Einstein Gala and Awards
I am delighted to accept the National Award of Nuclear Science & History, and I thank the Museum Board of Trustees, and the entire Museum community, for this honor. I also want to thank and salute my family—my husband, Dr. Morris Washington, and my son, Alan Washington, who are here. Without them and the support of my colleagues and friends through the years, I would not be standing before you. So, I salute Victor McCree, former Executive Director for Operations of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; my Provost at Rensselaer, Dr. Prabhat Hajela; my Acting Vice President of Research, Dr. Robert Hull; and Ms. Jenn Brock, Director of President’s Office Operations at Rensselaer.
I am very honored to follow in the footsteps of previous award recipients, including Senator Pete Domenici, who advocated so persuasively for a renaissance in nuclear power in the United States that we may yet see; Nobel laureate Dr. Murray Gell-Mann, the theorist who illuminated so much about the nature of, and interactions among, elementary particles; and Dr. David Kuhl, who saved so many lives by inventing and applying nuclear medical imaging technologies, especially positron emission tomography, or PET. There are others too numerous to name.
I am very proud to have served as Chairman of the NRC, which licenses, regulates, and safeguards the use of nuclear reactors, nuclear materials, spent nuclear fuel, and nuclear wastes—to have worked for safety in the civilian use of nuclear power, and for nuclear non-proliferation around the globe, while supporting our nation’s nuclear stockpile—and to have contributed to nuclear science and history.
Indeed, I am very proud to be serving on the United States Secretary of Energy Advisory Board under Secretary Jennifer Granholm. The Department of Energy, as you know, maintains the national stockpile of nuclear weapons, and is responsible for their integrity and safety, and for promoting non-proliferation and nuclear security worldwide.
To say that my work in the nuclear realm feels particularly pertinent at this moment is an understatement. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all of us have been holding our breath. As you know, President Putin of Russia has offered indications about the potential use of nuclear arms, including by what he has said, and by putting his nuclear forces on high alert in late February. After Russian forces shelled the Zaporizhzhia power plant—Europe’s largest—a fire broke out that, thankfully, has been contained without sign of a radiation leak. Russian troops have twice damaged the power line at the decommissioned Chernobyl site, threatening the cooling systems for spent nuclear fuel there, and now there are concerns about forest fires in the exclusion zone.
But, before I speak specifically about my own work on nuclear safety and security, please allow me to tell you a bit about how I got here.
I believe strongly that for each of us, windows in time open, and if we are prepared to step through them, ones life can change, and one can have a unique opportunity to do something significant.
A window in time opened for me, early in my life, due to the confluence of two transformative events in the history of this country. The first great event was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which led to the desegregation of public schools in Washington, DC the next year. Before the Brown decision, I attended segregated schools. This decision meant that I could attend a good school, right in my own neighborhood, with more competition, and with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives.
Like many scientists of my generation, I was influenced greatly as a child by another era of great powers tension. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, against the backdrop of Soviet demonstration of great nuclear weapons capability in 1955. This occasioned fear among United States political leaders and policymakers that we might be losing the Cold War. They responded not just by sparking the Space Race (which was really a science-based defense race), which, as you know, culminated with human missions to the moon. Sputnik 1 also spurred a new emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools, which dovetailed with my interests, and allowed me to excel.
I also was extremely fortunate in my parents, who emphasized both excellence and service, and who encouraged my interests in science. Although he did not complete high school, my father was mathematically and mechanically gifted. His father died during the 1918 flu pandemic. My father was awarded a Bronze Star during World War II, for improvising a repair, during the Normandy invasion, when the rudders of the amphibious vehicles bringing the supplies and the troops to shore kept breaking.
Of course, I also had the museums of the Smithsonian Institution right in my backyard, which introduced me to other eras, other lives, and new aspects of nature and technology, sparking my imagination.
I was valedictorian of my high school graduating class, and entered MIT, where I was one of just two African American women in my class, and received a rather chilly welcome from both my fellow students and some of the professors. When I first was thinking of majoring in physics, I consulted a distinguished professor, who advised me, “Colored girls should learn a trade.”
