Nuclear Fallout

Author: William Meiners
Purdue engineers weigh in on lessons learned and what’s next for the industry following the power plant failures in Japan.

No news is almost always good news in the world of nuclear power. When word spread quickly in March of the radioactive leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant following the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the reports both shook the industry and were often in need of expert clarification. Several Purdue engineers continue to help bring about that clarity on one of the world’s most misunderstood industries.

With more than 10,000 reported dead in Japan (mostly from drowning) and entire villages wiped out, the nuclear power plants stood up exceptionally well, says Ahmed Hassanein, the Paul L. Wattelet Professor and head of Nuclear Engineering. He says there are lessons to be learned from the failed safety systems at the plants in Japan but insists there are no realistic alternatives to replacing nuclear power in the United States, which currently provides 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

What went wrong

Jere Jenkins, director of Purdue's radiation lab, found himself in the media spotlight talking about the "Fukushima 50" — actually a group of 200 people working in shifts of 50 — trying to maintain water levels in the damaged reactor cores. Jenkins told Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball" that the workers were not in as much danger as had been previously reported.

Jere Jenkins, director of Purdues radiation laboratory, records radiation levels from a downtown Lafayette building.

As workers in what is perhaps the most regulated industry in the world, even the Fukushima 50 would have been closely monitored for their daily allotment of radiation doses, Jenkins says. "Radiation has this mystique that any amount of exposure will harm or kill you, but if you spread the doses out and keep them as low as reasonably achievable there's no concentrated danger."

Safety remains the utmost priority of an energy business whose history began with the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Jenkins says. "Every time there's an accident it's good for us to take a step back and see if we're doing everything to be as safe as possible."

Though the Japanese power plants survived a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the tsunami is what really went wrong for Fukushima reactors. The general chaos of such a disaster led to infrastructure problems and the plants suffered what is known as loss of off-site power, or LOOP, and then a station blackout, or SBO.

"Radiation has this mystique that any amount of exposure will harm or kill you ..."
– Jere Jenkins

"In a severe accident scenario, you have to have the power to move and cool water," Jenkins says.

Backup diesel generators came into play after the LOOP, but the tsunami tidal wave was 13 feet taller than the protective tsunami walls in place to protect them, Jenkins says. "When you throw cold water on a diesel block, then that diesel block is done."

Many confounding things converged in Japan's nuclear crisis, Jenkins says. Had it been just the loss of power, backup generators could have been brought in. Had the generators been encased in shelters or tucked behind taller tsunami walls, the plants would have performed to safety code. "But you have to hand it to the plant operators because they did an amazing job," he says of the emergency response.

Still, officials will be spending more time examining what went wrong in Japan.

Audeen Fentiman, professor of nuclear engineering and associate dean of graduate education and interdisciplinary programs, believes the nuclear power plants in the United States might have held up better. Even so, she says, very few places in the world are likely to have the same earthquake and tsunami events that occurred in Japan. "After the events of 9/11, comprehensive studies were done for all nuclear power plants in the U.S., and additional protective measures were put in place to deal with extremely severe scenarios," she says. "All of our plants looked at scenarios with loss of off-site power."

At what price progress

Professor Mete Sozen examines destruction from an earthquake in his native Turkey.

It has long been said that Mother Nature always has the biggest hammer. Mete Sozen references the phrase: We live at the pleasure of geology. And Sozen, the Kettelhut Distinguished Professor of Structural Engineering, has seen the devastating effects of geology throughout his career. He is one of the foremost earthquake specialists in world, having been named one of the top seismic engineers of the 20th century.

But how do you plan for the catastrophic? And at what point should worry supersede progress? "Planning is not my strong suit, but I see no reason to stop progress for that reason," Sozen says. "The wise thing to do is consider multiple options in defense. For example, as in Fukushima, it is too much of a risk to rely on a single source of power, however well it is defended."

Sozen says he witnessed the absolute worst damage from a 1999 quake in his homeland of Turkey, but a 1972 disaster in Managua, Nicaragua, left a more chilling impression on him. With perhaps the worst of the worst in mind, Sozen proposed building an alternative city for Istanbul, whose domed architecture resides along the North Anatolian fault line. The satellite city, some 20 kilometers outside Istanbul, would transfer the city's core components — economic, social and educational — to a safe haven.

Makarand Hastak, head of the Division of Construction Engineering and Management (CEM), attended a United Nations' conference on disaster reduction over the summer. A number of representatives from national government organizations and mayors from all over the world convened in Geneva to share ideas about how to make cities more resilient. Hastak's own research focuses on the impact of disasters — both manmade and natural — on infrastructure. The more he and his research teams can measure the effects of disaster, the better city planners can prepare for what once seemed like the unpredictable.

Makarand Hastak

While much of Hastak's work centers on the damage brought on by floods, he is turning his attention to disaster scenarios involving nuclear power plants. "With talk of a resurgence of nuclear power in the United States, we're evaluating the education and training needs for engineering students in constructing safe and efficient nuclear plants that will look into various aspects of construction engineering and management including plant location, safety, vulnerabilities, and more," he says.

Purdue post-Fukushima

Hassanein says political pressure has long driven the nuclear power industry. He thinks the experience in Japan might be a blip on the screen, but doesn't foresee any countries outside of Japan and Germany slowing down on their plans for building new nuclear plants. Germany has announced its intent to close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022, but China, in particular, is rebuilding the industry. Indeed, in the wake of the Japanese disaster, Tian Jiashu, a Chinese nuclear safety official, was quoted saying, "We're not going to stop eating for fear of choking."

One of the challenges, in addition to weathering the current storm, is attracting and training the next generation of workers for the nuclear industry. Hastak is working with faculty in the School of Nuclear Engineering to offer CEM students a minor in nuclear engineering. Nuclear engineering students, in turn, could earn a minor in CEM. He reports that his construction industry contacts are already asking when they can hire these students with the dual expertise.

Audeen Fentiman

Fentiman knows the power of the nuclear engineering degree. "Nuclear engineering is an unusual discipline," she says. "In most disciplines, you study the discipline and then go off and apply it to different things. In nuclear engineering, you study a particular technology and you bring to bear mechanical, chemical, materials, and other engineering disciplines. You're looking at a system that involves many types of engineering. So a nuclear engineering student typically doesn't have a hard time finding a job even if there isn't one in a nuclear business. At one time, we had a lot of nuclear engineering students going into work that required computer skills because they could do computer systems."

As for the future of nuclear power, Hassanein believes the ever-vigilant industry will continue to enhance safety procedures, plan as best they can for disasters and deliver energy without the carbon emissions.