Ask any little girl in Russia what she wants to be when she grows up and she'll probably say an actress or a singer, maybe even a teacher. But it's highly unlikely that nuclear physicist will be anywhere near the top of the list.
Russia's nuclear industry has been trying to change all that in recent years, rolling out the annual Miss Atom Beauty Contest. The competition is open only to women who work in the nuclear world and, as the Web site describes, "Miss Atom is the first and only industry-wide, Web-based project for nuclear belles."
The goal of the competition? To show that smart women working with hazardous materials look pretty good when they're not wearing chemical protection suits.
General director Ilya Platonov of the company Nuclear.Ru, which has run the competition since 2004, said, "We wanted to show the general public that the nuclear industry is an industry like any other, and that ordinary people work in it, including young attractive women."
In short, ladies, atomic energy can be hot.
More than 160 women have entered this year's beauty contest and there is an eclectic range of impressive contenders. Yelena Viskrovkina, a 26-year-old electric engineer from northern Russia, said her life's dream is to achieve "the two most important things for a woman -- to be a successful businesswoman and a happy mother and wife." Darya Klebnikova, a 27-year-old single mother, said she enjoys shooting pool and writing poetry in her spare time.
Among the top prizes this year: week-long trips to Croatia, Cuba and Morocco, as well as digital cameras, diamonds and cosmetics. The winner of Miss Atom 2008, Yulia Nagaeva, went on an all-expenses paid, luxury tour of Italy. Nagaeva, who develops new markets for nuclear fuel, said she loved the experience of competing.
"You have the opportunity to meet so many new people: professional fashion designers, professional hairdressers and the organizers themselves put in a great deal of effort to make the contest interesting and attractive," she said.
To enter the competition, nuclear belles need only fill in a simple questionnaire and send a photograph of themselves and, according to the Web site, "Slight retouching is acceptable." People can then go online and look at the various competitors and cast their votes. The winners are selected on the evening before Women's Day (March 8th), which is a major holiday in Russia.
Needless to say, the competition has received some negative press outside Russia, particularly from those who believe it is sexist and demeaning to female workers. Platonov vehemently denies such accusations.
"We do not exploit the contestants in any way," he said. "The pictures are not girls in bikinis but ordinary pictures."
While that does not appear to be strictly true, the competition certainly looks very wholesome. Nagaeva, Miss Atom 2008, said she also thinks criticism of the competition is unfounded.
"I think this simply reflects a difference in social cultures," she said. "I do not see the competition as discriminatory. It gives you a chance to show yourself and your strengths and it adds some humanism to the nuclear industry."
There's no telling whether the Miss Atom beauty contest has generated more job applications in the nuclear industry. But if the number of contestants keeps growing, maybe little Russian girls will start requesting chemistry sets for their birthdays.