The Inaugural Vannevar Bush Dean’s Medal Lecture: Richard Meserve, A66

On Apr. 4, Dr. Richard A. Meserve, A66, president of The Carnegie Institution, received the Vannevar Bush Dean’s Medal from the School of Engineering and spoke on “The Fukushima Nuclear Accident and Its Implications.”

Read a recap and watch video from the event.

We had hoped to tweet live from the event, but faced some technical difficulties. Nonetheless, we decided to post our reporting of the event here:

  • Today in Nelson Auditorium, Dr. Richard A. Meserve will be honored with the Bush Dean Medal.
  • He will also present “The Fukushima Accident and Its Implications,” a lecture on the recent nuclear power accident in Japan.
  • Meserve humbly accepts the award, and speaks to the audience about Vannevar Bush’s contributions to Tufts and society.
  • Bush is acknowledged to have been a visionary of the Internet.
  • Dr. Meserve: “If you were to envision a list of people who most influenced the 20th century, Bush would be on it.”
  • 30% of Japan’s electricity comes from nuclear power.
  • During the accident, Reactors 4,5 and 6 were luckily shut down for maintenance and inspection.
  • The sea was supposed to be the ultimate heat safe of the reactors.
  • The fission of Uranium produces an incredible amount of energy.
  • Even if you shut down the plant, reactors will continue to operate and release energy.
  • If you could convert leftover energy to electricity (you can’t), that electricity could power a whole city.
  • Dr. Meserve illustrates the components of a nuclear power plant through projected diagrams.
  • Dr. Meserve: “So, what happened?”
  • “The earthquake hit, and the nuclear reaction shut down. Ideally, the heat would have been absorbed.”
  • “But then the tsunami hit. It was 14 meters high.”
  • “The plant was designed to deal with a tsunami of 5.7 meters.”
  • There are still unknowns about what exactly happened.
  • “I have heard various inconsistencies.”
  • “We don’t know the whole story about the decision making.”
  • On a US reactor, there is a venting system which leads to a stack to release steam. We don’t know to what extent this was a part of Japan’s plan.
  • Now, Japan is dumping water on the reactors to cool them and prevent a hydrogen explosion.
  • This releases radioactive contamination into the environment.
  • “There’s a bit of mystery as to how this all happened.”
  • Dr. Meserve begins a discussion of the health effects of the radioactivity following the disaster.
  • While doses of those exposed in Japan, especially workers, are above NRC limits, acute deaths are not occurring.
  • Serious questions remain about how this disaster will be cleaned up.
  • “That will be an expensive task.”
  • “It is important to keep health effects in perspective.”
  • In the example of Chernobyl, thyroid cancer increased but other increases in cancer were not seen.
  • Dr. Meserve explains that in comparison with other cancers, thyroid cancer is more manageable.
  • He hopes that there will be serious lessons learned from the event such as how to handle extreme events, important safety measures for nuclear plants, etc.
  • Major nuclear construction projects are happening in China, Russia, India, South Korea and Japan.
  • The US is not currently pursuing construction due to economic problems.
  • Meserve does not expect that projects will altogether stop, but thinks that scientists and policymakers will learn from what happened in Japan.
  • He fears that the greater lesson of prioritizing preparation for extreme events will not be learned.
  • He identifies climate change and elevated seawater as central causes of an increase in natural disasters.
  • Meserve thanks the audience and opens the floor up to questions.
  • An audience member asks about the correct rules of engagement between public and private authorities in situations like Japan.
  • Meserve answers that there were grotesque failures of communication in this situation, and that communication is key to the disaster response.
  • Someone asks: “Is there any possibility of a nuclear explosion?”
  • Meserve: “[With regard to nuclear fission] It’s highly unlikely. You have to do some tricky things to make a nuclear weapon.”
  • An audience member wants to know: “Do you personally support nuclear power?”
  • Meserve responds affirmatively: “I do – but I am one of the few people who believe in climate change. You have to do it safely.”
  • Meserve compares the dangers of nuclear power with those of using coal for energy, which kills thousands of people.
  • Finally, he thanks the audience again and the conversation is moved to a reception area.

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  1. #1 by David Bader on April 6, 2011 - 3:00 pm

    When will the video recording of the Vannevar Bush lecture be posted online and where will it be posted?

  2. Profile photo of Georgy Cohen

    #2 by Georgy Cohen on April 6, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    This post will be updated with the video when it is available, which will hopefully be within a few days. Check back soon!

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