Nuclear Intern First Impressions

For the second post in our summer nuclear intern series, we asked our interns about their initial impressions of nuclear energy and how those perspectives have changed since starting their internship at Duke Energy. In case you missed it, you can read the introductory post here.

Nuclear Plant Collage

What did you think about nuclear energy before you started your internship?

Michael Tuten: While growing up, I always thought the concept of nuclear energy was incredible. It was (and still is) fascinating to me that such a tremendous amount of energy can be generated using a relatively small amount of material. I became seriously interested in nuclear as a potential career once my dad went back to school and began working at a nuclear plant. After hearing and seeing some of the things he experienced every day, I was ready to learn more about the industry.

Stephanie Teo: Having a background only in the medical field, I had taken nuclear energy to be an extremely rigid, strict and austere field. My expectation coming into the workplace was that all mistakes were unacceptable and missteps would be a sign of weakness. I also saw a great potential for a culture that humbled people young and new to the industry. Of course, this was all coming from a student with a very limited array of experience.

“It was fascinating to me that such a tremendous amount of energy can be generated using a relatively small amount of material.”

Matt Humphrey: Before coming to Duke Energy I really did not know much about nuclear energy. I was a junior electrical engineering major whose only work experience was as a co-op for a chemical plant. The only real knowledge I had was a vague understanding of how energy was generated. My friends probably had even less of a clue than I did. All they understood was that I had gotten an exciting internship with a major utility company.

Neal Dev: Before interning at a nuclear plant, my view of nuclear energy was mostly based on school teachings and media. As a nuclear engineering major, nuclear energy is of course the primary focus of my coursework, and I believe this helped make my transition into the internship much smoother. However, everything I knew before this internship was mostly theoretical. Media coverage of nuclear plants has been mostly biased and this perhaps skewed my initial opinion of McGuire Nuclear Station as well.

Charlotte Mader: Before I started my first summer internship with Duke Energy, the majority of my nuclear energy knowledge stemmed from the news and publicity regarding Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Most people I talked to regarding my upcoming internship joked about “glowing from radiation” at the end of the summer or “getting blown up.” I was curious to understand the success behind the industry despite such incidents. I have a few close friends in nuclear engineering at NC State and I quickly learned that I would not glow and it’s a safe and very clean industry. This left me confused about why there was so much controversy regarding this form of power.

Cooling towers at Catawba Nuclear Station (photo by Michael Tuten)
Cooling towers at Catawba Nuclear Station (photo by Michael Tuten)
Since starting your internship in nuclear energy, what stands out to you?

Michael Tuten: I’ve learned a lot since I started at Duke Energy in May. One thing that stands out to me is the company’s high safety standards. I knew nuclear plants were safe from the things my dad would tell me, but working here has allowed me to see it for myself. I always assumed that receiving radiation would be an issue for everyone working at a plant, but that’s not the case.

For example, last week we took a tour of the unit 2 Fuel Building at Catawba Nuclear Station. We spent about an hour on the observation decks, standing 50 feet above hundreds of used fuel assemblies underwater in the used fuel pool. The amount of radiation we received during that hour. Zero. It’s a good feeling knowing that as long as you pay attention to the necessary precautions, there is little risk of radiation exposure while working at a nuclear plant.

“I’ve learned that nuclear energy continues to have lower carbon emissions than any other energy source.”

Matt Humphrey: One of the biggest surprises I experienced when I first arrived was how extensive the regulations associated with nuclear energy are. While working at the chemical plant, it was not uncommon to get a design approved for installation in a couple of weeks. Then, I arrived at McGuire Nuclear Station and spent months getting through a design package. There were approval meetings and procedures for every step in the design process. The level of detail required was almost overwhelming at first.

Neal Dev: Interning at a plant has helped increase my understanding by allowing me to physically see many things we talked about in class such as turbines and pumps. Additionally, I was unaware of the number of groups involved in running a nuclear plant and how the various groups work together to form a cohesive unit.

Charlotte Mader: Through my internship, I’ve learned that nuclear energy continues to have lower carbon emissions than any other energy source. The safety culture is also extremely strong, which I see every day.

How has your perspective on nuclear energy changed?

Stephanie Teo: Since being at a plant about a month, all my fears have been assuaged. It has been an amazing time working here and I have seen my knowledge grow in ways that I have never expected it to. I have seen concepts from my general engineering courses come alive and those from my nuclear-specific classes become highly relevant. It has really helped me fall in love with nuclear energy and given me much needed motivation to continue to dive into my engineering career path.

Matt Humphrey: I have found that, although the regulations may seem tedious at times, they are actually very useful because they help identify potential areas where errors could occur. This greatly improves the quality of the project.

Neal Dev: Once I got here, it became apparent that McGuire has become an integral part of the community. Most of my friends who are engineering majors have realized nuclear energy is vital to the future of energy, and were also excited about my opportunity. My perspective has definitely changed since my internship and I’m glad I’ve been able to complement my education with this experience.

Charlotte Mader: Despite the controversy sometimes associated with nuclear, my perspective on nuclear energy has definitely changed after interning for Duke Energy. This is my second summer at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant and I continue to learn so much.