As concern about climate change has grown, nuclear energy — long a polarizing subject — has gained increasing favorability. Its low carbon footprint, reliable power supply and strong safety record convinced many critics that nuclear power should be a bigger part of our energy mix.
That newfound favorability suffered a setback on March 11, 2011, when an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. The resulting tsunami damaged the backup systems essential to the safe shutdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. Over the next several weeks, as the Japanese people struggled to limit the extent of the damage, a slow-motion accident unfolded. While the world watched, radioactive cesium, iodine and other nuclides were released to the air and surrounding ocean.
Suddenly, the nuclear power renaissance seemed very much in doubt.
For more than 50 years, Oregon State’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics (NERHP) has been engaged in nuclear power plant design and safety research. Lately, our department has been in the spotlight because of our focus on creating safer and simpler nuclear technology, such as the NuScale small modular reactor. But Fukushima brought attention to a lesser-known competence at OSU: radioecology.
Oregon State is one of the last U.S. academic institutions actively doing research in this unique, interdisciplinary field, which focuses on the movement of radioactive nuclides and their impact on humans and the environment. We travel to places like Johnston Atoll in the Pacific to evaluate radiological risk and find strategies to clean up Cold War-era contamination. We study radionuclide uptake by plants and animals — findings that have been incorporated into environmental protection standards for the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as guidance by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Commission on Radiological Protection.
After Fukushima, we answered hundreds of calls from the public and media. In June 2011, we participated in a Woods Hole Institution expedition to the Fukushima coast on the research vessel Ka’imikai-O-Kanaloa with funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the National Science Foundation. We designed and built a radiological sampling system for seawater and helped collect and analyze marine organisms for contamination. We studied mechanisms of radiological contamination of tea plants in Japan. With Corvallis-based Earthfort, we tested the company’s proprietary compound for reducing the movement of radiocesium in soils in hopes that it might be used in Japan. And we joined the OSU Marine Council Action Coordination Team dealing with marine debris arriving on our coastline.
Our research has helped put Fukushima in perspective. The tragic accident caused a slowdown in nuclear power development worldwide. But today, scientists are reasonably confident that the radiation will have no measurable public health effects. And the best reasons for pursuing this energy technology remain: reliable power with minimal carbon emissions.
We will remain on the frontlines of reactor safety, radioecology and environmental protection. We will continue to advocate for more research and public education in radiation sciences so that as a society we can make informed choices about our energy mix.
Editor’s note: Higley’s expertise has been highly sought by news media covering the consequences of the Fukushima disaster. See her comments on the burial of radioactive wastes in the Nov. 5, 2012 Christian Science Monitor.