Nuclear reactor Q & A



Over the past few weeks, the people of Japan have experienced disaster upon disaster as a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a 30-foot tsunami that battered the land. As a result of these catastrophes, the Japanese people were impacted by other incidents as well, namely the disasters surrounding nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

In light of these events, professors from the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics recently conducted a forum to help ECU students, faculty, and staff better understand this nuclear crisis. Dr. James Joyce, one of the panelists and creator of the PowerPoint presented at the forum, sat down with us to further explain what is happening with the nuclear reactors in Japan.

Dr. Joyce received his BA in physics from LaSalle University, and both his MS and PhD degrees in physics from the University of Pennsylvania. He also completed post-doctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Joyce joined the faculty of ECU in 1970, and his major research areas are atomic and biomedical physics. He has written more than 42 journal articles, with more than 70 published by abstract. Additionally, he has served on many committees and task forces and has received grants from NSF, US Army Research Office, Environmental Protection Agency, NC Board of Science and Technology, and East Carolina University.


Dr. James Joyce explains how nuclear reactors work to the audience at a recent lecture.

How do you think this incident will affect future construction of nuclear plants?

There were no new nuclear power reactors ordered or installed in this country until recently. That means the nuclear reactors operating now are based on 40-year old designs. In the meantime, it’s my understanding that the companies that build these nuclear reactors have been doing research on much safer types of reactors. Recently, even the environmental movement has been leaning toward nuclear reactors because they produce less greenhouse gases than an ordinary power plant. So, they have done a complete turn-around and are looking forward to more nuclear power. However, this incident is bound to have an effect on the public’s perception of nuclear power, and environmentalists and experts are going to study this in a very detailed manner to try to determine how to proceed.

There is a lot of talk about spent fuel rods. Why are these important?

Fuel rods are carefully arranged in an undamaged reactor and are interspaced by the control rods in shutdown. The control rods serve to prevent further power production by nuclear fission.

The spent fuel rods are extremely hot because of the by-products of the fission reactions splitting the uranium nucleus. Those by-products are still radioactive for many years. Even after the reactor is shut down, you have to maintain cooling to prevent the spent fuel rods from melting.

These rods have to be stored in underwater cooling storage for one to three years, depending on the particular type of reactor and particular type of fuel. Then, they are moved to dry, protective storage after that.

What additional precautions should be taken when considering a nuclear plant?

On the staff of every nuclear plant, there should be someone who thinks outside of the box, not beholden to anyone, who’s constantly trying to invent scenarios that would cause a problem for the nuclear reactor. I think more of that needs to happen, along with the development of these safer nuclear reactors that have been designed and are ready to go. Even the most brilliant minds probably could not have predicted a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami. But, you don’t have to think about the earthquake and tsunami so much as what would happen if all electrical power and all backup electrical power was lost. We must consider in that scenario how to bring the reactors into a safe state because even after the reactors are shut down, there is still this problem of residual heat.

Based on what you have seen in the media, is there anything you think might have confused people watching the news reports?

There were certain things about radiation exposure that might have confused people. For example, many media outlets confused the “dose” with the “dose rate.” They would say so many milisieverts, but would not mention if it was per hour, per day, or per year. It is important to give the dose rate to figure the total dose and compare it to numbers such as how much people are getting from natural radioactivity.

What do you feel like the average person, sitting down and watching these news reports should be aware of when it comes to nuclear power?

One has to realize that if we are going to pursue nuclear power, there is going to be some risk. What does this risk mean? It means that possibly a citizen could be exposed to higher than normal radiation doses in certain circumstances. So, we should be watching what happens in these evacuated zones, what happens beyond the evacuated zones, and the response of the various nuclear controlling agencies in the different countries, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in our country. What is the response? Are they going to ask the existing nuclear plants to put in more protective measures?

There are risks involved in all types of power production. These are big plants, whether they are coal burning or gas burning or nuclear plants. Considering coal, we have miners dying in coal accidents. We have transportation accidents. In fact, coal is considered, as far as number of deaths per year, much more dangerous than nuclear power.

There is something extremely mysterious about radiation. People don’t have a good understanding about the science of it. However, they understand when a coal mine collapses and people are trapped and injured. They can relate to lung difficulties from inhaling the pollution from a power plant, but radiation seems a little more mysterious. People must begin to put that into perspective to have good understanding of nuclear power. This will, in turn, help us make good choices and decide what to do about nuclear power.

By Meagan Williford, University Marketing