Jordan Argyle: MS Nuclear Engineer Focused on Food Irradiation
Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by how the world around me works. This fascination led me to engineering, where I could learn both to understand the world we live in, and utilize science to improve the lives of others.
In my undergraduate mechanical engineering work, I took a class introducing nuclear engineering, as I wanted to better understand how nuclear power reactors operate. During the class, we spent a week discussing medical imaging, a fascinating application of radiation. We then spent a single lecture discussing “other” nuclear technologies. These other nuclear applications seemed like magic to me: nuclear systems that can detect problems in oil pipeline flow, the fill level in cans of Coke, and find microcracks without damaging the material; thermal batteries that last decades in space, systems that can age a chunk of metal years in only a few days, and food treatment processes that leaves food healthier, better tasting, and longer lasting than the chemical or temperature treatments in use now.
At the time I was in the class, the conflict in Syria had escalated to a humanitarian disaster, reminding us that 70 million people around the world had been forcibly displaced by various conflicts and were struggling for clean water and accessible food. At the same time, a friend of mine returned from Kenya, a place where the majority of the population lived in relative peace, but very many lacked access to clean water. I began researching the feasibility of developing a long-lasting, practical sanitation system using radiation to help the folks in these dire situations.
The deeper I got into that research, the more I realized the need and the power of a nuclear solution. Not only can such a system sanitize food and water, but it can also extend the storage and shipping capabilities of food. In fact, most tropical fruits in the US have been irradiated–otherwise they wouldn’t last long enough to make it to our stores. A single system could both prevent diseases, and allow higher quantities of more diverse foods to be stored for longer. It seemed like the perfect solution for global hunger and the epidemic of food poisoning–600 million people each year fall ill from contaminated food or water, and hundreds of thousands of those, mostly children, die from diseases that can fairly easily be prevented.
After finishing my degree, I applied for graduate work in nuclear engineering to better develop my understanding of radiation science. I was surprised that many people, even in the nuclear field, are unaware of the versatile technologies that drove me to the field, and the benefits they offer. As I thought about it, radiation is probably the single most significant discovery by humanity. In addition to these incredible, non-intuitive technologies already mentioned, we enjoy radio, television, and the internet, all sent using low-energy radiation. We have telephones that can place a call virtually anywhere, sending our voice to loved ones and business associates over radiation waves. We can heat food in minutes thanks to microwave radiation. We can look through skin to see bones and build detailed, 3D tissue images using higher-energy x-ray radiation. And I could go on.
While these everyday uses of nuclear are understood and appreciated by all, the industrial uses seem to be used quietly, and only for very specific applications. This seems a waste to me. Here we have a tool that can replace much more expensive or more dangerous processes, but we aren’t bothering to develop and utilize it. I have decided to take this cause up as my own, turning a passion to help others and save lives (and to a lesser extent, money) into a career.
We can’t live without nuclear technology anymore, and I would argue that we need significantly more of it. From nuclear power plants to provide reliable, high quantities of electricity with no emissions, little geographic footprint, and very little waste to food treatment to provide healthier, tastier, longer lasting food, we simply need more nuclear. For me, the magical properties of radiation in all of it’s applications could make our world so much better for all the inhabitants of our little planet.
tl;dr: After learning that nuclear technologies have diverse beneficial uses, I applied my desires to save lives and alleviate suffering to my training and future career in nuclear engineering. The truth that drives me in my studies and future career: no other technology offers as many benefits to humankind as nuclear technology.
Image: Emma Redfoot at Bryce National Park
Emma Redfoot: MS Nuclear Engineer focus Nuclear Hybrid Energy Systems
I did not think much about nuclear power until after spending a year in South America. My undergraduate degree is in environmental studies from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. I took off one semester to live on an organic permaculture farm on the coast of Ecuador where I worked as the ecotourism intern. The people in that rural region were hard working, able to fix anything, and full of good humor. But only one of the guys who lived on the farm was happy continuing to be an Ecuadorian farmer – the other guys all had dreams of moving to the city to find opportunities to have better lives.
After returning to school in Portland for a year, I took off another semester to research volunteer tourism in Peru. While talking to different NGO groups, I learned the tragic story for most Peruvians who migrated to Cusco. The city had seen a sharp growth in population in the 1980’s and 1990’s as people in rural areas sought to escape the atrocities of The Shining Path terrorist group as well as mistreatment by the government. Cusco attracted people looking for opportunity as the city grew as a tourist destination for more than 2 million people a year traveling to Machu Picchu. The reality in the city was few jobs for people who looked indigenous and little opportunity for training.
After graduating with my environmental studies degree, I searched for a bigger answer to address the lack of opportunity I had seen in Peru that characterizes many developing and urbanizing countries, while also addressing the environmental issues that had been the focus of my undergraduate work. During this time, I came to the conclusion that energy is the soil from which everything from clean water to literacy to women’s rights can grow. Energy accessibility, especially in urban areas, plays an important role in economic development. It also provides the means for people to empower themselves. I decided to take a deeper look.
I started looking at the different sources of energy generation, I weighed the pros and cons of all forms of generation – and learned they have plenty of both. I evaluated the waste, safety, and cost issues associated with nuclear energy. I came to the conclusion that nuclear energy is clean and can be produced at the scale needed to allow for economic growth in developing countries. Its problems are solvable, and it should be part of the array of energy sources including renewable sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro. Nuclear is especially fitting to urban industrial areas such as parts of China and India due to its reliability, high energy density, and lack of emissions. Nuclear Engineers are coming out with incredible new designs in terms of safety, are decentralized, and can be cheaply constructed and operated. The current concerns about waste can be addressed through technological advances in reprocessing and updated nuclear policies that encourage new and better nuclear technology. Nuclear appealed to me as a field that still has so much room for progress, with promising emerging technologies, and with incredible environmental and social benefits.
Nuclear power faces major political obstacles, in part based on misinformation and widespread anxiety driven by headlines. After deciding to become a nuclear engineer, my friends and family were quick to be concerned for my future. People often say that nuclear energy is a dying industry in the United States. Unfortunately, the alternative is to continue our reliance on fossil fuels. Renewables are not able to produce reliable around-the-clock energy, and they are more expensive than nuclear. I am confident that nuclear energy will have a growing place in the world’s energy solutions, because the benefits of nuclear energy are so compelling.
I recognize that my decision to become a nuclear engineer means that my future career will be influenced by politics, regulation, and public opinion. I believe that environmentalists, like me, should provide the leadership in presenting the facts about the incredible opportunities that nuclear power presents. My faith in the future is grounded in the belief that people can change their minds and respond to good information. A better future for our children, and the children of the world, depends on the decisions we make as a society about energy. I want to be a part of the solution.
tl;dr: After earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, I recognized the importance of a clean reliable source of energy that can be relatively quickly deployed with a high energy output. After earning my prerequisite engineering courses, I am now working on my master’s in nuclear engineering at The University of Idaho.