My accidental conversion to nuclear power

Teacher as student

Last fall, I was invited by U-M Engineering Professor Emeritus Ron Fleming to teach a mini-writing workshop as part of his NERS 490-2 class, “20th Century History — Development of Nuclear Science.” I was asked to lead discussions based on a series of articles I had written about the moral and ethical decisions that scientists had faced during WWII.

After reflecting on the issues raised by these articles, students would write essays about their own ethical views, and I would evaluate them and provide opportunities for one-on-one discussion. Ron was particularly keen on the idea of class discussion, and he also wanted to give his students practice in expository writing, since most students in the school of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Science (NERS) only take a technical writing class.

I asked myself whether I could take this contract in good conscience. Firstly, I am a Quaker and pacifist, and I imagined that a lot of the nuclear engineering students were planning careers in the military, possibly making weapons.

Secondly, I was against nuclear energy, and I imagined that other students were planning to design nuclear power plants. I told Ron about my biases, and expected to be disqualified.

To my great surprise, Ron laughed and said: “This is perfect. I want you to teach them how to write, but I also want you to offer your viewpoint. Most people in society share your reaction to the word ‘nuclear.’ So our students need to learn how to communicate and educate the public.”

At another planning meeting with Ron, I shared that my late father was a nuclear engineer who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served on nuclear submarines for about 25 years.

“Ah, and you’re anti-nuke and anti-military,” Ron said with a twinkle in his eye.

“It’s not what you think,” I replied.

* * *

I was scheduled to teach three classes towards the end of the semester, and I visited the class as often as I could so I could get to know the students and watch Ron in action.  At the end of each session, Ron assigned calculations that correlated with the era of physics the students were studying. When we came to World War II, Ron provided enough information to design a crude nuclear weapon, and asked the class to do so for an assignment.

“Isn’t that information top-secret?” I asked.

“You can find designs for atomic weapons all over the Internet,” Ron said.  “But no individual or even a well-funded group could ever pull together the resources to build one.”

* * *

I started having nightmares about nuclear weapons, specifically submarines. It wasn’t Freudian, I don’t think:  I have seen way more nuclear submarines in my life than most people because my father drove one around for a living.  I dreamt of all the times my four siblings, my mother and I went to the dock to wave goodbye, as my dad stood in his service white uniform, saluting with the rest of the officers on the deck of a sleek, black submarine festooned with flags and banners. My mom always went to the dock wearing a big yellow hat with a wide brim that threw a shadow across her face.  This was so no one could see her cry.  No one was ever allowed to cry.

All that had seemed like another life until the dreams made it real again. Sometimes I woke with a start and was unable to get back to sleep.  I imagined my father disappearing down the hatch with all the other men as the huge craft prepared to submerge.  Then only the conning tower was visible, like a black shark’s fin, until it, too, was lost to sight.  It always seemed like, every time my father left on patrol, he was swallowed by the sea.  And I spent those six months he was away wondering if he would ever return.

From a young age, I knew my father’s sub was powered by a nuclear reactor that enabled it to shelter a crew of about 300 people and travel anywhere, even under the Arctic Circle.  I also knew it carried enough nuclear weapons to destroy all the major cities of a large country.

These two conflicting facets of nuclear energy still present a paradox that society at large can’t seem to fathom.  (See “Re-inspiring a nuclear renaissance?”) Most people can’t reconcile nuclear power’s potential for destruction with its ability to sustain life — for example, while the crew of a submarine is submerged for months at a time. Humans are usually more comfortable in a polarized world where things are either “good” or “evil.”  But in my case, growing up with a father who commanded nuclear subs that could sustain life while also carrying horrifically deadly nuclear weapons, I always had to find a way to live somewhere in between.

* * *

“Did you know there has never been an accident on board a nuclear powered ship since the Navy commissioned its first nuclear vessel in 1954?” Ron said to me one day at lunch as we finalized my presentation.

I had the same reaction to him as I have sometimes with my physicist husband — scientists often say that non-scientists oversimplify the issues. But isn’t praising the technology of nuclear power overlooking the fact that it can kill people?

“I would like to begin my lectures by telling these students my personal story, and the story of my father,” I told Ron, and as usual, he agreed enthusiastically.

NERS town hall

The American Nuclear Society’s U-M student chapter hosted a town hall meeting, open to the public, in February. (Image courtesy of NERS.)

So that first night I stared out at the innocent young faces of 33 very determined, brilliant, and hard-working students, many of them from other countries.  I was aware that some students were military veterans; and others were on active duty studying at U-M for advanced training.

I began by thanking them for reading my articles and reflecting on the cautionary tales of scientists like Robert Oppenheimer and Werner Heisenberg, who faced great moral dilemmas around their participation in making weapons during WWII.

I showed them an enlarged photo of one of my father’s submarines, and told them how his promising career had been cut short after about two years as the Naval Attache to Vietnam during the height of the war.  He played a key role in the “Vietnamization” of the Navy — an effort to train troops from South Vietnam so the U.S. military presence could be scaled down and eventually eliminated.

