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Interview: Professor Wheater

Nov 15 2007 10:41
Ton Van den bremer
As a new series of profiling lectureres, we find out what Prof. Wheater gets up to when not in the classroom - what we find is pretty interesting too!
Water is a vital resource and it's management in arid regions is a real challenge

This year?s Livic features a series of interviews with a few of our Depart-ment?s most eminent Professors to find out more about their career, the projects they have worked on and the research they are involved in. For its second edition Livic went to speak to Professor Howard Wheater, Professor of Hydrology and Head of the EWRE section.

Hydrology of Arid Areas

Although he only refers to it as a hobby, Professor Wheater?s most outstanding achievements are in the hydrology of arid areas. It all started in 1981; following an extreme weather event in the Sultanate of Oman, Professor Wheater received a phone call and was asked to undertake the first ever flood study of Northern Oman, a study published in the Proceedings of the ICE for which he later received the ICE International Premium. Recalling eating around campfires, flying around in helicopters and camping underneath a bare star-lit sky, Professor Wheater describes his work as scientific adviser in a water resources study in the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia in the 1990s aimed at developing methods to improve the management of flash floods. As co-chair of UNESCO?s G-Wadi Programme Professor Wheater has been involved in the organization and running of multiple work and training events and lectures across the globe including India and China (See for more information). In recognition of his work on water resources in arid areas Professor Wheater was invited in 2004 to a banquet in the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, to receive the prestigious Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Water Prize.

Career and Education

Professor Wheater received his undergraduate degree in Engineering Science from the University of Cambridge and for a short period afterwards worked for Rolls-Royce as a fluid mechanics specialist designing aero engine turbine blades. His interest in hydrology was sparked by a subject he was taught as an undergraduate; and at the time a new urban area in the Gloucester Region was in its planning stage. This provided an opportunity for PhD research at the University of Bristol, concerned with what would later become a hot topic: the potential effects of urbanization on flooding. Professor Wheater joined the staff of Imperial College London in 1978. Fortunate enough to have specialized in exactly that subject that would later become what some describe as the greatest challenge to mankind, Professor Wheater certainly owes climate change for the attention his field of research, hydrology and water resources, has recently received.

It?s actually the most beautiful office in the department, but don?t tell anyone!
Prof. Wheater

When I met him in his office hidden behind the doors of the EWRE research section - ?It?s actually the most beautiful office in the department, but don?t tell anyone!? - Professor Wheater admits the work he does now as head of our department?s largest research section is very different from the work he did, when he started his career as a researcher at Imperial 30 years ago: ?It?s currently my task to come up with the ideas and the money,? he adds with a grin. Past president of the British Hydrological Society, fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the ICE, keynote speaker on the 2003 Kyoto World Water Conference, Counsel and Advocate for Hungary at the International Court of Justice, writer of four books and initiator of the GBP 10 million Lowland Catchment Research Programme (LOCAR) in the UK are just a selection of his activities.

Nuclear Waste Disposal

As chair of the DEFRA critical review panel on subsurface disposal of nuclear waste and consultant on the proposed Yucca Mountain Repository, a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear waste storage facility, Professor Wheater has also worked on the transport of radio nuclides through soil. The license application for the Yucca Mountain Repository, a much debated underground storage facility for nuclear waste in the state of Nevada with a design live of 10,000 years, is currently ongoing. From a hydrology perspective, it?s is of course important to know what the amount of water that is flowing though the mountain in order to determine the likelihood that some of the nuclear waste will migrate from the storage facility given the input temperature of the nuclear waste of a few 100 degrees.

Even in Britain the attitude towards nuclear energy has swung around; despite Labour?s previous determined opposition, nuclear power is currently back on the agenda again, partly because of its low CO2 emissions. However, that does not mean that real decisions are being made, explains Professor Wheater. Even if we don?t build new power stations, we will still have to deal with the waste that has been generated. At the moment that waste is just lying around across Britain, Professor Wheater complains: ?there is absolutely no policy.? Disappointingly, the most recent planning enquiry to build a research excavation at Sellafield was lost resulting from fears that this research site would turn out to be a Trojan horse. In the meantime the UK engineering industry has also lost the expertise to build nuclear power facilities. Yet, we are certainly going to see a revival of the nuclear option, Professor Wheater predicts. The UK government having undertaken a ?consultation about how to have a consultation?, is moving forward once more with plans for deep disposal of nuclear waste, which is certainly a good sign, Professor Wheater adds, with a smile.

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