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PhD student uses unconventional tool to bust common nuclear energy myths: 'The fight is to save the planet'

"It really goes to show how starving for accurate information the public really is."

"It really goes to show how starving for accurate information the public really is."

Photo Credit: iStock

Kaylee Cunningham, a nuclear science and engineering Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is on a mission to quell the fears and misinformation surrounding nuclear energy. 

Combining her passion for nuclear engineering with her love of theater, Cunningham shares her knowledge about the often controversial energy source on TikTok in a relatable, down-to-earth way. 

Going by the name "Ms. Nuclear Energy," she's amassed nearly 120,000 followers who tune in regularly to watch her funny yet educational videos. Her content breaks down hard-to-digest "topics into something understandable to people who have no connection to academia," she told MIT News. 

While the typical TikTok dances and The Simpsons jokes are peppered throughout her videos to help break the ice with her followers, she's mostly using her account to dispel the misinformation about the safety of nuclear energy

For instance, MIT News explained that in one of her videos, a viewer asked how safe nuclear reactors really were if they produce "tons of pollution." In the video — which has more than 1 million views — she shows a photo of a nuclear reactor and explains the substance spewing out of the top is only water vapor, clearing up any confusion. 

Cunningham told the outlet: "It really goes to show how starving for accurate information the public really is. In this age of having all the information we could ever want at our fingertips, it's hard to sift through and decide what's real and accurate and what isn't."

She felt compelled to become a nuclear power activist after traveling to Iceland to study geothermal energy and participating in a discussion about the country's plans to reach net-zero pollution. To her surprise, some people were shocked that she advocated for using nuclear energy to help Iceland transition away from dirty fuel sources that are warming the planet.

"The response I got was that 'we're a peace-loving nation, we don't do that,'" Cunningham told MIT News, recalling the conversation. "I was appalled by the reaction. I mean, we're talking energy, not weapons here, right?" 

After her trip, she immediately made a TikTok video to address the myths about nuclear power, and the rest is history. 

She's had a colorful past, being involved in musical theater at a young age and taking part in an aerospace competition in high school, which sparked her interest in nuclear energy. However, it was an undergraduate research internship that inspired her to pursue both computer science and nuclear engineering doctoral programs.  

Cunningham's life has come full circle with her latest endeavor as a social media activist. When she's not busy studying, you can find her shattering misconceptions about nuclear power and encouraging young people to pursue nuclear engineering careers.

However, the ultimate goal of her advocacy efforts is to educate the public about how clean, sustainable energy — including nuclear energy — is critical to cooling the planet and preserving ecosystems. 

"At the end of the day, the fight is to save the planet," Cunningham told MIT News. "I honestly believe that nuclear power is the best chance we've got to fight climate change and keep our planet alive."

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