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Driven by Challenge: From Chemistry Student to Spent Fuel Specialist

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For young women considering a career in nuclear science and technology, Laura McManniman has simple advice: “Don’t doubt yourself.”

McManniman, 35, is a Spent Fuel Management Specialist at the IAEA. She is leading a research project with scientists from 10 countries to develop a technical knowledge base about how nuclear reactor spent fuel and materials behave in wet and dry storage. On her journey from inner city Liverpool to the top of the nuclear field, McManniman learned to embrace change and seize the right opportunities, even if that meant having to overcome obstacles in an industry largely dominated by men.

Some of those obstacles seemed trivial, but made a difference in her day-to-day life trying to break into the nuclear field—like the time she got stuck in a radiation activity monitor in a nuclear power plant. “The plant was built in the 1960s and at the time no women were working in nuclear power plants, so the facilities were made to fit an average man,” McManniman recalled with a laugh. “As I am smaller than the average man, I could not reach where I needed to place my hands and I could not get out!”

Nuclear science and technology can help the world tackle challenges from climate change and food insecurity to COVID-19, but a workforce with more women is needed. When half of the world’s population is not adequately represented in a given sector, not only does the world miss out on potential talent and ideas, but the resulting innovations are less likely to meet the needs of all. The IAEA therefore strives to have a diverse and inclusive workforce where both women and men can participate and benefit from nuclear technology. To this end, the IAEA recently launched the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme to inspire and encourage women to pursue such careers and help drive scientific and technological developments in their countries.

Growing up in the hometown of The Beatles and Liverpool FC, McManniman attended school in a disadvantaged area and only discovered her passion for chemistry thanks to programmes that helped children with science talent. She went on to study at the University of Liverpool. “I was the first person in my family to go to university, so my parents were very supportive,” said McManniman, who lives in Vienna with her husband and two boys, aged five and eight.

McManniman started out her studies in pharmaceutical development but realized she wanted to branch out beyond laboratory work. She learned about potential careers in the nuclear sector and thought that might allow her to remain in science and work internationally. “It was clear that she was an incredibly motivated and talented chemist,” said Dr Cate Cropper, a former university classmate. “Laura has also proven to be an incredible nuclear scientist.”

Pursuing her ambitions, after graduation McManniman took a job at Sellafield Ltd. (then British Nuclear Group) in Cumbria, on the northwest coast of England. Many of her friends questioned joining the nuclear field. “I have heard more references to Homer Simpson and glowing in the dark than I liked, but it was a good decision,” she said.

McManniman began work on developing and carrying out commissioning tests on an evaporator unit in the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, or THORP, a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield. David Hughes, the chief process engineer at the time, said: “Laura quickly became well known and trusted on the commissioning team due to her quiet yet confident and efficient way of diagnosing and solving problems.”

McManniman also experienced gender-related occupational obstacles, such as having to wear men’s rubber boots five or six sizes larger or huge protective gear: facilities and equipment were simply not designed with women in mind as few of them worked in these areas.

Being an “occupational minority” could be discouraging at times, but McManniman never questioned her career choice. “Working in the field gave me a different perspective and helped me better understand both the technical details and the need to see the high level trends, the big picture,” said McManniman, who decided to specialize in spent fuel storage after attending an IAEA technical meeting in 2009. “And things are changing in the nuclear industry, in which like other industries, more women are joining and the field as a whole is becoming more gender-sensitive.”

McManniman (pictured to the right) joined the IAEA Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section in 2018.

When she joined the IAEA in 2018, “Laura brought knowledge but also new dynamism to our team,” said Clement Hill, Head of the IAEA Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section. “As only 30 countries currently operate nuclear power plants, expertise and experience are rather scarce. Inspiring more women to join this field is key to ensuring a gender balanced workforce. Laura is a good example for younger generations that it is possible.”

A board member of the International Youth Nuclear Congress, McManniman is an advocate for a more inclusive nuclear industry not only with more women, but also more young professionals. “Whether a country is embarking on nuclear or is phasing out, the nuclear power industry will be around for years to come and offers careers in a variety of fields,” she said. “There is a definite need to attract young people into the industry as the current workforce in many countries is ageing and this expertise will need to be maintained.”

Following the path of trailblazers like McManniman, this new generation will help shape the future of the nuclear power industry—not only by adding different sizes of boots and protective clothing, but by supporting an inclusive vision where men and women are equally represented.

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