In the wake of the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the emergency at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant has captured the world’s attention.
This week, MU Engineers' Week is the perfect time to reflect on the importance of engineering to society and on the sacrifices currently being engaged by the engineers at the troubled Fukushima plant, as well as all of the other engineers working to ensure the safety and well being of the public.
As many of you know, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused the immediate shutdown of the nuclear reactors, as they were designed to do. Those reactors continue to generate significant heat after shutdown, and continued cooling is required. The tsunami swept away external power, but on-sight backup power was provided by diesel generators (two, so one can back up the other) for such an occurrence.
Unfortunately, the diesel generators' fuel supply was also damaged, and they could no longer function. Yet the designed additional backup included batteries after the diesel generator supplies ran out, which kept the reactors cool until the batteries were exhausted and the site was completely blacked out. Some core damage resulted before portable diesel generators restored power.
Unfortunately, the heat generated by the nuclear reactors required venting of its containment and a small radiation release, which was needed to prevent an explosion that releases large amounts of radiation. In the reactor building, hydrogen from the venting can build up and lead to a hydrogen explosion.
This caused the Japanese reactor building to collapse, but the containment around the reactor and reactor pressure vessel held as they were designed to. Then a decision was made to pump in seawater for cooling, which is a drastic but necessary step to ensure public safety.
In the process, engineers and reactor operators worked heroically around the clock to maintain barriers between the radioactive core and the already disaster-shocked public. These individuals worked while their houses were being swept away, perhaps without knowing if their families were safe, all for the common good. In addition, scores of engineers of all kinds were behind the design of the plant safety systems that averted an even larger disaster.
Engineers can easily forget how important our profession is to society, and we can forget how serious the practice of engineering can be. There are no television shows dedicated to the heroic efforts of engineers. Many people just wave us off, saying they just can't understand "what we do." But as the efforts of our fellow engineers in Japan show, we work selflessly, we keep people safe, and we do good.
Please join me in keeping these heroic engineers in our thoughts this week, as we celebrate engineers here at MU.
Scott Kovaleski is an associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at MU.