This summer, I am going home to Jamaica, where I’m hoping to do for a small group of high school students what a teacher at my high school there did for me more than 20 years ago: spread the passion and excitement that can get a young teenager interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and especially, nuclear energy.
I will be running a one-week “Nuclear Engineering Bootcamp” for high school students at my alma mater, St. Catherine High School in Spanish Town.
The bootcamp is meant to help address a lack of accessibility to engineering disciplines in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. For example, the University of the West Indies, in Kingston, offers only five engineering programs: civil, electrical, computer systems, electronic, and biomedical engineering. But to prepare for a prosperous and sustainable future, the Caribbean will need engineers who also have training in energy, environment, and materials engineering among others.
The Caribbean needs local people to deal with its energy problems. But right now, if you study there, you likely won’t get the training needed to make that happen; if I had gone to college in Jamaica, for example, I would not have become a nuclear engineer, because that program isn’t offered in the first place.
Yet many parishes in Jamaica, including my home parish of St. Catherine, have on and off access to electricity, and sometimes there are island-wide power outages. In June, about half of Jamaica experienced a blackout due to the loss of multiple generating units from two power plants. Power unreliability is exacerbated during and in the aftermath of tropical storms or hurricanes, when power could be lost for days, weeks, or even months at a time.
The whole world needs carbon-free energy, to help address the climate crisis. And with vulnerable small island developing regions like the Caribbean on the front line, all clean energy options should be on the table, including nuclear energy, which can do much more than simply provide clean, reliable, baseload energy. To name a few, there is an opportunity for nuclear energy to be used to produce drinking water from seawater via desalination. Nuclear energy can produce hydrogen that can be used in agriculture to create fertilizer and for more clean energy. Nuclear energy can be applied to energy-intensive industries like cement manufacturing. Jamaica can leverage the new applications that nuclear energy brings to add to the export list creating multiple avenues to increase the GDP and improve the socio-economic infrastructure of the country. How? By exporting fresh water, hydrogen, fertilizer, and cement thus reducing existing economic dependence on tourism.
But to embark on a path that includes nuclear energy, Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean need to train local experts on how to safely maintain and operate advanced small modular reactors, following the rules of a solid local regulatory body.
Nuclear engineering wasn’t my initial thought as a career path, I first ventured in renewable energy research. After I took the Caribbean Examinations, the local equivalent of the SATs, and received distinctions in mathematics and physics, I went to college at Coppin State University, in Baltimore. There, I double majored in chemistry and mathematics, and explored greener ways to make solar panels. I experimented with dyes made from berries, to see which would let the panels absorb the most energy.
Although it is intermittent, solar energy is one of Jamaica’s key energy resources, but engineers have a long way to go to effectively store solar energy for long periods of time. Moreover, it’s not scalable and reliable, the way nuclear energy is. Variable renewable energy sources like wind and solar will need an energy partner to address their intermittency. Today, Jamaica and neighboring islands use fossil fuels to fill in the gaps created by intermittent solar and wind energy. In Jamaica’s case, that’s more than 80% of its fuel. And that oil, polluting and expensive as it is, is the good stuff; the islands also use some coal.
My journey into nuclear engineering, though, was sparked by something else. I was the president of the campus STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Club, and we hosted an event for successful alumni to come and speak. One was Dr. Nickie Peters, a nuclear physicist, who was from St. Lucia, another Caribbean Island. Dr. Peters showed how nuclear energy could provide access to reliable electricity, with no carbon dioxide pollution, in a way that could improve the lives of people in the Caribbean and in developing countries around the world.
He shared how nuclear energy is scalable, and thus well suited for an island, and can be used for desalinating ocean water, making hydrogen, in addition to making electricity. I later embarked on my own research, and eventually decided that nuclear energy was the rabbit hole that I wanted to jump down.
And I did. I got a masters and a Ph. D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Florida. My doctoral research was on alternatives to high-enriched uranium for powering research reactors. I got my doctorate on August 6, 2021, which is a big day on the Jamaican calendar; it’s Independence Day. (Jamaica became independent of Great Britain in 1962.)
During my studies, I learned that for almost 40 years, Jamaica has had a small research reactor, used mostly to create tiny levels of radioactivity into chemicals that can be used for diagnosis or environmental research. The reactor is called SLOWPOKE-2, for Safe, LOW-Power Kritical Experiment. (The Canadians who kindly donated it to Jamaica clearly tortured the name a bit to get the acronym.) It’s a handy tool, but we need a few small power reactors to supply the island’s power system, and we need people prepared to build and operate them.
How will we assure that such people are available?
I am the first in my family with scientific or engineering training, and I’m where I am today because of mentorship and inspiration. The Caribbean needs to provide that for more young people. This year’s Nuclear Engineering Bootcamp is a toe in the water; I’d like to expand it to an eight-week program, with expansion into various areas of engineering, for which the high school students could get college credit. My goal is a program in which students who go through the expanded bootcamp would be eligible to enroll at the University of the West Indies for a two-year, associate’s degree, and then come to the United States or the United Kingdom to enroll in a program in their chosen engineering field.
The hope is that they would return home to the Caribbean to start their own businesses or go to work in businesses that need those skills, and or to help establish a firm nuclear energy infrastructure to complement renewable energy.