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Pitt Lands Grant To Improve Power Plant Safety

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded nearly $1 million to University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering to improve nuclear power plant safety.

Principal investigator and Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Kevin Chen will use the $987,000 to develop radiation-resistant fiber optic cable sensors capable of measuring properties such as temperature, pressure and hydrogen levels in the event of a nuclear emergency.

“We need a better monitoring and sensing capability being actually implemented in a nuclear power plant to actually avoid a disaster,” he said.

Chen said the highly sensitive fiber optic cables he and his team are developing will allow nuclear engineers to monitor plant conditions and implement solutions with minimal costs.

“You can actually put tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of sensors in one fiber so you can actually lay the fiber in the critical area then they can return the useful information of thousands of points back to you just using one fiber cable,” he said.

Chen was inspired by the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in 2011. Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, a nearly 50 ft. tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling capabilities of three reactors, leading to an explosion triggered by a hydrogen build-up in the core.

Chen said power plants, such as Fukushima Daiichi, lack “situation awareness” during nuclear disasters.

“When the plant was evacuated following the earthquake and tsunami, we lost the ability to know what was happening in key systems,” he said. “This information blackout prevented the implementation of proper control mechanisms…”

The fibers should be ready for testing in two to three years, according to Chen. He also said the fibers could be used in both new and old power plants.

Researchers are partnering with Corning Incorporated and Westinghouse Electric Company for the project.

The grant was awarded under the Nuclear Energy University Programs’ Nuclear Energy Enabling Technology program.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."