During a 2012 trip to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, University of Michigan faculty members Ron Gilgenbach, Zhong He, and Yugo Ashida came face to face with the human side of the largest nuclear incident since the 1986 disaster in Chernobyl (Ukraine).
As the U-M scientists traveled from Sendai to Fukushima City, they followed the edge of an area designated as “the exclusion zone.” This is the atomic wilderness that extends 12 miles out from the meltdown that occurred in March 2011 after a devastating earthquake and tsunami compromised the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
More than 100,000 Fukushima Prefecture residents were evacuated into prefabricated homes. Gilgenbach, the Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professor and chair of the U-M department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS), describes the view from the van as shocking.
“What I saw on that tour was very difficult,” he says. “It made me more aware of my responsibility as an engineer than ever before.”
In summer 2014, Gilgenbach returned to Japan. This time he and other U-M faculty met with Japanese officials and nuclear scientists to discuss work on decommissioning the three Fukushima reactors that melted down in 2011.
And while Japan has sought input from experts around the world, U-M brings something unique to the table.
“We have the best gamma ray camera in the world,” says Gilgenbach of a radiation detector invented by He, also a professor at NERS.
The camera can detect the presence, spectrum, and intensity of radioactivity within its line of sight and superimpose these data over an optical image. According to Gilgenbach, it is so precise it can detect radioactivity inside pipes and under paint. U-M has offered to supply Japan with a camera and training.
The technology can enable clean-up crews to assess possible radiation hotspots from a distance, thereby protecting them from exposure, Gilgenbach says. It also holds potential to accelerate the clean-up and decommissioning process.
A prototype of the gamma ray camera is already in use at a nuclear plant near St. Joseph, Mich. Operators performing routine measurements inside the plant report the camera can detect radioactive traces in 30 minutes in a process that used to take weeks.
Overall, the camera represents just one of many recent innovations that may make nuclear power more technically viable and politically palatable on a large scale. So while the Fukushima disaster may have posed a setback to any sort of tenuous “nuclear renaissance,” scientists like Gilgenbach say the potential for such a renaissance is far from over — and perhaps even inevitable.
“I tell my students that we have come to a time when society is essentially choosing between climate change or nuclear power,” he says. “There is a place for solar and wind in the mix. But nuclear power is the only large-scale energy source that can generate sufficient baseload-electricity to slow the momentum of climate change before permanent damage is done.”
A reasonable risk?
Early in his career, Gilgenbach believed there was a chance the U.S. – and the world – would recognize the need to use nuclear power before pollution from fossil fuels reached current levels. But that belief was shaken in 1979, when a reactor at the Three Mile Island (TMI) plant near Harrisburg, Pa., experienced a severe meltdown.
The accident happened just after Gilgenbach received his PhD from Columbia University. Prepared to pursue a career in nuclear energy, he had to rethink his plans and assess whether the field was dead, as the media widely proclaimed.
“I followed events very closely,” he says. “Even though there was a big economic impact, the fact that there were no deaths or injuries [at TMI] really impressed me. It confirmed my belief that nuclear power was still safe.”
While Gilgenbach’s faith in nuclear power remained unshaken, the nuclear power industry did not rebound for 35 years. The accident at TMI was a factor, as local opposition to new plants grew; federal regulations became more stringent; and construction costs rose.
Opponents of nuclear power proclaimed this period marked the death of the industry. But some western scientists like Gilgenbach held onto the dream. Terms like “nuclear revival” and “nuclear renaissance” crept into the lexicon around 2001, as the technology advanced and governments sought relief from their dependence on oil and coal. Some non-Western countries such as China and Korea have maintained serious interest in pursuing the technology since before 2001.
In February 2010, President Barack Obama surprised many U.S. Democrats by announcing $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Georgia. That decision followed a proposal by the president to triple nuclear loan guarantees to $54.5 billion — an unsuccessful initiative which nonetheless revealed his commitment to the technology, no matter the political cost. More recently, President Obama has mentioned in at least one speech that he considers nuclear to be part of his so-called “all-of-the-above” energy policy.
With the help of government loan guarantees that did win approval, two new plants are under construction in South Carolina. A Tennessee plant (started in 1973) is now being completed. When finished, they will join the fleet of roughly 100 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S.
Because of the hiatus after TMI, all but one of the plants (Watt’s Bar 1 in Tennessee) are between 30-40 years old — an advanced age for a nuclear power plant. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is surveying each one to determine which are eligible for an extended permit. And since the 9/11 attack in 2001, all are being outfitted with off-site generators and other technology that would prevent a breach of safety mechanisms like that which occurred at Fukushima.
Gilgenbach and his colleagues contend the NRC would not permit nuclear plants to operate unless the U.S. government was absolutely certain they are safe. In the almost 35 years since the TMI accident, inspections and regulations have become increasingly rigorous, and the technology itself has advanced.
“All three of the world’s worst accidents happened at plants with old designs,” Gilgenbach says. “We have come a long way since then.”
New and improved
New plant designs include automatic systems to ensure reactor safety and protect against human error, Gilgenbach says. U-M is part of a $22-million-per-year project to develop computational models of existing light water reactors and study an entirely new class of reactor designs that virtually cannot meltdown. Scientists also have learned how to more fully utilize reactor fuel (higher “burnup”) so less waste is produced. This, in turn, helps to solve the problem of disposal — if there is less waste produced, there is less to dispose of.
