Above: Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director-General, together with recipients of the IAEA Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme and Lise Meitner Programme (courtesy of Dean Calma/IAEA)

Some 430 women, current and future nuclear professionals, gathered at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna for talks and interactions with senior nuclear experts, industry and recruitment agencies. The event, entitled “For More Women in Nuclear”, took place from 7 to 8 March in commemoration of International Women’s Day. It was opened by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi who urged other organisations and members of the nuclear industry to address the gender disparity of women in the nuclear sector.

The two days were filled with panel discussions, presentations and career talks. IAEA Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP) students and alumnae, and Lise Meitner Programme (LMP) participants from more than 100 countries exchanged their experiences and aspirations with opportunities for networking and making contacts.

IAEA says women are far from being adequately represented in the nuclear field. They often face barriers to enter and progress in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), right from their school years. According to Women in Nuclear Global, women comprise less than a quarter of professionals working in the nuclear sector globally, particularly in senior roles. With Grossi’s strong support, the number of women in professional and higher categories at the IAEA secretariat has increased from 30% to almost 46% since December 2019 when he joined the Agency. Grossi’s target is for 50% by 2025. However, the real problem is not in the IAEA but “outside”, he said in his opening address to the conference. “The real problem is the imbalance of the presence of women in the professional world, and of course more imbalance when it comes to nuclear and STEM-related professions.”.

He described why and how he had started the MSCFP and LMP programmes, which now had some 600 members. He stressed that this was just a start and that the hundreds of participants in these programmes needed to grow to “thousands and tens of thousands”. He said: “It’s always about the next step and we are not going to stop here.” He told the conference that the nuclear industry was growing and it was the right time become involved. The industry, which currently employed some 2.3m people worldwide would need twice that number. “We need you. The world needs nuclear, and nuclear needs women,” he said.

High-level panel discussion

During the opening meeting, a high-level panel discussed how the international community can work toward breaking down barriers to better support the current and next women leaders in the nuclear sector. “Women need to be given the opportunity to actually see what is there for them in nuclear,” said Sama Bilbao Y Leon, one of the panellists and Director General of the World Nuclear Association (WNA).

“Be bold,” said Aleshia Duncan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy in the USA, another panellist. “Make an impression. Make a connection. Make a network and a tribe of people that will support you throughout your career. We’re telling the truth when we say we need you, but we need you to show up as your best self, knowing that you can do the job, knowing that you can bring your whole self, knowing that you can be who you are, and do the job.”

As well as Director General Grossi, the other panellists included Francisco Rondinelli, President, Nuclear Energy Commission of Brazil (CNEN); Mitsuru Uesaka,Chairperson, Japan Atomic Energy Agency; Byungjoo Min, President, Korea Institute for Advancement of Technology; Soheir Saad Korraa, President of WiN Africa and Professor of Radiation Molecular Biology at the National Centre for Radiation Research & Technology.

Career talks in breakout sessions focused on strengthening participants’ networks and leadership skills, as well as how the nuclear community can support women throughout their careers in the field. Senior nuclear experts and leaders shared their experiences and answered questions. Industry professionals had the opportunity to become acquainted with a growing community of women nuclear experts and explore possibilities to advance their careers.

During the event’s closing session, the IAEA and WNA signed an agreement pledging to work together to help place women in more professional positions in the nuclear sector. Participants of both programmes also presented their joint statement acknowledging how crucial it is to champion and empower women in nuclear science and technology, and that the field must become more accessible to women. The joint statement was the result of an innovative synchronous collaborative online methodology allowing them to democratically write and edit together their vision of how to attract and retain more women in the nuclear field before the event. Their joint statement pledged to support, advocate, promote and practice policies that empower women, ensure gender equality, and enable women to reach their full potential in the nuclear field.

The event also showcased the achievements of the MSCFP and LMP programmes and provided a platform to not only strengthen existing partnerships with donors, but also to establish new ones, ensuring the continued sustainability and success of both programmes for years to come.

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Programme

The MSCFP programme was launched in 2020 named after physicist Marie Skłodowska-Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and still the only person to win two Nobels in two different scientific fields. The Programme aims to inspire and encourage young women to pursue a career in the nuclear field, by providing highly motivated female students with scholarships for Master’s programmes and an opportunity to pursue an internship facilitated by the IAEA.

Selected students receive a scholarship for Master’s programmes in nuclear related studies at accredited universities. They are also provided with an opportunity to pursue an internship facilitated by the IAEA for up to 12 months. Scholarships are awarded annually to 100 plus students depending on the availability of funds. Consideration is given to field of study, and geographic and linguistic diversity.

