Understanding nuclear

Peter Martin

In March 2011, the most powerful earthquake and tsunami ever to hit Japan triggered a major incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Now, thanks to funding from a Bristol alumnus, PhD student Peter Martin (BSc 2013, PhD 2014-) is collecting much-needed data to help with the clean-up.

Billions of dollars has been spent cleaning up the exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant, but there’s limited evidence to suggest the area is safe for residents to return. Part of the challenge is that we don’t know exactly what materials were ejected from the plant.

While for the most part, the radioactivity levels have dropped considerably, high levels of long-lived nuclides in certain areas could still pose a serious toxicological health risk to nearby communities – now, and for many more years to come.

My PhD involves using unmanned aerial vehicles (developed here in Bristol) to rapidly monitor and characterise contamination across the most affected areas, identifying and then sampling contamination hot spots. Back in Bristol, we then subject the samples to high-resolution analysis, to better understand the elemental makeup of individual fallout particles and their evolving condition in the environment.

By providing a detailed and ongoing snapshot of the effects of the fallout, we can then work with our partners in the University of Kyoto to identify and prioritise areas for remediation. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of Bristol’s Nuclear Research Centre, where I can work alongside world-class experts in a wide range of disciplines, and access state-of-the-art equipment designed to accelerate results.

However, I’d never have been able to pursue this research without alumni funding. That the funding is independent is also hugely helpful: it means we are able to share data directly with the communities who need it most. The families affected by the nuclear accident need our help, and they need it now, so I’m committed to finding practical solutions as quickly as possible.

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