This past week I had the opportunity to spend a few days at the University of California Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering Department as the Nuclear Tourist project ramps back up here in North America. The city of Berkeley is notorious for being a self-proclaimed “nuclear-free” zone, so I anticipated finding a program slightly stifled by the cultural opposition to their research. What I found instead was a profoundly collaborative, innovative and communications savvy technical group unlike any I’ve encountered before.
A big part of my job is keeping up with the latest technical developments in the nuclear sector so I can communicate about them with the public. So you might imagine my surprise that during my trip I learned about a new, innovative nonproliferation working group, a whole new kind of reactor design and a new systematic approach to nuclear waste management. All good things to say the least!
When I arrived Sara Harmon, the department’s administrator, greeted me. Because I am perpetually and embarrassingly early to everything we had about a half an hour to chat about my visit, as well as some of the interesting niches that the department has grown into in response to Fukushima.
On a fairly regular basis I have to debunk the fabricated radiation maps and stories about contaminated fish in the Pacific Ocean for my friends on the East coast. But, the immediacy and veraciousness of these claim on the West coast is a whole other beast. Sara shared about her role responding to public calls about fear of radiation exposure, contaminated foods and a host of other issues. In fact the influx of inquires for information on the local level after Fukushima lead UC Berkeley faculty to create a special monitoring program called the UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Air Monitoring Station, so they could respond to concerns in as much detail as possible.
Professor Kai Vetter, the force behind this effort, managed to utilize equipment and resources he already had access to, and with the help of students has been volunteering his time for the past two years to gather air, water, food and fish samples in the region. They have tirelessly provided real time information to the their local community on the radiation effects of Fukushima. When we spoke, Vetter stressed the importance of putting risk into context- something he sees as dangerously lacking in the broader public discussion on nuclear technologies.
It seems that this experience has shined a light on the importance of social science, psychology and communications throughout the department. In fact, everyone I spoke to during my visit- from grad students to faculty to the Department Chair- have incorporated some aspect of social science into their technical research and programing. Perhaps the silver lining of being a nuclear program in a relatively antinuclear space is that this department has been pushed to evolve their communications and outreach efforts at a rapid pace. And the results are exemplary.
For instance, take the research of Professors Per Peterson and Max Fratoni, who are working on an innovative new reactor design: the Pebble Bed Advanced High Temperature Reactor (PB-AHTR). This reactor is intended to dramatically lower the cost of new nuclear reactors. Back in 2010 Barry Brook wrote an excellent summary on the technical benefits of this reactor, so rather than repeating them, I’ll link to his article: http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/08/25/pb-ahtr/. In short the PB-AHTR is highly efficient, can burn weapons materials (and dramatically reduce plutonium stockpiles) and is passively safe.
Despite my reluctance to advocate for specific reactor designs, I will say that there is something very appealing about the commercialization process of the PB-AHTR. Basically, through federal grants and collaboration with the National Lab system, UC Berkeley has been able to complete a significant amount of research on the PB-AHTR, while offering their students real world experience working on reactor design. And though this might seem like a nice educational approach, with limited real world applications- the recent Department of Energy grant to academic nuclear start up NuScale seems to point to a new more flexible and collaborative trend in reactor development. And it’s a perfect fit for the ethos of UC Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering Department.
Which brings me to the work of Professor Joonhong Ahn. Dr. Ahn and I met earlier this year at the American Nuclear Society summer conference, and he generously invited me out to Berkeley for my visit. Like his collogues, Ahn has a keen understanding of the communications challenges of nuclear technologies. However, his interest in advanced nuclear technologies is driven not by a desire to come up with new, novel energy solutions- but rather his research has lead him to believe that generation IV nuclear reactors are our best shot for closing the fuel cycle.
As nuclear energy’s popularity rises in some countries and falls in others, decommissioning is becoming an important issue on the global stage. Ahn explained that when developed countries export nuclear energy technologies to the developing world, we also have an obligation to “give the whole package of information” – including how to decommission and/or phase out the technology. He argues that the nuclear sector should be working more closely with social scientists to develop both assessment tools and multifaceted phase out strategies that leave only “manageable levels of legacy materials.” I honestly couldn’t agree more. I feel that the more accountability there is with regard to waste management, the more legitimacy nuclear technologies will have with the public.
And the need for accountability extends into nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Thankfully Dr. Bethany Goldblum and her team (including the amazing and enthusiastic Assistant Program Director Erika Suzuki) have launched a Nuclear Policy Working Group, which “bridges the technical and social science fields to address contemporary issues in nuclear security policy through a multidisciplinary lens.” The methodology of this program really impressed me. Basically, they have sought out diverse individuals from different fields of study to work collaboratively towards more effective, technically feasible, publicly supported nonproliferation policy. They are also strategically exporting their model to other schools and universities, creating a nationwide network of nonproliferation policy professionals. As you might have guessed, with a mission like that, I jumped right in with this group and spent several hours helping to outline a social media strategy to help build their online presence. Keep an eye out for some very interesting content as they ramp up their outreach efforts in coming months.
I also gave a presentation about the Nuclear Literacy Project, which you can watch here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/41555285?utm_campaign=t.co&utm_source=ustre-am&utm_medium=social
Thanks so much to all of the UC Berkeley faculty, staff and students for an inspiring and educational visit. I feel a lot better about the future of the nuclear industry after seeing all of the innovation and collaboration happening in this department.
This week I am in Georgia visiting the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations and touring Plant Vogtle. Stay tuned!