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LAHS grad Li participates in Millennial Nuclear Caucus

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By Bennett Horne

Sophia Li may have just graduated from Los Alamos High School, but for many years now she has known that nuclear is definitely a viable option when it comes to different sources of energy.

She recently got to immerse herself in that discussion while attending the Millennial Nuclear Caucus, which was held in Idaho Falls, Idaho, on June 15.

“From a very young age I’ve known that nuclear is definitely a good form of energy,” said Li, who will begin classes as a freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the fall. “It’s sustainable and clean, all those things, and I wouldn’t mind going into that field at all, which is why this caucus helped me think more about that decision and see what I have in my future.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy hosted the caucus along with Idaho National Laboratory.

“A lot of it was educational for millennials,” Li said of the caucus. “It focused a lot on information for those who didn’t have a bigger understanding of what nuclear energy and reactors entailed, but it also helped reinforce some of the things that Idaho Falls is doing in the nuclear energy infrastructure, because Idaho Falls does a lot of that. It was a mix of that and educating those who were unclear about the technology.”

Li, whose father, Ning Li, works in the field of nuclear energy, was one of a handful of Los Alamos students considered to participate in the caucus. The students had to be at least 18 years of age since they would be traveling by themselves and that eliminated some of the prospective participants. The remaining students had to write a 150-word statement as to why they should be considered and Li’s was chosen by virtue of her statement.

“I did a science fair project last year about nuclear thermal rockets, and from then on until May of this year I was interning at (Los Alamos National Laboratory) and working in the area of nuclear space propulsion and nuclear energy,” she said. “I expressed these things in my statement and that I was interested in learning more and being a part of this caucus.”

The Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) funded expenses for five students to participate in the caucus with one coming from Los Alamos, which is one of the 46 UAMPS members.

Pajarito Environmental Education Center coordinated the selection.

Part of the discussion at the caucus was centered on discussion of small modular reactor technology and, more specifically, the Carbon Free Power Project, the same project the Los Alamos County Council recently discussed.

“For me it was just a chance to see what other people were doing,” Li said, “because there were also activities where you could talk to mentors, who were various people from the field of nuclear, whether it was safety or simply infrastructure, environment or the reactors themselves.”

She said she even got to visit with the mayor of Idaho Falls to learn about her office’s role in hosting a small module reactor.

“Idaho Falls is hosting the small module reactor that NuScale is building,” she said. “She said she works very closely with UAMPS, NuScale, the national lab there and the town itself. That was a really cool opportunity to talk to her and see what she’s been working on.”

While the caucus itself was a one-day event, Li was there for a day and two nights, which allowed her extra time to take an optional tour and “try to soak up as much as she could.”

Li is interested in learning as much as she can about using the nuclear option as a means to power our lives.

“As the world develops we’re going to need more and more energy to do the things we want, whether that’s space travel – which I’m also very interested in – or just like normal development and providing energy for those places that don’t have a sufficient amount,” she said. “We’re going to need cleaner methods. Burning coal and natural gas is great, but they leave a large footprint and we want to change that for the world. It’s my future, it’s everyone’s future and it’s mankind’s future.”

While using renewables as energy options is important, Li feels the nuclear option is equally important.

“To provide such a sheer amount of energy, with renewables like solar, wind or hydro, it’s possible but it’s very difficult, and nuclear can provide a lot of energy,” she said. “In my future, because I do want to go into a STEM field, probably engineering, I’m going to need a lot of energy to do whatever I want in my field. Nuclear seems to be a clean, sustainable and high-energy density way where we can produce enough energy to do the things that will change the world.”

She added, “To combine nuclear renewables would be a really good future.”

During her junior year at LAHS Li looked at nuclear options for space travel as her science fair project.

“I compared fuel efficiency between traditional rockets that we have with a nuclear thermal rocket that was proposed and actually designed during the space race a long time ago,” she said. “I compared that and basically did a simulation, made the rockets go to Mars and compared how much fuel, or energy, they used.

“People are recognizing that maybe going to Mars could be done with chemical rockets,” she continued. “But if you want to go further than that nuclear is probably the most viable way we have right now, especially on a manned spacecraft.”

After the caucus Li, who lived in China for five years, was traveling back to that country for a month to visit family members before heading for MIT.