Student members are the future of the American Nuclear Society, and ANS believes in the importance of supporting those who have shown academic, service, and leadership excellence as they navigate their early careers. Robert Olsen, now a nuclear security officer with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, was one such beneficiary.
Olsen spoke with Nuclear Newswire about his journey to become a nuclear safety professional, what his work entails, and how ANS scholarships supported him during the process. Most recently, he was stationed at Rivne nuclear power plant in Ukraine for three weeks as part of a long-term presence of IAEA safety and security experts at Ukrainian plants during the armed conflict with Russia.
“I received several scholarships from ANS, and I always felt supported and motivated throughout my studies,” Olsen said. These were the James R. Vogt Radiochemistry Scholarship, the Everitt P. Blizard Memorial Scholarship, and the Charles (Tommy) Thomas Memorial Scholarship. “The financial assistance I received from ANS helped me tremendously as both a student and young father.”
Leadership in ANS: As an undergraduate at Utah State University, Olsen joined the university’s ANS student section and spent a year as its president. The chapter was close-knit, and he helped plan professional development seminars and other recruitment activities to attract new members. A big motivator in these efforts was the possibility of getting an ANS scholarship; they hosted a yearly meeting on how to apply for the scholarships. The student section grew, and during the 2016 award cycle, seven ANS scholarships were awarded to students at Utah State, more than at any other university.
“We were absolutely thrilled and were featured in university publications where we had a chance to explain what ANS supports and how more students can get involved. The following year we saw participation numbers double. For our annual visit to Idaho National Laboratory we had to charter a bus to fit all the attendees from the chapter. It was both exciting and rewarding to be a part of ANS during this period of growth.”
Olsen earned his B.S. in environmental engineering in 2017, after which he was commissioned as an officer with the U.S. Navy. He taught at the Naval Nuclear Power School near Charleston, S.C., for five years. He then went on to earn a master's degree in health physics from Oregon State University in 2021.
Work in the IAEA and Ukraine: In June 2022, he began his position as an associate nuclear security officer with the IAEA, where he works with the Detection Science and Technology Team in the Material Outside of Regulatory Control (MORC) section. The team focuses on creating tools and guidance that enable front-line officers to better detect and recover nuclear material that has been lost or stolen.
Last November, the IAEA implemented teams of nuclear safety and security experts at each of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and at the Chernobyl site on a volunteer basis. Olsen’s fluency in Russian and naval background made him an ideal candidate, and his leadership instinct did not fall short when it came to volunteering.
“I was stationed at the Rivne nuclear power plant for three weeks,” said Olsen. “During this time, I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with some of the most professional, knowledgeable, and resilient people I have ever met. My colleague and I were escorted through every system of the plant over the course of our mission and I was continually impressed by what I saw.”
The IAEA teams are “providing technical assistance and advice, assessing the plants’ needs, and reporting about their findings to us in Vienna,” said to IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi. The work Olsen and his colleagues are doing is of vital importance to the ensuring of safe nuclear operations and mitigation of accident risk during the ongoing conflict, which has been ongoing for just over one year.
“My experience at the Rivne [plant] has left a lasting impression on me and I intend to return to Ukraine again in late spring. For my second mission I've asked to go to Chernobyl.”
ANS applauds Robert Olsen for his excellent work in the nuclear energy field and wishes him the best of luck in all his future endeavors.
About ANS scholarships: If you are considering applying for a scholarship, ANS highly encourages you to do so! Scholarships are awarded to incoming freshmen, undergraduates, and graduate students, and are distributed at the beginning of each school year. They are open to ANS student members enrolled in a degree program related to nuclear science or nuclear engineering at an accredited university in the United States or its territories.