TECHNOLOGY, SPACE, AND INDUSTRY
Space Assets and National Security
U.S. national security is inextricably linked to our access to space and the capabilities provided by satellites whose purposes range from global positioning to communications to orbital reconnaissance. However, the rapidly growing global reliance on space systems to facilitate vital societal functions such as commerce, food production, electricity distribution, transportation, and weather assessment has outpaced the creation of national strategies and policies to protect this critical infrastructure.
At the request of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Academies produced two classified reports that assess currently available options for addressing threats to space systems and recommend strategies for increasing resiliency. National Security Space Defense and Protection: Public Report is an unclassified summary that discusses key background and policy issues in these reports.
Since the first artificial satellite was launched into Earth orbit almost 60 years ago, space has evolved from being viewed as a sanctuary with little need for security to a congested, contested, and competitive arena. No full military conflict has been fought in or from space, making it difficult to value the risks and consequences that are central to deterrence.
The public report reviews the range of options available to address threats to space systems, in terms of deterring, defeating, and surviving hostile actions, and assesses potential strategies and plans to counter such threats. It would be in the best interests of the United States to take a long-term strategic view to assess the nation’s goals for the future of U.S. space abilities, the report says. To the extent possible, an open dialogue on the current space environment would inform the public about potential threats and the importance of defending U.S. and global space assets.
The Academies’ study was funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Increasingly Clean Power Technologies
Reliable access to affordable energy is vital to any economy, and growing economic activity in the U.S. and abroad has led to ever greater demands for energy. This rise in demand, together with recognition of the need to control pollution from energy consumption, has intensified the need for “increasingly clean” electric power — power generated using nuclear plants, fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage, and renewables such as solar and wind.
Congress, federal and state agencies, and regulatory institutions should significantly step up their support for innovation in such technologies, says The Power of Change: Innovation for Development and Deployment of Increasingly Clean Electric Power Technologies. While some of these technologies have seen recent price declines and are cost-competitive in certain locations, most still cost too much and do not perform well enough to achieve high levels of adoption globally. Reducing cost and improving performance in ways that support wide adoption will, in many cases, require improvements to current technology that are more than incremental. Changes in the way the electricity grid is engineered and operated will be needed as well.
The report identifies steps policymakers can take to encourage innovation in and greater deployment of increasingly clean power technologies. For example, to speed development and use of carbon capture and storage technologies, Congress should direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop a set of long-term performance standards for the transport and storage of captured CO2. In the nuclear sector, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should prepare for a change in the licensing of advanced nuclear reactors that would establish a risk-informed regulatory pathway for considering advanced non-light water reactor technologies, as well as a staged licensing process. Across the power sector, state regulators and policymakers should implement policies designed to support innovation.
Congress should also consider setting an appropriate price on pollution from electricity production, including greenhouse gases and pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, to reflect fossil fuels’ “hidden costs” to human health and the environment, the report says. Requiring electricity producers to take those harms into account would help make increasingly clean energy sources cost competitive.
The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with additional support from the National Academy of Sciences’ Thomas Lincoln Casey Fund and the National Academies’ Presidents’ Circle Fund.
Safer Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling
The 2010 Macondo well blowout, which led to an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killed 11 people and spilled an estimated 3.19 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico — the largest spill in U.S. history. The accident caused immense marine and coastal environmental damage and is currently estimated to exceed $50 billion in fines, lost revenue, profits, and wages. The blowout and spill also put the safety of offshore drilling and production under tremendous public scrutiny. Two National Academies reports examine the safety culture in oil and gas drilling and how real-time remote monitoring could improve safety.
Because of differing safety perspectives and economic interests, offshore oil and gas companies do not all belong to a single industry association that speaks with one voice regarding safety. Operators, contractors, subcontractors, associations representing these groups, and federal regulators should collaborate to foster a strong culture of safety throughout all levels of the offshore oil and gas industry and confront challenges collectively, says the report Strengthening the Safety Culture of the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry.
About 75 operators, 17 drilling contractors, and more than 1,000 contractors/subcontractors varying in size and financial resources support offshore drilling, production, and construction activities in the Gulf of Mexico. Several issues exist in setting consistent goals and implementing them in order to strengthen safety culture, including the varied level of commitment to improving safety culture among organization leaders, variation in the types of organizations that may work on a single drilling site, inconsistency of practices such as supervision and training, and diversity of employees’ safety attitudes and educational backgrounds, the report says.
The industry as a whole should create guidance for establishing safety culture expectations and responsibilities among operators, contractors, and subcontractors, the report says. Regulators — the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — should participate in these efforts and help ensure consistency. Once the industry has agreed upon steps to achieve safety and environmental goals, all organizations involved should be responsible for developing their own strategies for executing this overall plan.
