Laura Leay

Science Writer

September 13, 2021

Placeholder.png
Ep 331: Laura Leay - Science Writer
00:00 / 01:04
Play audio:

Shownotes

Jadwiga Najder
Hello Titans of Nuclear. Today with me, we have Laura Leay. Hello, Laura.

Laura Leay
Hi.

Jadwiga Najder
Tell me a little bit about your self, a little bit about your background. Where did you go to school? Where did you study? How did you start your career?

Laura Leay
All of my education has been in the UK. I'm from the northeast of England originally. High school I guess we can kind of skip over. I was pretty good at quite a lot of things and science was what really interested me. I thought it's sort of the thing that I can see has benefit to the world and it helps us understand things, so that understanding can really contribute to society. So I got my undergraduate degree from Durham University. As you know, I wanted to study, so I ended up studying natural sciences, which is pretty much whatever you want it to be. The degree I came out with was earth science with astronomy, which a friend of mine refers to as doing geology in space, two very different things. After that, I still didn't know what I wanted to do. I kind of stumbled across a Master's in what's essentially process engineering and process control, still didn't know what I wanted to do. A friend just happened to mention to me, there's this big site in West Cumbria that does a lot of science, you might want to take a look. That at the time was sort of just transforming from BNFL into the different organizations, Sellafield Limited and what was then called Nexia Solutions, which is now the National Nuclear Laboratory, and got an interview, got the job, and that was it. That's how I got into nuclear.

Jadwiga Najder
Okay, and what did you- what were you doing at the Nuclear National Laboratory?

Laura Leay
I was working on the vitrification test rig, which is a full-scale, inactive version of the active lines that process the high-level waste. Because it was doing experiments into how to improve the process and looking at different scenarios, you wouldn't really want to do that on something that is radioactive. Because in an experiment, although you can predict what the outcome is, you never know for sure, right? That's why you're doing the experiment. It was an inactive facility using inactive, non-radioactive stimulants of the high-level waste to look at different factors that affect the process. I was a technical support officer. I was trained to work on shifts. Turns out I wasn't very good at that, because a 12-hour shift and sometimes they're overnight. And I'm not good with different sleep patterns. I was also analyzing a lot of plant data and writing reports talking about how the plant performed under different conditions. The purpose of the plant is to turn the high-level waste from a liquid into a solid glassy waste form, so some reports about what that glass was like as well as a product, how durable was it? Whether it was a glass or not, that sort of thing?

Jadwiga Najder
Okay, and you said you were working with inactive substances, also. As I understand it well, it was supposed to be a mock-up of the real waste so that you can develop a technology that is the most optimal for the actual wastes.

Laura Leay
Yeah, that's right. It was chemically similar and all the elements that would only be radioactive were sort of taken out of that simulant in the non-radioactive elements of pro rata dope.

Jadwiga Najder
And even though the substances were not radioactive, what was the regime in the in the laboratory? Was it following the standard nuclear industry practices? Or was it a bit more relaxed? These were not dangerous elements.

Laura Leay
Because it was on a nuclear license site, even though we weren't dealing with radioactivity, we still had to follow the same procedures. It was still very stringent. And everything you did was quality checked. Everything you did you have to be trained for. Yeah, it was exactly the same as if you were working with radioactive material. The only difference was you could actually physically handle this stuff. You weren't behind shielding.

Jadwiga Najder
Alright. So this was your first job and then later how did it develop in your career? Did you use it later? Or you decided to try something new?

Laura Leay
I moved away from it for a bit. I did two years working for National Nuclear Laboratory. And then I was a safety consultant for a little bit. My reason for doing that was I thought I'd learn a lot more about the industry and I could sort of, again, use my knowledge to help people do things and facilitate doing things safely. But it turns out safety consultancy is really, really slow. I ended up being stuck in a loop of going through the same quality checks and never actually producing a document for anyone. That was sort of, in the eight months I was doing it anyway and I thought, I'm a scientist, I really like doing science. Maybe I should go back to doing that and stop doing all this paperwork. I started looking for something else and I found a PhD that wasn't even in the nuclear industry. I spent four years sitting in front of a computer simulating molecules. They were these polymers that are porous and they interact with carbon, CO2. It was looking at how they could capture CO2 from different processes. That was all sort of atomistic level modeling type work. Then from that, I was looking around for a job at the end of my PhD, like all students do, and came across a new lab that had been set up in Cumbria, working with the nuclear industry, but part of the university that I was doing my PhD at. They just happened to have a job opportunity going that apparently I was the ideal candidate for.

