Despite differences in university programs, most nuclear engineering departments share one thing in common: They are dominated by men. In an academic environment populated by balding professors, geeky undergrads and socially awkward researchers, young female visitors are apparently quite a rarity.
In fact, at almost every engineering department we visited, our youth and gender seemed to elicit an air of friendliness that made access surprisingly easy. This was most evident during our visit to the Kansas State University's Triga Mark II Nuclear Reactor Facility, which is located in the small midwestern town of Manhattan, Kan.
In a short phone conversation with Reactor Director Michael Whaley, we stated nothing more than our simple interest in the facility and we were invited to drop by that afternoon.
Whaley started our tour in the reactor control room with a 45-minute slide presentation on nuclear energy. As if we were elementary school girls, he lectured us in a patronizing tone with simplistic explanations. He then left us in the hands of two flirtatious male students, who proceeded to show us around the reactor.
As we stood atop a raised platform, just steps from the reactor pool, one of the students whipped a camera out of his pocket and asked to take a photo. "My roommates are never going to believe," he said with a Kansas twang and an ear-to-ear grin, "that two cute girls came to the reactor! Now, squeeze in and smile!"
Amused by the request, we posed above the pool in which the uranium is stored. After a few snapshots, we realized the power of our pseudo-celebrity status as The Girls Who Visited the K-State Reactor. So for the next hour, as the two engineering students scoped us out, we scoped out the reactor and the security. We noted the open entry door to the control room and the closed-circuit TV system.
While the students bragged about their various experiences at the reactor, they permitted us to photograph the pool and the core. Excited by our curiosity, they were also happy to share detailed information about the location of extra uranium, the weight of the fuel elements, the pool dimensions and the operating hours.
Midway through our visit, the reactor director announced over the intercom system that he was heading home for the day, leaving the student operators in charge of the facility. At that moment, if we were terrorists, I believe we certainly could have caused serious damage.
Looking back on our Kansas visit, we observed what experts later told ABC News were several security weaknesses, including the open door to the control room and our close proximity to the reactor pool. But equally bothersome was the soft treatment we received based on the apparent assumption that female visitors are harmless, uninformed and non-threatening.
According to the Foreign Policy Association, a non-profit global affairs organization, the history of women's involvement in terrorism around the world is long and established -- from Russian nihilist organizations, to the Basque Separatists' ETA, to numerous Palestinian suicide bombers.
Given the reality of our post-9/11 world and the potential danger of uranium, it seems nuclear reactor staff members should be mindful of security at all times and treat all visitors -- regardless of gender or age -- with an equal level of caution.