In This Issue
Microbiomes of the Built Environment
September 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 3
The covid-19 pandemic suddenly directed awareness to potential health impacts of the built environment of everyday living – schools, dwellings, offices, public buildings, and other spaces. This issue explores the “microbiome” of the built environment in the postpandemic reality in terms of ventilation performance, filtration, understanding and quantification of transmission risk, protection of “benign” microbes, and the important role of equity, among others.

A Word from the NAE Chair: Engineering Leadership

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Author: Donald C. Winter

I expect that few individuals today would question the notion that we live in challenging times. Today’s challenges are very diverse—from climate change and covid-19 to economic disruption and national security threats in Europe and the Pacific.

Society calls out for leadership: leaders who can not only provide a vision for the future but define an achievable roadmap to get there. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to look at leadership as a skill applicable primarily in the business, military, or political domains. Even those who accept the concept of engineering leadership tend to think of it in terms of projects or entrepreneurship.

But national and international public policies are often dependent on engineering concepts, and consequently also dependent on effective engineering leadership. They need and deserve expert assessment of the potential opportunities and the implications of alternative policies, best addressed through a systems engineering approach. This is an area where, I believe, the National Academy of Engineering can and should play a critical role.

The policies behind the transition from hydrocarbon-based energy sources to renewable sources, to address CO2 emissions and the resulting impacts on the planet, are a good example of the need for engineering leadership. While there is general agreement on the objectives of such policies, there is little agreement on the path to achieve those objectives. In particular, there is great uncertainty about a suitable investment strategy to achieve the desired results. Various policy measures have greatly differing returns on investments and can have significant collateral impacts.

Providing uninterrupted power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is massively challenging! The difficulties are evident in Europe, where the transition to solar and wind power has been complicated by varying weather conditions, early deactivation of nuclear power sources, and limits on natural gas availability from Russia.

Without a systems perspective on the full impact of various policies and an executable roadmap to achieve the desired resilient and dependable electric grid, the resulting problems should not be a surprise. The transition of electric power must be engineered to be successful.

To provide uninterruptible power, solar and wind power need either a storage mechanism, such as batteries, or a resilient supplemental source. Unfortunately, scaling existing battery technology to the levels required is proving to be problematic. The future use of “green hydrogen” as a storage medium holds promise but the challenges of generating, storing, and distributing hydrogen at the scale required are formidable.

An alternative supplemental source of power that does not contribute to global CO2 emissions is nuclear. While events at Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima Daiichi (2011) remind us of the dangers posed by poorly designed and operated reactors, it is also important to remember that those were designs from many years ago.[1] France, which has 56 operable reactors (built between 1980 and 2002, with more under construction), safely produces 70 percent of its electric power from nuclear.[2]

What may come from a new generation of nuclear technologies?

The topic is the subject of a study, initiated and coorganized by the NAE, that will “identify opportunities and barriers to the commercialization of new and advanced nuclear reactor technologies in the United States over the next 30 years as part of a decarbonization strategy.”[3] Looking at a range of perspectives, including safety, nuclear waste, and workforce requirements, the committee is expected to issue its report early in 2023. The scope of the committee’s effort is daunting but so is the opportunity. Along with a parallel Academies effort on nuclear fuel cycles,[4] funded by the DOE, the NAE has a unique opportunity to provide meaningful input to national policy debates on the future direction of electric power generation in the United States.

The study on the commercialization of new nuclear energy technologies is somewhat unique among the many studies underway in the National Academies. Its scope is quite broad and it addresses a very general but critically important topic. All too often, the Academies are asked to examine fairly specific programs that are already underway. With the freedom to explore a wide range of technology options and mechanisms of implementation, the committee—chaired by NAE member Richard A. Meserve—can provide the engineering leadership that this topic needs. The imprimatur of the NAE should greatly enhance the acceptance of its observations and assessments.

It must be noted that this stage for leadership has been set by the mechanism of funding for this committee effort. The majority of funding came through a gift from NAE member James J. Truchard. This independent funding enables flexibility in the study and avoids limitations associated with efforts that occur later in the policy development cycle.

While the majority of the Academies’ study efforts are in response to government requests, the opportunity to provide true engineering leadership through independently financed studies is noted and valued. Many other areas would benefit from such examinations. Just think of the public policy implications of establishing a viable pathway to green hydrogen production and distribution, or a nationwide infrastructure to support electric vehicles. Such investigations will require other contributors with the vision and generosity of James Truchard. We extend to him our sincerest thanks—and need to look for others so inclined.

[1]  The earliest of the four Fukushima Daiichi reactors was built in 1967; the next two were built in the early 1970s. Their designs date from the 1960s.

[2] profiles/countries-a-f/france.aspx

[3] -foundation-for-new-and-advanced-nuclear-reactors-in-the- united-states

[4] -viability-of-different-nuclear-fuel-cycles-and-technology- options-and-the-waste-aspects-of-advanced-nuclear-reactors

About the Author:Donald C. Winter is chair of the National Academy of Engineering