United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Speech-99-12: At the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Aiken Branch Annual Freedom Banquet, Aiken, South Carolina, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Chairman

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No. S-99-12


"Erasing False Lines of Limitation:

the Call for More Minority Scientists and Engineers"


Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Chairman

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Aiken Branch Annual Freedom Banquet

Aiken, South Carolina
April 23, 1999


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased and honored to be with you for this annual event, poised on the edge of a new millennium, a new era-a fitting time to evaluate the legacy we have inherited and the legacy we hope to pass on to the next generation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has a history of this type of self-evaluation, much in the way that an army general pauses to review the conditions on various battlefronts before redeploying troops. Over the past nine decades, the NAACP indeed has waged the Struggle on multiple fronts-in the courts, in the press, in the streets-with battlefields that have ranged from suffrage to lynchings to economic injustice to academic desegregation to church burnings. As we all are aware, the war is far from over, and the lines of battle constantly shift-discrimination takes on new forms, our insight deepens, we identify new areas of concern, and we develop new strategies for progress.

Now, despite whatever reports you may have heard, I am neither a general nor an admiral, but a physicist, and so this evening I am going to discuss with you a "battlefront" about which I can speak intelligently, one with a disparity to which I have given, and will continue to give, a great deal of my energy. This disparity rests on the comparatively low percentages of young people of minority background-and African-Americans in particular-who choose to pursue careers as scientists and engineers. Reports of the National Center for Education Statistics continue to show African-Americans lagging the majority in the receipt of undergraduate and graduate degrees in all fields-but the imbalance is particularly severe in engineering and physical science. While this may seem to be a very specific area of focus, I believe that a brief discussion of the associated causes and implications will demonstrate why this phenomenon should be of concern to the larger minority community.

To set the stage, I will begin my presentation by discussing briefly the role that science plays in modern culture-both in terms of its benefits and its risks-and the resultant relationships that exist between the government regulator, the regulated industry, and the academic community. I then will discuss the relevance of science and engineering to the minority community-why it is important that we understand and emphasize the contributions, both direct and indirect, that scientists and engineers make. I will close with a discussion of the steps which, in my view, we must take, if we are to erase the false lines of limitation, the artificial barriers that discourage young people of minority background from pursuing careers in these fields.

Science and Modern Culture: Weighing the Benefits and Risks

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, modern society has placed great stock in science and technology, as the source from which civilization evolves. Outstanding scientists have been placed on a pedestal, representing, for some, the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement-the embodiment of mind. Scientific achievement sometimes has been idealized, by viewing it only in terms of its practical benefits-how the resultant technologies enhance modern life.

As our understanding matures, however, we become more aware that scientific and technological advances often are accompanied by risks, and that those risks must be weighed against the perceived benefits. As a famous physicist, Richard Feynman, said in 1963: "This power to do things carries with it no instructions on how to use it, whether to use it for good or for evil....We are happy with the development of medicine, and then we worry about the number of births and the fact that no one dies from the diseases we have eliminated....We are happy with the development of air transportation and are impressed by the great airplanes, but we are aware also of the severe horrors of air war. We are pleased by the ability to communicate between nations, and then we worry about the fact that we can be snooped upon so easily."

I am sure that you can think of many other fields in which a balance must be struck between the benefits and the risks of scientific and technological advancement. One example is the field in which I currently work, which involves nuclear energy and other civilian uses of radioactive materials. As the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), I frequently make decisions that involve weighing benefits and risks. As a context for our later discussion, I will outline for you a few of these benefits and risks, and describe briefly the role played by the nuclear safety regulator.

The Role of the Nuclear Safety Regulator

First, a bit of history. The starting point for the commercial use of nuclear energy came with the passage of the Atomic Energy Act in 1954. At that time, the NRC did not exist. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), created in 1946, had the dual responsibilities of promoting the growth of nuclear power and regulating its use.

Over the ensuing years, as nuclear power progressed from an experimental technology to an established source of electricity production, concern grew over the conflict of interest inherent in having promotion and regulation vested in the same agency. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the rapid growth in the number of nuclear power plants brought a corresponding increase in concern over nuclear safety, waste disposal, and the role of the regulator. In 1974, the Congress abolished the Atomic Energy Commission and created two new agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, led by a 5-member Commission, with an exclusively regulatory mandate; and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), which later became the Department of Energy (DOE), with a mandate, among other things, to promote nuclear technologies.

