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Professor publishes paper on Fukushima

Dan Brombach | Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On March 11, 2011, the world held its collective breath as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan melted down after being incapacitated by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left over 19,000 people dead or missing.

A year after the tragedy, Notre Dame professor Peter Burns and his colleagues at Michigan and the University of California, Davis have published a paper in which they discuss the interaction of nuclear fuel on the environment following such an accident.

“The paper looks at what is known, and then lays out a research agenda for understanding how radioactivity is released from damaged fuel in different environments that can happen after an accident,” Burns said.

Burns said his paper seeks to build knowledge of the interaction of undamaged fuel with geological repositories. The paper also examines existing knowledge of the physical processes that occur during a meltdown and instantaneous release of gaseous radioactivity.
“There’s a lot of unknown in between these two scenarios,” Burns said. “We don’t have any real studies of the interaction of water with damaged fuels when the radiation field is intense.”

Although he said it can be useful due to its high melting point, Burns said nuclear fuel is also extremely hazardous to people and the environment if improperly released.

“The fuel going into the reactor is pretty much harmless, but the fuel coming out is at least a million times more radioactive,” Burns said. “Once containment is lost, bad things happen to the population.”

As director of an federal Energy Research Frontier Center focusing on actinides, Burns said the decision to write this paper flowed more from the requirements of his work than from any private interest.

“It’s just a normal progression of our study and our work [at the Research Center],” Burns said. “I guess I wasn’t so much inspired as I was just doing my job.”

As a review article, the paper could not cite any unpublished work, and thus served to provide new analysis without utilizing new data, Burns said.

“For this type of article, it was more about combining knowledge than it was creating knowledge,” Burns said. “We had to distill all the literature on the subject.”

Burns said he dislikes getting into political discussions about the continued usage of nuclear fuel, preferring to deal with the facts and leave the debating for others.

“I would imagine that developing nations are going to build a lot of new nuclear reactors, so I don’t see much point in engaging in a debate about whether it’s a good idea, or whether it should happen, because it is happening,” Burns said.

Ultimately, Burns said he hopes the paper will serve as a springboard for future research to address the lack of knowledge of water’s interaction with damaged fuel, thus putting the world in a better position to deal with a future nuclear accident.

“We want to better equip society to deal with the next serious nuclear accident and to minimize its impacts,” Burns said.

Contact Dan Brombach at dbrombac@nd.edu