To date, 560 women from 121 countries have received financial in-kind support to pursue degrees in the nuclear field in over 70 countries worldwide. Over 180 have already completed their master’s programme with the support of the MSCFP, and over 100 of the selected students have been confirmed for an internship facilitated by IAEA. The MSCFP welcomed its fourth and largest cohort to date at the end of 2023, This included 200 scholarship recipients from 97 member states studying in 54 countries, bringing the total number of recipients so far to 560.

During the conference, Carl Hallergard, European Union Ambassador and Permanent Representative to IAEA, announced the EU’s pledge to contribute a further €2m to the MSCFP for future cohorts. The EU is currently the largest MSCFP donor. “MSCFP made it possible for me to follow my dreams of becoming a radiological environmental scientist. After completion of my studies in the Republic of Korea, my aspiration is to use my skills to contribute towards examining the environmental situation in my home country,” said Zarina Salkenova, a 2022 Marie Curie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow from Kazakhstan.

“On this International Women’s Day, let us reform our support and commit to empowering women in nuclear science and technology,” said Zainab Kamara, a MSCFP recipient from Sierra Leone who studied Nuclear Science and Applications in the UK.

The Lise Meitner Programme

Building on the success of the MSCFP, the IAEA in 2023 announced its second programme to support women in the nuclear sector – the Lise Meitner Programme named after Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner. The programme includes professional visits to various nuclear facilities, such as but not limited to, nuclear power plants under construction, in operation or in decommissioning, research reactors and centres, scientific institutions, laboratories, industry sector and start-up companies. This is for early- and mid-career women professionals and provides an opportunity to participate in a multi-week visiting professional programme to advance technical and soft skills at host institutions around the world.

The professional visits may focus in various areas and typically lasts between two to four weeks – and possibly longer in some host countries – gathering 10 to 15 visiting professionals per cohort. The visiting professionals are not expected to bear any financial cost for participation in the programme. The programme is funded by extra-budgetary and in-kind contributions from IAEA member states and other donors.

“The LMP technical visits have been a transformative experience for the cohorts as well as host organisations, providing invaluable insights and fostering cross-cultural collaboration. It’s not just a programme; it’s a catalyst for professional growth and a bridge connecting diverse perspectives in the global nuclear community,” said Tatjana Jevremovic, an expert in the Nuclear Power Technology Development Section at the IAEA, who led the first two LMP cohorts.

The first visiting professional programme was hosted at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, USA in June 2023. The cohort had the opportunity to visit a nuclear power plant, research reactor, fuel factory, and research labs, among other activities.

“Attending the Lise Meitner Programme was an eye-opening experience,” said Simona Miteva, an LMP Visiting Professional from Bulgaria. “Witnessing the latest advancements in the nuclear field and engaging with industry experts has reinforced my passion for this industry. The programme has not only expanded my knowledge but also ignited a drive to contribute to the future of women in nuclear engineering.”

The second 2023 cohort took place in October 2023, and the visiting professionals shared their time between the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Idaho National Laboratory in the USA. This focused on strengthening the participants’ individual technical expertise, as well as nuclear reactor modelling, simulations, and virtual environment. Participants also had the chance to visit the nuclear research labs and computational facilities. The third LMP visit is expected to later in 2024 in the Republic of Korea and will focus on nuclear power. During the IAEA Women in Nuclear conference, Minister Nobuharu Imanishi of the Permanent Mission of Japan to the IAEA announced Japan’s agreement to host future LMP cohorts.

“The Lise Meitner Programme was extraordinary. I got familiar with a suite of tools for reactor physics modelling and simulation. These tools are crucial to my organisation, for safety analysis of nuclear reactor structures systems and components during normal and accident conditions,” said Diana Musyoka, a Senior Environmental Scientist from Kenya’s Nuclear Power & Energy Agency. “I also enjoyed the mentorship sessions which opened doors to the careers and lives of women in nuclear. I learnt a lot of best practices that I am currently applying to advance my career in nuclear and to help other young women develop their careers too. The international networks created are proving to be very valuable.”

“Supporting the higher education of young women and their career growth in the nuclear sector is pivotal for the field. With these two programmes, the IAEA supports women at the most crucial stages: their entry to the field and, afterwards, their continued professional development,” said Mikhail Chudakov, Deputy Director General of the IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy. “We will continue to support women from all corners of the globe to fulfil their aspirations and contribute to a better world, through nuclear science and technology.”

Author: Judith Perera, Contributing Editor, Nuclear Engineering International