MARIETTA — As a miniseries on Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster begins airing on HBO Monday night, one Kennesaw State University professor will be in the area that even today continues to be affected by the fallout. Another professor, meanwhile, will remain in the States and will have his eyes on the public’s reaction to the series and overall perception of nuclear power.
Eduardo Farfan, a professor of nuclear engineering at KSU’s Marietta campus, says he plans on eventually watching the five-part miniseries “Chernobyl” when he returns from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, within which public access and inhabitation are limited. Having departed from the U.S. to Chernobyl on Sunday, the trip will not be the first time he has conducted research around the site.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster led to the deaths of 28 workers as a result of radiation sickness in the first three months following the accident, according to the World Health Organization. Several other deaths have been attributed to the incidents in the years since.
“My concern is when people watch this, most people might get a negative impression on nuclear power. I don’t think it will favor it,” Farfan said. “If the HBO movie says nothing wrong is happening here, and I don’t know if they are going to mention the fact that no more than 60 people died because of the Chernobyl accident — if they mention those facts, people will not be interested. I’m not negating the fact that the Chernobyl accident was bad — I’m saying the effects are not as bad as most people think.”
Despite the incident that released large quantities of radioactive materials in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and other European countries, Farfan said plant and animal life continues to thrive around Chernobyl. Some humans also live in the exclusion zone, most of whom are 60 to 70 years old or older since cancers caused by radiation often manifest about two decades later. Few children live there, however, as they are more sensitive to radiation.
Nearing his five-year anniversary at Kennesaw State, Farfan previously worked for the Savannah River National Laboratory, a Department of Energy site in Aiken, South Carolina, which was originally built to produce materials for nuclear weapons but today serves as the country’s only complete nuclear material management facility, according to its website.
“While I was working there for about seven years, I did a number of things and worked on a number of research projects,” Farfan said, recalling the first grant he received to research in Ukraine — $50,000 to analyze penetration of radioactive materials in concrete.
“That was my first project around the Chernobyl Center,” Farfan said, referring to Ukraine’s leading institution that conducts reviews of nuclear and radiation safety for hazardous facilities.
“If we have a nuclear incident or a dirty bomb detonation in the United States, that most likely is going to happen in a major city. What do we have in major cities? Buildings, tall buildings,” Farfan added, with the operative question then becoming how such buildings could be cleaned in case of such an incident.
“To do that, we had to analyze how nuclear materials behave with these type of materials. This specific project analyzed how these radioactive materials penetrate concrete. If they stay on the surface, we can just wash these buildings and get the buildings back,” he said. “But we demonstrated that these radioactive materials, Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, can penetrate concrete up to 5 or 6 centimeters. If they do that, what happens to your building? It’s done, you cannot reclaim it, you cannot wash it.”
His final project at Savannah River National Laboratory focused on Cesium-137, which is used in great quantities in nuclear reactors.
“The problem with Cesium-137 is chemistry — it behaves like sodium or potassium,” Farfan said, explaining that the human body would ingest it much like it would ingest salt on french fries.
“So basically, we were trying to figure out how to remove Cesium-137 contamination from Chernobyl areas,” he said. “Since we worked on a number of projects, we were able to publish a whole journal based on our work. We were trying to have those publications done during (2011’s) 25th anniversary of the incident, but the number one thing I was working for was the Department of Energy site, which is part of the government, so we were late by a few months.”
It’s unlikely Farfan will visit the reactor site itself, which is about an hour outside of Slavutych, the city in which the Chernobyl Center is located. But his intent is to return to the reactor site sometime in the future to conduct research, as he has done in the past with the Department of Energy.
But the overall goal of his trip is to work on research projects that could help mitigate the effects of a more recent catastrophe — Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
“That’s always been my suggestion — whatever you learn from one experience, use it for the next one,” Farfan said.
One of Farfan’s peers at Kennesaw State has focused some of his research on the Japanese disaster, which saw a meltdown occur as a result of a massive earthquake and tsunami.
PROFESSOR SEEKS NEW STRATEGY FOR NUKED SOILDaniel Ferreira, an assistant professor of environmental science at KSU, attended a 2013 conference focused on the Fukushima disaster, and during a panel discussion, he saw pictures showing “mountains” of bags containing radioactive soil that the Japanese government had collected.
Some of those “mountains” were 50 to 60 feet high.
“It was unbelievable. And they have no idea what to do with it,” Ferreira told the MDJ in 2016. “I walked out of that session and the wheels just started turning.”
The brainstorm led to Ferreira’s idea to use plants to remove radioactive cesium from the soil in an effort to reduce the amount of contaminated earth. He began researching the potential solution in August 2015, studying clay material that matches the composition of the soil found in the affected areas and adding a non-radioactive isotope of cesium to simulate the contaminated soil.
“Ultimately, the problem was we couldn’t keep the plants alive long enough for them to accomplish the task, so we gave up on that,” Ferreira said on Wednesday.
But Ferreira said a new strategy shows promise. In 2017, one of his graduate students received a National Science Foundation grant that paid for him to go to Japan for three months. Ferreira went over for a month and worked with him. That research led to pursuit of a chemical method aimed at snatching cesium from the soil.
“I’m working on that with someone with the chemistry department right now trying to refine the method and correct the proof we need to show it works,” Ferreira said. “My hope is that in a couple of years, we’ll have it developed to a point where I can go over to Japan and see if we can scale it up.”
The analogy Ferreira uses to explain the process is the strategy he might take if he had to face off against a heavyweight boxing champion.
“It’s like putting me in the ring with Mike Tyson — even if I manage to get in a lucky punch and knock him down, he’s just going to get back up and pound me, but if I have somebody waiting there at the edge of the ring and as soon as Mike falls down they wrap him up in rope and tie him up so he can’t move anymore, I win,” he said. “That’s basically what we’ve done — developed this two-step process where we introduce a chemical that kick the cesium out of the soil, but then you have this second chemical reaction that takes place afterwards and binds it up so it can’t get back in, and that appears to be the key.”
Ferreira says he plans on breaking away from his research to watch the HBO series on the Ukranian disaster.
“I’m going to watch it for sure,” he says. “I’m curious because I’m also interested in nuclear power in general, but nuclear power as an environmental issue is well within my wheelhouse, so I’m always curious to see what the public perception of nuclear power is looking like.”
NUCLEAR IN OUR BACKYARDOn the homefront, construction continues on the two new Plant Vogtle nuclear reactors near Waynesboro, Georgia, along the eastern border of the state. The project had been put in jeopardy in September as the three primary owners debated over the project.
But the owners ultimately came to an agreement to continue work on the $27 billion towers, which were originally projected to cost $9.5 billion and set to be completed in 2016. The current estimated time of completion is 2022. The project’s three largest stakeholders are Georgia Power, which owns 45.7 percent, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia or MEAG, which owns 22.7 percent, and Oglethorpe Power, which owns 30 percent, while Dalton Utilities owns 1.6 percent.
Farfan said like other U.S. reactors, the Vogtle towers will be able to be safely shut down by themselves should any accidents occur. A series of redundant safety systems, he says, greatly reduces the likelihood of an incident. The reactors will also be inside a reinforced steel containment building designed to contain all radioactive materials, along with concrete walls 3 to 4 feet thick that would be able to withstand an external impact, such as a plane or car crash into a tower.
“One of the problems with nuclear power is the negative association of nuclear power with nuclear weapons,” Farfan said. “A lot of people think when a nuclear reactor incident happens, it might blow like a nuclear weapon. It will never be that case.”
Starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, “Chernobyl” premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO and its streaming services.