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From Mechanical Engineering to Nuclear Safety: A Career Focused on Protecting People and the Environment


Director of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Installation Safety, Anna Hajduk Bradford, first became interested in engineering when by chance she came across a friend’s textbooks in college.

“His books were sitting out on the table, so I picked one up and started to leaf through it,” she says. “It had homework assignments, each one of which was to my mind like a puzzle – for example a diagram of something and accompanying question to figure out the speed at which the piece of metal involved would fall to the ground. It was intriguing to me to figure out how to solve these, so it just caught my attention.” 

At the time, Bradford had started her undergraduate studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and had not yet decided on a study major, but the idea of these puzzles had captured her interest so much that she shifted her major to mechanical engineering.

It was a bold move at the time for two reasons: firstly, she says, the trend among students was to transfer out of engineering rather than into it due to the intensity of the subject; and secondly, because in the late 1980s the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) were even more largely dominated by men than they are today. Bradford recalls being called upon by the professor on her first day in a nuclear engineering course, to check that she was in the right class. “I was the only woman taking the course that term,” Bradford says. “It was challenging at first because I felt as though I did not belong there or in this field, but I thoroughly enjoyed the subject and my classes, so I stuck with it and I realized that I do belong.” In 1993, after five years of study, she earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. 

Protecting people and the environment

Her professional experience in the nuclear area began soon after completing her studies, interning with Science Applications International Corporation, an engineering consulting company in her home state of Virginia in the United States. There, she worked on cleaning up large nuclear sites for decommissioning. “These were very old sites that had been around for 50 years and they had radioactive contamination in the dirt and the water as well as stored radioactive waste that had to be gotten rid of,” she says. “And the work involved figuring out how to clean up these large sites, getting them back to what they used to be to let people use the sites again for their own purposes rather than leaving them as large industrial sites.”

Recognizing the importance of this work in properly protecting workers, the local community and the environment, Bradford was further inspired to pursue and earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1995 while working. “Protecting people and the environment has been an important element of my work, because I believe that we, living on this globe, have a responsibility to make sure that we’re not irreversibly damaging the environment,” she says. “I think that my work has helped contribute to that.”

Bradford left the consulting firm in 2000 to join the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as an environmental engineer in their decommissioning branch. “The transition into this job from the consulting company seemed like the natural thing for me to do,” she says, referring to her exposure to government service growing up with a mother who worked for an agency that mapped seismic faults and a father working in information technology at the Department of Defense. “To me, my parents’ work always seemed to be very rewarding,” she says. “I would frequently visit their offices and could see the positive impact their work had on people. This inspired me to join government service myself.”

Bradford spent 21 years working at the US NRC, starting as an environmental engineer and being promoted several times, finally to the position of Director of the Division of New and Renewed Licenses. “I really enjoyed the technical challenges of the job – for example, figuring out how to apply existing regulations to a new type of reactor design you’re reviewing that you’ve never seen before,” she says. “I also really enjoyed the many interactions with the public that we had – to hear their perspectives about what we were doing.”

At the NRC Bradford was involved in many projects that dealt with new reactor licensing and took part in numerous international activities, many of which were with the IAEA, including a small modular reactors (SMRs) regulators forum of which she chaired for a period. In September last year, she joined the IAEA to head up the Agency’s Division of Nuclear Installation Safety.

At the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Anna led the Division that oversaw the licensing of new reactors.

Fostering a safety culture

Managing a Division of nearly 100 people, Bradford’s focus relates to promoting a safety culture in the nuclear industry. Her day-to-day work involves overseeing various projects, from ensuring the appropriateness and applicability of existing IAEA safety regulations for small modular reactors – small, affordable and more flexible sources of carbon free power sources – to assessing the operational safety of currently operating nuclear power plants and their safety in the face of extreme hazards such as floods or earthquakes, and safety relating to research reactors and fuel cycle facilities.

A key element to achieving a safety culture is effective teamwork and to have a questioning attitude, she says: “The idea throughout must be that safety always comes first, and the key ingredient to achieving a safety culture is open communication. As a leader, I believe it is my responsibility to remove barriers to success. I encourage people that work with me to really engage and to have well rounded discussions where people feel that they can speak up even if they disagree. It’s very important to ensure that the shared expertise has been considered in decisions, because this in return strengthens overall safety.”

Bradford’s collaborative attitude in supporting important team activities is well recognized by her colleagues. “Anna has an open and transparent approach to communication and through this, she creates an environment of trust by soliciting different inputs and ideas before a decision is made. This is very much appreciated,” said Fuming Jiang, Head of the IAEA Operational Safety Section.

Women in the nuclear field

The IAEA strives to increase the representation of women both in the nuclear field in general and in the IAEA in particular, having committed to achieving gender parity – 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women – in the Agency by 2025. As part of its effort in this regard, the Agency has established fellowships and training programmes to increase the participation of women and youth in nuclear science.

Read more about the IAEA’s work on gender equality.

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