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Intern Works on Fukushima Nuclear Incident

Imagine being a summer intern and being thrust into the cleanup planning for one of the three most famous nuclear events in history. That’s what happened last summer, when senior mechanical engineering major Richard Lau was doing an internship for The Shaw Group office in Stoughton, Massachusetts, and suddenly found himself on a team working on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The job of his team was to design vessels for filtering out cesium, one of the byproducts of nuclear fission, in the radioactive cooling water at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Shaw’s supervisor showed a lot of faith in Lau’s abilities when he asked him to help a fulltime employee gather, sort, research, and analyze information for the team meetings.

“I got really lucky, because I was the only intern who got to work on the Fukushima relief effort,” says Lau. “That was really cool for me. It was great to use the knowledge that I learned at UMass to help other people.”

The Fukushima nuclear disaster was a series of equipment failures, nuclear fuel damages, and releases of radioactive materials triggered by the earthquake and tsunami. The plant comprises six separate boiling water reactors maintained by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. It is the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, but it is more complex because multiple reactors and spent fuel pools are involved.

The name of Lau’s supervisor is Arthur Stein, a well-respected veteran of the nuclear industry for many years, and his method for teaching Lau was through hands-on experience. “He would give me some of his work as a project and say, ‘this is yours,’” recalls Lau. “I was really intimidated at first. I kept saying to myself, ‘I hope I don’t mess up today.’ But Mr. Stein and everyone else were so good about helping me learn. All I had to do was ask. I really learned a lot.”

Whenever Lau handed in his report, Stein would carefully check the results and make further suggestions. Besides gathering and processing data, Lau got to sit in on all the group meetings, whose general purpose was to tackle such engineering problems as stress corrosion cracking and thermal creep of the lead barrier for shielding radioactivity in the filtering vessels being designed.

“What my group did was to analyze the failure mode for that process,” says Lau. “For instance, if the lead shielding creeps and fails, people may get hurt. What they wanted was a number. How many days will it take for this lead barrier to creep? How many days will this tank work?”

Lau adds that “One of the things you design for is to prevent failure. You know, you don’t want these systems to fail. They are radioactive. For me, this internship put all the numbers we develop as engineers in perspective. In real life, there are real people involved, and it’s our job to protect them. That’s ultimately what the numbers mean.”

The Shaw Group, founded in 1986, is a diverse global organization with 27,000 employees and fiscal year 2011 revenues of $5.9 billion. The company, which first specialized in pipe fabrication, has become one of the world’s leading providers of engineering, construction, technology, fabrication, remediation, and support services.

“One of the things I got from this Shaw internship is that there’s a lot to learn out there,” says Lau. “I think a bachelor’s degree gets your foot in the door, but there’s a lot more to learn after that. So I want to go to grad school and specialize in materials.” (December 2011)