January 14, 2013
Team of engineers proposes reassessment of nuclear energy as a sustainable power source
Screenshot from the "Thorium Future" video
Technological advances in energy production create exciting benefits and opportunities for society, but they also come with problems and challenges. As part of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Online Ethics Center (OEC) Energy Ethics Video Challenge, a group of students at Stevens Institute of Technology is investigating whether nuclear power deserves renewed consideration as a sustainable energy source. Seniors Robert Truppner, Scott Reardon, and Frank Coppola, as well as junior Bryan Vianco, have created a video entitled "Thorium Future" (available for viewing and "liking" on the OEC Facebook page) exploring ethical concerns related to nuclear energy production.
“The video project is a great example of the interdisciplinary collaboration encouraged at Stevens,” says Dr. Keith Sheppard, Associate Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. “The group includes students from the Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering Departments, and they are advised by Professor Gregory Morgan from the College of Arts and Letters and Professor Anthony Shupenko, P.E. of the School of Engineering and Science.”
"I am proud of my HPL480 Environmental Policy students for working together as a team and presenting a potential solution to our energy and climate change challenges,” says Dr. Morgan, Professor at the Department of Philosophy. “Five minutes is not a lot of time to articulate a vision of the future, but they pulled it off admirably."
In the face of growing concerns over climate change caused by the consumption of fossil fuels, nuclear power presents a possible option for sustainable energy production. However, it also comes with safety concerns that loom large in public perception. In addition to real-life examples of nuclear power plants failing, such as the Chernobyl disaster, there are numerous cautionary tales in literature and film illustrating the dangers of imprudent application of scientific innovation.
“There is a lot of passion on both sides of the nuclear power debate, and the key to moving forward on the issue is being well-informed,” says Professor Shupenko, Associate Professor at the Engineering Design Laboratory. “Our students have put forward a well-researched and reasoned perspective.”
The students’ video considers the possibility that these examples and stories have pushed the general consensus beyond reasonable caution into excessive fear. They outline the unique advantages of nuclear energy and describe a nuclear technology, a molten salt reactor (MSR). Some key benefits to the MSR are safer production and operation than pressurized or boiling water reactors, 1% of waste generated compared to traditional reactors, and a fail-safe which completely inhibits the chances of a nuclear meltdown. Dr. Edward Friedman, Professor Emeritus at the Howe School of Technology Management at Stevens provides an expert perspective on the benefits of MSRs.
The students’ video asserts that the greatest ethical concern for modern society is global warming, and that nuclear power presents a viable alternative to fossil fuels because it can meet society’s demand for power. Energy sources such as solar or wind energy have the advantages of renewability and sustainability, but the students argue that those sources would likely struggle to meet energy demand. The students propose that nuclear power therefore deserves greater consideration, and that people need to be educated more realistically about its pros and cons in order to develop informed opinions on the issue.
The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Online Ethics Center (OEC) is sponsoring its first Ethics Video Challenge to promote consideration of ethical issues in the research and work life of scientists, engineers, and engineering students. This year the contest topic is Energy Ethics. The contest encourages students to identify an ethical issue that is important for the nation’s energy future and to produce a video that examines the ethical aspects and presents approaches to address them.