Emma Redfoot: Environmental Studies to Nuclear Engineering
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 from my studies to pursue some real world experience to complement my studies by living 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. From my time in South America as well as my education, I had developed a deep sense of how important it is not to tell countries not to develop. I wanted to help find a solution that allowed developing countries to continue to industrialize while minimizing environmental impact. 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. Nuclear attracted as the means of generating power that had the most solvable problems. 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 advanced reactor designs which are “walk-away” safe, decentralized, and can potentially 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 because until we have economic energy storage, renewables are not able to produce reliable energy around the clock. 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.