A Family Affair : Tales From A WNU Fellow

Staff Report

20 November 2006
WNU Fellow

Jeremy Gordon has never "worked in a nuclear power plant nor been down a mine". So when the young nuclear writer was given the opportunity to attend six intensive weeks at the World Nuclear University (WNU) 2006 Summer Institute in Sweden and France, he leapt at the chance. What he learnt, was far from polite atomic small talk.

From the first day´s introductions, we lived and worked as a family -- no small feat considering we were 89 Fellows, from 34 countries. But after spending six weeks working, playing, eating and drinking together it is no exaggeration to say it really felt like that.

We made each other´s acquaintance on an equal footing as people, rather than on the basis of qualification or status. But despite the wide spectrum of personal background and experience, there´s one thing that unites Summer Institute Fellows -- a belief in nuclear energy.

So besides friendly chatting about the weather, each other´s countries and each other´s lives, from 8 July - 18 August, Fellows were immersed in a global nuclear culture, constantly fed by the Summer Institute´s work programme. The idea: to increase and anchor our knowledge of environmental science, nuclear medicine, safety, the global nuclear power industry and nuclear arms control, while building a worldwide network for the years to come.

Running the gamut of the nuclear industry and beyond, respected speakers imparted their knowledge in detailed lectures, giving the young audience so much more than individual research or a conference plenary could do. For example: three hours´ explanation on carbon dioxide´s role in the atmosphere from one of Idaho National Laboratory´s top scientists made a big enough impression to make the threat of climate change a solid reference point for the rest of the course.

"Between now and 2050, as the world population swells from 6.4 billion toward 9 billion, mankind will consume more energy than the combined total used in all previous history," University President John Ritch told Fellows in his opening address. "Under current patterns of energy use, the results will prove calamitous. Let it be said clearly and with confidence: If we are to meet expanding worldwide human need without destroying our planetary environment, this must become a nuclear century."

Mr. Rich´s address set the backdrop of what was to become six intensive weeks of learning. Five of which were spent in Stockholm, the other week taking in a comprehensive tour of France´s nuclear facilities. In a break from the books, we also took a weekend trip to Oskarshamn to tour Sweden´s used fuel management and final disposal facilities.

I approached the Summer Institute as one of the less technically-qualified Fellows, from what you might call the fringes of the industry: I had about four years´ writing experience, about two of those on the subject of nuclear power. In some lectures I couldn´t really follow some of the science being presented, and perhaps didn´t share the perspective of most other fellows -- I´ve never worked in a plant or been down a mine. But at times, my general knowledge of nuclear surpassed that of many other Fellows. In both situations, it was clear that support was all around. I received some help from my neighbours, and I gave some myself. It was enlightening to hear detailed considerations from different perspectives, and at the same time I was pleased to see that my own view was interesting to others.

Some of the most interesting moments during the lecture component came from question sessions. Fellows had the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers -- again on a very equal footing. And in fact, the breadth of perspectives on offer meant that quite often the lecturers themselves were learning. There were also chances to have more private discussions with speakers over lunch or drinks and many of the speakers attended a few days of the Summer Institute, giving even more chances to gain familiarity.

The same was true of the "distinguished speakers" that took evening sessions with the Fellows. At these informal events, well-known individuals from the nuclear domain were given a freer rein to talk about their personal development during their careers.

The likes of Chris Crane, CEO of Exelon, one of the US´s largest electric utilities; Sweden´s Vattenfall CEO, Lars Josefsson; and Andy White, CEO of GE Nuclear provided such insights.

These inspiring sessions were each followed by informal buffet receptions which continued until late. But these were no awkward occasions of polite atomic small talk. True familiarity was built between Fellows, lecturers, and speakers, as the open converstaion flowed well into the night. The Summer Institute´s excellent organizers and mentors -- themselves rather distinguished -- were also always on hand for guidance, insight and discussion.

The mentors came into their own during the other major component of the Summer Institute. Fellows were assigned to mentor groups of about ten to conduct a variety of group work. Carrying out lecture discussions, group presentations and reports, each group became like a family unit: advising, supporting, learning from and joking with one another. The mentors ensured that everyone had a role to play and everyone´s voice was heard -- even when agreement was impossible -- and it was during these afternoon sessions that the sheer depth of expertise present sank in.

In this supportive atmosphere, Fellows took turns leading and made decisions based on available knowledge in much the same way as they will have to later in their careers.

Another dynamic at the Summer Institute was communication. Aside from inevitable improvements in English as most Fellows´ second language, native speakers found themselves learning ways to speak more clearly to their colleagues. But whether English was a first, second or third language, every Fellow gained confidence interacting in groups and with senior figures.

The thing prospective Summer Institute participants should know is that you get back what you put into it -- and that´s a lot. Travelling to another country for a period of weeks would be something not many Fellows have done before. Testing English skills in such conditions is also a serious challenge. And once you´re there, the work starts early and tends to run late, but it´s never a matter of jumping through hoops.

The Summer Institute is a collaborative process involving some of the widest-reaching institutions, the leading companies, and the leading scientists and executives within those bodies. Each of those also get back what they put in, but the most important resource input, output, processed or enriched by the Summer Institute is the potential of the young people that attend it. -- Jeremy Gordon, Writer and Analyst, World Nuclear Association

Applications for the 2007 World Nuclear University Summer Institute, from 14 July - 24 August in South Korea, are now invited. The closing date is 30 November 2006. Find more information and download the application form from www.world-nuclear-university.org.

Background

The Summer Institute is the most advanced of a series of programmes being developed by the WNU Coordinating Centre in London, each one aimed at strengthening nuclear education around the world. With the backing of its supporters, the World Nuclear Association, International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Energy Agency and World Association of Nuclear Operators.

The 2006 Summer Institute was hosted by the Swedish Centre for Nuclear Technology (SKC), the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and France´s Commissariat a l´Energie Atomique (CEA). It builds on the success of the inaugural Summer Institute held at Idaho Falls, USA the previous year, and, circling the globe, the next Summer Institute is scheduled for South Korea 14 July - 24 August 2007.

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