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Most people don't think much about the waste created by the energy we use to power our homes. But for nuclear engineer Sam Brinton, it's been the focus of an entire career.
After years of looking into nuclear energy and the best ways to dispose of the radioactive waste and nuclear fuel that comes with it, Brinton became Deputy Assistant Secretary for Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition for the U.S. Department of Energy — and, with that, the first openly genderfluid person to work in federal government.
“I can't change my identity more than anyone can change intrinsic parts about themselves, but I can change my openness. And so I am given the opportunity to serve my country as I am, and that's a really important aspect of my work — because I work on nuclear waste management, where transparency and honesty and trust building are so critical,” Brinton tells Yahoo Life. “So if I can't be myself, it's really hard to build those relationships. I'm proud to say that, yes, I get to be the first openly genderfluid person in this type of government service, but I won’t be the last.”
Brinton’s journey to the federal government started back in Iowa, where they were born to Southern Baptist missionary parents who frequently moved the family from place to place. When Brinton came out as bisexual to their parents in high school, they were swiftly put into a conversion-therapy program, where attempts were made to change Brinton's sexual identity. The therapy would last for two years, but the traumatic effects would last longer.
“It caused a lot of suicidal ideation in my life," Brinton says. "It did a lot of damage to both me and my family because my family was given the false hope that I could just flip a switch and change, when I would recognize that I wasn't changing."
That experience activated Brinton to tackle conversion therapy programs head-on. In 2018, they wrote an op-ed for the New York Times detailing their painful experiences, and with the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ-youth support organization, they founded the #50Bills50States campaign to have the practice banned throughout the country. “We passed more than 20 laws ending conversion therapy, protecting future generations from ever having to go through what I went through," says Brinton.
During that difficult period, Brinton threw themselves into nuclear engineering. They remember being drawn to the field because it was a challenge that was largely misunderstood by other people. Brinton was good at solving problems, and as they built confidence, nuclear engineering also helped Brinton to heal from the conversion therapy. They went on to graduate from Kansas State University with a B.S. in nuclear engineering and vocal music, before earning a dual M.S. degree in nuclear engineering, technology and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“I never saw myself. There was not a single professor in my life that has ever looked like me. There's never been a person in any of my jobs, who looked like me," says Brinton of all those experiences. "But now I get to be that person."
In the U.S., about 20% of electricity comes from nuclear energy, and the Department of Energy is responsible for disposing of the waste created in that process. Currently, nuclear waste is stored safely, but Brinton warns that a better solution is needed for the longterm. This administration, and those in the future, must find ways to safely and adequately store, transport and dispose of nuclear fuel, a problem that Brinton says the government has budgeted billions for.
“All I ever do is talk about how cool the issue of nuclear is, how amazing nuclear energy is at solving so many of our climate problems and how we still have to be responsible with the byproducts of that power,” says Brinton. “While nuclear produces 20% of the electricity and half of the clean energy in our country right now, it still creates byproducts and those byproducts have to be managed. And that's my responsibility.”
That responsibility is one that also comes with managing the public’s expectations, fears and past experiences concerning the government and exposure to toxic materials. In Massachusetts, activists are protesting a plan to dump radioactive wastewater into Cape Cod Bay. In the past, activists have raised concerns about environmental racism — or government policies and laws that put health hazards like landfills and waste sites in Black and brown communities. Brinton says their own experience of feeling marginalized and unsupported makes them better equipped to listen to the needs of communities where waste proposals are being considered.
“Let's be very clear, the Department of Energy, the group I now represent, has failed in the past to adequately protect individuals from a variety of different issues. I need to recognize that history while I try to change the future,” says Brinton.
Being “the first” isn’t easy, but Brinton says that since they joined the Department of Energy, other federal employees have come out as nonbinary. Brinton has also received countless letters from young trans and nonbinary kids who say that they can’t wait to grow up and be a nuclear engineer just like Sam.
“I've gotten to end conversion therapy in parts around the country, and I've also gotten to now solve the nuclear waste challenges of the world. And those are both parts of my life. They're not one or the other, I get to be them all," says Brinton. "We don't have to grow up to be one thing. We can grow up to change as many parts of the world as possible with the gifts that we've been given."
They add: “I'm solving a problem I've wanted to solve for a really long time, and now I have the power and privilege to make a difference.”
—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove