Faculty Profile: Thomas Downar, Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences

Monday, October 26, 2015
Amy Wynn

When Tom Downar left West Point in 1974, the young graduate wasn’t interested in taking the easy path - at least not in terms of his engineering degree.  Instead, the former military man decided to take on nuclear energy.

“I liked physics and engineering; nuclear was the best of both worlds and you get something done,” says Downar.  “You produce electricity and do it in what we think what is an environmentally friendly way.”

At MIT, Downar earned an MS and a PhD in Nuclear Engineering during a time when the field was facing significant issues and public disapproval.

“There’s a pattern to this behavior.” Downar says of himself with a laugh.  “I went into the military during Vietnam when everybody was looking down on it. When I got out of the military, Three Mile Island happened and everyone was really discouraged about nuclear.  I thought ‘ok, I’ll take that on, too’.”

Downar, a professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS), knows the public perception of nuclear energy; he’s worked through decades of high profile incidents.

“With the combination of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and most recently Fukushima, there’s a trepidation about nuclear energy: is this really necessary? But there are risks in everything we do. Have we exhausted all other possibilities -  can we get by with just solar and wind to produce electricity?”

While solar and wind are clean forms of energy and they are renewable, they are not always available. According to Downar, there is no silver bullet.

“People are really convinced now that climate change is real and we have to minimize the use of fossil fuels but what is Plan B? Plan B should be both the most dependable and the most environmentally friendly.”

We need what Downar calls “a menu of different technologies”.

“We can’t put all our eggs in one basket. I see nuclear as playing a role,” says Downar.  “But you want a portfolio of energy options. We diversify our financial investments so we’re not overly dependent on one thing, and it makes sense that we do the same thing as a nation in building our energy options for the future.”

Downar’s work centers on the safety analysis of nuclear plants. He spent time on the faculty at Purdue and UC Berkeley before accepting his current position at the University of Michigan in 2008. Specifically, Downar and his group have developed computer codes for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to certify safety performance of nuclear plants across the US as well as throughout the world.

The overall safety record of US plants, Downar maintains, is very good.

“We developed the computer codes for the NRC and we think these are the best codes available now for doing what needs to be done to certify the safety performance of the current fleet of reactors.”

Currently, Downar and his group at Michigan is also developing the next-generation code for the Department of Energy called MPACT - or the Michigan PArallel Characteristics Transport Code.

“The Department of Energy has really stepped up to the plate by investing $250 million into the development of these next-generation codes. Michigan is key player in this effort.”

Downar’s work also takes him all over the globe, most recently to China, where nuclear energy is a rapidly growing form of energy. 24 reactors are currently under construction there.

““Fukushima happened in their backyard,” says Downar, “so they know they have to do this right.”

“Here’s a country which has very serious pollution problems,” Downar continues. “In Beijing, I couldn’t see a blue sky. They’ve got issues, and now they’re going gangbusters trying to build nuclear plants. In a matter of decades, they will have more nuclear power plants than the United States.”

But while production of nuclear facilities has stepped up to meet China’s ever-growing energy demands, the infrastructure also needs development. According to Downar, a national laboratory, fuel vendors and most importantly, regulators are all key pieces of this process. China is just now becoming comfortable with the nuclear oversight protocols that the US and Europe have spent the last six decades refining.

“China is doing the right things but my concern is that some things just take time such as developing a nuclear infrastructure. You need the best students to go to the best schools and China is doing that. But you need those students to mature and gain experience, and to become regulators to develop procedures and protocols.”

Downar consults with universities and industries in China to advise them about the development of both their academic and industrial infrastructure.  

“I’m the sort of guy who always liked to take on a problem. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl really motivated me to learn everything I could about nuclear field and make it safer.”

Downar, who recently stepped down as Chair of the Graduate Program at NERS, views his students as one of the largest contributions to the field.

“I graduated 30 doctoral students and as many master’s students, and although they are all over the world, I see them often because we are a small community. It’s a great feeling because you become a surrogate father to them - you are helping them move forward in their chosen field and to have an impact in an important field.”

And while a country like China is in need of renewable energy, so too is the United States. Currently, there are 100 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S.    Michigan, which receives a quarter of its energy from nuclear power, is home to four reactors. Nuclear energy is also responsible for powering over 60% of Downar’s hometown of Chicago.

“Nuclear is huge in Chicago - which is great because I like to see a blue sky,” he says, pointing out his office window.

Downar is confident that nuclear will continue to play a key role in energy production. As for nuclear safety, what Downar sees is mostly a problem with perception.  

“Based on my experience with nuclear, I see a disconnect between what you read and what is the reality,” Downar says, “and each of us in the nuclear field are charged with making that reality a little more clear.” 

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