Sonja Schmid, an assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, has won a 2014 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development (CAREER) Award to study the prospects and problems of creating a global nuclear emergency response plan.

The catastrophic failure of Japan’s Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 was a turning point in how the scientific community viewed nuclear emergencies, said Schmid, who is based in the National Capital Region. Three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors melted down after the facility was hit by a tsunami in the aftermath of an earthquake.

“Up to then, the emphasis had been on prevention, not response,” said Schmid. 

Key issues to be addressed in her research are how to convince the world that any nuclear accident is everybody’s problem and how to mobilize an effective international response.

“Nuclear disasters don’t respect national boundaries," Schmid added.

“The NSF has a track record of picking scholars with bright futures for its CAREER awards,” said Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Sonja’s collaborative project is urgently relevant to the human condition with its policy implications for any future nuclear disaster situations.”

Schmid said her grant of about $420,000 over five years will give her the means to develop a research, education, and outreach program for the next generation of nuclear emergency responders.

The award, one of the nation’s most prestigious for junior faculty members, recognizes outstanding and innovative research integrated with educational components that support the mission of the recipient’s university.

Schmid’s four objectives are:

  • To create a global map of nuclear disaster expertise.
  • To interview experts with experience at incidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to learn what plans they followed and how they improvised.
  • To develop criteria for what makes an effective international response.
  • To write a curriculum to teach engineers and policy students how to respond when existing plans don’t work.

The fourth factor is the educational component of her work. 

“If the available tools fail, then what? This objective will teach engineers and policy students to think outside the box," said Schmid. "It will rely on scenarios, role playing, and simulations. The aim is to give students a handle on how to react when not everything goes according to plan.”

Schmid will partner with Virginia Tech’s Nuclear Engineering Program in the College of Engineering and the Center for Public Administration and Policy in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies for the curriculum development portion of her grant and in organizing a speaker series.

She will spend time this month in Vienna, where she will serve as an invited conference panelist on "New International Nuclear History, International Organizations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency." In addition, she will participate in the second meeting of the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group.

Schmid, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2008, teaches courses in social studies of technology, science and technology policy, qualitative studies of risk, and nuclear nonproliferation. She has studied the history and organization of civilian nuclear industries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and how national energy policies, technological choices, and nonproliferation concerns shape each other. 

Fluent in Russian, she has done extensive archival research in Russia and numerous interviews with nuclear experts. Her book, “Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry,” will be published by MIT Press early in 2015.

Schmid’s research has been supported by faculty grants from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment.

Before coming to Virginia Tech, Schmid was a postdoctoral Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and did postdoctoral work at Stanford University. She received her master's degree and Ph.D. from Cornell University. 



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