In the two-and-a-half decades since, many events have added to the complexity involved in evaluating the benefits and risks of nuclear power. Events such as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the 1978 revolution in Iran, and the 1991 Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm have highlighted the vulnerability of relying too heavily on imported energy resources, and have emphasized the importance of energy security and diversity of supply. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island-a watershed event that cut across all aspects of nuclear energy and nuclear regulation-showed the need for profound improvements in analyzing the character and risks of severe accidents, and the need for more clearly spelled-out reactor safety objectives. Lastly, the ever-increasing awareness of the environmental consequences of energy use-including the 1970s focus on urban smog, acid rain, and other effects of pollution, and more recent concerns over greenhouse gases and global warming-has prompted ambitious commitments toward additional emission reductions, the development of renewable energy technologies, more efficient use of our existing electricity supply, and the continued operation and optimization of existing nuclear power plants.

As a nuclear safety regulator, the NRC is focused, not on promoting nor discouraging the role of nuclear power as part of the U.S. energy mix, but rather on ensuring safety through the implementation of a sound regulatory framework. Such a framework includes several elements: (1) the ongoing development of a set of regulations that places the greatest emphasis in areas of greatest health and safety risk; (2) effective and efficient programs for issuing licenses, inspecting our licensees, evaluating the results, and ensuring that our safety regulations are enforced; (3) measures to involve the public in our decision-making process-as well as public interest groups, the Congress, the industry, and other stakeholders-to ensure that decisions are as informed as possible, and that public confidence is maintained; and (4) continual self-assessment to ensure that, as regulators, we impose only the degree of burden necessary to ensure the protection of public health and safety and the environment.

The regulation of nuclear safety involves not only operating power reactors, but also other elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as gaseous diffusion plants, fuel fabrication facilities, the eventual decommissioning of nuclear facilities, and the storage, transportation, and disposal of low-level and high-level radioactive waste.

The NRC also has an evolving regulatory relationship with the Department of Energy (DOE), which includes interactions on such projects as: (1) the stabilization and remediation of Hanford Tank Wastes; (2) the classification of Tank Wastes at the Savannah River Site; (3) oversight of the Gaseous Diffusion Plants of the United States Enrichment Corporation; and (4) the possible licensing of tritium production in a commercial reactor.

An emerging project of particular interest is the DOE strategy for disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. Currently, the DOE plans a dual approach, which (1) would immobilize some surplus plutonium in glass or ceramic material for long-term disposal-a process known as "vitrification"; and (2) would burn some surplus plutonium as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in existing commercial reactors. The 1999 Defense Authorization Act requires that, for this latter strategy, the DOE MOX fuel fabrication facility be licensed by the NRC. As you may know, the Savannah River Site has been identified as the "preferred" site for these activities, including: (1) the MOX fuel fabrication plant; (2) the vitrification facility; and (3) a Pit Disassembly and Conversion facility, where the plutonium from decommissioned weapons would be converted to an oxide form suitable for disposal or for fabrication into MOX.

In addition to these activities related to power reactors and the nuclear fuel cycle, the NRC regulates a wide range of more narrowly focused technologies that involve the beneficial uses of radioactive material. Many of these nuclear technologies are less well-known, but have a substantial positive impact on our day-to-day lives.

For example, in nuclear medicine, radio-labeled compounds are used to diagnose and treat patients via intravenous injection, oral ingestion, or inhalation. In a bone scan, internally deposited radioactive material creates a computerized image of the skeletal structure of a patient. In a similar way, since the element iodine has a natural affinity for the thyroid gland, radioactive iodine can be used to determine whether the thyroid is functioning properly.

In teletherapy, a radiation beam delivers a precisely measured radiation dose to a defined volume of cancerous tissue, or tumor. In brachytherapy, smaller sealed sources are inserted into the body using an applicator, implanted directly into tissue, or introduced via an implanted catheter. For each of these medical uses, our regulatory oversight focuses on ensuring that the procedures and devices used both deliver the planned treatment correctly to the patient and minimize the risk to medical workers and visitors.

Radioactive materials also are used for a wide variety of research projects. In genetics, radioactive tracers are used as markers in DNA sequencing. Pests, such as tsetse flies, can be sterilized in self-shielded irradiators, then released into the wild to diminish the breeding successes of their wild counterparts. Low-level radioactive tracers can be used to monitor the metabolism and migration habits of a free ranging endangered animal. Radioisotopes are used to develop new strains of crop foods and to increase the effectiveness of fertilizers. Oil fields can be mapped by injecting the bedrock with radio-labeled steam. Studies like this warrant careful regulatory assessment of the impact on the environment and the risks to humans via food, water, soil, and airborne contamination. Once again, regulatory decisions focus on minimizing the risk while maintaining the benefit from radioactive material use.

