing versus knowledge.

How this relates to the energy industry in general and nuclear industry in particular in this brave new “carbon free” world is very simple: regardless of generation type the cost of construction, operation, fuel and electricity produced is a game of Liar’s Poker.
With respect to nuclear, different reactors will cost different amounts in different countries with different economic and regulatory structures. In other words, the costs of building reactor X in China won’t be the costs of building it in the United States.

The capital costs of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. are far from well known.Large light water reactors have not been built for many decades, and the current Westinghouse designs under construction in Georgia and South Carolina haven’t been built more than a few times anywhere in the world.Frankly, anybody that claims to know is playing Liar’s Poker.

Predictions about the cost of building small modular reactors are clearly Liar’s Poker, and the way things are going lately some of the bids by the players in the SMR world might be challenged. How many 1’s are on your dollar bill?

Wind and solar installations are also beginning to run into a NIMBY enthralled public that wants energy, as well as goods and services, but doesn’t want any of the messy bits to be located too close to their homes. As the local populations become more sophisticated in how to use government red-tape against ANY industrial facility, the cost of electricity will continue to climb. How many 2’s on your dollar bill?

Throw renewable portfolio standards, production tax credits and increased environmental regulation into the mix, and the bluffing and betting that goes on begins to boggle the mind. How many 3’s on that dollar bill?
The coal industry is trying to bluff its way through the entire issue by convincing the world that their product is really clean, and that coal ash spills are not really their fault. Oh, and did we mention the number of jobs coal provides around the country? How many 4’s on that dollar bill?

Then methane comes riding in to the rescue with its claims of being a great back-up for renewables, how much lower carbon it is than coal, how low cost it is and how wonderfully safe it is— until a major winter storm smacks the Northeast or a pipeline blows up under a building.
Let’s not even talk about the international issues related to methane. Russia’s current stranglehold on some countries in Europe could be an entirely separate discussion. How many 5’s do you have?

On and on it goes. 6’s? 7’s? 8’s? 9’s?

All of these costs, risks, and benefits are almost impossible for the average citizen to comprehend. Is it any wonder that we have no well thought out long-term energy policy that might result in reliable energy available at reasonable costs both to the environment and to our economy?

We have to challenge the bid and start to move forward with the BEST options available to our country. The “all of the above” strategy we are currently playing is, in the end, NONE OF THE ABOVE.

What really matters is how many 0’s are on the bill. Too many of those and there will be no winner, only losers in this game of Energy Liar’s Poker. •

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week Vol 13 #566, 04.24.2014 where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to or contact the publication at

Yucca Mountain Follies: Let’s Rewrite The Ending, Please

Another act in the long running farcical melodrama called Yucca Mountain is unfolding this month. We have such a cast of characters that Broadway, or perhaps Monty Python’s Flying Circus, would be envious.

The dastardly villain has been played well by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has managed to include henchmen that are then disposed of when their usefulness has ended.

His chief minion was Dr. Greg Jaczko, whom he manipulated onto the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s five-person commission, then again into the chairmanship.

Dr. Jaczko proved himself more dastardly than even Harry could manage, what with his ill- timed outbursts at staff and overt manipulation of the other commissioners.

After banishing the good doctor into oblivion at the Department of Energy, Harry brought in a new minion, one with more charm, Dr. Allison Macfarlane.

Our hero in this story at the moment is the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, which finally issued a Writ of Mandamus against the NRC.

The judges waited for a year, in the hope that Congress would do something to make its intentions clear, but between the political stalemates in almost every aspect of government and Harry’s Machiavellian maneuvers in the Senate, no clear intention was forthcoming.

This Writ is historically significant as it represents the first time in U.S. history that the judicial branch has compelled the executive branch of government to complete an action.

The NRC seems to have chosen the role of well-meaning but ineffectual country bumpkin. The other commissioners are unable or unwilling to stand up to the machinations of Sen. Reid and his minions and, with their silence, have allowed an extreme miscarriage of justice—not to mention a blatant flouting of the laws passed by Congress and ratified by a sitting president.

Of course, the victim here is Yucca Mountain.

Sadly, the project is still on life support and the prognosis is not good. The hapless NRC has insufficient funds to bring it back to life, but only to complete the documentation of what kind of repository it could have been.

Dr. Macfarlane, Reid’s latest minion at NRC, has decided to ask the parties to the lawsuit to tell her what to do.

It would seem that her charm and her proclaimed desire for scientific truth does not permit her to find more devious and cut- throat methods to keep Yucca Mountain in a coma and waiting for death.