Jadwiga Najder
All right. So what is this job right now? Can you give us a little bit of detail to your current position?

Laura Leay
Well, so the job that I was doing - it was initially for two years - it was a knowledge exchange fellowship. Because the lab was fairly new and it was still being established, it was about doing short-term packages of work for different people in the industry, so doing experiments into radiation science to prove the benefit of the facility, so then more people would come and use it. It set up longer term projects. I did that for a couple of years and then that got turned into a fellowship that was for five years. My fellowship ended a few months ago, so now I've gone freelance, having had a career, having worked for other people for a bit, and having been in academia and seeing both sides. Neither one's quite for me, but working for myself probably is, so maybe I'll go my own way and see how that works out.

Jadwiga Najder
All right. Actually, this knowledge exchange position that you mentioned, it sounds super interesting. It's like an internal, like, inside of the industry, inside of the science and kind of a mean of promotion of your own lab, of your own facility. Is it really needed still in this time, the 21st century? I could imagine everything you can find on the internet and this kind of information should be very much available. Why is there still an interest to conduct such experiments?

Laura Leay
I think there are a lot of details that aren't quite understood all that well, so it's really digging down. My PhD was about atoms, was about digging into what those atoms are doing and how radiation interacts with them. Radiation has lots of interesting things that other processes don't do. You could heat something up and that will cause a chemical reaction, right? But radiation might cause a different chemical reaction. It's looking into all those very fine details and going beyond what we already know.

Jadwiga Najder
Hmm. All right. It's very interesting. Was it something more towards benchmarking or really defining some new edges in the sector that you are expecting?

Laura Leay
I would say that some of it was about something has been observed in industry and they can't dig into what it is. Again, if you're working with radioactivity on a nuclear license site, you're very restricted on what you can do. But in a university lab, it can take you down a very precarious route. You can look at more variables and you can control the variables a bit more as well. You've got more ways of looking into whatever process might be happening in industry.

Jadwiga Najder
All right. So you crossed several positions in the nuclear industry. You came inside, you jumped out, you came back. What do you think about the image of nuclear industry? What was your perception, being the safety consultant, being the scientist doing your PhD? What are your observations for the moment?

Laura Leay
When I first joined the industry, I knew pretty much nothing about it. Working at Sellafield site was my first introduction to how they do things. What they do is very, very thorough and very careful. And very slow.

Jadwiga Najder
You think it's based on something objective, or it's just like outdated methods that the process is so slow?

Laura Leay
I think, because they have- they're so cautious about everything they do, because of the public perception that nuclear is really dangerous. It just it takes time to get all your paperwork written and to get all your training done and to demonstrate to each and every individual who is coming into it as a newbie - like I was - has the skills and the knowledge to do what needs to be done. In contrast, academia is a bit more- there's a term called academic freedom, where it's almost like you can do what you want, but it's not quite what I'm trying to say, because obviously there are still safety procedures to follow. But you've got more free rein of the direction that your research takes. There's a lot more freedom. I think what I learned from the safety consultancy is there are many ways of doing the same job safely. It would be nice if people could just agreed with what you said you want to do is safe and you can get on with it. I felt like that's what wasn't happening on the projects that I was working on. That might just be my own experience. It's probably very different for other people, but that's what it felt like to me. I wouldn't say the safety was a barrier to doing anything, but it just it didn't fit my piece of work.

Jadwiga Najder
Alright, yes, I guess there is a certain profile of an employee that fits well in the nuclear industry, while maybe for some people may be a little bit, let's say, too rigid to continue working in this scheme. But what I'm wondering is, to which extent is it the problem of the, as I said before, outdated methods that can be maybe upgraded? For example, with the digitalization of the documents with, I don't know, harmonization of the process between the plants, between the between the factories, even just so that one well-developed method can serve in in different facilities. And do you think this could help permanently change this problem that you are seeing, or there is something more inherent to the nuclear industry that cannot be fine-tuned with these small updates?

