Engineer researches nuclear safety and security policy as National Nuclear Security Administration intern


Bennett McEllis moved to New York City after high school to study business at CUNY Brooklyn College because he had no idea what to do with his education next. However, he quickly realized business was not for him. Curious, he began to explore science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in his spare time. He was hooked and soon transferred to The Grove School of Engineering at CUNY The City College of New York.

“I would spend so much time after class watching YouTube videos about astrophysics, cosmology and scientific lectures,” said McEllis. “I found a lot of excitement and joy learning about these topics and decided to switch to the sciences.”

A dream to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) led him to study mechanical engineering because he wanted to help build machines that would be sent into space. However, after taking a course on the Manhattan Project and being exposed to nuclear physics, he decided to concentrate his studies in nuclear engineering.

His professor introduced him to an internship with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Minority Serving Institutions Internship Program (NNSA-MSIIP). After applying, Bennett was assigned to the Office of Nuclear Incident Policy and Cooperation (NIPC) within the Office of Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation. He is mentored by Paloma Richard, the Acting Deputy Director of NIPC.

The goals of the NNSA-MSIIP are to support the success of underrepresented students in STEM, engage students in the world-class research and operations opportunities within the NNSA enterprise, and increase awareness of federal career opportunities. The program provides paid opportunities for current undergraduate and graduate students attending Minority Serving Institutions to network with and receive mentorship from experienced staff, researchers, and scientists across the nation.

McEllis is assisting on multiple projects, and they all delve into the connections various nations have with nuclear power and the intricate policies that must be upheld for safety, emergency preparedness and emergency response. For example, McEllis delivered a presentation to the office on the forcible occupation of a nuclear power plant by military personnel, which may cause severe safety violations.

While most countries have considered how to respond to a nuclear power plant disaster or radiation release (such as Three Mile Island, Chornobyl or Fukushima), the takeover or occupation of a nuclear power plant by a hostile nation has not been frequently considered, for example Russia’s occupation of a Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant.

“I was hoping to raise questions in the minds of the federal employees in my office about the role of the international community in responding to this egregious disregard of nuclear safety and security in history,” explained McEllis. “How should we respond during wartime? It had never been seriously considered that enemy combatants might occupy another country’s nuclear power plant or that artillery duels would occur around operating reactors.”

Another project McEllis is focused on is revitalizing and improving a “prioritization tool” that evaluates statistics from various countries and can predict how likely that country is to experience the risk of nuclear terrorism. The tool considers factors such as current and historical terrorist activity, and the security and safety of surrounding countries. McEllis hopes this tool will be used in the decision-making process to identify where to promote outreach and capacity building training for emergency preparedness and response in high-priority nations.

As a NNSA-MSIIP participant, McEllis has learned alongside professionals both in person and virtually and has been exposed to a range of international policy. He has assisted with and participated in a major public international event training and workshop hosted by NIPC in Washington D.C. He also participated in a tabletop exercise where he engaged with first responders and FBI officials in a hypothetical scenario where radioactive materials were stolen from a university for nefarious purposes. The coordination and response effort by so many parties and stakeholders, such as various government agencies and foreign partners, is remarkable, said McEllis.

“It’s reassuring and fills me with pride to be part of such an important mission to safely produce and handle nuclear energy and materials, while also defending against their misuse. The NNSA-MSIIP experience will put you a step above others when searching for jobs.”

McEllis has enjoyed the research so much that he remains with the office through an extension in the internship. After his participation in the NNSA-MSIIP program ends he hopes to transition to a position with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as an Emergency Response Coordinator. Until then, he will continue to study the policies surrounding emergency preparedness and response for a radiological or nuclear incident.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Minority Serving Institutions Internship Program (NNSA-MSIIP) is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).