Grace Stanke
Featured voices - February 14, 2024

Grace Stanke

Nuclear Engineer and Miss America 2023

“Nuclear science is everywhere around us”

Grace Stanke, Miss America 2023, athlete, engineer and violinist, advocates for clean energy and breaks misconceptions surrounding nuclear power in her conferences and speeches. Recently graduated in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she is now transitioning into her role as Core Design Engineer at Constellation. This multidisciplinary engineer, considered the “New Face of Nuclear Energy” by The Wall Street Journal, explains in this interview for Foro Nuclear that nuclear power plants are necessary to have a reliable and emisisons-free source of electricity. “Nuclear energy is inevitable,” she concludes.

Having recently completed your nuclear engineering studies at the University of Wisconsin (USA), where do you plan to initiate your career in this field, and what are your professional goals?

I will begin my career at Constellation as a Nuclear Fuels Engineer & Nuclear Energy Advocate. I am thrilled to be working with America’s largest fleet of nuclear power plants to continue developing my technical skills as a nuclear engineer.

Moving forward, I don’t have a concrete plan of a long-term goal. I’ve thought about pursuing advocacy full time, perhaps staying in the corporate world, or possibly pursuing something in politics at one point. No matter where I end up, I’m looking forward to promoting nuclear science, establishing connections between people, and continuing to learn.

“I’m looking forward to promoting nuclear science, establishing connections between people, and continuing to learn”

What motivated you to enter the world of nuclear energy?

My dad told 16-year-old me that I shouldn’t go into nuclear. Naturally, every teenage daughter’s reaction is to do the opposite of what her dad says.

That’s what started me in nuclear, but what kept me there and made me such a passionate advocate was when I learned how nuclear was affecting my life in a positive way. Whether it is treating cancer, generating clean electricity, or playing a role in agriculture, nuclear science is everywhere around us.

“Nuclear affects my life in a positive way”

What has driven you to advocate for this technology at energy and environmental congresses worldwide?

A frustration in the lack of knowledge and support for this necessary technology is what drives me to advocate. Generation Z’s generational issue is climate change. Nuclear energy is a necessity to maintain reliable energy in addition to an emissions-free source of energy. I share stories, knowledge, and compassion surrounding nuclear to anyone who is open to having the discussion. I may not be able to change the entire world, but maybe I can have the conversation with one person who can.

You also promote interest in scientific and technical careers among young people. What are your messages in this regard?

Find your passion, whether it’s engineering, math, physics, communications, political science, whatever it may be, and apply it to a mission that you support wholeheartedly.

Grace Stanke

Regarding nuclear energy, what do you think are society’s greatest concerns, and what finds the public most surprising after listening to your conferences?

Society’s greatest concerns are safety and nuclear “waste”, which they commonly refer to as spent nuclear fuel. I use lots of fun facts, like the fact that your entire life can be powered by nuclear energy using just one soda can’s worth of fuel. Compare that to any other energy source, and nothing can beat that.

“Your entire life can be powered by nuclear energy using just one soda can’s worth of fuel”

Broadly, though, people are most surprised by the passion that exists within the nuclear industry. What makes nuclear as great as it is isn’t the technology – it's the people. I make sure to highlight this in my speeches at conferences and will continue to do so. When it comes to safety, I frequently use annual labor reports to compare working in nuclear to other common occupations. It is more dangerous to work in a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or bookstore in America then it is to work at a nuclear power plant. 

“It is more dangerous to work in a grocery store, fast food restaurant or bookstore in America than in a nuclear power plant”

After being crowned Miss America, how many kilometers have you travelled promoting nuclear energy?

I travelled approximately 280,000 miles (450 000 km) during my year as Miss America. I visited 23 states in America and 7 different countries.

It is very honest of you to say that what led you to apply to the Miss America Pageant was the option to obtain scholarships for your studies at the university. Is that correct?

This is correct.

Miss America, violinist, and nuclear influencer. A surprising combination?

Indeed! I also competitively waterski and love to travel and hike. One of my goals after completing my year as Miss America is to gain more experience in mountaineering.

A few months ago you returned from the Climate Summit COP28 where, for the first time, nuclear was included in the conclusions as a way to curb emissions. What is your opinion on the specific mention of this technology?

It is thrilling to finally see the word “nuclear” acknowledged at the international level, and at an event like COP28. While this isn’t the ground-breaking action that I would love to see, I am equally thrilled for the impact this can have. Nuclear power requires cooperation, and I hope to see these nations cooperate to ensure that nuclear power is an essential part of what achieves ambitious net zero goals.

Coinciding with COP28 22 countries signed an agreement to triple their nuclear share by 2050. Do you think nuclear development is unstoppable in the face of energy and environmental challenges?

I would call nuclear inevitable. It is a form of emissions-free energy that is simultaneously incredibly reliable. Because humanity is going to rely upon more and more electricity as we continue to electrify our society, we will need accessible, always-on power. A care for climate change also means a desire for emissions-free energy. Nuclear checks both of those boxes, while other solutions may struggle to.

“Nuclear power is inevitable. It is a form of emissions-free energy that is simultaneously incredibly reliable”

You also advocate for fusion, the star-like energy being developed on Earth. At what stage is it right now, and how do you envision its future?

Fusion is difficult to discuss, because it has been a decade away for the past three decades. I am incredibly optimistic, and I do believe it is the future of energy technology. By the end of my professional career, I believe we will have a working commercial fusion reactor on the grid in the world.

Spain has seven reactors that generate more than 20% of electricity. However, there are plans for a nuclear shutdown starting in 2027. According to this plan, the country will have no nuclear energy by 2035. What is your opinion on this energy strategy?

What upsets me is there seems to be no plan to replace the 20% of electricity lost, nor a plan to build new reactors. I strongly urge Spain to recognize the major role that those reactors play in its energy grid, and to ensure that they continue to capitalize upon the benefits of nuclear energy by building modern designed reactors.

“I strongly urge Spain to recognize the major role that its reactors play in its energy grid””

You live in the United States, a country with a clear nuclear commitment, both for the continuity of its plants and the construction of new large and small reactors. Is there interest among young people like you to work in the nuclear field?

There is a substantial amount of growing interest in young people to pursue careers in nuclear science. In the fall of 2023, universities across America saw an increase in undergraduate enrolment in Nuclear Engineering.

“In the United States there is a substantial amount of growing interest in your people to pursue careers in nuclear science”

You have had the opportunity to visit many nuclear facilities in the company of nuclear professionals. What did you think of this experience?

I visited a variety of nuclear facilities throughout the past year, in multiple countries as well. One thing that I greatly appreciate about the nuclear industry is that no matter what facility you are at, there will always be a plan in place. Some of my favorite parts of visiting nuclear facilities was the pre-job brief. It shows how even just bringing a guest in to see the site, the nuclear industry always makes sure safety is a priority. 

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