Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Resilience Inside and Outside the Nuclear Plant

Bechtel-logoYesterday, a group of folks got together to talk about sustainability and resilience, especially in energy infrastructure and especially as a means of developing urban centers responsibly. It may seem that nuclear energy has only a tangential role here: it provides emission-free electricity to cities that want to be as emission-free as possible. But there’s more to it than that.

Sustainability in this context means doing the least damage to the environment in building and operating buildings and entire cities, with special attention paid to urban infrastructure in developing countries – a project in Cameroon was mentioned a couple of times as an example. Resilience proved to be a bit more interesting (to me) because it spoke to issues that have engaged the nuclear industry since the Fukushima Daiichi accident – ensuring that a facility can withstand and recover from a catastrophic natural disaster.

The major appeal of this meeting was the participation of Amos Avidan, the senior vice president and manager of engineering and technology at Bechtel. Bechtel is an engineering, construction, and project management company that does a lot of work in the nuclear energy industry – it is involved in both the V.C. Summer and Plant Vogtle projects, for example, so what Avidan has to say about energy infrastructure and its resilience is, by definition, interesting. This subject is obviously right in the company’s wheelhouse.

Most of the conversation steered around specific energy types, though solar panels got a shout out because they’re relevant to cities – you can put them atop buildings to provide emission-free electricity. Perhaps a bit problematic in Seattle, but very worthwhile in Phoenix.

Avidan looked at the subject from a broader view. But some of his comments did graze against the nuclear experience.

This is a little cleaned up from the transcript:

“One quick example is when Superstorm Sandy hit and you didn't have electricity for a while. The gas stations in your area wouldn't be able to pump gas because they didn't have a backup system for electricity; or when Hurricane Katrina hit years ago, the pipelines that supply refined products of the Gulf Coast to the Northeast were shut down for a couple of weeks. So there's much more interdependency in the energy infrastructure and hence it's important for us to look at systems and make those systems more resilient for the future, and that's what we call future-proofing.”

Which is exactly what’s been going on with American nuclear plants following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. I haven’t heard it called future-proofing per se, but the effort to further harden nuclear plants against earthquakes and flooding certainly fits into Avidan’s formulation. So does the FLEX program, which installs emergency kit into all the facilities and at two central locations that can be shipped whereever needed.

But a nuclear plant is as useless as any other kind of plant if other components of the energy infrastructure, such as substations and transmission wires, are damaged. This can seem at least a little more intractable, so the goal is to beef up the resilience of the system. (FLEX contributes considerably here, too.)

Here is Avidan again on ways in which resilience can be enhanced:

We also use a lot - all the vast amount of information, for example. Geographic information systems which not only give you detailed maps of an area, but you can use them to simulate if there is this kind of increase in sea water level and this kind of an extreme weather effect, like a hurricane or a tsunami.

How would you protect those systems so we can design for that? And we can use the information to prepare for the disaster, to avoid it if we can, and during the - when there's an extreme weather event, people tend to use this kind of information, social media and others to react much faster to it. As you know, resiliency means recovering quickly from events that you couldn't stop.

I’m sure this has been true since the first telegraph wire was strung. Still, sometimes, the old ways are good ways, especially enhanced in the ways Avidan describes.

Avidan did speak a little about the accident in Japan. Frankly, it would have been interesting to hear more from his perspective, but the discussion clearly wanted to stay away from specific applications of sustainability and resilience to focus on these issues generally. The benefit of this approach is that it makes you fill in the energy-specific blanks yourself, as I’ve been doing in showing how the ideas discussed might apply to nuclear energy. Even if the nuclear pickup at this event was light, the topic is one in which the nuclear industry is fully engaged.

The forum was sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of DC’s more even-handed policy shops. You can watch the 90-minute presentation here.

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