Laura Leay
And I think the sort of technological changes, they do serve a purpose. But it also feels like there are a lot of people that are so used to doing things the way they've done, you don't necessarily want to do it differently. And I can see how that comes about. There's talk of an aging workforce, right? So people have been in the industry for decades and they're used to their way of doing it. And maybe they were some of the pioneers of the industry as well, so they have a certain prestige. Whereas there are people like me coming in and all new and keen to get things done. Hold on a second, let's think about this. Think about the long-term implications of what the young people want to do. But then equally there are young people that can sort of see that long-term view and can see that the industry could be doing so much more. But it's holding itself back because it's so used to this slower pace of work. It's more about, I guess, changing behaviors, and making people more interested in taking up the new technologies and exploring those possibilities and then doing the work to say, Oh, yeah, actually, that technology, having done all the research into it, that makes sense. We can use that technology.

Jadwiga Najder
Could this maybe - this update and these improvements - help to get more people to the industry into the science, which is always an issue or was a problem. Having not enough students, then not enough professionals. Professionals changing the industries, because of the, I don't know, burnout, or just let's say slow pace of the development. And how could this be helped with the improvements of the industry? How do you think?

Laura Leay
Good question. I suspect that it's the behaviors that need to change before the technology. And I think that will be very difficult to do because people I guess don't like changing their behaviors. I think everyone's a bit stuck in their ways. And they don't necessarily like having to learn a new way of doing things. I mean, there are definitely things I do in my work that I know probably take me longer than they should but I'm so used to doing it. And it seems like it will take me longer to learn something new that I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing. It's not the main focus of what I'm currently working on.

Jadwiga Najder
Oh yes, the development is an effort, that's for sure. And I guess, using what already works is very tempting. However, I also think that the generations are changing. With the new generation, there is always some freshness that is coming and the new skills that were not familiar- that former generations we're not familiar with. I guess this may help a little bit to update these behaviors and to look a little bit outside of the bubble, also. Because what I really spotted in the latest piece that you wrote was that this attitude of the employees, of the whole industry - most of their executives, because the employees are just executing the recommendations or the orders, the procedures from a higher level - is it's actually being projected to the general public through the image that the nuclear is creating of itself through this identity that it holds in inside of the industry. Could you develop it a little bit? Tell us a bit more about this idea.

Laura Leay
Yeah, so I guess this sort of stemmed from the work that I've done with radiation. It's a very different way of working with radiation in a university laboratory to how you'd work with it on a nuclear license site, in that we were using sealed sources and it was well-controlled. And some of the sources were from a particle accelerator that we can turn off and turn on, not just a source that's sitting there constantly emitting radiation. But I think, for quite a long time, the nuclear industry has not really talked about what it's doing and it's not made it clear to people outside of the industry what it's doing, what the hazards are. And it creates this sense of fears. It's something that you don't know, that's a bit scary.

Jadwiga Najder
The fact that the nuclear is not talking, is not transparent towards the general public, this is what creates this whole gap in understanding between what we know inside of the bubble and what is known outside of the bubble.

Laura Leay
Yeah, yeah. And I think there are a lot of people that like- well, the gen- people don't really need to know what we're doing, we just would get on and do it. But I think that if you have the support of the people who ultimately you're doing this work for, then it will be a lot easier to do your job will be more recognition for it. And I think it will feel a lot more comfortable to do something that you know, that the vast majority of the general public is on board with, rather than saying to people, Oh, as a new scientist, I'll come work in the nuclear industry. There is some really interesting science going on. And people are like, But isn't that a bit dangerous? But is it any more dangerous than any other industries? Do you understand how different it is to the other industries, if it's different at all? Are there just things that are no more dangerous? They're just portrayed differently?

Jadwiga Najder
What do you think about the fact that people do not understand nuclear enough, the nuclear industry what it's doing. Who should actually educate them? Is it schools? Is it the industry itself? Is it the scientists? Who bears this responsibility for the good education of our neighbors, of our families, of friends that are coming to us and are giving these insane arguments?

Laura Leay
I mean, so I'm a scientist, I'm curious. I would say it's down to the individual to seek out information that is backed up by a lot of people and people that have worked on that for long enough to have some sort of authority on the subject. For example, I keep saying to people, I'm not a chemist, so don't ask me about chemistry, I can give you my best guess. But if you want to know about chemistry, speak to someone who has studied chemistry. They understand key principles that they will need to be able to tell you about. I think it's down to everyone to do that digging for themselves. And I appreciate so many things going on in your life. The nuclear industry isn't forefront in your mind, right? You might have other things you'd want to look at. But then the nuclear industry could have a lot of benefit to society, so maybe it's one of the things people should focus on a bit more. And then, therefore, maybe it is a sort of thing that should be talked about in schools or maybe portrayed in the media in a more holistic way.