I was, of course, hurt that this great man thought so little of my prospects—especially since I had the highest grades in his class.
But I realized that I was faced with a choice: either to give in to ignorance, or to pursue excellence in areas of interest to me. I chose the latter, and made physics my trade.
As a senior at MIT, I fully intended to become a theoretical condensed matter physicist. One of the physicists whose work in the field most interested me, Dr. John Robert Schrieffer—who would soon share the Nobel Prize for the BCS theory of superconductivity—was at the University of Pennsylvania. I had been accepted as a graduate student at Penn, and was invited to visit.
As I was leaving Penn in a car with a friend on my way to the Philadelphia airport, the radio broadcast was interrupted, and we learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot, and later died. We nearly drove the car off the road.
By the time I got back to Cambridge, I knew that I would remain at MIT for graduate school. I was inspired by the courage of Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement, and I felt that MIT was the place where I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better.
MIT was an excellent place to study physics, but it was not as active in condensed matter physics at that time, so I changed my focus to elementary particle physics—an outgrowth of nuclear physics—a change that in retrospect, proved fortuitous. Without it, I might not have had the same opportunities in the nuclear arena.
I was, indeed, able to make a difference at MIT. I was invited by Provost Paul Gray, who later became President of MIT, to join a Task Force on Educational Opportunity. The Task Force persuaded MIT, for the first time, to actively recruit minority students and faculty in significant numbers, and to help the students adjust to its rigorous academics and culture. And Paul Gray became a great mentor to me.
After obtaining my Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics from MIT, I was fortunate to gain a postdoctoral position in high-energy physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in Batavia, Illinois.
In my first year there, a fellow theorist, Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who was visiting from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, persuaded me to spend the next year working with her at CERN in Switzerland. We collaborated on a paper on neutrinos—and I gained the invaluable perspective offered by time abroad.
After CERN, I returned to Fermilab to complete my second post-doctoral year and to decide what I could do next. Jobs were hard to come by in physics, generally, but they were especially hard to come by in theoretical physics. However, there were a few opportunities in my original field of interest—theoretical condensed matter physics—in industry, as well as in academia.
Another window in time opened for me. After an introduction to the head of the theory department by a physicist, John Klauder, whom I had met at a theoretical physics summer school at the University of Colorado, I was invited to deliver a colloquium at the Bell Labs. I described how my research, on the topological properties of solutions to nonlinear field theories, could be applied to models of condensed matter systems and won an appointment. Bell was arguably the greatest industrial research laboratory in history, and 15 of its scientists have been awarded Nobel Prizes. For much of my career at Bell, the Vice President for Research was radio astronomer Dr. Arno Penzias, who became a mentor to me.
What an exciting time! Dr. Penzias and Dr. Robert Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978 for their discovery of the cosmic microwave background—leftover energy from the Big Bang origin of the universe, picked up as a persistent hiss in the Bell radio antenna they were working with—taken to be the first experimental confirmation of the Big Bang theory.
Two windows opened for me during my time at Bell Labs that set me down new paths. First, I became a member of the Board of Directors of PSEG, or Public Service Enterprise Group, an energy company that owned or co-owned five nuclear reactors. Because of my background in particle physics, I was asked to sit on, and later chair, the PSEG Nuclear Oversight Committee, visiting its nuclear power plants often.
The second window was government service. I was asked by New Jersey Governor Tom Kean to join the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, as a founding member. The Commission created partnerships among academia, industry, and government, through investment in the research universities in New Jersey, in disciplines important to the New Jersey economy, such as advanced biotechnology and medicine. The position was unpaid, but required New Jersey State Senate confirmation. Two governors subsequent to Governor Kean also tapped me for advisory roles—also important enough to require State Senate confirmation.
We always have, in life, both witting and unwitting mentors. I am unsure how my name arose when President Bill Clinton was looking, in 1994, for a commissioner for the NRC. In fact, when the White House first called and asked me to send my resume for an unspecified position, I thought I was being spoofed.
