River Bennett portrait

Q&A with River Bennett

An interest in clean energy brought River to the graduate programs at NERS and ISD.

River Bennett portrait

River Bennett is a graduate student in the U-M Department of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences (NERS) and a graduate researcher with the Fastest Path to Zero Institute. This fall he will begin his Integrative Systems + Design (ISD) Design Science PhD studies. Here River discusses how his interest in clean energy brought him to NERS and ISD. 

When did you develop an interest in clean energy?

I was born and raised on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts where I spent a big chunk of time playing music and being on the water: lots of surfing, swimming, and sailing. At the beginning of high school, I developed an interest in the concept of “global development” with a specific focus on clean water and sanitation access. I was baffled by the fact that so many people don’t have access to these things at the same time that straightforward technological solutions exist. So during high school and college, I spent a lot of time focused on this issue through doing fundraising campaigns, internships, and coursework. My personal experiences and the case studies we went over in school made it clear that technological solutions without social considerations are rarely solutions at all.

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia in a small interdisciplinary program called Political and Social Thought. The program allows you to design your own degree and I focused on energy policy, ultimately writing a thesis on the political rhetoric associated with the concept of “energy independence”. 

Around this time I began getting more interested in clean energy, which led to my undergraduate thesis topic and a desire to work in the energy sector. When I graduated I shopped around for jobs in the energy sector but politics majors were in low demand at the time so I decided to pursue the next thing on my interest list, which was leaving the U.S. and learning Spanish. I ended up landing a dish-washing job and some subsequent tutoring gigs in Barcelona in Spain that provided optimally low levels of responsibility and high levels of freedom to explore and keep studying energy on my own time. This eventually led to reading publications about nuclear energy, including several by Dr. Jessica Lovering, that were really impactful. The potential of nuclear energy and advanced reactors resonated with me and at the beginning of 2017, I decided to pursue a career in the field by starting a post-baccalaureate to prepare myself for a graduate nuclear engineering degree.

What drew you to the nuclear field? 

It felt a bit crazy to dive head-first into the pursuit of an advanced engineering degree in an industry where I didn’t know anyone but so many signs from my interdisciplinary research pointed in the direction of nuclear energy. It just made too much sense when putting together all of the issues that I had studied. The beginning of 2017 was also an unnerving time to make that decision – I was two weeks into my first semester of post-bacc courses when Westinghouse declared bankruptcy. I had already made up my mind though to pursue this work and I haven’t looked back since.

What projects are you currently working on?

My research examines stakeholder and community engagement strategies used by non-nuclear industries that can be applied to the siting and construction of advanced reactors. I’ve found a lot of parallels between my current research and my earlier interest in global development in terms of the importance of community acceptance for infrastructure project success and sustainability. The social aspects of integrating new technologies into society have been traditionally overlooked by our sector, so a lot of my motivation lies in finding new ways to operationalize the development of healthy partnerships between advanced reactor developers and host communities.

I am very lucky to have a supportive advisor in Dr. Todd Allen as well as my sponsors—NERS and the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC)—because the research I do does not fit neatly into traditional nuclear engineering programs. That being said, I’ve already found a lot of ways that my research is relevant for projects that I work on for NRIC. NRIC is dedicated to facilitating advanced reactor demonstrations both at Idaho National Laboratory where it’s headquartered, as well as in other states where it supports innovators. Every part of the U.S. has its own unique nuclear history that needs to be renavigated today and community engagement programs can be really effective tools for addressing them.

How will the ISD program integrate with your other studies and research?

The Design Science PhD program that I’ll begin in the fall requires students to draw from multiple disciplines in order to “create, study, apply, and teach design principles using quantitative, qualitative, and analytical methods and processes.” This is an exciting opportunity for me because the direction I would like to take my research in incorporates not only nuclear engineering but also aspects of management and organizational theory as well as urban and regional planning.

Specifically, I’m interested in how teams of stakeholder engagement practitioners integrate into firms and how their value to larger organizations can be defined. For example, entities that are responsible for building infrastructure rely on engineering teams, accounting teams, and legal teams. So how can stakeholder engagement teams be designed and installed alongside these other teams so as to operationalize programs and tasks associated with stakeholder engagement and relationship building. Management and Organizations is an entire business school discipline that can address these types of questions. In addition, the architecture and planning discipline houses a lot of research and experience associated with how the public participates in developing our built environment.

Nuclear engineering is incredibly relevant because the most contentious episodes when working with the public tend to be siting decisions and the processes by which those decisions are made. Traditionally, siting has been based on the review of two things: a nuclear power plant’s proximity to and potential radiological impacts on population centers as well as the design and integrity of its engineered safety systems. Bridging the technical and social considerations of infrastructure location and design is a job that stakeholder engagement teams in other sectors routinely work on. I’m looking forward to finding new ways to bridge these topics in the context of nuclear energy.

What else are you involved in at NERS and U-M?

My primary engagement with NERS is through my role as a graduate researcher for the Fastest Path to Zero, which is an interdisciplinary team in NERS working to support communities as they plan and pursue ambitious climate goals. A lot of our projects are based on developing geospatial decision-making tools to inform siting strategies. One of my main projects with Fastest Path has been contributing to the workshop series that we’re calling the Forum on Nuclear Equity and Justice, which is an open-ended space for nuanced, diverse, and frank conversation about equity and justice issues in the nuclear energy field.

What are your plans or goals for the future? 

Over the long term, I’d like to continue working on siting and community engagement related to clean energy. Nuclear will always be a priority of mine but siting is a challenge for building any type of infrastructure: energy-related or not. Throughout North America, we’re already seeing very serious battles at the local and state level around who gets to build what and where. If we want to reach our climate goals while preserving democratic and community values, it will be vital that we develop new ways of partnering with communities to get 21st century infrastructure built.

Another topic that I currently work on through NRIC and would like to continue with is the application of advanced reactors in the maritime sector. There’s a huge opportunity for nuclear energy to contribute to the maritime industry’s climate and operational goals and interest in that sector seems to be growing exponentially. There are serious regulatory hurdles to approach first but I think it’s a place where nuclear engineers could really shine in terms of identifying novel solutions for the sector’s challenges.

Anything else you’d like to add?

When I started out the process of going back to school for nuclear engineering I took a buckshot approach by contacting the top 20 nuclear engineering programs in the U.S. and asking if they’d ever accept a student with my background. I don’t think I could have ever imagined at that point that I would end up in the top U.S. program and receive as much support as I have while at NERS. It’s a really wonderful group of people dedicated to the promise of this technology and I feel honored to be part of this community.

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