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Once a physicist: Kathryn Jackson

Kathryn Jackson is senior vice president and chief technology officer at Westinghouse Electric Company, a provider of fuel, services, technology and equipment for the commercial nuclear-power industry, based in Pennsylvania, US.

Kathryn Jackson

Why did you choose to study physics?
I find it fascinating to understand how things work, and physics provides a fundamental understanding of so many things by blending how they work with the theory of why they work. The breadth of physics, from optics to astrophysics, really appealed to me. My favourite class was optics. I could see optical applications all around me and there were new technologies becoming available, like low-cost lasers, that had obvious implications for industry and society. Physics was not esoteric – you could see how it would impact on people's lives.

What did you do next?
I actually started my career at Westinghouse, where I worked on reactor-vessel radiation analysis for just less than five years. Then, in 1983, I earned a Masters degree in engineering management and moved away from a solely technology-based focus. I went back to academia and received my PhD in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University in 1990. After this I started working at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which is a government-owned corporation in charge of things like flood control and electricity generation in that area of the country. I came full circle when I returned to Westinghouse in 2008.

What sparked your interest in policy?
I had a fascinating experience at the beginning of my graduate career, when one of my professors said something to me like, "Once I get this computer code perfect, I'm going to be rich because everyone's going to buy my product."

And I thought, "Well, that doesn't sound right to me." As I began thinking about this, it became apparent to me that the context of how we design technologies and incorporate them into products makes such a difference to whether the technology is accepted. Having an elegant technology, while appealing to a physicist, is not sufficient to make that technology useful.

What drew you back to the nuclear industry?
As the nuclear-energy industry has developed over the years, there has been a focus on lessons learned and on improving designs to make the plants safer, more reliable and more cost-effective. But historically, the industry has not been very good at communicating these improvements to policymakers, so there is a gap between the technology's realities and public perception. I think we need people who understand the electric industry – which I do thanks to my 17 years of experience at the TVA – and who recognize that technology is insufficient unless you can be articulate about its benefits to energy security and environmental sustainability.

How do you tackle that gap?
I think there is a growing recognition that nuclear energy should represent a significant portion of a low-carbon economy. Compared with the amount of waste produced by a coal-fired plant, the quantity that comes from a nuclear-energy facility is very, very small. But the public perception of nuclear spent fuel is what matters. In terms of articulating the relative risk involved in various forms of energy production, I believe that the nuclear industry needs to become much more effective. We need to be able to describe the technology in ways that decision-makers and the public can understand. This is even more important in the discussions regarding climate change. Renewables and energy efficiency are important, but we need a baseload energy source that is reliable and carbon-free. Nuclear must be part of the solution.

What is the role for physicists in this debate?
There is no-one better able to talk about this than someone who understands the technology. My daughter is 16 and she is studying physics now, and some classmates started talking about nuclear power. Some said it was terrible; my daughter asked why, and it was about Chernobyl. She pointed out – because we have talked about this – that Chernobyl could never happen in the light-water reactors used in the US. The physics teacher was not aware of this. We have done our job badly if we cannot communicate to those who have an influence on the young people who are going to shoulder the problems that this generation leaves. Those of us who are fluent in technology need to be armed with data that can provide a sound basis for the trade-offs we need to make.

What is your advice for physics students?
The most important thing I learned – and it took me a long time to absorb it – is that the best technical solution is not necessarily the one that gets implemented. You have to take business and political realities into account, and this often results in the implementation of a sub-optimal solution, from a technical perspective. But if a technology gets used to solve problems, that is a win! So I would advise physicists to recognize that their knowledge is incredibly valuable, but to temper their need for perfection. You can do absolutely anything as a physicist, because you can not only understand the technology, but also put it into context and ask really pertinent questions. It is that questioning attitude that I think provides such value.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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