Linkage 4/22: Nuclear Lessons, Cancer Genomes, DES’ Legacy

nuclear_plant_at_grafenrheinfeldThe University of Chicago is the birthplace of nuclear energy. So like proud but concerned parents, UChicago has kept a close eye on the benefits and challenges of nuclear power over the years since the first self-sustained nuclear reaction under Stagg Field. Thus, the battle to manage the consequences of the damaged reactors at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan has drawn the University’s interest, and the short-term and long-term effects of that ongoing situation were the subject of a unique panel held on campus yesterday, “Lessons from Fukushima.”

Though nuclear power was created by scientists, discussing its use requires input from political and economic spheres as well. So the panel, assembled by the University of Chicago Alumni Association, brought together nuclear technologists (Hussein Khalil, director of the nuclear energy division at Argonne National Laboratory, and Mark Peters, deputy director of Argonne), nuclear policy watchdogs (Kennette Benedict, executive director of the UChicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists), and energy economics experts (Robert Topel, director of the University of Chicago Energy Initiative). With such different perspectives, it didn’t take long for the panelists to find points of debate, reflecting the tug-of-war over nuclear power that has gone on for several decades.

Nobody disputed the magnitude of the Fukushima incident, with workers at the plant still struggling to limit core meltdown in at least three of the reactors as well as re-cooling spent fuel rods at the site. As well, the panelists agreed that the incident was very relevant to nuclear power in the United States, where roughly one-fifth of electricity is provided by nuclear plants, many of which use the same model as the Fukushima reactors. But opinions differed on what those consequences would be.

Khalil pointed out that this was the first natural disaster to cause “grave damage” to a nuclear power plant in nearly 60 years of their use, and that a similar occurrence was very unlikely in the United States. But Benedict argued that “very unlikely” wasn’t good enough for “the most dangerous technology on Earth,” and that not every safety precaution possible had been taken at Fukushima. Topel agreed with the latter point – “why build generators on the ocean side in a country that coined the term ‘tsunami’?” he asked – and noted that the renewed attention to the long-term dangers of nuclear power would only make it more difficult to build new reactors.

In fact, no new nuclear reactor has come online in the United States in 32 years, Khalil said. So while Argonne continues to research new designs for nuclear plants and new strategies for containing nuclear waste, the economic (and possibly now public opinion) barriers are too large. The most likely rescue for nuclear power may come from an unlikely source: climate change.

“If other technologies turn out to be a bust, and if we really are serious about reducing our carbon footprint and carbon pricing becomes important, then there is a technology we have that can produce a lot of energy at relatively low cost compared to the alternatives,” Topel said. “Then, nuclear energy will prosper.”

By the end of the 90-minute discussion, the panelists came back to common ground on a hopeful note. If a thin silver lining could be found on a disaster that hasn’t yet been completely averted, it’s that the events at Fukushima have re-opened the international dialogue on nuclear power – its immense benefits and equally immense costs.

“One of the positive externalities of the Fukushima accident is that many more people are interested in nuclear energy, and I think that’s terrific,” Benedict said. “It’s unfortunate that it takes an accident to do it.”

Elsewhere…

The conversation about cancer is changing, from a single disease classified by the organ where it appears to multiple diseases grouped by genetic and biological similarities. As ScienceLife has written before, the Chicago Cancer Genome Project is our local contribution to this strategic shift against “the emperor of all maladies.” This week the Los Angeles Times examined that research effort and others like it, speaking with project leader Kevin White and many of the Medical Center’s cancer experts collaborating on this new vision of how to classify and battle cancer.

Another Los Angeles Times story, another Medical Center research topic. Resident hand-offs are the transfer of information about patients across shifts in the hospital, a process that can be plagued by communication errors. San Francisco physician and writer Rahul Parikh wrote about efforts to study and improve this process, and spoke with our local expert, associate professor of medicine Vineet Arora.

The exciting research in linguistics that we highlighted last week turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg for the field’s new wave of discovery. As this article from the UChicago news office explains, linguistics researchers have moved on from the tape recorder to using modern techniques such as brain recordings, computational science, and, um, reality television to study how languages form and evolve.

Forty years ago in UChicago history, gynecologic oncologist Arthur Herbst made a frightening discovery. A drug called diethylstilbestrol or DES, often prescribed to pregnant women at risk of miscarriage in the 1950’s, was found to have a disturbing side effect – an increased risk for vaginal cancer was detected in the children born to those mothers when they reached young adulthood. Herbst’s paper in the New England Journal of Medicine caused an uproar and the pulling of DES from the market. But concerns about the drug effects linger to this day, as a new Boston Globe article describes.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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