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An international resurgence of female representation in nuclear

March 7, 2024

By Addison Arave

Women played an instrumental role in shaping the field of nuclear science. Nobel Prize-winner Marie Curie was part of a team that discovered radioactivity. Katharine Way, a leading scientist on the Manhattan Project, analyzed and interpreted foundational nuclear data. Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu tested and disproved a widely accepted atomic science theory. Despite these historical contributions, representation of women in the nuclear sector remains disproportionately low.

In 2023, women made up only about 25% of the nuclear workforce. As the nuclear industry prepares to deploy a new generation of commercial advanced reactors, this lack of gender diversity is gaining more attention. That’s what makes opportunities like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Lise Meitner Program so crucial.

Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner discovered the radioactive element protactinium and was the first to coin the term “nuclear fission.” The program that bears her name provides professional development experiences to early- and mid-career women in the nuclear sector. In October 2023, IAEA partnered with Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to provide an engaging and interactive series of presentations and activities.

A key element of the Lise Meitner Program is visiting facilities involved in multiple facets of nuclear research and engineering, including nuclear power plants, scientific institutions, laboratories and start-up companies. The program is a multi-week, multi-location event, provided to a select few applicants, at no cost to them. This exposure allows the participants a chance to form relationships, even mentorships, with relevant subject matter experts.

“The opportunity to spend time with this year’s cohort of Lise Meitner participants was encouraging and rewarding,” said INL Director John Wagner. “I’m appreciative of the program, and I’m confident that, in this decade, we will see the global development and deployment of several new, advanced reactors built by a workforce that is inclusive and diverse.”

Lise Meitner Program attendees learned more about computational science capabilities available at INL.

An Intricate Learning Experience

The Lise Meitner Program combined in-depth learning and technical assignments with addressing common workplace concerns unique to women.

“This year’s program was focused on reactor systems modeling and simulations,” said IAEA Technical Director Tatjana Jevremovic. “It includes assignments and discussion topics that benefit both the host organizations and visiting professionals, as well as their respective employers. What they learn here is meant to enhance their overall skill set and professional growth.”

The curriculum provides hands-on learning and an introduction to new and existing resources. For example, this year’s theme prompted computational science presentations on INL-developed software frameworks, such as the Multiphysics Object-Oriented Simulation Environment (MOOSE) and the Framework for Optimization of Resources and Economics (FORCE), among others. These tools have modernized nuclear research activities and are continually developed and improved. Learning from the computational researchers who work on these systems gives participants a clear picture of their capabilities and how vital modeling and simulation work is to the nuclear industry.

The opportunity was not lost on attendees like Funke Dacosta-Salu, a Nigerian nuclear engineer based in the United Kingdom.

“I’ve been able to see how I can fit into the nuclear world,” Dacosta-Salu said. “That was a key thing for me. I wanted to see how I can use my skills and leverage on what exists in the industry right now, and this program has exceeded my expectations.”

Harnessing a Female Network

The program not only enriches participants, but also benefits the nuclear sector. By advocating for women in the industry, this program helps female professionals realize their potential for increased innovation, problem-solving skills and performance. Armed with vital resources and connections, participants gain the confidence to set aspirational professional goals and influence those around them along the way.

“As women, we all have the same technical language and the same human language,” said Jordan Atomic Energy Commission nuclear engineer and participant Reem Khrais. “They choose great women with great achievements to present who can speak up about problems and how they can fix them. I would advise future participants to get ready to work hard, but enjoy this opportunity to see what awaits you in the market. After this program, I have different ambitions and will go home with a lot of energy to improve.”

Keeping the Momentum Going

The program is an important step forward for gender balance and representation in the workplace. It’s a chance for women with established careers in nuclear energy to guide and encourage the next generation of female professionals by passing on their knowledge gained in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Between insights on navigating work-life demands and strategies to overcome industry challenges, this collaborative effort with the IAEA can continue to evolve and grow.

“We had to really ask ourselves hard questions about where we are going and what role we will have in the future,” said nuclear safety engineer Ines Mateos Canals. “If you don’t know what you want, you can’t have a plan. It can be life-changing. It makes you think about what you’re doing and motivates you to stay in the field. Through this program, we’ve created a community and will hopefully keep in touch.”

Click here to learn more about the Lise Meitner Program. Click here to view the eligibility and application requirements.

The Lise Meitner Program is a unique professional development opportunity for women in the nuclear industry.

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About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted March 7, 2024

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