One new reactor design currently being studied, the Traveling Wave Reactor (TWR), could potentially use waste from other reactors as fuel. Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates is investing in developing a prototype of the TWR through TerraPower, a nuclear company that he supports. U-M’s NERS department is one of many U.S. collaborators on the design phase, which also includes such international partners as the China Institute of Atomic Energy and the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute.
Indeed, a large part of nuclear power’s image problem probably stems from the fact that the industry hasn’t had a chance to demonstrate these and other scientific advancements yet because it hasn’t been able to build new plants. Even so, Gilgenbach maintains the U.S. industry’s safety record remains impressive.
“There have been zero civilian deaths in the more than 50 years since our country began using nuclear energy,” he says.
Health officials’ interpretations of statistics on health data collected near the site of the TMI nuclear accident bear out Gilgenbach’s claim, although a layperson may find some of the analysis confusing. And interpretation of health data relating to accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl (1986) varies widely, depending on the source.
One thing is clear, however, from the public’s reaction to any incident at a nuclear power plant: Many people are afraid of nuclear power. But it’s also true that many people – perhaps the majority – are not. A Gallup poll published on March 26, 2012, showed 57 percent of Americans were in favor of nuclear power. That result is identical to the number measured in early March 2011, just before the Fukushima meltdowns.
The dream and the responsibility
In 1979, Gilgenbach was present at the nadir of the nuclear dream, just as he was starting out of the gate. And now, as chair of U-M’s NERS department, Gilgenbach may be poised to ride the wave as the dream resurfaces. If a nuclear renaissance truly comes to pass, NERS is likely to be among the leaders – as it always has been.
This legacy started in 1948, when U-M students initiated a campaign to build the first nuclear reactor on any U.S. campus, which came to be called the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project. As U-M Regents proclaimed at the time, it was “dedicated to explore the ways and means by which the potentialities of atomic energy may become a beneficent influence in the life of man.” Its presence on campus helped establish U-M’s early prominence in research and development – a prominence that continues to this day.
After 46 years, in 2003, the reactor was decommissioned. The space will be transformed into the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory Building (NEL) with $11.4 million in funding.
The NEL will house state-of-the-art labs and offices for faculty who collaborate on research that has worldwide impact, such as optimizing the thermal hydraulics of nuclear reactors; and improving global nuclear nonproliferation and detection through a new $25M National Nuclear Security Administration Consortium for Verification Technology. Led by NERS Associate Professor Sara Pozzi, the consortium consists of 12 additional universities plus eight national labs.
One of five U-M faculty members in the consortium, Pozzi is director of the NERS Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation Group and graduate program chair. The U-M team also includes Professor Kimberlee Kearfott, an expert on reactor safety, environmental monitoring, and health effects of radiation. Chief scientist David Wehe and professors John Lee and Zhong He fill out the U-M research team. U-M President Emeritus James Duderstadt serves on the project’s advisory board.
As in the case of Gilgenbach’s work with Japan, the NERS department is a touchstone for countries preparing to make nuclear power a key element of their energy portfolio. Gilgenbach has visited China on two occasions to foster collaborations with universities and the Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Design Institute regarding nuclear materials and reactor safety. And Gilgenbach counsels that a key to success is having an independent agency like the NRC to monitor safety and conformity to regulations.
“The NRC is the gold standard for monitoring the safety and operation of nuclear plants,” Gilgenbach says. But such an agency cannot have close ties to government or industry, he warns. “A Japanese report stated this was a big factor in the Fukushima incident. There were issues before the tsunami occurred, but their previous regulatory agency did not take aggressive action to address those issues.”
A global convergence of factors may render a “nuclear renaissance” inevitable when all is said and done: economic imperatives, public health issues (e.g., illnesses from coal emissions near urban populations), and environmental concerns. But for many countries, making the political and social changes necessary to transition to a sound nuclear power policy may be more difficult than acquiring technological know-how.
This is true even for the United States, Gilgenbach says. “We have answered most of the technical questions about nuclear power, and we know with time we can answer the rest,” he says. “But there are still a lot of questions for our elected government officials to answer, and there is not much we can do except to keep them informed.”
Too much, too soon?
The field of nuclear engineering has come a long way since the initial rush of excitement during the 1950s.
“Perhaps it was oversold,” Gilgenbach says. “I remember some people saying that nuclear power could make electricity too cheap to meter. But it was also very promising – here we had an amount of enriched uranium that fit into a Coke can, and it could supply a person’s electricity generation for their entire lifetime. We knew our supply of uranium was abundant. Nuclear is the ultimate engine.”
Since then, the general public – and the scientific experts – have witnessed reactor meltdowns, inept management, and lack of adequate training, leaving the dream of nuclear energy forever tarnished. Critics argue the real financial cost of producing energy from a nuclear plant is obscured by the cost of government subsidies.
And for those who do not believe nuclear energy is safe, the potential cost in possible casualties is too great to justify the risk. More than five decades since it was introduced as the cure-all to our society’s energy dependency, it seems that supporting nuclear power requires a leap of faith that many are not willing to make.
But is it possible to balance both the promise and the risks?
“I still believe that nuclear power is the route humanity has to take,” Gilgenbach says, reflecting on his tour of Fukushima Prefecture. “That only made me more determined to keep going and make sure people continue to stay safe. I will work even harder to make sure no other person loses their home.
“Nuclear power can be safe, and I wouldn’t keep doing this if I didn’t believe that.”
Top image courtesy of the Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation Group, U-M NERS.