I recently had the pleasure of spending two fun filled days in Washington meeting and socializing with a group of people that goes by the rather ’90’s appellation of NA-YGN. They are young, proud, professional, “alive and kicking.”
NA-YGN (North American Young Generation in Nuclear – www.na-ygn.org) is a group of dedicated professionals under the age of 35 (they let me attend as an honorary member since I an old codger on the wrong side of 40) who are excited by the ability of nuclear science and technology to make people’s lives better. Some are experts in the use of medical isotopes, others design machines that use neutron irradiation to identify the constituents of coal, several are university professors, and still others are employed as nuclear power plant engineers, operators and technicians.
The group is modeled on a European organization with a similar name that was started several years ago to bring young nukes together for social and professional activities. At the time of its founding, it must have seemed to some organizers that they were forming a lonely hearts club where new people in an important but fading industry could gather to commiserate.
The North American group, however, claims that they were already infused with tremendous excitement about their chosen profession when they formed the group. Closer questioning reveals, however, that even the more forward looking of NA-YGN’s leaders thought long and hard about employing their considerable computer skills in the Internet economy instead of pursuing their nuclear careers.
At this point, it seems that many of the group’s members must feel like people holding a ticket that identically matches the first four numbers of the Pick 6 game. They are not yet sure if they are the $43 million dollar winner, but they know that they will have a pretty good payday.
There is palpable excitement about the future prospects of nuclear technologies. Not only has the President included a substantial endorsement for nuclear power plants in his energy policy statement, but he and his administration have begun talking about recycling nuclear fuel, streamlining license procedures, and revitalizing university nuclear technology programs. In addition, several of the meeting attendees reported that they are working on some “really cool stuff”, but they would be able to tell me more as soon as the patents have been approved.
One personable young lady told me about how much times have changed in the two years since she finished her studies at the University of Virginia. Way back in 1999, she and her classmates had the disturbing feeling that they were at the tail end of an era. Their departure from UVa marked the demise of the Department of Nuclear Engineering.
Like other universities, Virginia had experienced a shrinking pool of students, cuts in research funding and increasing licensing expenses for their small, pool type reactor. The school decided to shut down the research tool and fold the department. Unlike other Nuclear Engineering programs, Virginia’s program did not merge with a more general program like mechanical engineering, it ceased to exist.
Becky told me that their classmates in other fields sometimes teased them about turning off the lights and locking the doors when they graduated. I almost cried; I thought of my pleasant visits in the mid 1990s to Charlotte and my beer-enhanced conversations with Al Reynolds he told me fascinating stories about his experience in the intellectually invigorating days of the Atoms for Peace program. We agreed that perhaps the University of Virginia would come to regret their decision as ill-timed.
As part of the meeting, attendees were offered the chance to get an insider’s tour of Dominion Energy’s North Anna nuclear power station. Situated on a gorgeous man-made lake whose shore is dotted with expensive homes, North Anna represents an interesting reversal of the oft asserted phrase that no one wants a nuclear plant in their backyard. Since the lake was created to serve the plant, every home on Lake Anna is owned by a person or family that consciously decided to spend a lot of money to purchase a home on the shore of a nuclear plant’s backyard pool.
Like other nuclear facilities that I have visited, North Anna is a spotless reminder that a steam plant is pretty much like other steam plants. Nuclear plants are only unique because of the fact that they are much cleaner and is not surrounded by a vast infrastructure to supply fuel or dispose of ash. At North Anna, the only visible fuel infrastructure is a parking lot surrounded by a chain link fence with nine steel containers standing in a small corner of the lot.
Every 9 months, two more casks will be added as one or the other unit at North Anna refuels. Though our tour guide kept talking about how expensive the facility was, I could not help but notice that it looked a lot like the parking lot at my daughter’s high school except for the fact that it was less than a third of the size. The casks looked pretty darn substantial and passively immune to almost any intrusion I could imagine. (North Anna’s dry casks are about 15 feet tall, have a diameter of about 9 feet and weigh over 100 tons when loaded with spent fuel.
As power plants go, North Anna is pretty benign, but it is obvious that the plant engineers avoided creative architecture and landscape design courses. If one of my neighbors tried to build as utilitarian a structure as North Anna, I would work very hard to block the project by appealing to the Design Review Board of my deed restricted community. If the DRB allowed them to build, I would block the view with a hedge (since my community will not allow privacy fences.)
I predict that our new generation of nuclear technologists will do things a little differently than their predecessors. One major difference between NA-YGN meeting and the American Nuclear Society meetings that I used to attend is that the ratio of men to women had undergone an amazing shift. Instead of 90-10, it was much closer to 60-40 and the leadership was more like 50-50 or even 40-60. Perhaps a bit of Venus thinking will help. You go girls!