Seeking safer power

HOUGHTON – After a 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused an explosion, reactor meltdowns and radiation fallout at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the U.S. put license applications for new nuclear power plants on hold, and there’s been almost no domestic nuclear power development since.

But in Finland, where about 30 to 40 percent of all electricity already comes from nuclear power, plans to potentially double nuclear-fueled electricity in the next decade moved forward. After seeing the destruction in Japan, however, the Finns began a major research project to make their nuclear power plants as close to foolproof as possible.

After winning a Fulbright Scholar grant to travel to Finland last year, Michigan Technological University engineering professor Yue Li has been a part of the Seismic Safety of Nuclear Power Plants – Target for Research and Education Project, and he’s confident nuclear plants can be made safer, even in the face of natural disaster.

“For the new designs, we want to make sure they don’t sustain damage,” Li said. With modern designs and safeguards already in place, some nuclear plants are already “pretty safe,” he said, with most Americans overestimating nuclear power risks when compared to the potential damages from non-nuclear natural disasters.

“The perception and reality are very different for nuclear power plants,” Li said.

Still, that’s no reason to court disaster, and that’s why Li and more than 100 colleagues working out of the VTT Technical Research Centre in Espoo, Finland are working to make the plants safer. Li made one trip to Finland last year, and plans another next year. In the meantime, he’s continuing his work modeling earthquakes and their effects on nuclear plant infrastructure while at Tech.

“It’s not about structural issues,” Li said. “Structural damage is unlikely. In a modern plant, non-structural issues like electrical, plumbing and cooling are the issues.” Electrical failure, he noted, can be particularly dangerous.

Li’s work involves creating more accurate models for these infrastructure systems and how they perform under earthquake conditions. He said he and his colleagues are learning to manage those systems more efficiently under extreme conditions, and they’re gaining a better understanding of past misconceptions.

For example, he said, researchers need to separately consider the equipment on each of eight floors of a reactor.

“In an earthquake each piece of equipment would be shaken, and each would react differently,” he said. “If we can predict that we’ll know which equipment we can choose.”

Li said modern computational capacity has improved researchers’ ability to model plants and disasters, to create a new generation of plants that are more secure than in the past.

“The traditional way to model structures is a brick model,” he said. “It’s oversimplified and wouldn’t provide accurate results for how the structure responds.”

Lessons from the research can also go beyond nuclear plants and earthquakes, he said. The project also looks at other scenarios, such as an airplane crashing into a reactor, as well as how earthquakes could affect other facilitates like conventional power plants and chemical facilities.

Li said he hopes and believes the results from the Finnish research will improve nuclear safety in the rest of the world as well.

“These days people share information, so I’m pretty sure people will learn,” he said. “We’ll also learn from other countries. It’s a global issue.”

The U.S., he said, could have something to learn from countries that have embraced nuclear power. Despite the problem of leftover nuclear waste, nuclear plants are greener than fossil fuel plants in many regards, particularly their absence of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Caution is good,” he said, “but we should take a more open attitude regarding the pros and cons. We shouldn’t just shut it down because it’s nuclear.”