Soon after the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine, nuclear energy in neighboring Poland ground to a halt. As the disaster and its aftermath fueled fears of fallout around the world, Poland’s first nuclear plant, then half-built, was scrapped. For the next three decades, Poland remained wedded to coal.
Now, that’s about to change.
In January, Poland revived its nuclear-energy ambitions when the government pledged to build two nuclear reactors, bringing the first one online as soon as 2024. Oregon State University is a partner in realizing Poland’s new nuclear energy initiative. Since 2010, OSU’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and the Warsaw University of Technology (WUT) have been exchanging faculty, students, computer power and expertise across the continents. A joint-degree program is in the works.
Scaling New Heights
Like an acrobat in a hardhat, a young woman nimbly scales a narrow ladder to the top of OSU’s High Temperature Test Facility, an electrically powered reactor model for testing safety without using live nuclear fuel. “We’re stacking the core,” she explains as she steps out onto the scaffolding two stories above ground. At this construction site, her shiny blue hardhat is mandatory. Mandatory too, are the safety rope and harness she buckles herself into before venturing onto the towering platform where 1,000-pound ceramic plates, or “slices,” are being lifted by a crane, one atop another, like a stack of pancakes. When she’s not climbing up ladders or balancing on girders, she’s driving a forklift, grinding metal rods or operating the crane that hefts the giant, custom-made plates into place.
Harnesses and hardhats are not every student’s dream gear. But for Malwina Gradecka, an engineering student from WUT, working on the nuts and bolts of nuclear power was exactly what she was looking for when she first visited OSU with a delegation from her university, known for its deep expertise in mathematical modeling and computational problem solving. So when Gradecka laid eyes on OSU’s scale-model, light-water test reactor, she knew Oregon State was the place for her doctoral work. “You can actually stand on top of the model reactor and look down,” she marvels in fluent English. “Here in the U.S., students have this opportunity for hands-on experience. In Poland, this is not available to us.”
Gradecka is among the first WUT students to earn a Ph.D. in Corvallis. Her studies in OSU’s Radiation Center — where she spent a year not only “stacking the core” in professor Brian Woods’ one-of-a-kind lab on high-temperature, gas-cooled nuclear technologies but also running computer simulations on fluid dynamics — now are being put to use in Warsaw. She’s back home helping to rebuild her university’s nuclear engineering program, mothballed in the 1980s along with Poland’s half-built reactor.