One of my favorite reasons for attending conferences is the conversations that occur outside of the presentations. Normally, the presentations are just a basis for starting an interesting relationship with someone who either agrees or disagrees with the speaker’s point of view.
At the American Nuclear Society meetings, much of the real opportunity for conversation occurs before the conference officially starts. The normal course of events is for the keynote addresses to be scheduled for a Monday morning with talks throughout the week until Thursday afternoon. Since the organization is a professional society full of people who work in “publish or perish” fields like science and engineering, there are often as many as a dozen paper presentations going on at any one time. The group focus is thus a bit diffused as the week goes on and by Thursday many of the members have had to go back to work.
On Sunday before the keynote, however, the ANS current and future leaders schedule meetings. If you hang out in the hotel lobby (and you know some of those leaders from previous meetings), you can find them waiting for their next meeting and talk about all kinds of different topics. The challenge sometimes is that the leaders are often rushing from meeting to meeting and do not have much time to talk.
I had some fascinating conversations yesterday with some old friends and some people I had never met before. Here are some of the topics we talked about: (I will not publish any names here, but if you recognize the conversation feel free to make a comment if you do not mind going public.)
Reasons I came out of retirement
One guy I talked with for quite some time is an experienced engineer who had decided to retire and become a boat captain until he saw that the nuclear field was going to be an interesting place to work again. He joined one of the major Architect Engineering (A&E) firms and is now leading a fascinating project to build a new facility. He is also intrigued by some of the international aspects of the renaissance that has already started and is open to the idea of living and working in a different country. He views the challenges and hard work as a wonderful thing – it is the reason he became an engineer in the first place. Though we only touched briefly on the subject, it was clear to me that part of his motivation was a belief that he had a mandate to be a good steward of the gifts given to him.
Who is more dangerous, Lovins or Caldicott?
I was walking past a group that included an old friend who happens to have a well deserved reputation as a challenging teacher and debater. One of the people in the conversation said something to the effect of “Caldicott is a f—ing lier” and I had to stop and join in. Later we happened to be in a line waiting to enter the President’s reception and began talking about our experiences and thoughts about various professional anti-nuclear activists. While I completely agreed with his thoughts and concerns about Ms. Caldicott, I postulated that Amory Lovins was far more effective and therefore dangerous in a more important venue. Caldicott energizes and adds emotional fervor for people who have little understanding of the way the world works; Lovins gets entry into board rooms and government conference rooms where real money gets moved around. I think that conversation is worth continuing.
Why I really want to leave IT and come back to nuclear.
As a Navy trained nuke, I have a common bond with a reasonable portion of the ANS membership. One former Navy nuke I met this weekend is currently working in the Information Technology field because jobs in the nuclear field were pretty scarce in the mid to late 1990s. He has had no difficulty getting good jobs in IT based on some of the work that he had done on various nuclear projects, but he has been feeling out of place for a number of years. Though the work is challenging and technical, he feels that there is a certain lack of integrity in an industry where vapor, promises, and half-baked ideas are common and accepted.
We talked about how casually the industry uses the word “engineer” and how many systems are just hacks, that not well engineered at all. He also expressed frustration with the fairly common notion in the business that workers exist to help bosses become rich. Nuclear power may be slow moving, but there is a sense of accountability and structure that is quite comforting to fundamentally honest people.
Aside: One thing I have often told young people who were trying to figure out whether or not to invest the time and take the pain of learning about nuclear power is “I have never met an unemployed ex-nuke.” We learn plenty of skills that are valued in many other fields even if the nuclear industry is not always hiring.End of Aside
Why my daughter may not make it through middle school.
This conversation really had nothing to do with nuclear power, but it does show a human side of the people in the business. A very dear friend told me a great story about her rather independently minded and stubborn daughter. We were laughing a lot about how little she is looking forward to the teen years based on the current trajectory. I have known this woman for many years and never had a doubt in my mind that her children were going to be challenging and incredibly smart. (I know her husband as well. I had a couple such children myself and loved every minute of it. There is always a debate about nature versus nurture; I believe both are hugely important.)
Still waiting for orders.
Part of the ANS meeting is an industry show where vendors have booths set up. People who have attended industry shows in businesses like IT or training systems would underwhelmed; the booths are generally pretty modest in size and flash. Of course, ANS is a professional society, the real opportunity for sales at the meetings is not very high, but it is a good time to capture the interest of potential partners and employees. I chatted with a few of the representatives at the booths; some are patiently waiting for what they see as a potential deluge of new orders that may strain their capacity to respond. Like many in the industry, however, they are not yet making huge commitments of capital in anticipation. Many of the companies experienced a painful process of transition when the industry slump hit in the late 1980s.
Come see our new museum.
For several years, I have had a conversation starting sticker on the back window of my car that has a drawing recognizable as Einstein’s hair and the statement “Get a half-life. Visit the National Atomic Museum”. The sun has worked its magic on the sticker, so I was in the market for a replacement. My new sticker now says “Get a half-life. Visit the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.” I have to admit that I liked my old one better, but for selfish reasons. As you probably know if you are reading this, I prefer the word “Atomic” to the word “nuclear”.
While at the booth I had a short (about 5 minute) conversation with Jim Walther and Harriet Bull about the new facility and the programs offered by the museum. You can hear the audio from that conversation at the below link. In most modern browsers the file should start playing, but if you want to download the file (1.6 MB MP3), you can right click or option click (Mac).
More students than we can really handle without new resources.
I chatted with the head of one of a major university nuclear engineering departments. He told me that their student population had been steadily growing since 1999 and that it was now bursting at the seams with classrooms that are not large enough for the student load
and a new demand for more faculty members. We agreed that was a good problem to have and we talked a bit about the difficulty of responding to that challenge when budgets are often planned two to three years before the money is actually available for spending. (I live that dream in my day job.)
Joy of Bright Futures scholarships
I met a couple of students from the University of Florida nuclear engineering program. As a native Floridian, I thought it would be fun to find out how things were going in my home state. Amazingly enough, one of the students was actually from my home town, though she and her family lived in a part of town that we thought of as the Everglades when I was living there. One topic during the chat that came up was the fact that nearly every in state student at UofF is on a Bright Futures scholarship paid for by lottery dollars. The school is so competitive that the criteria for admission is almost the same as the criteria for earning the scholarship. One of the people in the group was not from Florida and had never heard of the program.
Once we explained it to her, she had an interesting reaction. She expressed dismay at the funding source because of the fact that lotteries are a losing bet that get most of their money from people who are mathematically challenged. I happen to agree, but also believe that the program itself goes a long way toward encouraging some very important behavior in high school students.
I am ready to go back and hear the keynote address and engage in more chats. One topic that came up over and over again is the idea that now is a great time to be a nuke.