A&M nuclear experts watching Japan closely

March 22, 2011 5:20:34 PM PDT
Japan's nuclear crisis has Americans re-evaluating the safety of nuclear power. Texas A&M is the only university in the country with two nuclear research reactors. We took a tour of the facility to find out how it can help nuclear engineers understand what's happening in Japan.

Nuclear experts half a world away from Japan in College Station are watching.

At the Nuclear Science Center at Texas A&M University, our cameras were not allowed inside, but the university gave us video of the reactor which few get to see. Inside a massive 109,000 gallon pool, 35 feet below you can see a glowing blue light that is a nuclear reactor. It is one of two at A&M. This is the larger one, but it is minuscule compared to those in Japan.

"I have a very small reactor. If they're elephants, I'm a flea," said Dr. Dan Reece, Director of the Texas A&M Nuclear Science Center.

First constructed in 1961, the reactor is used primarily for training and research. People here have been looking to see what they can learn from the response in Japan. They say it was quite literally the "perfect storm." The earthquake, then tsunami which damaged the reactor's abilities to pump water to keep it cool. Even backup generators were flooded out. Dr. Reece says the likelihood of such a scenario playing out at any of the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. is slim.

"I think they've done a marvelous job, and make very wise and good choices in their approach to contain this accident," said Dr. Reece.

In the days leading up to the earthquake and tsunami, coincidentally a group of students and faculty from Japan were here training with A&M's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. The team from Japan flew home hours after the quake.

"There was no way to get out of Houston any faster," said Dr. Robin Murphy of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

She says at the center they have not been able to bring their robots to Japan to help due to the threat of radiation.

"Turns out the radiation is incredibly unfriendly to robots. The smarter you make them, the more computer chips you have; computer chips are extreme vulnerable to radiation," said Dr. Murphy.

She and her team remain on standby. Their robots can help not just with search and rescue but also recovery and reconnaissance. Finding bodies and helping authorities in Japan determine what locations are safe and which are not. They are ready to pack up and fly to Japan as soon as their phones ring.

Experts at A&M say there is little reason to be overly concerned about Japanese radiation hitting anywhere in the United States. One A&M researcher has launched a website tracking wind currents headed toward the west coast of the U.S.