Nuclear Power is Girl Power

This piece is a collobration between Jack McGovan of Delta S and Plan A. It is one in a series of pieces on the woman who made sustainability what it is today. All of the illustrations have been provided courtesy of Plan A. 

In telling the whole story, we can’t forget the women who have contributed to even controversial technologies.

Girl power. A term which has been used quite extensively in the last twenty years. Originating from a US pop punk band called Bikini Kill, the term was further popularised by the Spice Girls during the 90s. Though it is a phrase not directly aimed at me, the catchphrase has implanted an image of autonomy that can empower women in an otherwise patriarchal society. 

The phrase – being mainly used in pop culture – has uses throughout the world, some more literal than others. For example, I would say that nuclear energy is a form of girl power. Why? Without the work of Lise Meitner we might not have access to the kind of technology we have today. Not only this, but given that less than 30% of scientists in the world are women, it’s important to highlight their achievements.

A discovery 

So who was Lise Meitner? Born in 1878 in Vienna, she was the third of eight children in a Jewish family. Staying in Vienna for her early life, she was first permitted to attend university in 1901 at the age of 23. This was due to restrictions on women in education at the time. It was here where – according to her nephew Otto Frisch – she was taught that the vision of physics was a battle for truth, and this was “a vision she never lost”. 

Having developed a passion for physics and a doctorate to boot, she left for Berlin in 1907. At this point she started working with Otto Hahn, a chemist with whom she would work closely for many years. Along the road she wrote many papers. For example, she was the first person to describe the Auger effect in 1922. Her science continued until she was forced to leave Berlin in 1938 due to the rise of Hitler’s regime. At this point she settled in Sweden.

While living there, Meitner worked remotely with Otto Hahn and another scientist Fritz Straßmann (Hahn’s assistant). Eventually Hahn found experimental evidence of the process we now call nuclear fission. After passing on the data, Meitner and Frisch proved theoretically that fission was the process occurring. The two were in fact responsible for coining the term. However, while Hahn received the Nobel prize in 1944 for his work, Meitner and Frisch received no such recognition. This is often regarded as a mistake by historians and is a prominent example used to discuss the “Matilda effect”. 

The Matilda effect

While a magical story and one infected with nostalgia, the Matilda effect has nothing to do with a little girl and her magical powers. Instead it’s a very real life phenomenon found in research. Described first by Matilda Gage in the 19th century, the term was coined as her namesake by Margaret Rossiter in 1993. The effect describes how the credit for research conducted by female scientists is given to their male colleagues, of which there are several examples outside of Meitner.

Alice Ball was an African American chemist who was responsible for developing the most effective treatment for leprosy in the 20th century. However she sadly died at the age of 24. The university president – Arthur L Dean – took up the reins of her work without giving her the credit she deserved.

Another example is that of Nettie Stevens, an American geneticist who is remembered for discovering the existence of sex chromosomes; there’s some irony there in the sense of the gender biases she was exposed to. Stevens was the one who discovered that sex determination is due to the Y chromosome and not the X. However, this discovery was typically credited solely to Edmund Wilson who was also working on the subject.

These are just a few examples of the phenomenon and there are several more documented cases, however Meitner’s is one of the more prominent in the frame of sustainability.

Nuclear and sustainability

So we know that Meitner contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission, but is it sustainable? Well when comparing nuclear to green energy alternatives, it has relatively similar or slightly lower emissions to solar, but higher when compared to wind or hydroelectric technologies. One of the distinct advantages is that the energy is not weather dependent. On the other hand, nuclear fission produces radioactive waste. This waste can take thousands of years to lose its radioactive properties. As such, this means placing the burden for disposal onto future generations. 

In contrast nuclear fusion is a much different process. Fusion combines smaller, stable elements together, whereas fission separates larger, unstable elements; think of the comparisons between Lennie and George and their potential to harm. This means that if we were to perfect fusion technology, meltdown incidents such as Chernobyl or Fukushima wouldn’t happen. Furthermore, fusion reactors don’t produce long lasting nuclear waste. However, such technology is still in the development stages.

The consequence is that if we were to perfect the fusion process, we could have boundless amounts of energy at very little environmental cost; an exciting prospect to the legacy of Meitner. The problem is that we need environmental action now. We need it today. Pinning our hopes on a technology we might perfect is perhaps a little misguided. Not only this, but nuclear energy favours a centralised energy system. A decentralised system – for example small scale solar or wind farms – can benefit society by reducing energy costs, creating jobs in local areas, giving people a better understanding of where their energy comes from and taking the power to monopolise the market from large corporations.

An important story

Up until her death in 1968, Meitner was supposedly a proponent of a nuclear energy system. In this way she was just like a lot of other humans: she wanted her life’s work and legacy to be what carried humans into the future. However, the consequences of our technological advances and lifestyle changes on the environment weren’t completely clear until a few decades after her death.

The story of Lise Meitner is an important one to tell, and there are many more important stories to come, with the next highlighting one woman’s fight against the Dutch government. Nonetheless, this story highlights that women’s achievements have often been omitted from the story. It shows that women can contribute to society even while enduring oppression because of not only their gender, but also a fascist regime. It reveals to us too that women are just as responsible for creating controversial technologies and inciting debate as their male counterparts. 

This piece is a collobration between Jack McGovan of Delta S and Plan A. It is one in a series of pieces on the woman who made sustainability what it is today. All of the illustrations have been provided courtesy of Plan A. 

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.