Jadwiga Najder
Yeah, yeah. Because what I'm scared about is that we can't really trust people's curiosity. We cannot trust that everybody has the same level of curiosity as the curious people. And what I see more and more, my friends and well, generally people around me is that they only know what they see, what falls on them from the media, from the internet. They do not look for it. They just react to it. This way, the only information they will have about this topic is what they see in the news, what they heard somewhere, I don't know, maybe in the physics class, but maybe it's clear to them more than or made them more bored than interested. And so they do not dig further. For this reason, I guess, more effort should be put to really establishing how to inform public. Because, as you said, nuclear has a benefit to the society, just the society doesn't realize it. It's just shooting its own foot at some point while going really- not even being neutral, but like being negative, and influencing politicians further. The cycle goes on. What do you see the- who should be actually focusing on the information to the public? Should this be a systemic change? Or should this be every company on its own to its local people around the power plant? Or maybe the industry should pay for some large scale? I don't know, billboards that are encouraging people to dig further.

Laura Leay
Ah, yeah, that's a tricky one to answer, isn't it? Because obviously, if it's the industry that's paying for the advertising, you could just say, Well, that's just propaganda. Of course they're going to say that. Of course they're going to want people to buy into their own technology, because they stand to gain from it. I guess maybe one solution is to find people that are more impartial and seen as being impartial and find some advocates that don't have an agenda. I heard in a podcast I was recently producing - I think an audience member mentioned, it might have been after the episode was recorded - they said that someone like Greta Thunberg is probably a good example of someone that's impartial, because she's quite young and she obviously doesn't have an agenda, as someone who's been around for 40 years, worked in industry for all that time, would have to push on people. Maybe the younger voices have more to contribute.

Jadwiga Najder
Yeah, that's what I totally agree with. And I can see more and more- this makes me happy actually, to see more and more young NGOs who just start being a group of friends and then organize themselves and just become a front of the communication about nuclear. However, I guess, what is always the problem is the funding and how to make this organization alive, how to pay these people to do not pay their bills while they are working for the benefit of the community.

Laura Leay
I'm sorry, was there a question there? If there was, I didn't quite hear it.

Jadwiga Najder
It was rather a remark. But as we go on, one thing that I really got interested in, among your observations in the article and in the pieces that you create, was the remark that nuclear is not an industry that is special in its concerns in its safety regards and its interests to stay afloat while the public is going against it. Which industries shared the same fate as nuclear in your opinion?

Laura Leay
I actually honestly don't know how the safety record of the nuclear industry compares to other industries. I think some of the things I was thinking about when I wrote that piece was, I'm a cyclist. I spend a lot of time on a mountain bike or on a road bike. And a lot of people say that cycling is dangerous. But to me, it's not. I've never been knocked off my bike. I've never had a serious accident. I've maybe grazed my knee on a mountain bike occasionally, doing something I possibly shouldn't have. But to me, cycling isn't dangerous. But a lot of people that aren't as familiar with it would say that it is. I do know people that have been knocked off their bikes, but I think sometimes it comes down to how you react to a situation and what's going on around you. It depends on where you're doing that thing. I think it's more about this perception that one industry is more dangerous or more difficult than another. But that may not be the case.

Jadwiga Najder
One example that I could think of that I actually see quite often and being compared to the nuclear industry is the aviation industry. We work quite a lot on the examples from the aviation industry. But what I always see is trying to draw conclusions from the accidents, trying to analyze the human factor in them, trying to analyze the technological part. But I don't see much of the examples of the industries that where in this misery, where in this image crisis, or they got out that they managed to communicate efficiently enough to be perceived as not even saved, but an industry that does not raise concerns on everyday basis to the general public. Is there an industry that managed to do this? And can you think of any example of like, efficient communication that nuclear is missing that could be drawn as a conclusion from somebody else?

