Experts talk nuclear power

Ruby Wallau/Daily
DTE Energy Director of Licensing and Engineering Peter Smith speaks at the Town Hall on Nuclear Energy in Dennison Hall on Saturday. Buy this photo

By Rachel Premack, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 9, 2013

Bob Anthrope, senior nuclear engineer at nuclear consulting firm Fauske and Associates, has one big question: Who’s responsible for providing nuclear energy knowledge for the public?

Saturday, Anthrope was among nuclear engineering experts at the Town Hall on Nuclear Energy in Dennison Hall, discussing this question and other nuclear energy topics with students, faculty and industry professionals. The event was hosted by the University’s student chapter of the American Nuclear Society and sponsored by the physics department.

Anthrope told the audience that regardless of who must provide education on the power source, more is needed.

“As an engineer, you have an ethical obligation to protect the health and safety of the public,” Anthrope said, noting that most deaths in nuclear disasters are due to evacuation problems or stress caused by lack of information. “It’s not like I’m some brave maverick whistleblower. I just want people to not panic. They should worry — but they should worry appropriately.”

The event focused on three themes: the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, current issues in nuclear power and the future of nuclear research. ANS held another Town Hall in March 2011 in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown.

Engineering junior Peter Tarle, vice president of ANS, said organizers hoped to use the event as a way to calm common fears about nuclear energy.

“We’re really hoping to educate the public, and answer any questions they have and try to alleviate the fears they have on radioactive waste, proliferation, safety, environmental effects and cost,” Tarle said.

Moderated by Engineering Prof. Ronald Gilgenbach, the panelists included several engineering professors and employees of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, DTE Energy and the Palisades Nuclear Generating Station, which is located on the west side of the state.

Gilgenbach said in an interview that he anticipated questions would center on the disposal of nuclear waste, which tops public concerns.

“We have solved those problems technically, but they’re really political problems,” Gilgenbach said. “It’s merely a question of finding some politicians who are willing to accept nuclear waste in their states.”

Several audience members asked about nuclear plant safety, particularly following incidents like the one that occurred in Fukishima, Japan after a major earthquake and tsunami plagued Japan in 2011. NRC Deputy Regional Administrator Cindy Pederson, who works in the Midwest region, said the NRC made immediate responses following that disaster, both assisting the Japanese and assessing how well domestic plants respond to incidents.

Peter Smith, director of licensing and engineering at DTE Energy, said a new reactor at the Fermi Nuclear Generating Station outside of Detroit will have safety features that Fukushima lacked.

In discussing what can be done to improve plant safety, Annalisa Manera, an associate professor in Engineering, pointed out that Generation IV reactors, which feature passive safety features like gravity-driven cooling systems, will be available by 2030. Most current reactors are Generation II.

Palisades Nuclear Plant Engineer Adam Bono said mechanisms are being continually replaced.

“It’s a process of constantly monitoring (and) replacing components that need to be replaced,” Bono said.

Physics Prof. Gregory Tarle said he was disappointed at researchers’ lack of focus on advanced systems, like pebble bed and molten salt reactors, discussed in the final topic of the town hall.

“They have potential for improving safety, reducing proliferation concerns so I would like to see more research into those and it looks like people have abandoned it.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Peter Smith. It also misidentified a type of advanced system.