Application of Remote Real-Time Monitoring to Offshore Oil and Gas Operations examines how BSEE could apply remote real-time monitoring (RRTM) to improve the safety and reduce the environmental risks of offshore oil and gas operations. This issue has become increasingly important with the move over the last 25 years into greater water depths and the drilling of deeper wells; such operations can experience higher pressures, increased temperatures, and greater uncertainty.
There are diverse RRTM technologies currently available, and their use varies across the industry. While no standard RRTM practice exists, the report says that mandating a standard approach is not likely to work or be needed for every drilling company or well. Therefore, BSEE should pursue a performance-based regulatory framework that allows industry to determine relevant uses of RRTM based on assessed levels of risk and complexity. In addition, BSEE should monitor RRTM technologies and best practices by using either an internal group, such as the agency’s proposed Engineering Technology Assessment Center, or an external organization, such as the Ocean Energy Safety Institute.
Strengthening the Safety Culture of the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry was supported with funds designated for the National Academy of Sciences as a community service payment arising out of a plea agreement entered into between the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana and Helmerich & Payne International Drilling Company. Application of Remote Real-Time Monitoring to Offshore Oil and Gas Operations was funded by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
A Course Correction for Astronomy and Astrophysics
The National Academies’ 2010 survey for astronomy and astrophysics identified a broad collection of scientific and technical projects for the next decade. Major scientific accomplishments since the survey was released include detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory; the NASA-funded Kepler spacecraft’s extraordinary discovery of diverse planets and planetary systems throughout the galaxy; and success of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array — a huge array of radio telescopes in the Atacama Desert of Chile.
However, says New Worlds, New Horizons: A Midterm Assessment, unforeseen constraints have slowed progress toward reaching some of the priorities and goals outlined in the Academies’ decadal survey. The report calls for NASA, National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy — the federal agencies largely responsible for funding and implementing these research activities — to maintain, and in some cases adjust, their programs in order to meet the survey’s scientific objectives.
NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the top-ranked large space-based mission in the 2010 survey, is designed to answer questions about dark energy, exoplanets, and general astrophysics. Proposed changes to the scope and design of the telescope, while scientifically compelling, could result in further increased costs and delays for the mission. Prior to final confirmation of the changes, NASA should conduct an independent review of the project to ensure it does not crowd out investment in the rest of NASA’s astrophysics portfolio.
The schedule change and increased cost associated with the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in 2018, resulted in delaying WFIRST and the recommended increase to the small- and medium-sized NASA Explorers mission program, among other priorities. NASA should restore support this decade for space-based gravitational wave research so that the U.S. is can be a strong technical and scientific partner in the planned European Space Agency-led Laser Interferometer Space Antenna gravitational observatory. And NSF should take action to ensure scientists will be able to exploit the new generation of advanced ground-based facilities.
Since the report was released, NASA announced a planned independent review of changes to the WFIRST. The Academies’ study was funded by NASA, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Energy.
Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is a multiagency effort whose mission is to expedite the discovery, development, and deployment of nanoscale science and technology to serve the public good as well as the core missions of the participating agencies.
Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the latest in a series of congressionally mandated triennial reviews, finds that the NNI is investing in technology areas that are critical to the goals of other federal initiatives — for example, the White House Precision Medicine Initiative and the White House Manufacturing Initiative — and vice versa. However, leaders and managers both inside and outside NNI may not have the necessary expertise or control to achieve the full potential of their goals. The NNI’s Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee should strengthen its engagement with the leaders of other high-profile initiatives in order to determine critical nano-enabled dependencies, as well as focus NNI efforts to address them.
One area that warrants special attention is nanomanufacturing, the report says. Research on the manufacture of nanoscale materials, devices, and structures is key to realizing the benefits of nano-enabled technologies. The report recommends that NNI-participating agencies explicitly support early-stage nanomanufacturing research and urges the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee to form a nanomanufacturing working group to identify research needs and coordinate efforts between the NNI and federal programs on advanced manufacturing.
The report also reviews NNI’s physical infrastructure for nanotechnology and finds that there is a clear lack of identified funds for the development of new leading-edge instrumentation, and therefore a real risk that the physical and computation infrastructure available to the nanoscience research and technology enterprise will become obsolete. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy should identify funding mechanisms for acquiring and maintaining state-of-the-art equipment and computational resources at their nanoscale user facilities, the report says.
The Academies’ study was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Better Monitoring of Spent Fuel at Nuclear Plants
The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami caused extensive damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the meltdown of three reactor cores. In the wake of the accident, Congress asked the National Academies to conduct a technical study on lessons that could be learned from the accident to improve safety and security at U.S. nuclear power plants.
