Opinion please – Reactors collapse under force majeure

Despite their superior engineering, Japanese citizens and engineers were confronted with a natural disaster larger than anyone could have foreseen. What more can possibly be done to protect nuclear reactors from extreme geological violence?

Before a gigantic wave reaching 10-metres high hit Japan, killing thousands and making 500,000 people homeless, it was already widely known that there was a high risk of earthquakes and tsunamis. For years the government had taken special precautions by building earthquake-proof buildings. Scientists at TU Delft praise the Japanese way of building. Nevertheless, many buildings could not withstand this recent natural disaster, including the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Three reactors were severely damaged and at least one caught fire.

TU Delft water management, construction and nuclear specialists believe the power plant could have been made safer if it was built on an artificial dwelling hill. They all stress that much research still needs to be done to learn lessons from the disaster. But a terp – the Dutch term for an artificial hill that is widely used in the Netherlands – would protect power plants. “It seems like the nuclear power plant resisted the earthquake, but the tsunami damaged the emergency engine-generator that had to cool down the reactors,” says Sander Pasterkamp, a structural and building engineering instructor at the faculty of civil engineering. “Building the power plant and the engine-generator on a hill or on thick concrete columns could have helped.”

Professor of Hydrology, Huub Savenije, agrees. “It’s not possible to stop a tsunami but one could redirect the water. By building a terp this is exactly what happens. The water flows around the artificial hill.”

Professor Tim van der Hagen, dean of the faculty of Applied Sciences and a nuclear reactors specialist, also agrees with the solution proposed by Prof. Savenije and Pasterkamp.

“A system usually fails because problems occur that one does not expect,” says Pasterkamp, who has helped design a building for nuclear waste in Petten, where a Dutch nuclear site is located. “In the Netherlands we protect the land with dikes and dunes against storm surges, but not against tsunami’s, although there is even a small chance that a tsunami could occur here. When a volcano explodes on Iceland for instance, there’s a risk. Will our nuclear power plants be able to withstand such a gigantic wave?”

“Probably not,” says Prof. Savenije, who visited Tokyo last year with students of the ‘Dispuut Water Management’ society.

Six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have encountered problems due to malfunctioning cooling systems. “After the earthquake the power was cut off. The emergency engine-generators functioned for an hour until the gigantic wall of water came. It is necessary to cool the warmth inside a reactor. Because there was no electricity the cooling system malfunctioned,” says Prof. Van der Hagen. “A different system running on batteries was used, until the batteries ran out of juice eight hours later. The reactors were cooled for at least nine hours because of this.”

Japanese technicians then tried to cool with seawater, but it couldn’t prevent several explosions that rocked the buildings and ripped of the reactors’ roofs and walls. Radiation levels rose and about 100,000 people living within 30 kilometres of the sites were told to stay inside. It is the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

TU Delft’s career centre emerged from the need for a centralized career service point for international students. “The idea used to be that international students would leave after their studies, but in the recent years more and more of them have expressed the desire to stay”, explanes David Kramer, a project assistant at the centre. “Of course the centre also offers career advice for Dutch students, but in practice internationals tend to need it more: Dutch students will try their own thing and if they hit a wall, they’ll ask for help, while international students need that initial push out the door to get rolling.” 

Additionally, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) website and its immigration laws can be daunting and most information about the job market is only available in Dutch, which poses an extra challenge for international students. Thus, when the need for a centre for orientating international students on the Dutch/European career market became increasingly apparent, Caroline Scheepmaker, senior counsellor at the centre, was able to acquire funding as part of a university-wide initiative to create a more efficient administration. Scheepmaker assembled a team of four counsellors (two Dutch, one international and one senior counsellor), who along with the central student administration counsellors, staff the career centre.

So what kind of help can students get from the career centre? Kramer: “In a nutshell, our job is to make sure that students are so well-prepared for the Dutch job market that they will be convincing enough for potential employers to want to hire them despite the hassle associated with taking on non-EU employees.”

The centre offers a wide range of services to achieve this, from immigration advice and information on how and where to learn Dutch, to help with writing CV’s and cover letters, and advice on how to do well at an interview. The centre’s regularly scheduled walk-in hours have been quite popular thus far: normally, 2-3 students come by per day, but on one occasion, around 40 students showed up during the CV-check open hour.

Besides the walk-in hours, the centre offers various workshops. “Having had lots of requests from international students for workshops on how to do interviews, we held one and it was very successful”, explains international career counsellor, Rally Schwachöfer. “In future we’re planning a 3-step workshop: the first part will be about immigration issues, the second part about creating perfect CVs and cover letters, and the third about finding and promoting skills. This last step is particularly important, as many international students do not think about how to promote themselves.”
The career centre also offers the option of scheduling an appointment for private counselling. Schwachöfer: “We’re here for students as much as we can be, as long as there’s still room in the agenda planner.” Additionally, the career centre will provide a beacon of alternative solutions for issues that cannot be solved within its walls, such as learning Dutch, networking, and orientation on the job market.

So is the career centre the first place to run to for help when you’re ready to begin a job search? Not if you haven’t done a bit of homework first. “We don’t present students with a picture-clear job future on a silver platter”, Kramer says. “Students coming to us should’ve done a bit of research first. We expect a dialogue where we can fine-tune things. Students expecting us to hold their hand and do the job hunt for them are showing a serious lack of commitment on their part. We’ll ask them to come back when they’re better prepared.”

The effort a student is willing to put into language skills in order to secure a job in the Netherlands is equally important. “The first step to any job search is to find out your strengths and weaknesses and make up your mind about what you want”, adds Schwachöfer. “And the biggest problem international students face when looking for a job is that they don’t speak Dutch. Sometimes students come in and say, ‘I want to stay in the Netherlands’, and then you ask them, ‘Why? What do you expect from your stay and finding work here, and if you don’t speak Dutch, how do you see yourself doing that?’ If they can’t give a clear answer, they may be making the wrong choice.”

Kramer, an American and TU Delft MSc graduate, recalls his personal experience in searching for and securing a job in the Netherlands: “In a time of financial crisis, employers are automatically going to pick the candidate who speaks Dutch. If I could give one piece of advice to international students wanting to stay in the Netherlands after their studies, it would be to learn the language; if a potential employer sees that you’ve been here five years and still don’t speak the language, what does that say about your work ethic?” Finally, be pro-active about your own career. “Be seen, be heard, and don’t wait until the end of your studies to be active”, Kramer adds.” As an international student you already stand out, so make yourself seen by joining study societies, networking with groups, attending conferences and career events. The possibilities are endless and your career is in your own hands.” 

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