After I interviewed for a spot as one of five commissioners, President Clinton offered me the job of Chairman of the NRC. Given my scientific background, government service in New Jersey, and familiarity with nuclear power plants, I was ready for this leap. However, it was, indeed, a leap.
Suddenly, I had responsibility for an organization that provided oversight of a multi-hundred-billion dollar set of enterprises, at a time of growing public concerns about the safety of nuclear power—especially in the aftermath of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine in 1986.
But, the Chairmanship of the NRC played to my strengths. I certainly understood the nuclear physics, the technology, the associated public policy, and could work through the complexities of the markets and geo-political environments in which nuclear power and nuclear non-proliferation operated.
I articulated that the NRC needed to reaffirm its fundamental health and safety mission, enhance its regulatory effectiveness, and position itself for change. So, I led the development of a strategic plan for the NRC—its first ever. I appointed a steering committee that held public meetings and listened to concerns from all stakeholders. The resultant plan, and the related planning, budgeting, and performance management system (PBPM) I instituted, put the NRC on a more businesslike footing—and still is in use at the NRC today.
We also put in place the first license renewal process to extend the operating life of nuclear reactors, after requiring all nuclear plants to update their Final Safety Analysis Reports (FSARs). And we introduced risk-informed, performance-based regulation at the NRC—an approach that used probabilistic risk assessment on a more consistent basis to delineate better the coupled safety significance of operating systems in nuclear power plants—which influenced the nuclear codes and standards of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers [ASME], and informed the nuclear regulatory programs of other nations.
This approach led to a new reactor oversight program—more directly linked to actual nuclear plant performance. Risk-informed regulation in the nuclear arena persists to this day. The NRC Reactor Oversight Program also continues.
There also was an important global aspect to my work, influenced by yet another important window in time that opened. My tenure as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission occurred not long after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Under the aegis of the U.S.-Russian Federation Binational Commission, led by Vice President Al Gore on the U.S. side, and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on the Russian side, the NRC was part of an effort to secure the weapons-grade enriched uranium of the nuclear programs of the Soviets, across the countries of the former Soviet Union, the so called Newly Independent States.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission worked alongside the U.S. Department of Energy to implement an MPCA regime (i.e., nuclear Materials, Protection, Control, and Accounting framework) to track the disposition of that nuclear material. For the NRC, this also meant licensing the fabrication of nuclear fuel from blended-down high enriched uranium sent to the U.S. from those countries—to be used in commercial power reactors. It also meant helping the Newly Independent States properly store spent nuclear fuel from Soviet-designed reactors. The NRC also took on responsibility, under the START treaty, to license a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant to use up stockpiles of plutonium by creating mixed uranium oxide/plutonium oxide fuel to be used in commercial nuclear reactors.
The NRC also worked with the Newly Independent States to update the design basis of their Soviet-era plants, and to do probabilistic risk assessments to expose and remediate, as much as possible, the greatest design vulnerabilities of those reactors—such as the critical design flaws of the RBMK reactors of the Chernobyl type.
The NRC also helped to write nuclear regulations and train nuclear safety inspectors from the Newly Independent States.
My tenure as Chairman of the NRC coincided, as well, with the end of apartheid in South Africa. As a member of the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission, I had the great privilege of advising President Nelson Mandela’s government on the development of a policy and programmatic framework for nuclear safety, and of welcoming newly-appointed South African nuclear inspectors to the NRC for training.
Such sharing of knowledge across borders clearly is essential. Early in my tenure, I saw that the heads of regulatory organizations such as the NRC only met under the auspices of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] or the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development-NEA (Nuclear Energy Agency)]. I felt that we regulators had our own outlook and needed our own group to strengthen nuclear safety and response on a global basis. In 1997, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association as a high-level forum to allow nations to assist each other in promoting nuclear safety. The initial membership comprised Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. I was elected the first Chairman of the group and headed it from 1997 to 1999. The group continues today, with its membership expanded to include South Korea, and clearly, it is more important than ever.
