The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Japan and the catastrophic Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are bitter reminders of the critical need to create innovative scientific solutions for risk management, risk-informed decision making, and regulation. Zahra Mohaghegh, an assistant professor of nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering (NPRE) and a member of the Organizational Intelligence and Computational Social Science Group, is helping position Illinois to become a global leader in socio-technical risk analysis.
Mohaghegh’s goal is clear. “At Illinois, we want to develop the research and educational infrastructure that will help solve the most challenging risk and safety issues of industries,” Mohaghegh said. To meet this goal, she is advancing probabilistic risk assessment (PRA).
PRA is the leading methodology for estimating the systematic risk for high-consequence industries and is a constantly changing technology that can meet the demands and challenges of complex socio-technical systems and processes. “Next-generation leaders must begin to think differently, using risk-informed solutions to initiate safe, resilient, sustainable, and socially responsible technological advancements to usher in an era void of technological accidents,” Mohaghegh said.
Since its inception at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, PRA is now one of the key pillars of the risk-informed regulatory framework for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Other government agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE), the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Transportation, also have begun to adopt PRA for decision making and policy setting.
A concurrent trend is the expansion of PRA research and educational programs at an increasing number of universities in the U.S. and abroad.
After completing her postdoctoral research appointment in 2011 at the Center for Risk and Reliability at the University of Maryland, Mohaghegh created a risk management consulting company in Boston. She made the move to academia in 2013 to fulfill her desire to teach and to interact with students through research.
“Although building a new area has its challenges, the criticality of the topic in high-consequence industries and the societal benefits of its applications will enable Illinois students with highly competitive skillsets to fill the growing demand for risk analysts,” Mohaghegh said. “I believe that the collaborative research environment of Illinois will give me the opportunity to make this university a global leader in socio-technical risk analysis.”
She has diligently worked toward this goal—establishing the Socio-Technical Risk Analysis (SoTeRiA) Laboratory, where a multidisciplinary team of students, researchers, and industry professionals are advancing PRA with scientific innovations in two key areas: spatio-temporal causal modeling of social and physical failure mechanisms in PRA, and the fusion of big data analytics with PRA.
When Mohaghegh joined the NPRE faculty, she transferred a large-scale industry research project sponsored by the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company to Illinois. During the last four years, Mohaghegh and her graduate students have been developing an integrated risk methodology for the resolution of a 20-year longstanding safety issue in the nuclear industry, the Generic Safety Issue 191, which is related to the performance of the emergency core cooling system following a loss of coolant accident.
Mohaghegh became affiliated with the Beckman Institute in 2014, and the collaborative environment has helped her further her research in the field. As a Beckman faculty member, Mohaghegh has initiated collaborations with other Beckman groups, proposing new areas of discovery on the topics such as fire PRA, risk-informed emergency response, health care risk analysis, and monetary value of risk analysis, which assists companies and organizations to make decisions that not only promote safety but also helps their profitability.
In 2015, Mohaghegh became the principal investigator (PI) of a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to quantify organizational factors using big data analytics in PRA, and in 2017, she became the PI for a three-year DOE grant for enterprise risk management to promote the sustainability of the U.S. nuclear fleet.
With recent support from the College of Engineering, Mohaghegh is establishing the SoTeRiA Industry Affiliates Program (IAP), the first program in academia that works with industry for risk analysis and offers the latest research methods for real-time risk detection, monitoring, mitigation, and risk management with big data applications, while providing risk-analysis training. The SoTeRiA Laboratory has initiated collaborations with national and international research institutions and plans to expand risk analysis collaborations through the program to develop tailor-made solutions for high-risk operations around the world. Industry members will work with the SoTeRiA IAP team to build specialized tools for solving their most challenging problems, while developing training series that fit their business needs.
“Risk analysis will be advanced by creative, scientific, and multidisciplinary students who have the interest and support to explore and study courses among diverse engineering and non-engineering departments,” Mohaghegh said. “The Beckman
Institute embodies this model and it is through this style that a university can enable the nonlinear cross-
disciplinary thinking needed to analyze the risks emerging at the interface of social and technical systems.”