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Avoiding Disaster: Nevada Researchers Look To Improve The Safety Of Nuclear Facilities

Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant
By Tennessee Valley Authority ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A study at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently funded by a grant from the Department of Energy, aims to improve the safety of the nation's nuclear facilities.

More than four years ago, a magnitude-9 earthquake caused catastrophic damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

Half of the plant’s reactors melted down, radiation was released, and a wide area around the power plant was evacuated – maybe permanently.

Could a disaster of that order occur here in the United States, where 61 commercial nuclear power plants operate?

A project is underway in Nevada that may go a long way to answering that question.

The University of Nevada Reno has received almost $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to design an experiment to test the durability and structural integrity of nuclear facilities.

Ian Buckle is director of the Structural Engineering Laboratories at the University – and he’s leading the effort.   

Buckle told KNPR's State of Nevada that the experiments will look specifically at how a structure and the soil it is built on interact during an earthquake.

The lab will build a gigantic soil box, roughly the size of a small house, and on top of that a shake table will be placed. The shake table is fitted with powerful hydraulics to simulate the immense power of an earthquake.

On top of the shake table will be a scale model of nuclear facilities.

 There are only two other similar set ups in the world. One in Japan and one in China. Both have a three year waiting list.

“Demand for this kind of experimental work is enormous," Buckle said, "And big facilities that can work at this scale are so few that the waiting list is long”

The one at UNR will be dedicated specifically to looking at earthquake impact on nuclear facilities. 

Buckle said using an actual table and soil box to simulate an earthquake is better than computer models because those models are based on what we already know.

“Every experiment is a surprise," Buckle said, "We come across something we didn’t realize was controlling or determining or governing the way structures behave under extreme loads.”

A “Shake Table” at the University of Nevada/Reno’s Structural Engineering Laboratories

And while Nevada is not home to any nuclear power plants, it is home to several fault lines and many parts of the state are within the slip zones of the Pacific Plate and the North America Plate. 

“It would not be a surprise to have a magnitude 7 in Northern Nevada and a magnitude 5 or 6 in Southern Nevada,” Buckle said.

Once the experiments for the Department of Energy are finished the table and soil box could be used for other experiments on the impact of earthquakes on other infrastructure like roads, bridges and buildings.

Ian Buckle, director, Structural Engineering Laboratories at University of Nevada, Reno

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.