BY EMILY ORLEY
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 16, 2009
Nuclear power, known more for its destructive capabilities than its energy potential, has been a topic of recent discussion around the country as a potential alternative to foreign oil. And three researchers at the University are among those spearheading the push for this alternate, albeit controversial, energy source.
Gary Was, director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and Walter J. Weber, Jr., professor of Sustainable Energy, Environmental and Earth Systems, have been working to improve the materials used in nuclear reactors.
Nuclear reactors are made of stainless steel chrome that have relatively long functional lives, but Was is working to make further advancements in the technology to avoid preventable issues like coercion and cracking, which he said affect reactors' productivity.
“These are really aggressive environments,” Was said, “and you have to understand (the reactor’s) behavior in order to tweak the materials.”
Was has been focusing his research on grain boundary engineering — work that tailors properties to be more resistant and in turn improves their behavior.
Was said many people have reservations about the implementation of nuclear fission as an alternate energy source because of its radioactive nature. But if he can improve the quality of materials used to build nuclear reactors, Was said he believes it will become a more widely accepted resource.
In a nuclear reaction, the nucleus of an atom splits and produces free neutrons. These neutrons then make contact with other atoms, repeating the process. Each time, increasing amounts of neutrons are released, creating a chain reaction. This process produces massive amounts of energy that can be controlled in a nuclear reactor.
However, because the energy produced is so volatile, there is fear that if a nuclear reactor is not built correctly, or the materials are not of high enough quality, some of the hazardous, radioactive materials could escape into the environment.
The largest nuclear accident of this nature in the U.S. occurred in 1979 at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generatingtation in Dauphin County, Pa., where reactor coolant escaped, releasing radioactive noble gas into the air.
While the incident at Three Mile Island has burned a negative connotation of nuclear energy into the national zeitgeist, Was argues that this incident actually serves to support the argument for increased research on nuclear energy.
“To most of the people in the nuclear field, (Three Mile Island) was the best example of the safety of nuclear energy,” Was said. “But the public at large took a long time to realize that.”
Was said that while Three Mile Island was a terrible situation, there were no major consequences. The event demonstrated that even if the system fails, reactors are efficient enough to contain the toxins and prevent widespread harm, he said.
“The safety record that has been built up is really phenomenal,” Was said. “It really can’t be approached by any other industry.”
While Was praised the safeguards that are already in place, he said his work is to ensure that there are no accidents like Three Mile Island in the future.
Prof. William Martin, chair of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, has been working in a field called computational particle transport. His focus, he said, is on the simulation of radiation transport for applications in nuclear reactor and shielding design, as well as cancer treatment planning.
“Basically the reactor analyst or shielding analyst or radiation oncologist needs to know where the radiation is going and where it is absorbed and where does it leak out,” he said.
Martin, along with multiple graduate students, has been using stochastic simulation — which simulates particle tracks and collisions on a computer — in his research. With this, researchers can model complex systems of nuclear reactions.
Martin explained that these models are an advanced reactor concept that helps improve safety, economics, non-proliferation and also reduce nuclear waste.
Prof. of Nuclear Engineering and Radio Sciences John Lee has been researching ways to better reprocess and recycle used nuclear fuel, both in current generation of light water reactors and in advanced reactors like sodium-cooled fast reactors.
“Nuclear power offers an excellent potential for reliable, carbon-free and economic form of energy for the U.S. and the rest of the world for the foreseeable future,” Lee said.
His research, Lee said, is crucial because a major arguing point against nuclear power is the improper disposal of waste.
Martin agrees that popular sentiment toward nuclear energy is one of hesitation.
“In the public eye, the primary reservation about using nuclear power seems to be how to get rid of the waste,” Martin said, referring to the problem as a political, more than technical, issue.
“We have known for decades how to dispose of the waste safely and effectively but no jurisdiction wants the waste stored in their domain,” Martin said.
The Yucca Mountains in Nevada have been isolated as a no-man’s land for nuclear testing. And this would be an ideal location for disposal, Martin said, but governments are not complying.
“They don’t want the waste in their backyard,” he said.
Martin explained that while waste disposal has been a significant issue, nuclear power actually pays for its waste disposal.
“All customers pay $1 mil/kwh for the ultimate disposal of the waste. This waste fund was supposed to pay for the facility at Yucca Mountain,” Martin said. “Instead, it pays lawyers on both sides of the Yucca Mountain issue. So our money is being wasted, but the waste is not being stored.”