But the U.S. was well on the way to losing the war by the time my father got there, and his job was more or less impossible — just as his present-day counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to extract U.S. troops from harm’s way. He came home with shiny medals and an honorable discharge, but he was broken in body and spirit, and never really recovered from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

* * *

NERS Students

Ron Gilgenbach with a cohort of students and faculty from the College of Engineering during a recent visit to Shanghai. (Image courtesy of Gilgenbach.)

As I told the story of my father to the 33 students of NERS-492, I was surprised to find them listening intently. I finished by letting them know I am a Quaker and a pacifist, and it was hard for me to trust the government, the military, or any company that was involved with anything containing the word “nuclear” in it, because the public had been misled too many times.

Then I found out it was me who had not done my homework about who my students were.

“I am not concerned that America has nuclear weapons,” said one student who is a member of the Brazilian navy. “The US is the oldest and most stable democracy in the world. There are no internal tensions which can lead to a government disruption and, last but not least, even in the darkest hours of the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons were not used. And the U.S. is aware and careful of its power.”

This student informed me that his country’s constitution only allows the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. He hopes to serve on Brazil’s first nuclear sub, expected to be constructed by 2025. And he explained that it will carry no weapons — it will just patrol the country’s coasts.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Brazil and Argentina seemed to be headed toward a dangerous regional nuclear arms race, but treaties during the 1990s resulted in what has been heralded as a major nonproliferation success story.

“I’m not here to learn how to make weapons,” said the student.  “I am an environmentalist, and I am here to be part of the technology of the future.”

One after another, the students used this same word to describe themselves — “environmentalist” — and they described their dreams of building the next generation of nuclear power plants; improving nuclear medicine; developing detectors for Homeland Security and other uses; and discovering and harnessing the infinite but (so far) elusive potential of nuclear fusion. None of them said they were planning to make weapons.

* * *

Pozzi lab, dual particle reactor

Hard at work on behalf of the Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation Group. (Image courtesy of NERS.)

Talking with them, I felt their hope and enthusiasm, noted their keen intelligence and well-developed sense of responsibility. Maybe I couldn’t trust the military establishment that I blamed for taking away my father when I was a child. But over the weeks and months of the class, I came to believe that these young students represented the future, our future, and they were truly people I could trust.

But whenever I talked about my newly developing point of view with my supposedly open-minded friends, they couldn’t seem to hear a word.  I could begin to appreciate the PR problem my students were up against — and why Ron had brought me in to teach them how to communicate.

“When I go to parties on central campus and tell people I study nuclear engineering, they ask me:  ‘Why would you want to make bombs?’” said one upper-class student. “When I tell them I want to make nuclear power plants, the reaction is almost worse.  That’s why I mostly stay on North Campus and study.”

Nuclear engineering students and their professors are eager to answer the public’s questions and listen to concerns. Ironically, though, when the U-M student chapter of the American Nuclear Society held a “Town Hall Meeting” last February, it seemed almost all of the 60 attenders were NERS students and faculty.

But the case for nuclear energy deserves to be heard and vetted — increasingly, even prominent environmentalists are saying that nuclear power has to be part of a mix that also includes solar, wind, and biomass. Numerous other countries are taking decisive action to make nuclear power a significant part of their energy portfolio. See (“A global nuclear renaissance?”)

As the debate over nuclear power continues, NERS students say they feel confident they can deliver improved nuclear technology that is safer than ever before, and capable of stopping climate change in its tracks. They know their chosen career will probably not make them popular to many, and they often might not even get the opportunity to explain themselves or their work to people who aren’t open to hearing about it.

But it’s clear they aren’t looking for praise or approval — all they want is a chance to help solve one of the biggest problems of modern times.


  1. David Krause - 1962, 1986

    Truly a breath of fresh air; a greatly needed perspective.


    • Madeline Diehl - N/A

      Hello, David. I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your comment. Thanks so much for reading my article, and I hope you will forward it far and wide so that the minds of more people might be open.
      thanks again!


  2. G.M. Freeman - Rackham 1950

    As a WWII vet and in Europe on VE Day our company was scheduled to be part of the invasion of Japan. No one will ever know how many American lives were saved by the dropping of the atomic bomb. Obviously we did not have to be subjected to fanatical people defending their homeland. Could it have been done with less loss of like? Who knows?
    I firmly believe that there is a future for nuclear scientists who are interested in the various peaceful aspects of employing nuclear energy. I applaud them.


    • Madeline Diehl - N/A

      Greetings, Mr. Freeman. I am so glad you were not exposed to the risks and horrendous conditions of invading Japan in WWII. In your comment you allude to the paradox that so many of us have trouble getting our minds around–the concept that we “saved lives” by using an atomic weapon that killed many people. Even though there seems to be no immediate threat right now that our country might consider using atomic weapons again anytime soon, I believe our society is definitely overdue for deep reflection and discussion over this issue.
      Thanks for reading my article, and for your service to our country.


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