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Out from the shadows: Argonne’s quest to demystify nuclear energy

by Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory
Dec 12, 2012


Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory/MEDILL

Roger Blomquist talks about the potential of nucleaqr energy during his recent Argonne OutLoud lecture at Argonne National Laboratory. The varied lectures are open to the public at the lab where energy research focuses on nuclear safety and sustainability and on alternative energy.


Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory

Argonne National Laboratory nuclear engineer Laural Briggs, chairs the Argonne Nuclear Engineering Division Outreach Committee.


Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory/MEDILL

Tom Ewing is the Associate Division Director of Argonne National Laboratory's Nuclear Engineering Division where a major research priority is nuclear safety and sustainability .

Argonne National Laboratory is trying to set the record straight on nuclear energy as a clean fuel that can be generated safely. No carbon emissions and no need for imports.

But the scientists working inside it want the world to know they’ve got nothing to hide.

During a recent “Getting to Know Nuclear Energy" event, Argonne nuclear engineer Roger Blomquist offered personal anecdotes and hard science to dispel audience misgivings about nuclear energy and Argonne’s role in the nuclear industry.

Argonne grew out of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb at a secret location in New Mexico during World War II. "Argonne has really been the reactor laboratory,” Blomquist said.

Now Argonne scientists are putting the cabash on the nuclear-related stigma and promoting public awareness of the reality and potential of nuclear energy. 

“We’ve never done bombs, nuclear weapons—anything like that,” he said.

The lab, focusing on nuclear energy, alternative energy and battery development among a long list of interdisciplinary research programs, is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

During a private tour of a nuclear energy museum on Argonne’s campus, Blomquist explained that the laboratory’s work includes reactor materials construction and safety, fuel recycling and general reactor safety. Argonne developed the world’s first nuclear reactor able to produce electricity and then  produced the first prototype reactor used to power the whole town of Arco, Idaho, as part of proving the stability of boiling-water reactors.

But Blomquist said that political obsession with nuclear risks has functioned to scare people away from the development of new nuclear technology.

Argonne’s dedication to public education is especially pertinent in society’s current interest in nuclear energy as a potentially green solution, according to Tom Ewing, Associate Division Director of Argonne’s Nuclear Engineering Division.

“We’re kind of pleased that, perhaps due to the renewed interest in trying to satisfy energy demand especially in the future without putting carbon in the air, that there’s been a sort of renaissance in interest in nuclear energy,” Ewing said in an interview.

And while Argonne scientists have attempted to satisfy this interest by hosting open houses and public talks, the lab is also doing outreach to spark interest in nuclear and related fields of study.

These outreach efforts focus on students, with special emphasis on girls, and include events such as Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day for middle-schoolers and Science Careers in Search of Women, an annual conference aimed at recruiting high school girls into the sciences.

“It’s nice to have a diverse background, and I think the diversity that women bring will just enhance the field,” said J’Tia Taylor, a nuclear engineer at Argonne who is involved with both initiatives.
But the student side of the outreach isn’t gender-specific.

For students, in general, Argonne hosts webinars, facility tours and seminars for students to learn more about nuclear energy and Argonne’s work, in particular. These efforts include contributions by the Argonne Nuclear Engineering Division Outreach Committee, chaired by nuclear engineer Laural Briggs. 

The committee also reaches out to local non-student organizations and keeps universities and current and potential sponsors informed about the lab's nuclear engineering division programs.

“We’re not trying to do something secretive here,” said Emily Wolters, also an Argonne nuclear engineer, in an interview. “We’re just trying to show people it’s a safe technology.”