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SALMAGUNDI: From the band room to the nuke plant, curiosity guides

“Feed your curiosity.”

Steven Buck is a textbook example of the value of his own advice. His curiosity took him from the music department at Crystal Lake’s Prairie Ridge High School to Augustana College in Rock Island to the University of Hartford and an internship at Westinghouse Electric Company in Windsor, Conn., all the way back to Illinois where in late 2016 he took a job as a mechanical design engineer at Exelon’s La Salle County Generating Station.

“I always liked teaching new things to other people,” Buck said, explaining his pursuit of a music education degree at Augustana. After developing reservations about his personality meshing with public school systems, Buck dropped the education part of his major to focus solely on music.

That decision altered graduation requirements and added a year, but also led him to discover an acoustics program at Hartford. His mother, a teacher turned principal, encouraged him to more deeply explore the aspects of math and science where she’d noticed a natural aptitude. A Hartford professor helped guide him to an internship at Westinghouse. He connected well with his peers, but also the veterans who were passionate about nuclear generation.

The company let him continue the internship part-time during his final year of college, then offered him a job when he graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. He spent six years there as an engineer working on nuclear plant instrumentation systems before Exelon brought him back to North Central Illinois.

His current job concentrates on “evaluation of maintenance and operations work against the design basis of the plant, or, how the plant was originally designed, licensed and built,” Buck said. “Modification or repairs to mechanical components while the plant is online require considerations for impacts on other plant equipment and our ability to maintain safe operation of the reactors. Piping, components such as valves and pumps, and supports have been my specialty as of late.”

That’s the technical description. But talking to Buck reveals someone fascinated by the way various systems are interconnected and striving to make things run more smoothly.

“I like challenges, I like when there’s a problem in front of me,” he said. “It uses my creativity to come up with a solution.”

Sometimes the wheel can’t or shouldn’t be reinvented. Sometimes there’s a major deadline with a serious impediment. But a connecting thread is Exelon’s encouragement of Buck and his peers — some of whom have 10 times as much tenure — to challenge the status quo and forever consider what might be faster, more efficient, less expensive and especially safer for their colleagues.

After solving a specific problem on paper comes putting the plan into action. His department doesn’t do the work, that’s maintenance, and so it can only be done when their resources are available. They have to bring in operations to know when certain systems are running and where the plant’s planned redundancy opens windows to execute a plan. They might have to check with the regulatory department or connect with the staff scheduling folks and occasionally the radiation protection division.

In a way it’s like a musical ensemble: the harmony is possible if everyone plays their parts.

Buck also revels in volunteer time with employee resource groups, designed to develop technical expertise and encourage peer bonding, we all as a stint as site director for the North American Young Generation in Nuclear. He participates in a U.S. Women in Nuclear chapter and the plant’s Environmental Action Committee.

“I am developing opportunities for our employees to tell our story of the importance of nuclear power and why it is valued to them,” he said, allowing him “to not only engage the public on science-based issues, but I get to develop and lead my peers to the same end.”

Thinking back to following his mother’s footsteps, Buck knows that desire to teach hasn’t left.

“I love going out there engaging with the public and telling them what I do.”

That instinct pairs with the urge to keep learning. So although music now is mostly “carpool karaoke” and saxophone noodling, Buck clearly sees how creativity and curiosity shape his career.

“If there’s something you don’t know, research it,” he said, suggesting borrowing books, taking a course or asking a professional. “If you keep feeding (curiosity), it will always take you to something else that’s interesting.

“It never really ends. You’ll come out on the other side just feeling like you’ve really learned something. That knowledge is really powerful.”

SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing. He can be reached at scotth@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.

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