Lessons Learned From the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants, Phase 2 finds that a substantial loss of cooling water in the Unit 4 spent fuel pool at the Fukushima plant in the aftermath of the disasters should serve as a wake-up call to nuclear plant operators and regulators on the critical importance of measuring, maintaining, and restoring cooling in spent fuel pools during severe accidents and terrorist attacks. The U.S. nuclear industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should improve the ability of plant operators to measure real-time conditions in spent fuel pools and maintain adequate cooling of stored spent fuel during severe accidents and terrorist attacks, the report says. These improvements should go beyond the current post-Fukushima response to include hardened and redundant physical surveillance systems such as cameras, radiation monitors, and pool-temperature and water-level monitors. Improvements should also include ways to deliver makeup water or sprays to the pools, even when physical access is limited by facility damage or high radiation levels.
Extreme external events and severe accidents can also cause widespread and long-lasting disruptions to the security infrastructure, systems, and staffing at nuclear plants, creating the opportunity for malevolent acts, the report notes. Nuclear plant operators and their regulators should upgrade and/or protect nuclear plant security infrastructure and systems and train security personnel to cope with extreme external events and severe accidents. Such upgrades should include redundant and protected power sources dedicated to plant security systems so that they can function independently if damaged.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed a detailed technical study following the accident to inform a regulatory decision on the need for earlier-than-planned movements of spent fuel from pools to dry casks at U.S. nuclear plants. Although this study was a valuable contribution to understanding the consequences of spent fuel pool accidents, the report says, these analyses did not consider some key risks and consequences that would likely result from a severe nuclear accident. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should perform a spent fuel storage risk assessment that addresses both accident and sabotage risks for pools and dry casks.
The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Toward Greener Air Travel
Commercial aviation, like every means of mass transportation, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Although CO2 emissions from aviation make up only 2 percent to 2.5 percent of total global annual CO2 emissions, research on reducing these emissions is needed to mitigate the contribution that commercial aviation makes to climate change, given the high demand for commercial air transportation and its expected growth.
Commercial Aircraft Propulsion and Energy Systems Research: Reducing Global Carbon Emissions identifies a national research agenda for developing propulsion and energy system technologies that could reduce CO2 emissions from global civil aviation and that could be introduced into service during the next 10 to 30 years. The research agenda, which is intended to guide government, industry, and academic research, identifies 12 high-priority research projects within four approaches that offer the most promise for reducing CO2 emissions: advances in aircraft-propulsion integration, improvements in gas turbine engines, development of turboelectric propulsion systems, and advances in sustainable alternative jet fuels.
The report focuses on large commercial aircraft with single or twin aisles that carry 100 or more passengers because such airplanes are the source of more than 90 percent of CO2 emissions from commercial aircraft operations. While smaller planes also emit CO2, they make only a minor contribution to global emissions, and many technologies that reduce CO2 emissions for large airplanes also apply to smaller ones.
The Academies’ study was funded by NASA.
Review of SBIR Programs at Federal Agencies
The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is one of the largest examples of U.S. public-private partnerships. Established in 1982, SBIR encourages small businesses to develop new processes and products and to provide quality research and development in support of the U.S. government’s many missions. Created in 1992, the Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR) seeks to encourage small businesses to collaborate formally with research institutions on research and development. Competitively awarded grants distributed to small businesses through SBIR and STTR programs at federal agencies are intended to stimulate the development of innovative technologies to help the agencies meet their specific functional needs in areas ranging from health to the environment to national defense.
In 2016 the National Academies concluded the second phase of an in-depth review of SBIR, releasing five reports evaluating the program at the departments of Defense and Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA. A sixth report reviewed the STTR programs at all five agencies.
The SBIR reports examine the degree to which the program addresses SBIR’s congressionally mandated objectives at each agency. They find that the agency programs have a positive overall impact and meet SBIR’s legislative objectives to stimulate technological innovation, to use small businesses to realize federal R&D needs, and to increase private-sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal research and development. The study also found that STTR is meeting its objective of fostering cooperation between small business concerns and research institutions at all agencies.
However, none of the agency SBIR programs adequately meet the additional congressional objective to foster and encourage participation in innovation and entrepreneurship by socially and economically disadvantaged persons. The SBIR reports recommend that the agencies immediately examine their efforts to foster the participation of underserved populations, examine and report on best practices, develop an outreach and education program aimed at expanding participation of underserved populations, and create benchmarks and metrics to relate the impact of such activities. The reports recommend against creating a quota system, though.
The Academies’ studies were funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and NASA.