In March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan was hit by twin natural disasters of a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami more than 10 meters high. The combination forced a shut down of the reactor and severed externally provided power. Backup generators and batteries, which at first functioned normally, were swamped and disabled by the tsunami waters. The subsequent loss of reactor core cooling led to rising temperatures that ultimately resulted in a partial melting of the fuel rods and several hydrogen explosions (produced by a steam-zirconium reaction). Eventually, the situation was brought under control, but not before several forms of radioactivity were released, some intentionally and some not.
The technical aspects of the events in Japan, the media coverage of them, and the public’s reaction to them, all raise challenges to the engineering education community. For several decade,s nuclear engineering education has declined in the U.S., with many predicting it to be a dying field. While recent years have seen an increase in students and program options, due to workforce issues and the potential of new U.S. plants being built, nuclear engineering is still a relatively minor player in the engineering education field. Additionally, whereas students in other fields are routinely exposed to topics such as solar and wind power during their general studies, coverage of nuclear power in even its broadest aspects is not provided to most engineering students. As indicated by Fukushima, there are currently many complex design challenges in nuclear power that need trained engineers from all fields to address them. In addition, as some reviews of the accident have pointed out, regardless of the future of nuclear energy, there is a need to maintain a skilled nuclear power workforce for the foreseeable future to address the safety of existing plants and spent fuel storage facilities, such as those that now sit at Fukushima.
A separate and possibly more crucial role for engineering educators is seen when the media coverage and public reaction to Fukushima is analyzed. The public reaction demonstrated a general lack of scientific understanding and a wealth of mis- and pre-conceptions. When situations like this arise, the public must rely on other reliable sources, such as the media and various governmental agencies to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, in the case of Fukushima, the various agencies involved provided conflicting reports, and the media proved to be only marginally more knowledgeable than the public.
This lecture will go through a timeline of technical events during the Fukushima nuclear accident. Corresponding details on the information and disinformation released by various agencies and media outlets, as well as the public reaction to it, will be overlaid with this. As a post analysis, the way these issues continue to play out in the public and within the areas of energy education will be discussed.
Mechanical and Civil Engineering
2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition
San Antonio, Texas
Tebbe, P. A. (2012, June 10-13). The challenges and implications for energy education [Conference session]. 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio,Texas. https://monolith.asee.org/public/conferences/8/registration/view_session?session_id=1501