Sonja Schmid is helping build a better future for nuclear energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy has appointed Schmid, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Science, Technology, and Society, to its Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee. The committee is charged with advising the Office of Nuclear Energy on its plans for nuclear energy policy and programs.

Schmid is one of 11 experts newly appointed to the committee. Each member comes from a different area of nuclear energy — including industry, finance, international relations, and reactor research and development — and each brings a unique field experience to the table. Schmid represents the social sciences perspective.

“I see it as an absolutely fascinating opportunity to work with colleagues from other disciplines,” Schmid said.

The new appointments are part of a shift in the committee’s mission. Previously, the advisory committee’s primary job was to evaluate past decisions and projects, but now members will actively advise the Office of Nuclear Energy on current initiatives. In Schmid’s new role on the committee, she will use her knowledge of history, policy, and safety to help improve U.S. nuclear energy programs.

Schmid’s perspective on risk communication in nuclear science was what first caught the attention of the Office of Nuclear Energy. In such a complex issue as nuclear energy, she believes, it’s important not to talk down to the general public or present situations as black-and-white.

“We must take seriously what people fear and what questions they have,” Schmid said. “We need to start from there rather than hit them over the head with numbers or statistics.”

Risk communication is just one way that Schmid explores how to keep people safe. She has also studied nuclear emergency preparedness and response throughout history, examining the actions taken after major nuclear disasters such as the ones that occurred in Fukushima and Chernobyl. According to Schmid, one lesson we can learn from these past crises is that even though severe accidents like these happen only rarely, preparing for potential emergencies needs to be an active process.

“We tend to plan immediately after a severe accident,” she said, “but then our concern tapers off and we like to think everything is going smoothly — until it’s not.”

Schmid also brings an interdisciplinary perspective to the topic of nuclear energy. Since joining the Virginia Tech faculty in 2008, she has been working with the university’s Nuclear Engineering Program to develop interdisciplinary courses. The goal has been to give students on both sides of the divide a more informed perspective — enabling social science students to participate in technical discussions about nuclear energy, and giving engineers a nuanced understanding of the history and sociopolitical questions surrounding the technology.

Schmid and her colleagues have produced a course, “Nuclear Nonproliferation, Safeguards, and Security,” which she has been co-teaching with Mark Pierson, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, as well as the interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Nuclear Science, Technology, and Policy.

“This appointment represents a significant acknowledgement of the important work Sonja has been doing in the areas of nuclear safety, emergency response, and non-proliferation throughout her career,” said Saul Halfon, chair of the Department of Science, Technology, and Society. “Sonja’s work has consistently bridged the technical and social dimensions of nuclear energy, and we are thrilled that she can bring that expertise into the center of our national nuclear energy policy.”

With such a range of experiences and ideas among the new appointees, Schmid looks forward to the discussions the committee will have during the advising process. She described herself as “humbled” to be part of this diverse group of experts.

“I am definitely hopeful that this appointment will bring unique perspectives to the committee’s deliberations, and we’ll be able to ask hard, critical questions,” Schmid said. “I think that’s the beauty of an advisory committee that has university representatives from different disciplines.”

Written by Mary Crawford