Sonja Schmid

Scholar of the Week Sonja SchmidThe Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation recognizes Sonja Schmid, an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for her work to safeguard the world from nuclear danger.

Schmid won a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development (CAREER) Award to study the challenges of creating a global nuclear emergency response plan.

The failure of Japan’s Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 was a turning point in how the scientific community viewed nuclear emergencies, said Schmid, who is based in the National Capital Region. Three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors melted down after a tsunami hit the facility.

A key issue in her research is that nuclear disasters don’t respect national borders. Any nuclear accident may have worldwide consequences that require an international response.

Her objectives are to create a global map of nuclear disaster expertise, interview experts with experience at incidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to learn about their response, develop criteria for effective international response, and write a curriculum to teach engineers and policy students how to respond when existing plans don’t work.

Schmid will partner with Virginia Tech’s Nuclear Engineering Program in the College of Engineering and the Center for Public Administration and Policy in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies for the curriculum development portion of her grant and in organizing a speaker series.

Schmid’s research has been supported by faculty grants from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment.

Fluent in Russian, Schmid has investigated the history and organization of nuclear industries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and studied how national energy policies, technological choices, and nonproliferation concerns shape each other.

Her book “Producing Power” on the development of the civilian nuclear industry in the Soviet Union, published by The MIT Press in 2015, is based on extensive archival research in Russia and on interviews with nuclear experts.

In the book, Schmid explains that Soviet experts established nuclear power as a driving force of social, not just technical, progress. She examined the Soviet nuclear industry’s dual origins in weapons and electrification programs, and she traces the emergence of nuclear power experts as a professional community. Schmid also fundamentally reassessed the design choices for nuclear power reactors in the shadow of the Cold War’s arms race.

Before coming to Virginia Tech, Schmid was a postdoctoral Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and did postdoctoral work at Stanford University. She received her master's degree and Ph.D. from Cornell University.

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