It appears that she is hoping that the wily Sen. Reid will get other henchmen to give her the air cover she needs to put Yucca Mountain back on ice.

To be a true melodrama, though, audience participation is required. We audience members must boo and hiss the villain, cheer the hero, and sigh for the victim.

We have a chance at participation, though it requires more effort than just loud applause. The NRC asked for the public to comment and suggest what the agency should do next.

They have about $11 million to spend, not enough to complete everything in their purview on Yucca and rescue it from certain death, but enough to tell us what it could have been. Flaws and

positive aspects of the facility. Lessons to be learned for the next time we perform this work.

Help the NRC step up to the hero’s role and stop being the stumbling, bumbling fool. Send an e-mail to the Secretary of the NRC:

Tell him that the NRC should issue the essentially complete volume 3 of the Safety Evaluation Report, then complete issue volumes 4 and 5.

Then demand that after that, the agency should lay before Congress and the nation what it will take to complete the work mandated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Let the next act begin.

By providing that statement, perhaps we can help the other commissioners decide that the courts should not be the only hero in this story and demand a different ending to this multi-act play.

Such an action would allow the NRC to resolve the Waste Confidence issue that has brought all licensing actions to a halt and allow the U.S. to move forward with nuclear energy.

Whether or not we ever bury a single fuel bundle underground at Yucca Mountain is not, in fact, the point.

But having the option available when we finally need to store fuel is—and all we are asking for.

After all, nuclear is the only energy capable of delivering the vast quantities of electricity to drive our country without polluting our air and our water. That’s pretty heroic.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week #5383, 09.26.2013. where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to or contact the publication at

A love letter to Engineers

Popular media describe engineers in two ways:

1. Bumbling white male nerds in ill-fitting garb and thick glasses with only a vague awareness of the world outside our books, computers and equations. Not evil, but frequently patsies of more worldly people like James Bond.

2. Active evil-doers in cahoots with the evil scientists, helping to create machines that will destroy mankind, if not the entire world, only to be defeated by the infinitely better looking and certainly more personable heroes.

But those of us who work as engineers, have managed engineers, are the proud parents of engineers, or just hang around with engineers, know the truth: engineers are pretty cool people.

Most of us became engineers because we like to solve problems and make things work better. Usually, we broke things as kids. We took apart watches, or cars, or (in my case) musical instruments and either succeeded or failed in putting them back together.

Somebody we respected, a teacher or parent or scout leader, suggested we should be an engineer. Little did we know how much fun engineering would be. Engineers get to take scientific discoveries and use them to improve life on our planet.

It is a well-kept secret that engineering requires extraordinary creativity alongside those familiar skills of discipline and logic. Such skills are useful in almost every possible career. Engineers do much more than traditional engineering roles. Engineers become salesman, lawyers, and doctors. Engineers teach at all levels of education—primary, secondary, and college level.

Engineering should be the greatest equal opportunity career on the planet. Engineers don’t have to be white or male. We don’t care if you are good-looking, married, gay, or disabled. We don’t care if you can run a four-minute mile or bench press 150 pounds. A true engineer cares mostly about solving the problem at hand. Anyone who can provide insight and solutions is sought out and encouraged.

Engineers moved us beyond the bounds of earth’s gravity. Engineers improve the lives of people today. Engineers will be the ones to solve future energy needs while improving the quality of the land, air, and water.

We are not those bumbling nerds people love to laugh at.

My engineering friends are gourmet cooks, master bakers, outstanding musicians, photographers, artists, actors, and writers. They love history, studied the classics, and debate the merits of the Byzantine empire.

Engineers knit, crochet, quilt, cross-stitch, and sew. They are deacons in their churches and coaches of kids’ soccer, baseball, and basketball.

Stereotypes do have a basis in fact, though. I’ve never met an engineer that doesn’t like science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is to varying degrees that we enjoy these things, but I’ll admit that I can quote the dialog to most of these shows with ease.

Without engineers, life would be shorter, dirtier, darker, and much less fun. Engineers are behind every major technology in your home and business, from light bulbs to computers to refrigerators, plumbing, and HVAC. Engineers make vacuums work better and buildings safer. They make cars faster and more efficient.

What we don’t seem to do, though, is politics. In the U.S. Congress, only five representatives and one senator are engineers.

The proud heritage of creative problem solving that is the heart of the engineer should be in Washington, D.C.

Even more importantly we should be in the state houses helping ensure decisions are being [made] with sound information and solid technical understanding of the consequences.