In industry, radioactive materials have many applications. Industrial radiography is used to inspect the internal structure of manufactured parts and metal welds for cracks or other flaws. In construction and manufacturing, nuclear gauges are used as inexpensive, yet highly reliable and accurate methods of measuring thickness or density. Fixed nuclear gauges are used in factories to monitor production and to ensure quality-for example, to verify the level of soda in a sealed can. Portable gauges are used in agriculture and civil engineering to measure soil moisture and asphalt density. The food, medical, and manufacturing industries often use large panoramic irradiators to deliver large doses of radiation to sterilize materials or to change their physical properties. For example, medical supplies such as rubber gloves, cloth bandages, and contact lens solutions are sterilized in this manner. In each of these industrial applications, the focus of the regulator is to anticipate the risks, to require proper controls, and, by doing so, to ensure the protection of the public and the environment.

The nuclear industry is a good example of how complex scientific advancements generate societal "partnerships" that include the Federal government, private sector industries, the academic community, and the public. The elements that drive and sustain these relationships are complex and frequently overlap, but include: (1) the need for scientific and technological innovation, to enhance industrial, military, medical, or consumer uses; (2) funding to support the necessary research; (3) regulatory oversight of high-risk applications; (4) the demand for highly trained human resources in each of these sectors; and (5) the foresight to keep the public involved and informed.

Given this complexity of risk, benefit, and competing interests, you may understand better my feelings when, in 1995, President Clinton asked me to consider nomination to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and to become the NRC Chairman. My reaction was not, as some might assume, an immediate and unqualified "yes." At that time, I was a Professor of Physics at Rutgers University, and for over 15 years before my tenure at Rutgers, I had conducted research at AT&T Bell Laboratories and other facilities, working in theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics. Becoming a high-level presidential appointee, even if it meant heading up a highly technical independent agency like the NRC, was not exactly part of my pre-calculated career plan. In addition, there were other considerations. How would this change affect my family? How would it restrict my involvement in industry boards of directors, advisory boards, or various scientific councils? What contributions could I bring to the civilian nuclear industry through the avenue of nuclear safety regulation?

Finally, there was the question I would like to focus on today-a question I had asked and answered before, when choosing a career in physics: "As a scientist-or in this case, as a nuclear safety regulator, or as a high-level government policy maker-how will I be making a contribution to my own community?"

The Relevance of Science and Engineering to the Minority Community

The foregoing discussion of risks and benefits should make immediately apparent the relevance of scientific and engineering pursuits to the minority community. Concern over issues which some view as "environmental racism" demonstrate how essential it is that the minority community be well-informed on the risks and benefits of various scientific applications. Furthermore, to the degree that scientific or technological innovation is driven by consumer needs, the innovators must be in contact with the needs of the minority community or those needs will go unaddressed.

I frequently find it ironic that, as I travel to other countries on behalf of the NRC and our Nation, I encounter among foreign governments as many people with advanced degrees from my alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as I meet in the U.S. in the same period of time. Particularly in Third World countries, people see science and technology as the key to being players on the world stage. No contradiction is perceived, in those settings, between choosing a career in science and caring about the social progress of one's community.

In our own highly developed country, by contrast, young people of minority backgrounds perceive the need to explain themselves when they choose non-traditional career fields. These challenges sometimes come from within their own community, with questions such as: "How will your career in theoretical physics [or math or geology] be of benefit to African-Americans? With all that talent and brainpower, where is your sense of responsibility? Why are you not choosing a career that will make a direct contribution back to your community?"

I do not mean to imply that challenges of this sort are frivolous. However, just as discrimination and injustice sometimes take more subtle forms, so too I believe that we must take a more expanded, and, if you will, a more sophisticated, view of what constitutes a contribution to a minority community. Contributions can take many forms-some direct, some less direct. For example, where imminent social issues need to be addressed, the NAACP has attracted attorneys capable of bringing and defending cases, competent in drafting and promulgating needed legislation, as a way to redress social inequities. Career fields such as medicine, religion, and education also have been frequent choices-again, because of their direct contribution to the communities of their practitioners.

