Robert Hayes, the person behind a popular social media account defending nuclear energy to the masses, was named to a joint faculty position by Savannah River National Laboratory and North Carolina State University on August 1.
“Dr. Hayes will help develop and execute SRNL’s vision to advance nonproliferation and global security stewardship by expanding knowledge of and applications in sensing, characterizing, assessing, and deterring nuclear proliferation,” said Tammy Taylor, associate laboratory director for global security. Taylor explained that Hayes will conduct collaborative research to address key gaps identified in the strategic vision for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, while helping develop the workforce that will support future NNSA and national security organization mission needs.
According to Hayes, “the crazy cool research done at NC State is highly complementary to that being done at SRNL in so many ways. If we are successful, every proliferator will be convinced they cannot hide their efforts and will simply confess their attempts to weaponize nuclear material early enough that diplomats can address the problems long before military intervention can be realized. The partnership will enhance radiological monitoring research, nuclear safety, and operational health physics.”
What started as a classroom assignment for his health physics graduate students has turned into a popular TikTok channel run by Robert Hayes, associate professor of nuclear engineering at NC State.
Hayes, an ANS member since 2001, spoke with ANS News about the beginnings of his TikTok channel (@nuclearsciencelover), its growing popularity (more than 118,000 followers), and how to condense difficult nuclear-related topics into 60-second sound bites.
What prompted you to start the TikTok account?
I require graduate students to find a research topic related to health physics that will answer one of ANS’s Nuclear Grand Challenges. About half of the students in every course choose Public Engagement as their topic. There were some brilliant ideas they kept coming up with. They felt that society needed influencers or social media giants that had the facts about nuclear and could communicate them in an understandable way to the general public.
And I kept thinking, “Wow, you need to do this!” But none of them did that I’m aware of. Just over a year ago I realized the students weren’t going to do it. I was passionate enough that I felt I had to do it.
What was the most difficult part about getting the channel started?
Condensing it down into 60-second clips. When I started, you could only do 60 seconds and how do you communicate a nuclear concept in 60 seconds? I’m used to 75-minute lectures twice a week over an entire course. That was the biggest challenge—turning nuclear concepts into sound bites. But I managed. It took a while, but I started getting better as time went on.
How do you come up with ”little nuggets” for the videos?
There are two general categories. One is when I decide to give a fact about nuclear. Sometimes I’ll just throw out a fact. It’s an easy little fact to do and it’s kind of like, “Believe me because I said so.”
The other is when viewers send me comments that are in a category like Fukushima, Chernobyl, nuclear waste, or nuclear weapons. When these questions come in, they’ll usually be specific. There are several different categories like that and if it’s sufficiently distinct or it’s been a sufficiently long time since I’ve answered that question, I answer them again. But it’s generally going to be a unique answer. I think it through how I would answer it in 60 seconds and then try to do it.
How receptive has the audience been to your messages?
Most of the people who follow me would be pronuclear or at least open to hearing a pronuclear response. But TikTok will every now and again bring in an antinuclear person who will get offended at hearing a pronuclear message. When they try to pour out their hate, I try to answer them in a professional, calm, reasonable way.
You have more than 118,000 followers. How have you grown your audience?
It was kind of slow but there were a few big jumps that occurred. One jump happened after I’d gotten to 10,000 followers. My son, who has a million followers on his own account, made a video of me because he took credit for my account. That basically doubled my audience in a week.
Then it slowly built over time, but recently I did one on how to survive nuclear fallout because it’s been big in the news (we posted that video a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine). My account doubled again in just over a week. That video got almost 4 million views.
What are your plans for the account? How long will you continue doing it?
I guess until they tell me to quit, or I get sick of it. I don’t know. I haven’t given that much thought. What is your closing message to ANS members? I would recommend that other ANS members, if they are interested in public communication, start a TikTok and/or a YouTube account and start addressing public concerns. Based on their expertise, come up with some choice nuggets or sound bites and see where it goes.