Dana Powers, a recently retired Sandia senior scientist and nuclear safety expert in Sandia’s Advanced Nuclear Energy Programs, who studied the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear power plant accidents during his more than 40-year career, was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) “for contributions to commercial nuclear power plant safety worldwide and to radioactive source-term processes.”

Sandia’s Dana Powers was elected to the National Academy of Engineering shortly before his retirement from Sandia’s Advanced Nuclear Energy Programs. Powers worked on nuclear power plant safety during most of his career.

Sandia’s Dana Powers was elected to the National Academy of Engineering shortly before his retirement from Sandia’s Advanced Nuclear Energy Programs. Powers worked on nuclear power plant safety during most of his career.

Powers is among 79 new members who will receive their diplomas during the induction ceremony at the NAE Annual Meeting in early October in Washington DC. Election to the NAE is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering

  • research: significant contributions to the engineering literature and to the pioneering new/developing technology fields,
  • practice: major advancements in traditional engineering fields, or
  • education: developing or implementing innovative engineering educational approaches.

Shortly after his arrival at Sandia in 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) asked Powers to consult on metallurgy issues. In those days, the NRC’s research about severe accidents at nuclear power plants was speculative. “They didn’t think they were a very high probability, but they wanted to know what would happen if you had one,” Powers said. “Then along came Three Mile Island and suddenly nuclear accidents became very, very real.” After Three Mile Island—a pressurized-water reactor in Pennsylvania that partially melted down in 1979—Powers became heavily involved in researching chemical and metallurgical conditions at the plant. He was appointed a consultant to the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island.

In 1981, Powers became supervisor of Sandia’s Reactor Safety Research Division, which conducted analytic and experimental studies of severe reactor phenomena in fast reactors, as well as light-water reactors, the most common in the US today. The research helped the NRC and DOE better understand the effects of potential severe accidents in nuclear power plants and how to mitigate the risks. “We were trying to understand how accidents progress. What can you do about them? Is there a way to stop them? If you can’t stop an accident, can you mitigate its consequences?” Powers said.

The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine happened in 1986. By then, Sandia was known for its nuclear safety work and started getting phone calls almost immediately after the accident, Powes said. The International Atomic Energy Agency established a Nuclear Safety Advisory Group on Chernobyl and Powers consulted with the Soviet scientists for the group. He also wrote a 10-year review of the radioactivity released in the accident.

Powers’ experience has been tapped to teach newer Sandia employees in this field, said Peter Davies, recently Director of Sandia’s Nuclear Energy & Fuel Cycle Programs. “Another dimension of Dana’s enormous contribution to the world of reactor safety and to Sandia has been the time and energy he has invested in mentoring the next generation of Sandia researchers,” Davies said. “He has coached, critiqued, challenged, and encouraged both staff and managers, stimulating them to move to greater levels of technical understanding and personal impact.”

Read the Sandia news release.