When an extraordinary degree of success is achieved in one of these fields-as in the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall-the direct benefits to the minority community are considerable and obvious, and justifiably receive high recognition. When we think of Justice Marshall, we think immediately of his role as "the little man's lawyer," his support of the NAACP, and his overall stature as a champion of civil rights. However, I believe it also is important to understand his indirect contribution to the African-American community-his renown as a successful litigator, his national recognition as an authority on constitutional law, and his appointment by President Johnson as the first African-American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Those personal achievements were of less direct benefit to the African-American community, but they were of profound significance in raising the standard of achievement as an inspiration for those who would follow.

One of the most subtle and covert forms of discrimination and racial stereotyping is the false and demeaning notion-not always articulated aloud-that minority group members do not have what it takes to succeed in certain fields. This way of thinking, in my view, has created what I refer to as "false lines of limitation" for young people in minority communities-a limited range of career options. When, in addition, social pressure is placed on a talented young person of minority background to choose a career that is "clearly relevant to the needs of the minority community," that pressure, in its own way, can self-perpetuate these false boundaries, by limiting the range of what those young people will view as valid models of success. In so doing, pressure from within the minority community can in fact reinforce external stereotypes regarding fields of low minority representation.

As a veteran of the private industrial sector, of the academic community, and of the Federal government, I can tell you, this country does not have people to waste. The present and foreseeable challenges facing the nation simply are too great for society to ignore or to undervalue the capabilities of entire population segments. In any of these environments, the added richness of perspective that results when we embrace diversity is no illusion. If the needs of minority communities are to be incorporated into the drive for scientific and technological advancement, then we need scientists and engineers of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American background who bring an awareness of those needs to the academic, industrial, and regulatory spheres. If we seek economic parity and equivalence in employment opportunities, it follows logically that we also should encourage our young people to pursue their dreams across the full spectrum of vocations-including careers in science and engineering. They must feel that there is no field foreclosed to them, no false line of limitation, no glass ceiling left intact. Every record of individual achievement should be a source of pride to the community, a message of hope and opportunity to those who will follow.

Erasing the False Lines of Limitation

In considering what message I might convey to you this evening, I posed to myself the following question. "As members of an organization devoted to ensuring parity for minority citizens, what actions can be taken to erase these false boundaries, these lines of limitation?" I believe the answer lies, first of all, in understanding the role of science and engineering in modern society, as I discussed earlier. The minority community first must appreciate the societal value of its own participation in the scientific and engineering worlds of academia, industry, and government. That appreciation, in turn, should stimulate the development of its own human resources, through a publicized recognition of the need for more scientists and engineers of minority background, and through actively encouraging our young people to pursue careers in those fields.

Second, the opportunities must exist, within these fields of study, to put training and education to practical use in careers worth pursuing. I believe that we have made progress in this area, and that such opportunities do, in fact, exist. The NAACP can play a critical role in this regard, by continuing to identify and fight educational and employment discrimination, and by applying pressure where needed-whether to a government agency, university, or private corporation-to rectify inequity.

Third, within each individual must be a driving force that compels him or her to take on challenges and to excel despite obstacles. Those who achieve a measure of success and recognition must take the responsibility as leaders in diverse fields to continue to set examples of vision, hard work, and ethical integrity. In addition, we must cultivate and serve as mentors to those who would follow. By so doing, we build communication networks, small circles of support and identification. It is only part of human nature that we feel more comfortable in entering those segments of society where we see others like us, and these networking and support activities can help to remove any associated barriers for individuals of minority background who enter non-traditional fields.

As you can tell, I attach great importance to erasing these "false lines of limitation," and to establishing new models of success in the minority community. My conviction is reaffirmed when I remember the barriers I faced as a young person, and I am reminded that each of us succeeds only by standing on the shoulders of those who have struggled before us. My commitment is reinforced when, after speaking at universities, young black women come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying, "Thank you. Thank you for saying that science is an acceptable field of study that will make a contribution to my community. Thank you for legitimizing my dreams as a young woman of color."


In closing, I would like to express my personal appreciation to the NAACP for its history of standing in the gap, for the difference it has made throughout its history and continues to make today. The history of the NAACP, like the history of the African-American people, in many ways can be viewed as an evolution of achievement. In the beginning, our achievements were achievements of suffering and achievements of endurance, because suffering and endurance were all we had. But we progressed from suffering to suffrage, to achievements of law and religion, achievements of education and rhetoric. We became known for our achievements in the arts-music, dance, drama-and our achievements in sports and athletics.

With every one of these achievements, we erased another false line of limitation, we expanded the circle of what it meant to be an outstanding person of color. Today I am asking you to champion, with me, yet another model of success. I ask you to join with me in the motivation, development, and encouragement of more minority scientists and engineers. I challenge you to erase another line of limitation. Thank you.

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