College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Nuclear energy industry continues on

It has been four months since a massive earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in what is being called the second largest nuclear accident in history. The complex nature of nuclear energy and concerns of radiation exposure have left people across the world fearful of the power source, some even suggesting that nuclear should be removed from the world’s energy portfolio.

Regardless of the controversy caused by the events of Fukushima, the industry continues to trudge on with efforts to promote nuclear energy. Experts still hold tightly to the belief that nuclear power is part of the future of energy generation, and engineers are implementing lessons learned from the event in their research of the power source and its structure. To help strengthen nuclear energy’s future, institutions like Iowa State University have begun programs to educate young engineers in the field.

An alternative view of Fukushima

Despite hard hits from the public, industry experts are standing by nuclear energy, noting that it reduces carbon emissions and saying the accident has provided important lessons. These experts include two Iowa State professors and one alumnus who have been discussing the other side of the nuclear energy debate with hopes of providing some clarity and understanding to the extremely publicized incident.

Maxwell Gregory
Maxwell Gregory

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Greg Maxwell says the accident demonstrates the stability of nuclear energy as zero deaths resulted directly from the nuclear meltdown. “Given the amount of radioactive material in a plant, the relatively small amount of radiation that was released to the environment, and the relatively small impact it had on the population, this incident is really a testament to the in-depth design of these plants,” says Maxwell.

Many people around the world do not share Maxwell’s optimism. Leaders of Germany initially reacted with plans to shut down a large number of the country’s plants. Interestingly, Germany buys a percentage of their energy from France, a country that produces approximately 80 percent of its energy from nuclear reactors.

Carolyn Heising
Carolyn Heising

“There is no reason to start shutting down nuclear power plants,” says Carolyn Heising, professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering. “You have to place it into perspective. Yes, numerous people died from the earthquake and the tsunami, but no one was killed as a result of the meltdown.”

Commenting that with everything in life there are risks and benefits, Maxwell explains that nuclear energy is no different. He says the two natural disasters that occurred in Japan were extremely unfortunate, but that in his opinion the bad publicity for such a beneficial energy source was overdone.

“The people of Japan were gaining the benefit of a safe, zero carbon, abundant source of electricity.  Then when three plants have issues after a massive natural disaster, people quickly react negatively without knowing the details,” says Maxwell.

Margaret Harding
Margaret Harding

Negative public reactions have made the life of Margaret Harding, president of 4 Factor Consulting, LLC, and Iowa State engineering alum, extremely hectic.

“I have spent an enormous amount of time since the event trying to help the media understand what was really happening at Fukushima, and more importantly what hasn’t happened,” explains Harding.

She has been contacted by journalists all over the world and asked to make appearances on FOX, CBS, and NBC. Each source was in search of the truth: what’s happening in Japan and how do we make sense of it? Harding says a lot of her work was translating the technical jargon into plain English so the public could understand the reality of the situation.

An industry committed to advancement

Even with the renewed debate surrounding the viability of nuclear energy, research and development continue to progress.

According to Harding, one of the bigger research areas is in different fuel cycles. Heising, a strong supporter of alternate fuel cycles, sees value in replacing uranium with a thorium fuel cycle because the chemical element produces less product that can be usable in weapons, is more abundant, and has the potential to cut the volume of waste in half.

In other research, plant manufacturing is moving toward smaller modules, an option being explored by MidAmerican Energy to expand nuclear energy in Iowa. Maxwell explains that smaller plants would open up nuclear energy site construction to smaller companies with less capital and electricity demand and also offer the ability to add modules as the demand for electricity grows.

Alternatively, some researchers are exploring ways to move completely away from a plant design and use something called the TR10, or Traveling Wave Reactor. As Harding explains, the reactor would essentially act as a giant battery buried in the earth. Once a battery runs out, it would be dug up to replace the core and then put back in the ground again.

Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant
Alvin W.Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant, Photo by: Southern Nuclear

Plans for construction at U.S. plants are moving forward as well. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the United States houses 104 nuclear reactors that provide 20 percent of the country’s energy. Although no new nuclear plants have been ordered since 1973, construction projects at the plants have continued. Currently, projects are still in the works at the Vogtle site in Georgia, the South Texas Project, and Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station in Hollywood, Alabama. However, due to reliance on funding from Japan, the South Texas project has been stalled, and leaders at the Bellefonte plant have decided to wait until they better understand the lessons learned from Fukushima before moving forward. Work at Vogtle has not slowed, though, with crews adding two units to the plant.

Educating the next generation of nuclear engineers

At Iowa State, where an undergraduate nuclear energy minor program is offered, Maxwell and Heising say they are proud to be leaders of nuclear innovation in education. “Between a combination of courses that we already had on the books here and courses we could get from the Big 12, we were able to put together a pretty powerful minor,” says Maxwell.

The minor program is part of the Big 12 Engineering Consortium, which was formed in response to increased employer demand for employees with nuclear training. Students enrolled at any of the Big 12 institutions are granted access to online classes taught by Iowa State, Kansas State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri – Columbia, and the University of Texas at Austin.

One of the courses Heising teaches on campus is called Probabilistic Risk Assessment. Heising’s class studies hypothetical events that could happen during a nuclear accident by statistically calculating the probabilities of an event occurring. A main discipline taught in the course is the use of mathematical basics for dealing with reliability data, theory, and analysis. “My hope is that this year I will be able to revise the course to include what happened at Fukushima, and maybe make students do a midterm project involving the event,” she says

UTR-10 Research Reactor
UTR-10 Research Reactor

Also on campus is a new lab course being taught by Maxwell called Radiation Detection, Measurement, and Simulation. The lab allows student to have hands-on experience with the technology used to measure radiation levels in a source. Coincidentally, the lab is located in the same building that housed Iowa State’s UTR-10 Research Reactor, which was decommissioned in 2000. Maxwell says he is pleased to be bringing nuclear research back into the building.

Over time, student interest in the undergraduate minor program has grown. The minor started in 2009, and already 12 students have completed the program and another 31 have signed the paperwork to add it.


Looking ahead

The fear generated from the Fukushima accident could mean bad news for the future of nuclear energy. Although industry experts continue working hard on developing innovative technology, the public might not be all that willing to strengthen support of nuclear power. “The industry is now trying to figure out how to help people understand and reevaluate the real benefits of nuclear power so others do not lose sight of why we need to do it and what the real options are if we choose not to go nuclear,” Harding says.

A major environmental concern is the effect that carbon is having on our world. Global warming is an issue that continues to worsen, and according to Heising, it could be a major factor in the terrible tornado season the country has seen this year. Heising, along with many others, support nuclear energy as the future of energy generation.

Harding is willing to look at the situation from a slightly different perspective. “I think it absolutely has to be a part of the mix for the electricity generation in this country,” she says. “Is it the future? Well, no, I think that you have to look at all the various options.” Harding suggests that nuclear power can replace coal for a base load power to reduce carbon emissions.

Other countries like France are already much further along in use of nuclear power. Harding points out that France has one of the lowest electricity prices in the continent and as an added bonus, one of the lowest carbon footprints.

Many citizens concerned about the environment are pushing for renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, but Harding says these can be costly. She adds that Denmark, which uses a significant proportion of wind energy, has a very expensive electricity base and still a fairly large carbon footprint.

“It’s always worth looking at different technologies as people come up with new ways to use them, but right now those are not practical sources of significant fractions of electricity for the country, and nuclear is,” Harding says.