If you ask MIT students where they see themselves in a few years, you’ll get a wide range of answers — but almost all will be on dry land. MIT senior Cameron McCord feels a different calling: the ocean deep.
A physics and nuclear science and engineering major from Springfield, Va., who is part of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) at MIT, McCord will spend at least five years as an officer in the U.S. Navy after graduating. A commitment to service is typical for NROTC students, but McCord is taking the road less traveled by being selected for submarine service.
“A submarine is basically an engineer’s dream, because it’s a completely isolated nuclear powerplant that’s on its own underwater,” explains McCord, a 2012 Truman Scholar. “Submarines are awesome; I always sort of geek out when I’m talking about them.”
As a boy, McCord loved the idea of serving in the Navy and looked up to his uncle, a U.S. Navy rear admiral. At the same time, he avidly read books about science, lingering on diagrams and discussing physics with his father. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, McCord’s passion for math and science flourished and eventually led him to MIT.
McCord’s time at the Institute has been packed with early morning NROTC trainings, varsity soccer games, time with his fraternity brothers in Phi Sigma Kappa, and numerous student activities on top of coursework for his double major. His summers have included nuclear engineering and policy internships, submarine cruises, training with the South Korean Navy, and a nuclear conference in Moscow.
Through all he does, McCord has a goal: “I want to be someone who’s positioned to make good, responsible policy on nuclear issues, nuclear security and energy as a whole,” he says.
When McCord was placed in an internship with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) through MIT’s Washington internship program the summer after his sophomore year, he was looking forward to gaining some experience with nuclear policy. He got more than he was expecting.
Two months before McCord began work at the NRC, the March 2011 tsunami hit Japan, causing disastrous meltdowns at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. When McCord arrived, the office was still dealing with the aftermath. “People were still very much in crisis mode,” he says. “There were employees working 24-hour shifts, and they were just doing anything they could.”
McCord worked on a task force under George Apostolakis, an NRC commissioner and an MIT professor emeritus of nuclear science and engineering. Their goal was to come up with recommendations on how to avoid another Fukushima-like accident in the future.
McCord focused on computer simulations of how different reactors at a nuclear plant affect one another, as they had at Fukushima. “A lot of the modeling is based on one reactor in one location, pretending it’s isolated. But that’s not how it is in real life,” McCord explains. “Reactors that are right next to each other will affect each other. If one of them has a meltdown, it’s producing a ton of decay heat. It’s sort of like a domino effect, and I was trying to model that as robustly as possible.”
At the end of the summer, McCord watched as the task force recommendations were presented to Congress. “I saw the things that I had been learning about in my major being talked about at high governmental levels in a very quick, exciting way, and I felt that I actually had an impact,” McCord says.
International relationships also impact nuclear and military policy, as McCord saw firsthand in both Russia and South Korea. Through a partnership between MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Skolkovo Institute of Technology, McCord and other MIT students attended the ATOMEXPO nuclear conference in Moscow last summer.
“We were the only U.S. contingent there, which ended up drawing attention toward us,” says McCord, who participated in a panel on youth in science along with a few Russian students and another MIT student. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was stressful. I wanted to communicate everything clearly. Everything was being translated, and it was broadcast on national Russian television.”
Despite their differences in background and culture, McCord says, the Russian students and MIT students learned a lot from one another. “We were all young people interested in nuclear power,” he says.
Later that summer, McCord and three other NROTC students joined in exercises with the South Korean Navy for a month. “My home was the ship. We basically went all around the coast, popping into ports,” he says.
Besides the demanding training and the language barrier, McCord learned some sobering lessons. “To be with these kids in the South Korean military, younger than I was, who are legitimately worried that North Korea could just roll through the border and attack them, opened my eyes,” he says.
One day, the unit drove to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the border between South Korea and North Korea. “We’re riding in this beat-up old school bus, it’s like 95 degrees, we’re in full uniform. People are laughing and playing Gameboy games,” McCord recounts. “When we’re within 20 minutes [of the DMZ], there’s just absolute silence. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had.”
As a prospective nuclear engineer, McCord is well aware that his chosen major remains controversial in some quarters. His own views have shifted since coming to MIT, and he hopes to correct common misconceptions about nuclear power.
“When you really get down to it and run the numbers, nuclear energy is in the equation. It has to be,” McCord says. “The long-term solution for energy change, I think, is renewable energy. But there’s a kind of sweet spot between the next 20 and 40 years where we’ll need nuclear energy to meet the grid requirements while we invest more money in renewables.”
Another distinction McCord emphasizes is the difference between nuclear power for energy and for military purposes. “Having all this extra nuclear material and things that you can use to make bombs and nuclear missiles is not safe,” he says. “That’s another thing that I’ve definitely tried to take on, is separating the two in people’s minds, which I think needs to happen.”