Tsunami Brings Alumnus’
Expertise to Forefront
Peper ’98 was on his way to the Philippines on March 11 to provide training to
customs and other government officials about the radiation detection portals
that the U.S. Department of Energy was installing at the Port of Manila. As a
senior research scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in
Richland, Wash., he has traveled around the world, providing this type of
education many times.
This trip would prove to be a bit
different. March 11 was the day the devastating tsunami hit Japan, and Peper was
about to become very busy.
As Japan struggled to stave off a
nuclear disaster at its Fukushima facility, all countries in the region were
greatly concerned with the radioactive fallout, especially nations like the
Philippines that receive a great deal of goods from Japan, which is located
approximately 1,800 miles away. The radiation detection equipment for which
Peper and his team were to provide training would soon play a prominent role as
the president of the Philippines mandated that all ships carrying supplies from
Japan must pass through the portals that detect radiation.
Peper, who received his undergraduate education
in the sciences from Viterbo, soon received a call from the director of the
Philippine Nuclear Research Institute asking him to visit the institute and
provide a general briefing to her and her senior staff.
“The director was one of the
government officials on television every day giving updates to the Philippine
people regarding the potential impact this event would have on the Philippines,”
Peper said. “I was also asked to brief the Acting Director of Customs for the
Port of Manila prior to his interviews.”
Peper quickly became a celebrity
himself. He was interviewed by the Associated Press, the European Press Agency,
Philippine newspapers, and three Philippine television stations. The AP and EPA
articles appeared in several U.S. Metro newspapers, Forbes magazine, the Wall
Street Journal, and various publications in the United Kingdom, South
Korea, and India.
“By the time I left, I felt like a
local celebrity,” Peper said. “People were coming up to me at the port saying
that they had seen me on TV the night before or read about me in the newspaper.
Normally, we come into a country and do our job and leave, with minimal impact.
It was a little overwhelming.”
The radiation detection portals are
part of a National Nuclear Security Administration program designed to deter,
detect, and interdict illicitly trafficked nuclear and radiological materials
that are transported via maritime means. Detection portals are installed at
large seaports around the world and training support is provided to customs
officials. Peper is the training lead for Mexico, Colombia, Panama, and the
Bahamas. He provides support for the installations in Jamaica, the Dominican
Republic, South Korea, and the Philippines. He also leads the curriculum
development for the next generation of radiation detectors that can determine
isotope identification. The new technology can detect radiation, determine the
type, and what is producing the radiation.
It may sound overwhelming, but it is
just one aspect of the job of a Senior Research Scientist. Peper also conducts
research about safe uranium recycling and the detection of nuclear fuel cycle
signatures in support of international safeguards and nuclear nonproliferation.
A third responsibility of his position is to evaluate technologies and conduct
demonstrations to support monitoring chemical processes at nuclear fuel cycle
Nuclear energy is a viable and safe
power source for the world, he said.
“The media does not paint a fair and
balanced picture of nuclear energy, in my opinion,” Peper said. “The
unfortunate event in Japan has caused the nuclear renaissance that has been
occurring in recent years to come to a screeching halt. With the current and
projected global energy demands and the non-ideal dependence of the world on
fossil fuel-based energy sources, eliminating or even reducing nuclear power as
an energy production vehicle is not a viable option. Addressing any
shortcomings in reactor design is perhaps appropriate, however, arguments
against commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing and the present moratorium on
reprocessing in the U.S. need to be revisited as part of the nation’s domestic
energy policy. If we have the technology to recycle the uranium in spent fuel,
which is roughly 95 percent of the total waste volume and is not highly
radioactive, shouldn’t we as environmental stewards be obligated to extend our
Peper graduated from Viterbo in 1998
with a double major in biology and chemistry. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in
Analytical Chemistry from Auburn University in 2003 and earned a post-doctoral
fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He received Viterbo’s Outstanding
Young Alumni Award in 2004 and received additional graduate education in
nuclear engineering at Washington State University.
“Viterbo had a great reputation in
the area, and coming from a small parochial high school, I liked the small
class sizes and Christ-centered education,” said Peper, who has many pleasant
memories of Viterbo. “I really enjoyed getting to know my professors,
especially in the chemistry and biology departments. I appreciated the
willingness of each professor to help you succeed. The courses were challenging
and rewarding and the faculty was very supportive.”
“I also enjoyed being a tutor in the
Learning Center and playing pool and foosball in the Student Union,” he said.
“I was at Viterbo so much that most students didn’t realize that I lived off
campus with my parents!”
Peper said Viterbo fostered his
interest in science and prepared him well for his future.
“I started liking science in high
school and really became passionate about it at Viterbo,” he said. “My favorite
biology professor was Doug Oba, who really got me excited about microbiology. In
chemistry, it was Mary Hassinger. She challenged me more than any other
professor at Viterbo and she is the reason I went into analytical chemistry.
She helped me see my full potential and she was a terrific undergraduate
research mentor. In addition, Sr. Laurian Pieterek and Tom Thibodeau helped me
realize the importance of social awareness and the human condition.”
“The transition to graduate school
was smooth,” he said. “I learned to balance large science loads each semester
at Viterbo and I was well prepared in the area of time management. I also feel
a continuing desire to keep learning and I feel my worldview continuously changes
as I travel internationally.”
Peper lives in Powell, Tenn., with
his wife Wendy. He has two step-children, Derek and Chelsey.