Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Dr. Frannie Smith Gives Mind-Blowing Lecture on Nuclear Energy

Dr. Frannie Smith, who works with Pacific Northwest National Labs, delivered an engaging and insightful lecture on the past, present and future of nuclear energy Wednesday night in the Brattain Auditorium.

Dr. Smith was brought in by the Geology department as a part of the Whitman College Visiting Educator Series. With warmth and enthusiasm not commonly associated with the serious topic of nuclear energy, Smith provided a foundation of basic knowledge as well as an idea as to why nuclear energy is such an important topic.

“It was interesting, said Nathaniel Saul, a sophomore at Walla Walla Community College. “I’m not too familiar with the subject, and [Dr. Smith] covered a lot of ground with the basics.”

Nuclear energy provides 20 percent of American electricity, and Smith showed how Japan’s recent nuclear situation displays both nuclear energy’s importance and controversial nature. Prior to the 2011 tsunami, Japan had 54 nuclear plants that provided about 25 percent of the nation’s electricity. 18 months later, there are no plants operating, and there is political and social resistance to returning to nuclear energy. However, Japan is leaning towards bringing it back, and Smith displayed how all energy sources have pros and cons.

Smith then provided a clear explanation of how nuclear reactors work. Using a PowerPoint presentation loaded with diagrams and pictures, she laid out the chemical and mechanical processes involved in creating electricity from a nuclear reactor.

“I want people to walk away with an understanding of what goes into the production of nuclear energy, that is, what goes into a nuclear reactor and what comes out,” said Smith.

This led Smith into the issue of nuclear waste, and what methods are being used to contain it.

“I thought the most interesting aspect of the lecture was her defense of nuclear waste,” said first-year Ben Griffin. “I think because it’s her profession she is a little partial towards the idea of nuclear power, even though the waste is a serious issue.”

The United States uses an open fuel cycle, which creates more waste, as opposed to a closed-fuel cycle which recycles some of the nuclear waste. Smith explained that often, nuclear sludge is turned into glass. Also, though all countries have agreed that geological storage is the desired solution, none have made a high-level repository. For example, the repository Yucca Mountain was built in Nevada, but has never been used because of political and technical issues.

Smith then provided a local perspective on the issue by describing the Hanford Site in central Washington, which produced plutonium during World War II and the Cold War. She described the remediation strategy on the site, which involved demolition, waste treatment and more. The Hanford Site has a great deal of subsurface waste, which makes transport unique and difficult. Smith proposed several alternative solutions, such as onsite storage and regional repositories.

To conclude her lecture, Smith gave the audience a broader perspective of the importance of nuclear energy, and electricity as a whole. This is a fairly urgent topic, since nuclear reactors are aging worldwide. At the same time, present decision-makers have to keep future generations in mind because of the long-term nature of nuclear waste. Smith ended with her belief that diversification of energy sources is key, and her hope that we will increase carbon dioxide-free energy resources for the future.

“There’s a lot of room to grow in terms of technologies with nuclear reactors and renewable energy sources. It’s important for everyone to take part in the discussion of what we’re going to do for our future electrical energy needs,” said Smith.

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