From April 14-16, I spent time with some amazing people getting reenergized about nuclear energy technologies. The occasion was the American Nuclear Society (ANS) 2011 Student Conference, held in Atlanta, GA, right in the heart of the continuing nuclear energy revival movement in the United States. More than 600 students from as far away as Berkeley, CA came to share their own presentations, hear about the work that other students were doing, socialize with people of like minds and hear thoughts from people like Gwyneth Cravens, Alan Waltar, Joe Colvin, Jim Ferman and Eric Loewen. The total conference attendance exceeded 700 people, including the professional members and mentors.
The opening session talks were informative, thoughtful and generally encouraging. Alan Waltar, a past president of the American Nuclear Society, was his always inspiring and energetic self, giving a talk in which he compared the challenges facing nuclear technology today with those facing Great Britain during WWII. Paraphrasing one of his heroes, Winston Churchill, Alan declared that the post Fukushima era would be nuclear energy’s finest hour. His point was that though the plants suffered a great deal of damage, they took the most that mother nature could possibly through at them and still did not harm the public. He reminded the students and the rest of the audience how much the nuclear industry has improved its technology since the plants at Fukushima were built, and how much more they could learn by studying the event. Alan’s talk was voted the best talk of the conference.
Mimi Limbach of Potomac Communications Group sparked a spirited discussion with her workshop on public communications and outreach in the post Fukushima era. The session, scheduled for 90 minutes, finally broke up after 2 hours when another group came in to claim the room. There was standing room only by the time the session came to a close as people shared some of their experiences in talking with the local and national press and in holding information sessions in their local communities.
A number of the professors in attendance at Mimi’s workshop described how rewarding it was to have found a teachable moment when people who often did not think much about nuclear energy or radiation were genuinely receptive to learning more. As one of them put it, teachers can always teach – that is what they do. However, they get really excited when they have students who are ready and willing to learn so that the teaching actually makes an impact.
One of my favorite parts of attending student conferences is the opportunity for casual discussion with groups of people who are not yet jaded by life. They ask some of the most intriguing questions about people, technology and organizations. I thoroughly enjoyed conversations with groups of students from the University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They were all interested in hearing about the team I am working with at B&W to build smaller reactors and they were an appreciative audience for sea stories. I also learned from them – they are doing some fascinating work that might have some important practical use in the near future.
There was a special event that did not attract quite as many attendees as I expected – Susan Frontczak presented her one woman dramatization of the life of Marie Curie, titled MANYA: A Living History of Marie Curie. Even though the audience for that show was probably fewer than 100, it was a terrific learning experience about an important scientific life of discovery. I suspect that the mixers at the Opera and Loca Luna provided a bit more competition for attention than the organizers expected. Though I am now a grandfather and a bit beyond those kinds of events, I do remember how much fun they are and understand why they appeal to college students.
In a tradition started at last year’s conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Georgia Tech student had organized a forum open to the public with a strong line up of panel members that included an author (Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World), a representative of a pro-nuclear non profit group (Clint Wolfe, Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness), a regulator (Charles Ogle, Director, Division of Construction Inspection (NRC Region II)), a national laboratory researcher (Dr. Paul Cloessner, Acting Associate Laboratory Director, National & Homeland Security (SRNL)), a utility executive ( Jeffery T. Gasser, Executive Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer, Southern Nuclear), and a nonproliferation expert (Dr. Alan Icenhour, Director, Global Nuclear Security Technology Division (ORNL)). A week or two before the conference, the organizers anticipated a great deal of interest from the local community, but the news cycle had shifted by the time that the conference took place; there did not appear to be many people from outside of the conference attendees.
The closing ceremony and dinner were held in the ballroom at the Georgia Aquarium. The sight of whale sharks swimming by was quite impressive and attracted a lot of attention from the attendees as they waited for the meal – catered by Wolfgang Puck.
Next year’s conference has not yet been scheduled, but the host chapter was announced. UNLV won the competitive bidding process, so the students are heading to Las Vegas next spring. By the way, the number one word on the bingo cards this year was Fukushima, a word that did not even appear on last year’s cards.