Q&A With Ahmed Hassanein

Author: William Meiners
The Paul L. Wattelet Professor and Head of Nuclear Engineering

In what ways do you think the nuclear crisis in Japan will affect the future of nuclear power in this country?

I want to stress that what happened in Japan was not a nuclear accident; it was a natural disaster. Unfortunately, several media agencies tried to broadcast it as a nuclear accident, which scares people and politicians. But we really can't kid ourselves. There is no serious alternative to nuclear power in the United States. Illinois, our neighboring state, has more than half of its electricity coming from nuclear power.

Ahmed Hassanein

Ahmed Hassanein

So what will the nuclear industry do in response to what happened in Japan?

Within days of the earthquake in Japan and subsequent loss of off-site power to run the cooling pumps at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, the nuclear industry in the United States conducted an analysis of each U.S. nuclear plant to be sure it was prepared to deal with loss of off-site power due to any extreme event. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also conducting an extensive safety review of U.S. reactors. Modifications made to U.S. nuclear power plants and operating practices after 9/11 were designed to ensure that the plants can handle extreme events. We are going to learn from the Japan accident and that will help us make reactors even safer. The reactors in the United States have proven to be safe for more than 50 years.

What are some of those lessons to be learned?

Lessons can be learned in regard to the use long-term storage of used nuclear fuel and backup power systems. All this can be used to improve the performance of reactors in case of a disaster.

Are you concerned about the coverage of the accident affecting your school's ability to bring in new students?

Maybe in the short term. And some people will try to put a halt to the progress we're making. Because of their general open-mindedness, the younger generation realizes the challenges of an energy crisis and eliminating carbon emissions, so they come to understand that nuclear power is a must. I've had some younger students ask me about continuing. Even before building any new reactors in this country, we still have 104 nuclear power plants. We need people to continue research and make them even safer.

Several people from the School of Nuclear Engineering were called upon by national media outlets to give some insight into what exactly was happening. What does that say about your department?

Purdue is highly regarded in this area. I received calls from as far away as England. Some of the media understood what was going on, but maybe the rest don't like good news. There's this unseen ghost of radiation and that fear was simply fueled by careless reports.