CURRENT PROSPECTS FOR NUCLEAR POWER
Phillip Taylor, Ph.D. - Perkins Professor of Physics
and Professor of Macromolecular Science Case Western Reserve University
Michael Dragowsky, Ph.D. - Research Associate Professor of Physics at Case Western Reserve University
Friday September 5, 2008
Crawford Hall - Room 9
Case Western Reserve University
Is Barack Obama supremely confident, a master of lawyerly language, or both?
Among the pledges he made in his acceptance speech, one of the most striking was that, "as president, I will... find ways to safely harness nuclear power."
Critics of nuclear power would say that is so confident as to be foolhardy. It has been a long time since any new nuclear power plants were licensed within the United States, largely because doubts about its safety are so politically potent.
Yet the rise of global warming as an issue is causing some rethinking among environmentalists who have to admit that nuclear power could be both a way to reduce carbon emissions from other sources and a technology that can be manipulated to meet fluctuating demand more easily, at present, than alternatives such as wind energy. Policy-makers in other countries, particularly France, have made major commitments to nuclear power, with no visible disasters. Advocates of nuclear power would cite not only the lack of disasters but new technology, such as pebble-bed reactors, (see http://web.mit.edu/pebble-bed/papers1_files/MIT_PBR.pdf ). From this perspective, Senator Obama is promising something that is already possible. By saying he will "find ways," then, he both expresses openness and interest, and avoids commitment - trying to appeal to one side of the nuclear power debate without alienating the other.
I'm agnostic. So many have been killed by coal mining and the effects of coal power and by the politics associated with oil that I see how nuclear power might be a better idea. Yet issues such as how to dispose of the waste, and experience such as the mismanagement of the Davis-Besse plant outside Toledo, seem to provide good reason for concern. So it seems a particularly good topic for discussion among the community of highly informed people who participate in our university's Friday public affairs lunch.
Discussion will be begun by two members of our Department of Physics. Phil Taylor (Ph.D. Cambridge 1962) is the Perkins Professor of Physics, leader of the Soft Condensed Matter Theory Group, and a leader on campus in thinking about issues of science and policy. He initiated the Energy and Society course (PHYS 196) that was an avatar of interdisciplinarity on campus before being turned into a SAGES seminar taught by Phil and other Physics department senior faculty. Mike Dragowsky received his Ph.D. from Oregon State in 1999 for research focusing on neutrinos. He is Research Associate Professor of Physics at CWRU and Senior Research Associate on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search project. The CDMS seeks to detect Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, and is a collaboration of 14 institutions, funded by NSF and the Department of Energy. It involves really cool stuff such as extremely low temperatures and research deep in a former iron mine in Minnesota (see http://blog.case.edu/case-news/2008/02/25/cdms ).
I am sure, however, that this is a topic on which many others will pick up the discussion that Phil and Mike start. So I look forward to listening - and perhaps posing a few questions...
As usual, we will gather in Room 9 of the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, on the lower level of Crawford Hall, for free cookies, beverages, and brown bag lunch.
About Our Guests
Phillip Taylor's research group works principally in the area of physics known as "soft condensed matter." This term refers to substances whose molecules can be made to move significant distances by the application of comparatively weak forces. This distinguishes them from metals and ceramics, in which the atoms are usually tightly bound to their lattice sites. Typical examples of soft condensed systems are polymers and liquid crystals. We work on the theory behind the rich and varied behavior shown by these fascinating materials.
Recently Taylor and his research team have developed a new way of looking at the problem of phase transitions in polymers, and have produced some novel predictions for the properties of polyethylene. Some of their current work is related to the problem of instabilities in crystalline polymers and in solidifying mixtures. They are also looking at the way a smooth mixture of two substances separates into bubbles of one material embedded in the other when the temperature is lowered or when polymerization occurs. Additionally they are studying this process by modeling the way in which monomer and liquid crystal molecules exchange places as they migrate to form clusters and networks. From these models they develop the equations that govern the final morphology of the system, and hence its optical properties.
Liquid crystals and polymers pose a particular challenge to the theoretical physicist, as they are inherently complicated systems. The most common approach to modeling the dynamics of liquid crystals involves deriving equations to describe the average of quantities like the orientations of the molecules. These averages are taken over volumes big enough to contain many molecules, but small compared to the size of an actual device. Even within this approximation, however, the solution of the equations is a challenging task. One approach taken in their group is to start with the microscopic picture, in which individual molecules of a liquid crystal or polymer are described in terms of their orientations and positions, and their corresponding velocities. Then they take the equations that describe their motion as they interact with each other, and try to solve them -- sometimes analytically, but usually by computer simulation. From the statistical motions of the individual molecules one can build up a picture of the macroscopic behavior of the system as it would actually be observed. As always, the toughest task for the theoretical physicist working to predict the properties of matter is to define a model that is simple enough to solve, but sufficiently complex to reflect the real world.
Friday Lunch Upcoming Topics and Speakers:
September 12: Heroes and Politicians with Tim Wutrich, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics, and Joe White.
September 19: Evolution and Politics with Robert J. Richards, Morris Fishbein Professor of Science and Medicine and Professor of History, Philosophy and Psychology, the University of Chicago.
September 26: Ethical Responses to Terrorism with Shannon French Ph.D., Director, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence.
October 3: Health Policy in the 2008 Election with Joe White, Professor of Political Science.
October 10: Presidential Ecotheologies with Tim Beal, Professor of Religion.
October 17: Biological Bases of Moral (or Immoral) Behavior, with Gary Marchant, Lincoln Professor of Ethics in Law and Emerging Technology, Arizona State University.
October 24: Seniors in the 2008 Election with Robert H. Binstock, Professor of Aging, Health and Society.
October 31: Halloween Special: Election Preview with Karen Beckwith, Professor of Political Science; Justin Buchler, Assistant Professor of Political Science; and Andrew Lucker, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science.
November 7: Responding to the Foreclosure Crisis with Jim Rokakis, Cuyahoga County Treasurer.
November 14: Charging for Car Insurance by the Mile: Good Business and Good for Energy and the Environment? With Richard Hutchinson, General Manager for the “My Rate” program, Progressive Insurance.
November 21: TBA
November 28: Thanksgiving Break
December 5: TBA
The Friday Lunch discussions are held on the lower (ground) level of
Crawford Hall. Visitors with mobility issues may find it easiest to take advantage of special arrangements we have made. On most Fridays, a few parking spaces in the V.I.P. lot in between Crawford Hall and Amasa Stone Chapel are held for participants in the lunch discussion.
Visitors then can avoid walking up the hill to the first floor of Crawford by entering the building on the ground level, through the garage area under the building. The further door on the left in that garage will be left unlocked during the period before the Friday lunch. On occasion, parking will be unavailable because of other university events.
For more information about these and other Center for Policy Studies programs, please see http://policy.case.edu.