Student Perspectives

My name is Mackenzie and I’m a first-year graduate student in the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences department. I graduated with my BSE from UM NERS in May and loved my experience so much, I continued my education. I was first intrigued by nuclear energy in 2011, right after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. I came to Michigan with a desire to work on advanced reactors, with a focus on reactor safety and accident tolerant fuels, both directly correlated to the Fukushima Daiichi accident. I now work on developing high-temperature, low-activation super-alloys for fission and fusion reactor applications in conjunction with Idaho National Lab. In March 2019, on the 8th anniversary of the Fukushima accident, I visited Fukushima Daini (the decommissioned sister power plant a few km south of Daiichi) and was able to tour inside. No, I do not have three arms and I’m not glowing green; but the experience absolutely changed my life and I know that working towards a PhD in nuclear engineering is what I’m meant to be doing.

As you discuss Full Body Burden during your discussion section, I hope that you keep in mind three things: 1) the global climate, especially between the US and the USSR, due to the Cold War, 2) nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are not the same thing, and 3) the multifaceted field of nuclear engineering. What happened at Rocky Flats is not representative of nuclear engineering as a whole, but is a real-life event as a result of decreased government supervision and war-time mishaps. Would you be just as upset if it was a chemical weapons plant? Or is the main objective of this story the result of the government’s “profit-over-people” mantra as scientists with real concerns are ignored? Please think of this topic with both a nuclear standpoint and an objective standpoint. 

While you’re unlikely to see me walking around campus this semester (Fall 2020), I will probably be your CRE facilitator (and if you’ve already completed it with me, I hope you’ve learned a lot!). Otherwise, if you have any questions feel free to contact me:

Kristen Iversen does not provide an unbiased approach to the nuclear field in Full Body Burden. Kristen Iversen is not technically trained in the nuclear field, which makes it challenging to understand the nuances of nuclear radiation. Indeed, it is very true that nuclear radiation, when poorly understood and improperly protected against, can be dangerous. In Full Body Burden, this is evidenced when some accidents at Rocky Flats are exacerbated by employees improperly following established safety procedures. 

Given Kristen Iversen’s experience with the troubling events and secrecy surrounding Rocky Flats as well as some research into radiation, she concludes that working with radiation is like playing with fire – sometimes literally. In writing this book, her motivation is to persuade the reader to agree with her that Rocky Flats was a menace to the people of Colorado, and, to a greater extent, the risks of nuclear power outweigh the benefits. This view causes her to condemn anything “nuclear” with trepidation and fear, and she concludes the book by making dire claims about the dangers of power generation using nuclear fuel based on the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. She neglects to mention that these accidents resulted from improper following of established safety precautions. Even when talking about accidents at Rocky Flats, she downplays the contribution of not adhering to safety rules.

In the case of Chernobyl, the accident was caused by improperly trained operators. Radiation spread so far because the reactor at Chernobyl had no containment unit, which is meant to prevent the diffusion of waste in this exact scenario. In fact, operator issues resulted in the Three Mile Island accident in the US, but no humans were exposed to dangerous radiation levels because Three Mile Island had a working containment structure. In the case of Fukushima, the plant operator failed to comply with all safety requirements. Even so, in this case, again, the containment structures prevented the vast majority of fission products from being released, and there were 0 deaths due to radiation exposure. Additionally, the nuclear industry learned from this, and implemented many regulations, such as requiring all reactors to be able to operate for 72 hours with no external power source, to ensure that such an accident can never happen again.

So, yes, nuclear radiation can be harmful. However, we understand it much better now, and we have established a culture of rigidly adhering to safety procedures in the nuclear industry. As a result, according to Forbes, the safest job in America is in the commercial nuclear industry, with less than 1 fatal injury per 100,000 workers – in fact, it is near zero. Over a period of 10 years, there has been 1 fatal injury/million workers

So, I implore you, before making judgements about the nuclear field based on this book, consider the author’s background and motivation. Do your own research. Ask questions. Talk to anyone in the Nuclear Engineering Department at Michigan, and then come to your own conclusion.

-Kaitlyn B. current NERS student