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A power station worker monitors one of the reactors in the control room of England's Oldbury Nuclear Power Station in 2006.
Most of the time, the nuclear world is a quiet, hidden-from-sight community of scientists and engineers. They toil and tinker in clean, well-lighted places — sometimes with security clearance. They may deal on a daily basis with danger and infinite possibilities in a high-pressure environment created by the power and might of the tiny atom.
But when the status quo is shaken by a nuclear disaster — such as what happened with the recent earthquake-rattled, tsunami-swamped Fukushima power plant in Japan — the denizens of the nuclear deep, these "Nuclear People," are called on to explain what went wrong.
All of a sudden, websites, newspapers, radio and cable TV shows are alive with high-tech scientists and technicians. Sometimes haltingly, sometimes articulately they try to explain the horrific events — from molecular to massive — to the rest of us. They talk of "feed and bleed" — the clean water that goes into the reactors is coming out as radioactive liquid. They speak of "raging meltdowns" and potential "dead zones."
These nuclear interpreters are often asked to operate on limited information — shards of facts from affected people, corporations and governments. We get a sense of what they know. And what they don't know. But how does a disaster like this make them feel?
Kirby Kemper, a nuclear physicist at Florida State University, is perplexed. "The problem with assessing things at this site is that we get information piecemeal and so can't really make a full understanding of the extent of the problems," he says. "It is hard to understand, for example, why workers entered a region with water and were not doing real-time monitoring of radiation levels. Japan has tremendous expertise in the measurement of radioactivity and so surprising events occur that baffle us. We won't know the level of local contamination until it is possible to carry out detailed surveys of activity levels, and when these will be able to occur we won't know."
The Fukushima situation, Kemper says, "continues to be unstable, and that is probably all we can say at the moment. Certainly they are doing everything they can to contain the event, but things keep cropping up that were unanticipated."
So, does a wide-scale disaster make nuclear physicists think twice about these unanticipated things, the variegated results of pushing protons into each other? Is the Fukushima catastrophe a reminder that with nuclear power and promise comes peril?
In regards to nuclear physicists, Kemper says, "what we do really has nothing to do with nuclear power. I think this question really needs to be addressed to nuclear engineers, who design the reactor cores. The nuclear physics of these processes is well understood in terms of what is produced."
Jasmina Vujic is a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. When she is asked how she feels in the aftermath of the Fukushima event, she replies, "We do not live in a risk-free society, and we do not live in a radiation-free environment."
She points out that hydroelectric dams have been known to fail, and that coal-burning plants emit greenhouse gases and produce the "high radioactivity of mountains of ash."
Countries like China, India, South Korea, France, Russia and many others "have already stated that they will continue with the construction of nuclear power plants," Vujic says. "They realized a long time ago that they do not have other choices."
She adds, "We live in a radioactive world. We are exposed all the time from natural and man-made sources." And she exhorts universities and the media to do a better job of educating people about nuclear power.
'Progress Has Risks'
Theorists and practitioners look at the world from different angles. To get a sense of that divide, here is an old story:
A physicist and an engineer are observing a girl on one side of a room and a boy on the other. Someone asks, "If that boy and girl move toward each other every 10 seconds, so that they are always half the previous distance apart, how long will it be until they touch?"
The physicist replies, "An infinite amount of time."
The engineer says, "Well, in a couple of minutes, they'll be close enough for all practical purposes."
Nuclear engineers are charged with making the impractical as practical as possible. "The Fukushima nuclear power plants survived the 9.0 magnitude earthquake without damage," Vujic says. "They were designed to survive 7.9, but tsunami destruction of power lines and diesel generators started the sequence of events."
Now, she says, the nuclear energy community "will analyze what happened, and work to drastically improve the safety of nuclear power plants in the case of these incredibly rare natural disasters."
She is asked if nuclear catastrophes give her pause about nuclear physics. "Should we stop research in chemistry because of the terrible accident in Bhopal, India, where — based on Wikipedia — up to 15,000 deaths were associated to a leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals?" she asks. "Human progress unfortunately has risks associated with it. I do not see any change in the research funding in our field."
She says scientists and engineers are developing a safer, "fourth generation" of nuclear power plants. And, she adds, "we are also working on the next generation of radiation detection and measurement methods and instrumentation, so to be able to detect even small amounts of plutonium or uranium or other fissile materials that terrorists might try to smuggle."
Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, author of People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex, says that before Fukushima, most nuclear engineers would probably have said the risks of a major accident were virtually nonexistent. "Fukushima has, until memory fades, made that a very difficult position to sustain," Gusterson says. "So you now have a new fallback position: No energy technology is risk-free, and the risks of nuclear energy, even with the occasional accident, still make it a good choice."
He says, "This is not at all what people who live near nuclear power plants have been told when those plants come up for licensing. They have been told that the plants are quite safe."