Thursday, May 26, 2005

Back to school

There are various places where people from the nuclear industry can serve the public, some of which are less confrontational than, say, the meeting on climate change in Virginia.

On May 16, 2005, I addressed both sections of the AP Government class at Heritage High School, in Lynchburg, VA. My subject was “Radioactive Waste and Politics”. The AP Government class is designed to prepare seniors for the College Board’s advanced placement test. The class members are among the strongest students in the senior class.

The invitation to speak resulted from a comment by the teacher of the class in the fall of 2004. The high school regularly hosts a “back to school night” for parents of students, and the teacher noted that she would welcome speakers whose work was related to a political or social problem. I sent her an e-mail that described my experience in radioactive waste management, notably eight years on the Yucca Mountain Project. She was happy to have a volunteer. The culmination of the class is the advanced placement test, which is normally administered in early May. My speech was scheduled after the test as a supplementary or “enrichment” topic.

I collected a few teaching aids. These included a fuel rod mockup and a handful of pictures, which I put into a PowerPoint file. There were pictures of fuel assemblies, plots of radioactive inventory as a function of time, pictures and a schematic of the Yucca Mountain site, and a photograph of a corrosion sample of waste package material. (After 50 years of atmospheric corrosion in a marine environment, the sample retains a mirror finish.) I brought the pictures on a memory stick and projected them with a computer projector. What I presented was basically a lecture with occasional supporting visuals rather than a structured presentation.

The topic of radioactive waste management is vast and quite unfamiliar to most people. Subtopics include the various types of waste, the physics of radioactive decay, health physics, radionuclide transport, regulation, the history of site selection, the layout of the Yucca Mountain site, waste package design, etc. There was obviously too much material to cover in a fifty-minute class. My strategy was to try to cover the technical background necessary to understand why radioactive waste management is needed, the politics involved in site selection and program funding, defense in depth as it applies at Yucca Mountain, and the possibilities for personal involvement. I generally followed the strategy, though I occasionally caught myself discussing some subjects in unnecessary detail.

The teacher had told me that the two classes had very different characters, and she was right. The class that met before lunch was very lively and involved, with lots of questions, and the class that met after lunch was much more passive. (I think it is lunch that does it. I briefed Yucca Mountain tour groups numerous times and saw the same pattern.)

My intention for the presentation had never been to push a message that nuclear is good or that licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository is essential. I simply tried to explain the situation and the efforts underway. At the same time, my interest in the subject and beliefs about its importance were probably evident.

It is often difficult to gauge how one’s presentation is received. Since I was only able to cover the most important points, I felt as if I were giving a tour of a cave with only a single flashlight. I was able to guide the group into a few rooms, shine the light on a few interesting formations, and take the group out again. It seemed hopeless to provide an overall view.

Fortunately, the teacher arranged for a group thank-you note from her classes, so I received feedback from the students. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Here are a few of my favorite comments:

“I feel I now know much more about nuclear waste and it doesn’t scare me so badly.”

“Thanks for coming, nuclear waste is awesome!”

“Cheers for sharing what you know. You are really passionate about what you do, and I admire that!”

“Thank you for contributing to my knowledge and correcting my previously negative opinion toward the Yucca Mountain Project.”

“I learned a great deal about nuclear waste and might even consider [it as] a field of study.”

One of interesting things about preparing for the talk was to realize that I knew so much about the subject. The purpose, however, was not to make a show of my knowledge or even primarily to transmit information, but to show that the problem is being handled and that members of the public can be involved in the solution if they like. It was a way of putting a human face on radioactive waste management, on nuclear, and on engineering in general. In summary, I found the effort to be well worthwhile and would recommend that other engineers consider presenting their work to school groups. I plan to be back in AP Government class again next year. And then there is the physics class …

1 comment:

Kelly L. Taylor said...

Thank you for the insights, Kevin. It can be difficult to face a classroom full of students and wonder what they're getting from your investment of time and information. While not all teachers may take the time to ensure feedback gets to the speaker as this one did, the lesson is that doing the right thing produces results, even if you never know about it! Not only did you encourage those students, but you've encouraged us to step out and share our experience, as well!