At the NRC, we also pushed for an international Convention on Nuclear Safety. Initially, the United States Senate was hostile to this convention, but we did manage to get it ratified. The Convention continues in force to this day.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) continues to have an important role, not only in nuclear safety, but in nuclear security as well.
Four years into my NRC tenure, another unforeseen opportunity arose. In 1999, I was asked to assume the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute by its Board of Trustees.
Rensselaer has had a rich history—since 1824—of producing outstanding graduates, who have designed and built much of the physical and the digital infrastructure of the United States, and around the world. I saw that I could help Rensselaer to expand its research enterprise and become a world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact.
We created a plan for a renaissance at Rensselaer— The Rensselaer Plan—and focused on areas of research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century through investment in “signature thrusts” in…
- computational science and engineering;
- biotechnology and the life sciences;
- nanotechnology and advanced materials;
- energy, the environment, and smart systems; and
- media, the arts, science, and technology.
We also transformed our campus in Troy, New York with state-of-the-art research platforms that include the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, and the Center for Computational Innovations, which houses the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university—and one of the most powerful testbeds in the world for artificial intelligence applications.
We hired world-class faculty, expanded our academic offerings into emerging fields, and succeeding in tripling our research awards and more than tripling applications to our freshman class. Overall, we have changed “how” we teach (using virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) in AI-driven immersive environments); “what” we teach (new core requirements in biology, communications, and data dexterity; plus 25 new academic degree programs); and student pathways through the university (co-terminal BS/MS degrees; The Arch: acceleration of the junior year, followed by time away; Accel, Accel+ (3 year BS degree tracks, plus co-term).
Our focus at Rensselaer on energy and the environment, of course, includes nuclear energy. We have one of the oldest nuclear engineering programs in the nation, dating back to 1960—and our graduate program is ranked very high nationally. Today, our faculty and students are forwarding safer, less capital-intensive nuclear reactor designs—including advanced small modular reactors, microreactors, and integrated hybrid energy systems that combine smaller reactors and renewables—as well as alternatives to light-water reactors.
In taking on the presidency of Rensselaer, I nonetheless have maintained my commitment to policymaking at the nexus of science and security. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed me to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, where I served for over 5 years.
When she was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi asked that I serve on the National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community. That experience, among others, led President Barack Obama to ask me, in 2014, to serve as co-Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board [PIAB], which assesses issues pertaining to the quality, quantity, and adequacy of intelligence activities—an important role at a fraught time.
In addition, I had the privilege of serving on the U.S. Department of State International Security Advisory Board from 2011-2017. I also served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board under Secretary Ernie Moniz and co-chaired a study on the future of high-performance computing, including data-centric, neuromorphic, and quantum computing. Currently, as I mentioned earlier, I serve on the same Advisory Board for U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, and I am involved in other national security activities.
I also have kept my hand in other sectors, including serving on the boards of leading corporations and non-profits. I had the great privilege of serving on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution from 2005 to 2017, including serving as Vice Chair, and speaking at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Smithsonian museums were my childhood learning and stomping grounds.
Currently, I have the great privilege of serving on the Global Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy, and addressing sustainability challenges of global scale.
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we tell our students that technology rests on a knife’s edge. It can be used for good or for ill—and it is up to them to decide. At this particular moment, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are reminded of the most frightening aspects of humanity’s mastery of the atom.
But the good has to be acknowledged as well, and it includes a nuclear deterrence regime that has held for decades, nuclear medicine for diagnostics and therapy, and, of course, the low-carbon energy produced by nuclear reactors. That clean power may well prove crucial, if we are going to control carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.
There is much reason for optimism about nuclear science and engineering: Technological advances are making fission power safer and more useful in many different kinds of situations—while bringing us closer to achieving a net energy gain from fusion.
I am very grateful to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History for inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers with the history of nuclear science—and for encouraging them to dream about what comes next, the way that the museums of my childhood encouraged me to dream.
I am always struck by the words from a Whitney Houston song, “I believe children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.”
I thank you again for this signal honor.