Jared Milfred ’16 once operated nuclear reactors. A native of Portland, Oreg., Milfred spent his senior year in high school training to be an operator at Reed College’s research reactor, the only reactor in the world operated by undergraduates. A year later, he passed his licensing exam with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and officially became the youngest licensed nuclear reactor operator in the country. WEEKEND spoke to Milfred in the Pierson Common Room about neutron activation analysis, avoiding another Fukushima and big red buttons.

Q. What exactly did you do as a nuclear reactor operator?

A. We do everything from maintenance, repair, and education outreach, to actually operating the reactor itself. It’s very Homer Simpson-esque, if you were to visualize it. There’s a big panel with buttons and switches, and we are there putting samples in the reactor, controlling how much fission goes on, raising and lowering control rods, etcetera.

The most useful thing that we did with the reactor is called neutron activation analysis. Put simply, you bombard a sample with neutrons, which makes the atoms unstable, causing them to decay and emit gamma rays. Since each element gives off a distinct pattern of gamma rays, we can take a sample of unknown composition, and tell with astonishing specificity how many atoms of each element was in something. We would be able to identify specifically on the map where a sample of soil came from, based on quantities of trace elements. Art historians would come to us, and ask us where a particular type of clay came from. Neutron activation analysis was accurate to the point that if we were to take someone’s fingernails, we would be able to tell which one was their left ring finger, because we can detect the few atoms of gold absorbed in it.

Q. What kind of skills did you need to be an operator?

A. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a very intensive exam you must go through in order to get a license. One thing that I really liked about it was that they emphasized theoretical knowledge just as much as they emphasized practical knowledge. It was not just a matter of knowing what to do when certain lights turn on and what buttons to push when; you also have to understand the underlying physics of everything that is going on among neutrons and in the atoms. Safety and regulation was another aspect of what we had to learn: we had to memorize pages and pages about the regulations.

Q. What makes an undergraduate-run reactor different from a typical nuclear reactor?

A. Firstly, the Reed Research reactor doesn’t generate electricity; it’s simply a research reactor.

Also, one of the biggest differences was that we have more female operators at Reed than the rest of the country combined. About half our staff is female. I was a huge proponent of that. The culture surrounding nuclear reactors is extremely male-dominated, conservative, and strongly tied to the military. Those aspects never really appealed to me, and I loved how Reed was the antithesis of that, how it combated all the traditional stereotypes associated with nuclear. It was full of people who self-identified as liberal and huge advocates of gender equality.

Having more women would be a huge boon for the industry. [Last Spring Break,] I went to a power reactor in Washington. In the control room, they have photos of all the operators on the wall, and I was looking around and every single one was male. By having the vast majority of the operators and the engineers be male, we are losing half of the brilliant people that could be having good ideas, fixing the problems, doing policy and helping to avoid things like Fukushima.

Q. How do you want to pursue your interests in nuclear technology at Yale and in the future?

A. I always knew that I didn’t want to go into the nuclear industry even after I worked at the reactor. As fascinating as everything related to nuclear technology is, I did not want it to be my life’s goal.

When I came to Yale, I was pretty sure that I wanted to major in Physics or Computer Science, but it kind of moved across the board a bit to EP&E. My interest in nuclear translated from tech interests to policy interests. So the vast amount of my work with nuclear right now is related to nuclear regulatory policy, which is helpfully informed by being an actual operator, knowing how the actual science works, and what it’s like to interact with the NRC. Just yesterday, I helped put on a talk at Yale Climate and Energy Institute, where we had an expert from Japan talk about what Fukushima meant for Japanese nuclear regulatory policy.

Q. Are you an advocate of nuclear reactors?

A. Most people assume that I am an avid proponent of nuclear reactors because I’ve worked in them. I’m certainly a proponent of more research reactors, and wished every college could have them. They are great for science and there’s no risk of Fukushima for something like a research reactor.

With nuclear reactors in general, I think that nuclear is an essential component for any future sustainable energy plan. I think carbon dioxide is by far the biggest enemy in making energy decisions. I definitely wish that we didn’t have to resort to technology like nuclear, and that we could use one that didn’t have any risk whatsoever. But pragmatically speaking, it’s one of the very few technologies that not only we know works but has been proven to do so over the last 60 years.

But I am also a huge safety advocate. The vast majority of my policy work is about making smarter choices with nuclear. The poor decisions people have made, here in the US and in Japan, have given nuclear a terrible reputation. But we don’t need to make those poor decisions; we have the technology to engineer around catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

I am a fan of new technologies, such as modular reactors. A normal reactor, although centralized, concentrates risk. Modular reactors, on the other hand, can fit on the back of a flat bed truck. If there’s ever a problem, you can literally just pick it up, take it away and install in a new one. It’s a lot safer, because you’re not hedging your bets on something huge. If something were to go wrong, you have to deal with something much smaller.

Q. Did you play any pranks at the reactor? Any nuclear inside jokes?

A. Well, we actually had this big red button that wasn’t hooked up to anything. On it, was the word ‘battleshort.’ On nuclear submarines, they do have a button that says ‘battleshort’, which overrides every safety mechanism and is only used in extreme emergencies like when the submarine is in the midst of battle, and if a safety mechanism shuts down the reactor, you are going to die. The NRC was not OK with us having even a fake battleshort button.