“While it is devastating to see the impact of the Chornobyl accident—both economically and socially—international nuclear safety has advanced significantly because of this incident.”
—Susan Senner

Teams of communications professionals at the Hanford Site in Richland, Washington, juggled shifts to respond to hoards of news media calls in April 1986 about a catastrophic accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Susan McKenna Senner worked with this group, responding to questions about Hanford’s N-Reactor, which had some design similarities to the ill-fated Chornobyl plant. The Hanford crew manned phones and provided reassurance that multiple safety systems in place at N-Reactor would prevent such an accident from occurring at Hanford.

Just over a decade later, Senner’s career became more closely aligned with the Chornobyl plant and other Soviet-designed reactors. Senner is a project manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which is managed by Battelle and supports efforts to improve safety at Soviet-designed nuclear power plants. In 1997, Senner joined the site’s International Nuclear Safety Program, which has implemented safety projects at 67 commercial nuclear power plants in Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Senner manages technical and communications projects for this international nuclear safety effort. She travels two to three times a year to the former Soviet Union to meet with foreign colleagues or to accompany U.S. officials during nuclear power plant visits. She has visited the Chornobyl site three times. “While it is devastating to see the impact of the Chornobyl accident—both economically and socially—international nuclear safety has advanced significantly because of this incident,” she says.

In what is known as the worst nuclear accident in history, an out-of-control nuclear reaction at the plant 80 miles north of Kiev blew off the roof of the steel building. It sent tons of radioactive material into the air, contaminating widespread areas, killing 30 workers immediately, and forcing evacuation. Chornobyl alerted the world to the urgent need for safety work at reactor plants in the former Soviet Union. A partnership of seven countries including the United States, called the G-7, identified ways to provide assistance. The international nuclear safety program evolved from that effort.

“The International Nuclear Safety Program is based on transferring technology from the U.S. commercial nuclear industry to countries not quite as advanced in their safety practices,” says Senner. “Its goal is to assist countries in establishing nuclear safety infrastructures that will be self-sustaining. Ultimately, we want to ensure that there will never be another Chornobyl-like accident anywhere in the world.”

From its inception in 1992, the international program has helped to upgrade safety equipment, provide operator training, and instill a sense of safety consciousness within the operating environment at these plants, according to Senner. As part of this work, she and others at Battelle have built strong relationships with overseas colleagues in operational, regulatory and academic fields. In fact, Senner’s relationship with one Ukrainian woman whose life has been cruelly impacted by the Chornobyl accident has flourished into a strong friendship. The woman’s teenage son spent a summer with the Senner family as part of a program designed to help the young people of Chornobyl.

Although the international program’s original scope is winding down, some work will continue through next year, Senner says. Her job is starting to shift toward other nuclear safety projects. She has worked in the nuclear industry since graduating from Washington State University (’80 Communications), first for Westinghouse Hanford Company (1980–87), then for Energy Northwest—operator of Washington state’s only commercial nuclear power plant—for 10 years, before joining Battelle six years ago.