Laura Leay
You often hear it said that, if you keep talking about safety, and how safer a thing is, people will question why you're doing that. And it sort of raises this idea in your mind that it is unsafe, because people keep focusing on safety. I do wonder if simply talking about the benefits and acknowledging that there are some hazards associated with an industry - which may be the same as another industry, but they may not be - but simply stating that I can see that people may be concerned about this. Here are the facts. And here are the benefits as well, would allow people to weigh things up a bit more. I don't think any industry is without its challenges. No technology is perfect, right? I guess is what I'm saying. Everything has its plus points and its minus points. Yes, renewables are probably quite a good example of where they've sort of explained the benefits and sort of suggested it's almost free energy, but without explaining the technology. And without explaining that, no one really knows how to dispose of that technology at the end of life, because it's relatively new technology compared to something like a car or a nuclear reactor. That sort of forward thinking should maybe be talked about a little bit more. If renewables are saying, Yes, we can solve this problem. And look, this is what happens when a piece of our technology gets to the end of its life and here's how we responsibly manage our waste, that would be a similar story to what nuclear is saying, Here's how we responsibly manage our waste. Not many other industries talk about that.

Jadwiga Najder
No, that's true. And I guess this is one of the topics that are mostly raised by the general public, by people that you just talk to on an everyday basis. And when you tell them, Well, I work in the nuclear industry or in the nuclear science, one of the first questions is, what about the waste? People just don't really have the information that is written in a vocabulary, in a simple manner that can explain them with their level of understanding, without the years of studying, without the years of experience in the industry. And I guess there are so many topics in nuclear that have the same problem and that's our concern for people. Do you think that there is a part that is played by the history of how the nuclear started, the nuclear weapons and the Cold War that is still in the minds of people that nuclear is so concerning for them?

Laura Leay
Possibly. I think I only really learned about the history because I'm in the industry. But you hear that there are sort of- there are ideas that pop up in social consciousness that you don't really know where they came from. I guess, I mean, for example, the Godzilla films. I didn't know that they were based on this idea of radiation that was bringing this fictitious creature out of the depths because we were suddenly using radiation. And I think people are sort of, they get the impression something is a certain way. But you don't really stop to question why, because it's inherent in the language that we use. That's a very vague answer, but I don't- it's not really, it's not a science that I'm familiar with, how language shapes how we view the world.

Jadwiga Najder
As we are slowly wrapping up, what I would be super interested in is what you would like to see in the coming three to five years to change inside of the industry, maybe outside of the industry, so that these concerns that we just raised and they have a bit of the concerns that the public has that are not always founded. Go a little bit to the positive sides and say, they either get solved or they get better understood.

Laura Leay
I think, as an aim for the industry, it would be nice to see a commitment from government for new nuclear reactors to be built. There's been a lot of talk about it for a very long time. Exactly what technology we're going to build seems to keep being uncertain. It would be really nice if government said, This is how much capacity we need. This is the technology we're interested in. We will supply this funding to allow it to happen, within the UK anyway. That would be a good solution. And I guess the other thing is having a community step forward to volunteer to host the geological disposal facility would make a huge difference. There are so many scientists and engineers putting so much effort into trying to build safety arguments with so many unknowns, because we don't know where the repository will be based. It would make such a huge difference. I can't even begin to describe how many scientists would suddenly go, We know what we're doing now, we can get on and do it. It would be like a revolution, I think. I know so many colleagues would probably have a party if they knew what sort of geology we were going to build the GDF in.

Jadwiga Najder
Yeah, totally. Do you think that the governments are not really committing enough in this moment? Or they do, but they need to do more because of the kind of crisis that we are in right now? Especially with the latest IPCC report, I guess everybody's really focusing on this problem in this moment.

Laura Leay
I think a lot of industries are in the same boat in that respect, that it always seems like it's the individual and the companies that have to put all this effort into making change happen. And government will kind say something or say, We should be doing this. But they don't say, We need to do this and this is how we'll do it. There's no definitive plan for how, as a nation, we'll get from where we are now, to the targets that we need to achieve. So yeah, I think, I feel like government could be doing more. I suspect, not being in government, there may be more to it. But it would be nice to have that certainty of knowing this is what we're working towards and this is how we need to achieve it.

Jadwiga Najder
Yeah, with the latest timescale that was shown in the IPCC report, I guess there's really no time to waste. So no technology that is low carbon, low emissive, and capable of providing the electricity for the electrification of the cars that need to be phased out, if they use petro, for preserving our lifestyle, even though we need to remove emissions. This is, I guess, really crucial and the climate change will not wait for us to decide whether nuclear has a good image or not or whether we are able to improve our methodologies. Thank you very much. It was amazing to talk to you and I hope that you enjoyed the conversation as well.

Laura Leay
It's nice to meet you, too. Thanks for inviting me onto this. It's been enjoyable.

Titans Logo_2020.png