Question: How can you tell an extroverted engineer from an introverted one?
Answer: The extrovert looks at your shoes instead of his own.

I fear that we engineers are not working hard enough to reach out to our friends and neighbors. Too many young people today are not looking into engineering as a career. Society idolizes the gifted athlete and celebrates celebrity. Engineers are relegated to the audience, not the spotlight.

Yet that spotlight would not work without the brilliant design and technological understanding of an engineer. Not everyone can be an engineer, but everyone can understand the principles. We must find more ways to reach out to today’s youth.

If we can create celebrities at fixing houses and baking cakes, surely we can create more role-models than Bill Nye, the science guy, and MythBusters.

I am proud to proclaim my association with engineers and engineering. The men and women who work as engineers in the nuclear industry, and in every industry, are problem solvers. That, my friends, is what engineers do.

And if we are going to tackle climate change without bankrupting our economies or destroying our quality of life in the process, we will need engineers to push up their glasses, take their pencils out of their pockets and get to work.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week #558, 2.27.14. where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to or contact the publication at

Global Warming or Not, Methane Is A Bad Plan

Last year at the end of January, spring was already beginning to be felt in my little corner of the world and I was writing about my spring flowers.

This year the scene is quite different.

As I sit and write this column, we are hunkering down for a storm of nearly epic proportions for my part of the world: six inches of snow (15 centimeters for those of you with a metric bent).

That storm will start with several hours of freezing rain, then sleet, then snow—and will be accompanied by some pretty impressive winds.

Any small mis-prediction of the progression of precipitation and temperature by the weather forecasters and it could get even uglier very quickly.

This combination of rain, sleet, and snow is extremely dangerous, even by more northern standards.

Thick ice coating electricity lines and trees and whipping winds is a recipe for wide-spread power outages.

The hours of freezing rain mean that the local road crews can’t put salt, sand, or anything else on the roads as everything will simply wash off before the pavement freezes solid.

Many of our roads in this part of the world have fairly high crowns and deep ditches to help channel water during hurricanes and tropical storms.

That means when they freeze and then get snow, motorists brave enough, desperate enough, or just stupid enough to go out, run a high risk of sliding off the road and into the ditch.

I grew up in Iowa, where terrible blizzards and dangerous winter driving was a fact of life, but we learned how to drive in the stuff and when to stay home.

Our homes mostly had methane heat and additional wood burning fireplaces were as much a safety feature in the case of winter power outages as anything else.

Here, though, in coastal North Carolina, people don’t expect such conditions. Houses have electric heat pumps but, frequently, no fireplaces.

I don’t have access to methane—no pipeline in my neighborhood—but  we do have two 20-pound propane tanks and a camping stove for cooking if the electricity goes out.

This winter has brought some extreme weather to a wide swath of the United States. The Midwest has endured cold more extreme than it’s seen in decades.

My brother and sister-in-law in Minneapolis are scraping huge piles of snow off the roof to prevent ice dams from damaging their home.

I was in Ames for the first week of classes at Iowa State earlier this month and enjoyed single digits, whipping snow, and slick sidewalks, all the while being told that “I should have been there a week earlier when it was minus 20.”

Watching the news reports from around the country, I see that propane and methane prices are skyrocketing in the face of these extreme weather conditions.

Even coal fired electricity generation is struggling to manage the extreme weather. Those mountains of coal freeze into giant lumps that are impossible to move into the system to be crushed and burned.

Whether you believe these weather events were caused by global warming, or prove that global warming isn’t happening, the sheer impact on our electricity supply cannot be ignored.

Nuclear electricity has continued to hum along, providing clean, reliable, and consistently priced electricity no matter WHAT the weather is doing outside.

Hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or not, sunny, cloudy, or dark— nuclear energy continues to power our homes, our businesses, and our factories.

We need  to  remind  EVERYONE just  how well nuclear  has performed for this country.

Nuclear plants are fueled for 1.5 to 2 years, and utilities can easily hold enough inventory for another fuel reload.

The U3O8, UF6 and LEU turned into that fuel is stored in containers in warehouses with no risk of damage from weather.

The only affect extreme cold has  is to  increase the  relative efficiency by lowering the temperature of the ultimate heat sink.

Investing in building more nuclear plants, creating new designs, and  finding more  ways to  use this  technology in  delivering energy to our homes, schools, businesses, and factories is one of the best things we can do as a country—especially today, when extreme weather events are increasingly disrupting the economy and wreaking havoc on everyday life.

Let’s stop closing plants, and find ways to expand them instead.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week #554, 1.30.14. where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to or contact the publication at