Interview with National Museum of Nuclear Science & History Director Jim Walther On The Upcoming National Nuclear Science Week

Jan. 23 marks the start of National Nuclear Science Week. For this year’s highlights, we spoke with Jim Walther director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.

This is the third year for National Nuclear Science Week. How did it get started?

Jim Walther – It was an idea formed here at the museum and with some of our corporate partners to find a time when all of the professionals in nuclear science – engineering, physics or any of the other supporting types of work – would have a time when nuclear science could be a focus for the general public and for students to learn a little bit more about it. Teachers could tie into that time, and it would just give us a point in the year where we could develop various things that would inform the general public about the importance of nuclear science and all the various elements of it.

Tell us more about the student webinars scheduled for National Nuclear Science Day, Jan. 25.

Jim Walther – This year we have some big things, and of course lots and lots of smaller things, going on. A big element is this partnership with the National Science Teachers Association to do webinars out of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. There will be a medical discussion. There will be one about energy from the standpoint of nuclear power and engineering, and there will be one that deals with career opportunities and the workforce of the future. What students can think about as they begin to consider, ‘well gee, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ There are things going on in Washington, D.C. There are a lot of great things going on in Idaho, Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia. Here in Albuquerque, we have a huge number of students come to the museum throughout the entire week because we’re the congressionally designated museum for our country for this sort of stuff. It’s just a big week all across the country, and each year it seems to be growing.

What kinds of career activities will NNSW feature?

Jim Walther – They'll be talking about preparation for a career and highlighting some of the kinds of work – what type of mathematics and science courses should you be thinking about? Looking for internships. Things that will make a difference as you apply to college and try to get out of college and get a job. The folks at the Nuclear Energy Institute and the American Nuclear Society, they probably will talk more about the career paths you can take, from health physics to physics itself and being a researcher, to being an educator, to being an engineer in a power plant, to being a professional who deals with radioactive materials. They’re going to try to pick and highlight a few things that might be of interest.

In addition to your work for NNSW, you’re the director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, N.M. What are some of the museum’s most popular features?

Jim Walther – We’ve got a great museum. It’s been in business 42 years; we’ve been in our new building three years this spring. We have wonderful artifacts and exhibitions that help people understand all things nuclear, from physics and the basics of the atomic structure to radiation and what it is, where it comes from and how much is too much for you. We have exhibitions on nuclear medicine and radiation oncology and radiology. We have exhibits that deal with uranium mining and processes that provide fuel. We have a major exhibition on energy – nuclear energy predominately – but it also touches on other forms of energy as a resource. We have exhibits on waste management and transportation. We have large exhibits on the history and the discovery of nuclear material. And then we have a lot of history on the nuclear weapons program, the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, including a lot of airplanes and rockets and missiles and things that are outside that are very large. So it’s an interesting museum from the standpoint of our exhibits. We also run major programs for school children, and of course National Nuclear Science Week is just one of them.

Interview conducted and edited by Peter Barnes.

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