Earth Scientists Help Assure Nuclear Safety

Britt Hill
Senior Advisor for Repository Science
The NRC is celebrating a bit late as Earth Science Week was disrupted by the government shutdown.
The NRC is celebrating a bit late as Earth Science Week was disrupted by the government shutdown.

Earth science is all around us – the NRC is no exception. For us, the foundations of nuclear safety rest on making sure a site has natural characteristics suitable for a nuclear facility. The geosphere (the soil, water, rock and atmosphere) at the site also must support the presence of a facility. At the same time, the surrounding environment must be protected from any impacts from the facility. And, of course, nuclear facilities are designed to be safe from natural hazards like hurricanes and earthquakes.

More than 100 earth scientists work at the NRC to make sure all of that happens.

Nuclear facilities are found in many different locations in the U.S., from the coastal plains of Florida to the oft-frozen shores of the Great Lakes and out to the deserts of Arizona. Each location has a unique set of natural conditions that must be understood by NRC earth scientists. To gain this understanding, NRC earth scientists gather information from field observations, laboratory tests and mathematical models. We use this information to help us figure out how geological and environmental systems work individually, and together as a natural system. Then, we can see if adding a nuclear facility to the natural system can be done safely and in a way that protects the environment.

We know the characteristics of Earth’s natural system have changed through time. The NRC’s earth scientists have to consider how the natural system might change in the next several decades, or longer.

For example, could the changes in climate patterns affect operation of a nuclear power plant? What size earthquakes might occur in the future, especially in areas that haven’t had many earthquakes in the last century? And with the effect human activity has already had on the environment, will a proposed facility add too many additional impacts? These and many other important questions must be answered confidently by NRC earth scientists, so safety and environmental protection is assured.

So, don’t be surprised to learn that in addition to all the nuclear engineers, NRC staff includes experts in environmental sciences like marine and terrestrial biology, wetlands ecology and pollution chemistry.

That’s in addition to the geological scientists who are experts in earthquake geology, surface-water flow, severe weather and soil stability, just to name a few. And don’t forget, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane is also an earth scientist who once worked on the Himalayan Mountains! She talks about her experiences as an earth scientist on the NRC’s YouTube channel.

To learn more about what some other earth scientists do at the NRC, check out these NRC YouTube videos:

3 Minutes with an NRC Hydrologist

3 Minutes with an NRC Meteorologist

Regulating for Mother Nature: Earthquakes and the NRC

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