Physicists differ with news reports from Japan

Posted March 15, 2011

Like millions of people around the world, physicists at Abilene Christian University are carefully watching developments at Japan's beleaguered nuclear power plants, still wobbling from power outages and other effects caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11, and a huge tsunami that followed.

While academicians are deeply concerned about the recent natural disasters, they also are frustrated by what they say are potentially misleading reports in the media. Inaccurate information regarding nuclear energy is feeding worries about another Chernobyl disaster such as what occurred in Russia nearly 25 years ago.

Dr. Rusty Towell, professor and chair of ACU's Department of Physics, says what happened in April 1986 could likely never happen today in Japan. At the time, the Soviet RBMK-1000 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in what is now Ukraine, was new and operated by inexperienced technicians who made a mistake, causing an explosion that helped spread large amounts of radioactive fallout over much of Europe. As a result, more than 300,000 people had to find new places to live.

"The Chernobyl reactor was designed with far fewer safety systems than are standard in reactor designs for both the U.S. and Japan," Towell says. "The physical structure of the reactors in Japan prevents anything like that from ever happening."

Towell, whose Nuclear Physics Research Group at ACU works each year at major national physics labs such as Brookhaven, Fermilab and Los Alamos, says a "core melt-down" is the worst-case scenario for a well-designed reactor. However, even in the case of the incidents at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, he believes no significant negative health effects should occur.

"Small amounts of radiation are found all around us in nature and are not harmful. Large amounts of the high-energy kind can be dangerous," says Towell, who taught four years at the U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School, and has studied nuclear power plant accidents.

He says it is is too early to know for sure, but the best current explanation for the explosions seen at the Japanese power plant is that water was broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen by the high temperatures experienced at the reactor's core. Hydrogen and oxygen can be an explosive combination, as was the case in the 1937 destruction of the German passenger airship, the Hindenburg.

"The explosion in Japan was just a chemical reaction that produced water," says Towell, whose research interests over the past 15 years include high-energy experimental nuclear and particle physics, particle detectors research and development, and the measurements needed to make the next generation of nuclear power plants.

Some in the U.S. are asking hard questions about the future of its more than 100 nuclear power plants, but Towell is not worried.

"This should give us great confidence that even under the worst-case scenario, followed by another worst-case scenario, U.S. reactors will remain intact and surrounding communities will remain unharmed," he says. "Nuclear power continues to be one of the safest forms of energy."

Four of the top 20 papers published in the world of science over the last decade listed faculty – including Towell – and undergraduate student collaborators from ACU’s Department of Physics, according to a recent study by Science Watch and Thomsen Reuters. ACU’s Nuclear Physics Research Group works on the PHENIX experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., the top-ranked research lab in the world. Few undergraduates are allowed to participate, and most are from ACU.

This ACU video profiles their work.