researchers looking at plants

After the massively destructive earthquake and tsunami assaulted Japan on Mar. 11, 2011, Oregon State University faculty from multiple disciplines sprang into action. Chief among them were engineering researchers.

In the days and weeks following the devastating event, some engineers were called upon to share their expert advice about what to expect next. Others booked tickets to the shattered area to collect perishable data that will help minimize infrastructure damage and loss of life when similar tragedies occur in the future. Still others strengthened their resolve to find safer nuclear energy solutions and to understand the short- and long-term effects of radiation on the world’s food supply and within the environment.

Such faculty response happens regularly at the College of Engineering. Oregon State engineers, for example, flew to Chile and New Zealand in 2010 after high-magnitude earthquakes occurred in those countries. Others traveled to the Midwest area of the United States in the aftermath of major flooding and tornadoes in the spring and summer of 2011. Information gathered on the ground after these devastating events helps researchers validate existing computer models and improve infrastructure design standards.

“We’re trying to learn from them so that we can do a better job next time,” said Scott Ashford, interim dean. Ashford, an expert in ground and bridge performance, was among the first group of international researchers invited to Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Among the data he and his team brought back were videos that show widespread damage from liquefaction in highly water-saturated soils. He said this type of reconnaissance enables scientists to better understand the performance of an entire system.

“It’s really a full-scale laboratory,” he said. “You can look at these things in the lab, but seeing firsthand how structures are damaged out in the field, before they’re torn down in the reconstruction effort — this is the kind of perishable data we’re trying to collect.”

Researchers can learn as much from what goes right as they can from what goes wrong. For instance, Ashford and his team are comparing data from earthquake-impacted bridges in New Zealand, Chile, and Japan to see how they performed. “We’re assessing our current design standards,” he said. “If a bridge performed better than expected, we want to find out why — and maybe our design procedures are too conservative. If it performed worse than we expected, we’ve also got to understand why — and maybe there is something we’re missing when we look at the whole system.”

The risk for a similar subduction zone earthquake in the Pacific Northwest became more real when Japan’s experience put a face on it, and West Coast residents woke up a bit. They started asking questions like, “Are we prepared?” Findings from disaster-related expeditions help Oregon State engineers provide relevant and useful information that otherwise would not be available.

Kathryn Higley with Nuclear Engineering examines pepper plants that have been dosed with small amounts of radioactive materials.One of the West Coast’s concerns since last year’s disaster in Japan has been radiation risk. After local residents viewed video footage of a hydrogen explosion blowing off the roof of a nuclear power station, they began to wonder whether ocean-borne debris could carry radiation to the West Coast. Kathryn Higley, head of Oregon State’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, has been one of the most frequently cited scientists as people seek answers to these types of nuclear-related questions.

For many years, for example, Higley has been examining potential radiation uptake and contamination in plants to better understand how nuclear disasters affect food sources. In her lab, students dose root vegetables, chili peppers, tea, and other plants with small amounts of radioactive materials and then monitor how the radionuclides are translocated and distributed in the above- and belowground tissues.

“This work is part of a larger effort to develop transparent and robust methods for predicting radionuclide movement in the biosphere,” said Higley. “While the current interest is centered on Japan, these tools and techniques are equally relevant to disposal of radioactive waste and the operation of nuclear power facilities.”

Soon after the crisis, Higley addressed fears of radiation in Oregon, stating that widespread risk was unlikely. Now, almost a year later, tsunami debris is bound for Oregon shores, and a group of state agencies, university scientists, political staff, nongovernmental organizations and others is preparing for its arrival. But Higley says the lag time between the tsunami and the nuclear incident, coupled with the vastness of the ocean, makes it unlikely that the debris will carry any danger from radiation.

Research such as Higley’s and Ashford’s is carried out in cooperation with other national and international university researchers. “We always work very closely with local faculty, students, and experts,” said Ashford. “It’s an opportunity to really build collaboration with our international counterparts. Everybody works together. It’s beneficial for all of us.”

It may not be possible to prevent natural disasters, but Oregon State’s engineers will continue to do what they can to minimize loss. As Ashford puts it: “We try to find some good out of these natural disasters.”

--Marie Oliver

Published Date: 
Saturday, April 7, 2012