Nuclear Engineer Urges Caution

News Media Seek Expert Opinion

Nuclear Engineering Prof. Gil Brown was in great demand for his expertise in nuclear power production.

Nuclear Engineering Prof. Gil Brown was in great demand for his expertise in nuclear power production.

03/18/2011
By Sandra Seitz

Nuclear Engineering Prof. Gil Brown has had a busy week.

Reporters, elected officials and pundits have been scrambling to understand what’s happening at the damaged nuclear-power plants in Japan, and provide some perspective for the public. 

As a result, Brown has been interviewed by media outlets from across the country, including TV stations WGBH, NECN, Fox 25 and WCVB; radio stations WBUR, WBZ, WRKO and WCAP-AM; the Lowell Sun; the Eagle Tribune; the New Bedford Standard-Times; the Cape Cod Times; national radio network IRN; the National Journal; Time magazine; and the Washington Post.

“We need to demystify the nuclear power process and be cautious” about making sweeping statements, says Brown. “The situation is a moving target – it’s the middle of the storm – and too soon to draw conclusions about lessons learned.”

Brown points out that the Japanese plants survived an earthquake far beyond their designed limits. The reactors shut down power production exactly as they should, bringing the core temperatures down dramatically. But the tsunami waves overtopped the 20-foot seawall, damaging the emergency generator system that would be used to circulate cooling water over the still-hot fuel rods.

“The Japanese are doing what they can to contain the radioactivity, using the emergency procedures that are known and rehearsed,” says Brown. Calling the technique “bleed and feed,” he draws the analogy of a tea kettle on a heat source: As heat builds up, steam can be vented off at the top, so that more water can be added.

Saying that every U.S. plant is likely now to be checking their own design tolerances, emergency procedures and ability to operate under blackout conditions, Brown says, “It’s time to review and reflect, not time to panic. Plants that were safe last week are safe this week.”

Even the Chernobyl plant explosion in the Ukraine in 1986, considered the world’s worst nuclear-power accident, could have been greatly minimized in its harmful effects, says Brown, if the Russians had told their own people to take precautions, such as not to drink the milk in downwind areas.

“All our energy sources leave footprints or have dramatic events,” says Brown, looking at the larger context of energy sources and energy policy. Some obvious examples include the Exxon Valdez and BP oil rig disasters, coal mining dangers and the widespread environmental impact of coal burning, dam breaks, etc. 

“People often think the next type of energy will be a panacea, before we understand the true costs,” says Brown.