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Women and Nuclear Power

Monday night, I got to catch the rebroadcast of the documentary 'Uranium: Twisting Dragon's Tail' on PBS. I believe it aired in 2015 initially ( - Preview below:

Dr. Derrek Muller ( is a captivating narrator who breaks down the history, physics, and politics behind Uranium. Not only was it a fascinating documentary that answered a lot of questions about uranium and nuclear power, but was also the first documentary (that I've watched) that gave proper credit to women who helped and will continue to help with new discovery, development, and be part of the future of nuclear power.

Many know of Madame Marie Curie (1867-1934), but for those who do not, she was born in Poland, but a naturalized French citizen. Awarded the Nobel Prize for her achievements including the development of the theory of radioactivity, techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, BUT what you may not be aware of is the fact she was:

  • the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903)

  • the first person and only woman to win twice (1903 and 1911)

  • the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences (Physics and Chemistry)

  • and was part of the Curie family legacy of six Nobel Prizes

- 2 by Marie Curie for Physics and Chemistry,

- 1 by her husband Pierre for Physics in 1903

- 1 by her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie

- 1 by her son-in-law (Irene's Husband) Frederic Joliot-Curiefor Chemistry in 1935

- 1 by her second son-in-law Henry Labouisse for Peace in 1965

  • the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris

  • the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.

In 1934, at the age of 66, Curie died in a sanatarium in Sancellemoz (Haute-Savoie), France, due to aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation

Let us discuss the second Curie woman, Irene Joliot-Curie.

Building on the work of her parents, Marie and Pierre Curie, who had isolated naturally occurring radioactive elements, the Joliot-Curies realized the alchemist’s dream of turning one element into another - creating artificial radioactivity. By then the application of radioactive materials for use in medicine was growing, and this discovery allowed radioactive materials to be created quickly, cheaply, and plentifully. Irene Joliot-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935, and a professorship at the Faculty of Science in Paris. Irène’s group pioneered research into radium nuclei that led a separate group of German physicists, led by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassman.

Like her mother, years of working so closely with radioactive materials finally caught up with Joliot-Curie and she was diagnosed with leukemia. She had been accidentally exposed to polonium when a sealed capsule of the element exploded on her laboratory bench in 1946. Treatment with antibiotics and a series of operations relieved her suffering temporarily but her condition continued to deteriorate. Despite this, Joliot-Curie continued to work and in 1955 drew up plans for new physics laboratories at the University d’Orsay, south of Paris. In 1956, after a final convalescent period in the French Alps, Joliot-Curie was admitted to the Curie Hospital in Paris, where she died on 17 March at the age of 58 from leukemia.

Otto Hahn and Meitner led the small group of scientists who first discovered nuclear fission: the splitting of the nucleus itself, emitting vast amounts of energy. This process is the basis of the nuclear weapons that were developed in the U.S. during World War II. Nuclear fission is also the process exploited by nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

When she turned 21, women were finally allowed into Austrian universities. Two years of tutoring preceded her enrollment at the University of Vienna; there she excelled in math and physics and earned her doctorate in 1906. She wrote to Marie Curie, but there was no room for her in the Paris lab and so Meitner made her way to Berlin. There she collaborated with Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements, but as an Austrian Jewish woman (all three qualities were strikes against her), she was excluded from the main labs and lectures and allowed to work only in the basement. In 1912, the pair moved to a new university where Meitner had better lab facilities. Though their partnership was split up physically when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, she and Hahn continued to collaborate. Meitner continued her work in Sweden, and after Hahn discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons, she calculated the energy released in the reaction and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which eventually led to the atomic bomb (“You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries,” Meitner would say in 1945)—won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner, overlooked by the Nobel committee, refused to return to Germany after the war and continued her atomic research in Stockholm into her 80s.

Fast forwarding through Cold War era to Chernobyl, Fukushima, and the merit of nuclear power is a hot topic. As Dr. Derrek Muller mentions in the documentary, even with the dangers it causes, uranium and nuclear power save lives every day (radiology, x-rays, CT, PET...). Besides the development of nuclear weapons, the biggest danger of nuclear power lies in the waste of nuclear power generation. Now there is a new generation of scientists and engineers who are working on reduction and management of this waste.

The documentary interviews a 32-year-old engineer and Founder/CEO of Transormic Power, Dr. Leslie Dewan. Dewan co-founded Transatomic Power in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2011 and is the Chief Executive Officer. Transatomic Power is designing and developing a molten salt reactor (Generation IV reactor) that generates clean and low-cost nuclear power. In December 2012, Forbes magazine selected Dewan for their 30 Under 30 in Energy. In September 2013, MIT Technology Review recognized Dewan as one of “35 Innovators Under 35”. In December 2013, TIME magazine selected Dewan as one of "30 People Under 30 Changing the World".

Here is her TED Talk and Solve for X videos:

No matter what your personal view on nuclear power is, it is undeniable that it is the science that got abused by the human need for power. And it is also undeniable that there have been amazing women who developed this technology and many of them did not get proper credit for it. Now a woman is leading the solution to prevent another Chernobyl or Fukushima. As my wise friend Sam puts it, 'Women make up half the world, and that gives them just as much opportunity as men to save it.'

I salute all the women in science who paved the road before us.

I wish the very best to Dr. Dewan in her effort to get these plants built.

And I wish the world to join my salute and support for these women.

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