“New Rules” for nuclear S&E students

June 16, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News

Craig Piercy

In April, I had the honor of speaking at the “Networking Dinner” held during the 2022 ANS Student Conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There’s something uniquely wonderful about 450 nuclear science and engineering students assembled in one place, seeing each other in person after two years on Zoom, trying to figure out where they are going in life. However, combine that enthusiasm with a long, narrow, A/V-challenged ballroom, and what you get is a genuine acoustical nightmare.

In particular, many people in the room couldn’t hear my “New Rules” for nuclear S&E students, modeled after the segment on Real Time with Bill Maher, and they came up to me afterward asking for a written version of the “rules.” Well, here they are, reconstructed from my notes, slightly polished, and offered with no guarantee of accuracy. It helps to start each by saying “New Rule!”

Don’t go to jail. Corruption is everywhere in business. Nuclear is no exception. Google “V.C. Summer,” “FirstEnergy,” or “Allen Ho” followed by “Jail,” and you’ll see what I mean. Ultimately, you are responsible for knowing the law. Never take anyone else’s word for it. But at the same time, you also have the responsibility not to say no reflexively. The U.S. code is thousands of pages long. No is easy, yes is hard. I say that especially to those of you thinking about a career with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Get a good night’s sleep. You are in your 20s. You can pull an all-nighter and refresh with a couple of Red Bulls. I’m in my 50s. I have many friends whose sleeping habits I know from canoe trips, work travel schedules, etc. I can see it in the faces of the ones who don’t sleep well. It’ll send you to an early grave if you don’t do something about it. But “getting a good night’s sleep” means more than seven hours with good REM. It means being ethical, being able to live with yourself, and knowing you are doing something good for humanity. If you ever have consistent, unresolvable moral or ethical dilemmas about the work you’re doing, get out. Fast.

Use all your vacation days. Preferably out of the country, without an international data plan. The benefits of stepping outside of your cultural comfort zone cannot be overstated. Don’t treat your unused vacation days as a financial asset. Spend them! Go someplace where they speak a foreign language, where you are the outsider.

Pick up the phone. Email and text strings often go off the rails because they lack context. A five-minute phone call can avoid hours of agonizing over your next reply or figuring out “what they really meant.”

Fix problems, manage conditions. If you try to fix a problem three times and you fail, it’s not a problem. It’s a condition. Told to me long ago by former NRC chairman Dale Klein, this pearl has helped me immeasurably in the years since. We fix problems. We manage conditions. Know the difference. They usually require different approaches and mental, emotional, and/or actual toolboxes.

Do your job. The famous New England Patriots mantra about individual accountability as part of a team. Always make sure your job is done right before you attempt other projects or do other people’s work. Don’t overextend yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Obviously, you have to read the room, but generally people are more open than you think to answering “stupid” questions or providing guidance and resources.

In a negotiation: If you are not willing to get up and walk out of the room at any time, you are not negotiating, you are begging. We all have to beg sometimes; it helps to know when you are doing it. But if you are in fact negotiating, stay strong until you are satisfied.

Block out the haters, listen to the critics. Ten percent of the world will invariably dislike you for who you are, or what you have, or don’t have. Ignore them. But everyone needs to affirmatively seek out good criticism. It won’t just come to you. It’s the only way adults learn and grow.

It’ll be alright. Seriously, it will! I promise. We spend a good part of our lives worrying about things that never come to pass. The nuclear future is brighter than it’s been in decades. You’ve done a lot of the hard work already. Life is a climb. Make sure you turn around periodically to enjoy the view.

Good luck!