Go 4 Nuclear
An engineering student's observations on nuclear power and policy

Living in a Nuclear Free Zone

When talking about my major with family and friends, I am most often met with a look of confusion and the inevitable question: Why Nuclear Engineering?

As a junior at the University of California Berkeley, I’m confronted daily by the, shall we say, “unique” culture that this city has. On occasion, I like to stroll through Sproul Plaza and listen to spiels about what’s wrong with society and today’s youth. Admittedly, most of what I hear just rolls off my back as I move on to whatever class I’m late for, but I always have to stop and soak it in when I find someone ranting about the nuclear engineering research that is taking place at UC Berkeley.

Now you might be thinking that this would dissuade me from a career in nuclear, especially given my unyielding love for the quirky, liberal atmosphere that is Berkeley. On the contrary, I have more opportunities than most to talk about what I want to do and defend my chosen branch of engineering, and who doesn’t like talking about their passions?

To many, passion would seem an unusual word to associate with a topic such as nuclear engineering. Most people hear  the words “nuclear power” and a mental lead shield goes up faster than you can say Greenpeace. To me, however, nuclear engineering isn’t something to be afraid of; it’s something that has more possibilities than I’m even capable of realizing yet.  I’m a young woman, one of only three in the American Nuclear Society Student division. I’m at one of the greatest universities in the world, and I’m taking on a major that has the potential to change the way we live, and the earth that we live on. What ISN’T there for me to be passionate about?

I love that I have the opportunity to tell people about my passion. I love seeing their intrigue when I dispel common myths about nuclear power. I love talking about radiation and energy and even the faux-pas topic: nuclear waste. That’s one of the great things about living in a nuclear free zone– I’m free to engage in lively debates about nuclear as much as I please.

So I’m sure it’s easy to see that asking me why I picked nuclear engineering is a risky question, as my passion for the topic will allow no short response. I admit that I am occasionally discouraged by the immensely difficult classes at Cal and the highly competitive atmosphere. But that’s what being a student today in America is all about: passion for knowledge, and a fiery desire to take what we learn and change the world.

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6 Responses to “Living in a Nuclear Free Zone”

  1. Welcome!

    I also feel nuclear has so much capability. Yet when I moved from the geothermal group at EPRI to the nuclear group, people stopped offering me wine at parties and began offering me incredulous stares and arguments. (Palo Alto). That lead shield you describe raised itself mighty fast!

    I am so pleased to see more women going into nuclear energy!
    Meredith

  2. Thank you Meredith!

    It can certainly be frustrating to discuss a topic which already has so much negative press around it. But I guess that’s why I’m talking about it as much as possible– every positive word about nuclear energy is a step in the right direction!

    I really appreciate your comment, and good luck in the nuclear group!

    Alexis

  3. Engineering has long been out of favor with the politically fashionable crowd. It sounds like things haven’t changed much since I started my (electrical) engineering studies in 1969, when engineers were much reviled by the “anti-establishment” culture of the times.

    Stick to your guns. Many of those who give you the funny looks simply don’t respect working with physical things, be it fixing a lawn mower or fixing a whole system of energy. Many more are clueless about where things like cars, kilowatts and computers come from — they seem to think that somehow these things just “happen”, like rainfall and dandelions.

    And hang on to your passion for knowledge and nuclear engineering! The really successful engineer is the one with passion.

    You will change the world, though at some point you may think your contributions are small. But those contributions will be important, made towards an important goal. By working towards the same goal with others, your contributions are multiplied, and you multiply their contributions. Also, never forget that you stand on the shoulders of giants who came before you while you are doing all this.

    I am sure this sounds like a stack of platitudes, but they are reality!

    • I agree that passion is absolutely essential, in anything you choose to do in life. For me, that passion is fed every day by amazing professors, fascinating classes, intelligent peers, and the anti-nuclear movement. The more misinformation I see being spread about nuclear energy, the more I want to talk about it and change the public image.

      And you’re right– it does often feel like my contributions are very small. But as I’ve said before, every positive word about nuclear energy is a step in the right direction, and I’m just glad I can contribute at all!

      I really appreciate your encouragement. Thanks for reading!

      Alexis

  4. While driving through Berkeley, many times I’ve seen the ‘nuclear free zone’ signs. It makes me wonder if they practice nuclear medicine at Alta Bates hospital or not.

    It’s a bit silly for Berkeley to make this protest as the town had such a rich history in nuclear science. It should celebrate that history not condemn it.

    • Jason,

      I couldn’t agree more. The sign itself is highly ironic– there’s no such thing as “nuclear-free” considering we are all radioactive, just like the majority of the natural objects around us. I am always tempted to tell the groups that congregate to march against nuclear research that they’re likely getting the same dose of radiation by standing so close to so many people as they’re getting from the research they’re protesting. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to find this relevant.

      Either way, I hope that the image of nuclear science can be slowly changed in Berkeley, and that change should really start with the students here who are learning about the positive impact of nuclear energy every day.

      Thanks for your input!
      Alexis


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