The Interview: Vadym Buyalsky

Westminster scientist was post-Chernobyl fire safety expert

March 18, 2011|By Hanah Cho, The Baltimore Sun

Vadym Buyalsky was a lead scientist at the Ukrainian Research and Development Institute of Fire Protection & Defense when an explosion destroyed a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986 and released massive amounts of radioactive material.

In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, Buyalsky took part in the difficult cleanup, washing off the radioactive particles from nearby units and the surrounding environment. He also helped assess long-term safety issues, including preparing fire protection and suppression systems for the shelter built over the destroyed reactor to contain the radiation.

Today, the Ukrainian-born Buyalsky is a research and development scientist at Westminster's CTRL Systems, which makes ultrasound technology that helps companies across many industries reduce energy use, monitor machinery and maintain facilities. The company works with clients in aviation, distribution, manufacturing and power generation, including nuclear plants in the United States and Europe.

During the past week, Buyalsky, 69, has been closely watching the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan, where a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 caused reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to shut down and overheat.

Since then, Japan has been fighting to contain the nuclear crisis. On Friday, Japanese officials raised the severity level of the accident to 5 from 4 on a seven-level international scale. Level 4 indicates an accident with local consequences, while Level 5 denotes one with broader implications.

The nuclear accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 was also rated 5, although some experts say the situation in Japan is more serious. The Chernobyl disaster was rated 7.

With concerns deepening over the crisis in Japan, Buyalsky talked with The Baltimore Sun last week over the phone and via e-mail about Chernobyl, his experience dealing with Chernobyl's aftermath and what the Japanese crisis means for nuclear ambitions in the United States.

Question: How does Japan's nuclear accident compare to what happened at Chernobyl?

Answer: This situation in Japan differs from the situation at Chernobyl. It's rather similar with the Three Mile accident in the United States.

Why? In the Chernobyl case, it was an explosion which destroyed the unit itself. It was destroyed entirely and all the pieces were blown out. A high level of radiation was emitted in the surrounding atmosphere and environment.

Radiation has three components: alpha, beta and gamma. Alpha and beta are the particles and gamma are the rays, which are the most dangerous.

In Japan, the situation is different. The containment of the units remains integral and no alpha, beta and gamma radiation went out. That's why it's less dangerous.

Q: In what ways are the Three Mile Island accident like Japan's?

A: The similarity is the danger of the reactor core melting down.

Q: It's been more than 30 years since the United States built new nuclear plants. Proposals have been stalled for countless reasons, including construction costs and other economic factors. What does the Japanese nuclear crisis mean for U.S. nuclear ambitions?

A: I'm strongly confident that nuclear power is the best way forward for any country. Nuclear energy is clean and it's cheap, first of all.

The examples are in Europe. France has more than 60 units. Great Britain has more than 12 nuclear power units. And they operate the units very carefully and they have good maintenance discipline.

In the United States, there are older nuclear power plants. But they are safer than Japan's because they have a much more safe design. They feature very good protection systems. The United States obeys all the requirements of maintenance for those nuclear power plants.

I think the United States needs to develop the use of nuclear technology. The United States of America possesses aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, and they use their nuclear propulsion systems very effectively and very safely. Everything depends on the discipline of maintenance.

Q: Could you describe what you saw in the aftermath of Chernobyl?

A: The fire brigades and military troops tried first of all to prevent propagation of radiation.

Second, it was important to cool down the melted masses of fuel with other material. After the explosion, there was a mixture of melted fuel and other materials. It was impossible to use water because water is being split up into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen is a highly explosive gas.

So they arranged underground tunnels beneath the containment and inserted liquefied nitrogen, cooling it down.

It was very hard and dangerous work for the fire brigades and military. A lot of civilians were involved, too.

Q: What do you personally remember most about the Chernobyl disaster?

A: I remember being concerned about my family and the Ukrainian people.

Q: What lessons should we take away from the Chernobyl accident that may help us in the future?

A: The main lessons learned are to design power plants properly and to meet the requirements of maintenance procedures.

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