Miss America explains why nuclear fusion is changing the energy landscape

By Abigail Leavins

The most obvious example of fusion is nuclear, where two nuclei literally merge and combine to form a larger nucleus. Grace Stanke, who is Miss America 2023 and a UW–Madison student graduating after the Fall 2023 semester, explains why she believes nuclear fusion is the future of clean and sustainable energy. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Photography courtesy of Grace Stanke.

Your platform is clean, nuclear energy. Could you tell me more about why that’s important to you? 

I’m part of the generation that grew up familiar with the term climate change. It is in every piece of our news; it is all around us. And with that means this transition to zero-carbon energy is desired. However, it also means we need to be focusing on a transition to reliable energy. I got into nuclear engineering, and nuclear is one that fulfills both of those things. It’s both zero-carbon emissions in terms of production, and it’s a reliable form of energy. It’s important to ensure that our energy transition is going to include zero carbon to help fight climate change. But it will also include affordable and reliable energy.

Could you tell me what some common misconceptions are about nuclear energy?

One of the biggest misconceptions about nuclear energy is that waste is a big problem. And realistically, the amount of waste that’s produced is not as much as people think. Over 60 years of creating 20% of America’s electricity, all of the spent nuclear fuel fits inside of a Walmart. Additionally, all of that fuel has been stored safely throughout the past six years, and we know how to store it safely. Now we know the science. We know the places where we could put it in all one congregated area, like Yucca Mountain, but we are not permitted by the government to do that. In terms of waste, it’s not a science problem: it’s a policy problem. You can recycle nuclear waste, you can reprocess it and put it back into the power plants actually. The second biggest misconception is that it is dangerous. People think power plants can explode. But it is physically impossible for them to explode like an atomic bomb does. It is one of the safest forms of energy production. The only thing that comes close to it is hydropower. 

Can you tell me more about nuclear fusion and explain how it works?

Nuclear fusion happens every day. It’s what is happening within the sun. You’ve got two atoms — atoms are the building blocks of the universe. They make up everything in existence, from your body to the air to the clothes you’re wearing. Whatever it might be, atoms make up everything. Now when you smash two atoms together, either at really high speeds or at really hot temperatures, like the sun, those two atoms can combine to form a new atom, and that is the process of fusion. I like to remember fusion has a “u” in it, so it’s the building up of atoms. You’re smashing them together to create one bigger, newer atom. However, in that process of colliding, atoms can have little pieces break off, and we as a human race can utilize those little pieces to create electricity for our benefit and for our survival as well. Fusion is often seen as the holy grail of all energy where we can create a functioning commercial power plant using fusion. We can use water as a fuel source, and there are no harmful outputs.

Are you planning to work in nuclear energy after Miss America? 

I am going to be working with a utility company based out of both Illinois and Pennsylvania. So I’ll be working on the nation’s largest nuclear fleet with 12 different nuclear power plants and what they do, and continuing the advocacy work that I do.

I fully support fusion. I do believe it is the future. I think it takes a certain mindset and a certain personality to do research work, though. And I actually did some fusion research at UW–Madison. There are two fusion research labs on campus. Both are doing some really incredible things within the physics world and within the fusion world, too. And it’s happening right on campus there where people are working toward the overarching goal of creating fusion for humanity.