Nuclear in a world where nuclear is not

March 20, 2023, 12:01PMNuclear NewsGrace Stanke

Grace Stanke

Despite nuclear power producing 10 percent of energy globally, it seems sometimes that ours is a world in which nuclear does not exist. We all have our own lives, our own passions, and our own separate interests—each of which in turn can feel like a world of its own. For example, I competitively water ski, and rarely does nuclear engineering come up during water skiing tournaments. Nuclear science is a major part of my life and my world—but it is not the only piece. Many of my other worlds have no intersection with nuclear science.

One of my worlds is my involvement in the Miss America Organization. I previously have shared stories about my experience as Miss Wisconsin, including using my platform to talk about nuclear with various individuals. Part of this role was competing for Miss America 2023, a title and position I was honored to win on December 15, 2022.

The world of Miss America has rarely seen the words “nuclear energy” before. Going into the competition, I wasn’t sure what the response would be, as I’m sure many of my fellow nuclear professionals can understand. When entering a world in which nuclear science is not, feedback is expected. In the world of this particular competition, I expected being a nuclear engineer and promoting nuclear energy to be shocking to more than a few.

As part of the competition, Miss America candidates participate in a “private job interview,” a panel interview with a short closing statement during which they can be asked anything. I personally have been asked about reparations of racism in America, recruitment strategies for the organization, coping mechanisms, organization strategies, and so much more. These intense interviews are what have made me feel so prepared and comfortable going into an engineering job interview.

This is the only time candidates have the opportunity to speak with the judges on a personal level, so I knew this was the best time to discuss nuclear science and to convince the judges why they should select me to be the next Miss America. I wanted to share my message that nuclear power is a safe, effective, and reliable form of energy. One question trickled into my mind: In a world where nuclear science is not, will the judges even bring it up? It lingered and became one of my biggest fears going into the competition. Even though it was another of my worlds, and advocating for nuclear science and promoting energy was one of the major items I was bringing to the table as Miss America, why should the panelists think to ask an unprompted question about it?

I was ecstatic when the first question the panel asked was about nuclear policy—there’s nothing better than getting that fear moved right out of the way! However, it wasn’t as simple as that; the plot had thickened that morning when Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory performed the first controlled fusion reaction that created more energy than it took to perform. As a former fusion researcher, I was thrilled that I was able to talk about that achievement in the interview. But while I strongly support fusion, most of my time and energy is focused on current nuclear power plants—preserving them and changing the public perception of nuclear power.

From that first question of whether I believe fusion is the future of energy (of course I do), fusion remained the focus and dominated the conversation—and that was unexpected. That’s when I realized how nuclear affects a world in which nuclear is not. When people first learn of a new technology or a new thing, they focus on it—the “shiniest” item. As fusion had overtaken the news cycle that week and grabbed people’s attention, that news ultimately played a crucial role in the competition. However, the focus of my first month after being named Miss America has been on where else nuclear science is prevalent in our society and how current nuclear power plants are impacting the world in which we live—it has had little to nothing to do with fusion.

To bring a vision of the whole of nuclear to a world where it is not requires knowledge and communication. I’m doing my best to change public perception on nuclear science but I urge you—nuclear professionals—to take part in this advocacy project. Each and every one of you has the knowledge that I am still learning as I move closer toward earning my degree. Share your knowledge and help change public perception. Perception fuels our politics, and all it takes is a quick call to your local school. Set up a workshop. Utilize the incredible tools the American Nuclear Society provides. Start with your communities. It’s time to educate our public and move the nuclear community forward!

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