An engineer’s duty

When disaster strikes, all of us feel compelled to respond. Japan’s devastating earthquake on March 11 called forth our faculty and students to help in ways only an engineer can.

First of all, our nuclear engineers have been prominent among the top U.S. experts advising Japanese officials on how to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant against further damage and get enough cooling water through the plant. Of particular concern is the release of cesium 137, iodine 131 and other radioactive particulates that could find their way into soil, water and air far from the plant.

“Everyone working to manage this is dealing with an enormous amount of uncertainty,” nuclear engineering professor and chair Per Peterson told KQED-FM. Peterson and his colleagues are contributing to efforts to confine the damage to the reactor site and prevent the spread of contamination to a larger area.

Secondly, our engineers are helping to address public concerns about radiation by providing accurate data and expert analysis. A team of students and faculty led by associate professor-in-residence Kai Vetter set up a monitoring station on the roof of Etcheverry Hall to see if significant levels of radiation had traveled 5,000 miles across the Pacific to the West Coast.

So far, the concentration of radiation is so diffuse–far less than reported in the Bay Area after the Chernobyl explosion in 1986–that it is detectable only because of characteristic isotopic “signatures.”

Vetter’s team also created an online forum for inquiries about radiation safety. “The questions I receive are very sensible, mainly from concerned citizens who are looking for more information than the official channels provide, and who want a more independent perspective,” says Vetter. “They all express great gratitude for the work we’re doing.”

Our nuclear engineering department’s website carries up-to-date coverage of the Japan nuclear crisis, including links to faculty interviews with ABC, the Wall Street Journal and other news media. We will continue to provide expertise and information whenever asked. If you have your own question or comment, I invite you to contact me at the address below.

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean and Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering
Director, Blum Center for Developing Economies
Email Dean Sastry