Since 2014, William D. Magwood, IV has held the role of Director-General at the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), an intergovernmental agency under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). As we commemorate Black History Month, we talk to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) former Director of Nuclear Energy about his professional journey from Pittsburgh to Paris.
1) How did you become interested in nuclear?
For me, it goes back to when I was in high school [in Pittsburgh]. I had the opportunity to participate in the Westinghouse Science Honors Institute program, where they took 200 top science students and put them in a lecture hall every Saturday morning for several months. Most were high school seniors, but I was a sophomore. I took three buses to get there and still have my notebooks! We had lectures on super-conductivity, polymers, and many other topics. One presentation was on nuclear energy – so I paid a lot of attention to that. I went back to Westinghouse after my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon [University] and worked at the company’s research and development center – but realized lab work wasn’t what I wanted to do. I ultimately ended up at a trade association for electrical utilities and stayed in nuclear. When I moved to Washington and started getting involved in policy, it all began to resonate. At age 27, I was in charge of nuclear fuel policies and the utility research policy program. Then I had the opportunity to move into government. Though I didn’t set out to do this, it’s been a very interesting time spent doing different things.
2) You’re the longest-serving head of the United States' civilian nuclear technology program, serving two presidents and five Secretaries of Energy. How have your roles and responsibilities in the nuclear energy space evolved from your time at DOE to your current position with the OECD?
When the opportunity came to run the Office of Nuclear Energy, the program had more or less collapsed. We had no funding for any research programs, so this was a period where we started from zero. But we developed a Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, led by former University of Michigan President James J. Duderstadt, and together we laid out plans about what we needed to do in the short- and long-term. Because we had very little money in 1998, I emphasized international engagements – this is when we created the Generation IV International Forum. Also at the time, we got really interested in education. In the mid-90s, the number of students in nuclear engineering had dropped dramatically. But we worked with Congress to create scholarship opportunities and programs and turned the situation around almost immediately. In Paris, I find a lot of the same sorts of issues – seeing students without opportunities. So we launched the Nuclear Education Skills and Technology Framework (NEST), which is an international agreement to have research cooperation among signatory countries in which university students do the work. With this, kids in the U.S. can work with kids in Japan, and kids in Russia work with kids in Germany. This is part of the picture, and we’re hoping to pull in some of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ (HBCU) students from the U.S.
3) You mention Historically Black Colleges and Universities; tell us more about your efforts to expand nuclear programs for minority institutions.
When I was at DOE, we developed a partnership program, matching HCBUs with big universities with engineering programs. For example, South Carolina State University (SCSU) was working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We developed agreements, so students at South Carolina State could spend four years getting their degree at SCSU, then spend a year at Wisconsin and get a Wisconsin bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering. Wisconsin provided support and advice to SCSU and provided some tele-learning. It took a lot of time and work, but in September 2002, South Carolina State became the first HBCU in the country to boast an accredited nuclear engineering program.
4) How do we continue to harness the forward momentum?
The biggest element to success in every case was that women and men at the university wanted this [partnership program] to work. You have to have people at the schools willing to put in the effort and then you have to have partners on the outside willing to bring the expertise. You have to have the drive to do things like this, like a desire to build the future. We should encourage experts and leaders in any field, people from big universities to labs and industry to think about what they can do to help shape and encourage the people who will come after us. They should think about what they can do to open up opportunities for kids who wouldn’t have it; the benefits will be very clear.
5) Some folks may be surprised to know you have a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Has that degree played a role in your work as well?
I’ve had various interests over the years – from painting to studying birds – but I still appreciate the writing. I even thought about a fellowship program in philosophy. But once I left Westinghouse and headed to the [Edison Electric] Institute, the writing background came into play. They needed people who could take complex technical concepts and put them into terms everyone could understand and appreciate. Even in my current job, that’s an essential skill.
Magwood is Director-General of OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), a multilateral agency with 33 member-countries representing the most advanced nuclear safety, science, and technology infrastructures in the world. He has a distinguished career in the nuclear field and in public service—including his time as the head of the U.S. civilian nuclear technology program, Director of Nuclear Energy with the U.S. Department of Energy and later as a Commissioner with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.