On March 11, the ground 45 miles off of Japan's eastern coast rumbled for six violent minutes. Aftershocks from that earthquake and the tsunami that ensued were soon felt in American laboratories and classrooms.
The tsunami carved a well-documented path of devastation, most notably crippling the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and damaging the plant's four reactors. In the time since, as many as 580 workers have been tasked with battling a potential nuclear catastrophe.
Meanwhile, researchers at schools in the United States are working on technologies that will ensure a more effective response—one that is less dangerous to those tasked with cleaning up the mess.
[Learn more about the nuclear crisis in Japan.]
George Xu, professor of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., for instance, has applied a virtual reality technology he's been developing for many years to the Fukushima crisis. He and a team of eight students—seven graduate, one undergraduate—in his radiation safety course have reconstructed the troubled reactors in a virtual setting. Using the students' research, radiation levels in specific areas of the plant at any given time throughout the ordeal have been calculated and simulated.
The benefits of such work are twofold. For the students, it gives them a firsthand peek into the crisis and experience that will be invaluable to them as they begin their careers as nuclear engineers, Xu says. "Students learn those things without being taught," he says "They get to experience what's happening."
Additionally, the tool may potentially be used to benefit the workers exposed to radiation in Japan. Xu's peers across the Pacific are eager to use it to determine the health risks workers have faced, he says. Given that the physical details of any reactor can be easily simulated using the plant's computer-aided design models, Xu hopes such a tool will be utilized by decision makers to react more efficiently when the world faces its next nuclear crisis of any scale.
[Learn more about top engineering programs.]
"We can quickly recreate the situation so that the decision makers and responders can say, 'It looks like the radiation dose is too high,'" he says. "They can tell workers where to go, [and how to] prioritize and strategize to avoid unnecessary exposure. And for those who did unfortunately receive radiation, we can reconstruct where they got exposure, how lethal the radiation is, and how badly contaminated they might be."
In a similar vein, Hongbing Lu, a researcher at the University of Texas—Dallas, is completing the first year of a three-year research project funded by the Department of Education studying how quickly nuclear fuel rods burn up under various conditions. He and four graduate research assistants are examining the potential safety benefits of reactors that burn at higher temperatures, which reduces the amount of time nuclear waste can be dangerous—one of the very problems being faced by nuclear engineers on the ground in Japan today.
"My research has some relevance to the situation in Japan," he says. "But, that will take a lot of research before you can actually implement it."
Students are also directly involved at other programs. At Alfred University in New York, for instance, students and researchers have been seeking ways to increase nuclear reactor safety by utilizing alternative materials in the reactors. At Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, a senior, Todd Baker, is working to couple virtual reality technology with a robot so that humans wouldn't be harmed if work needs to be done in hazardous areas like a contaminated nuclear plant.
Researchers commend the steps that are being taken and claim they're essential as the field of nuclear energy continues to grow, especially in developing countries like India and China. "The nuclear industry is volatile," Xu, of Rensselaer, says. "We can't wait for [catastrophes] to happen and then [realize] we don't know what to do."