Uditha Senaratne, B.Sc.Eng., MS, P.Eng.
By grade 11 in his native Sri Lanka, Uditha Senaratne knew that he had a natural predisposition for math and science.
By the time he graduated high school, he knew he wanted to be an engineer.
And by his second year of university, he knew he would be a nuclear engineer in particular.
In the Sri Lankan educational system, students are exposed to a wide range of subjects between grades six and 10. But by the time they enter grade 11, they’re expected to make a decision about whether they want to pursue the social sciences or biology on the one hand, or the physical sciences like applied maths, chemistry and physics on the other. Uditha’s choice came as a surprise to some, but not to him.
“Everybody under the sun thought I would be going into pre-med, biology, zoology and all these kinds of things,” the 50-year-old recalls. “But nothing could have been further from my mind because it was always a natural decision for me to go into physical sciences.
“My math teacher was the only one who wasn’t surprised by my decision. Even my parents were shocked!”
While, at the time, he enjoyed chemistry above all else (even more than engineering), job prospects for chemists in Sri Lanka weren’t as promising as those for engineers. So when it came time to choose a university program, Uditha chose engineering.
“And it just so happened that the university was five miles from where I lived and they had the best engineering faculty,” he says.
By the second year of his engineering program at the University of Peradeniya, and having been exposed to the variety of engineering disciplines, from electrical to civil to mechanical, he was pretty much convinced that he wanted to be a nuclear engineer.
Again, the people around him balked.
“Sri Lanka was too poor to have a nuclear reactor and everyone was asking, ‘Why are you trying to do nuclear? You’re not going to build a nuclear reactor in this country in your lifetime.’
“What I didn’t tell them was that I knew I probably wasn’t staying in Sri Lanka.”
This probability did not become reality for a few more years. But then, with his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and all the core mathematics, heat transfer, thermodynamics and process engineering courses required to start a nuclear engineering degree, Uditha left Sri Lanka for the United States, where he enrolled in a Master’s degree at Penn State University, University Park in Pennsylvania.
Eventually, that landed him where he is today—serving as the Technical Secretary of the Safety Advisory Board at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) in Deep River, ON.
CNL is a world leader in developing peaceful and innovative applications from nuclear technology, harnessing the energy, health, and environmental benefits from nuclear science and technology.
CNL’s Safety Advisory Board was established a couple of years ago to provide safety oversight for all of CNL’s sites. Three external members—a set of experienced senior executives from Canadian nuclear power plants and US research laboratories—sit on the Board and take an independent look at how things are done at the company’s sites. They report their findings and recommendations related to health, safety, security and the environment to the CNL Board of Directors.
Part of Uditha’s job as Technical Secretary to the Safety Advisory Board is to liaise with the three external members, prepare them for their site visits, and answer any questions they have.
“It’s a somewhat administrative job,” Uditha explains. “But it takes the expertise of an engineer to make sense of the questions that are being asked and to provide responses.”
The other part of his job though is highly technical. Uditha splits his time between being a liaison between CNL and the Safety Advisory Board, and working on the Safety Review Committee.
“When it comes to operating facilities or new facilities, there’s a structure of documents relating to safety that the company has to put together to get approvals from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. And these are very highly technical documents.
“They could be thermohydraulic analyses of flow in the reactor to seismic analysis of the effects on buildings and structures to metallurgical assessment of how the fuel behaves.
“You name it, they can go into highly technical details.”
There are groups of subject matter experts who review these reports before they’re submitted, and with his background in thermal hydraulics and nuclear engineering, Uditha is one of these experts.
It’s this emphasis on the technical details that he enjoys the most about his job.
“Sometimes you’re working on a review and you’re talking with five or six experts in different fields and one question leads to another and another and light bulbs go off and, all of a sudden, things are linking back to my university coursework.
“That is the most enjoyable aspect I’ve found in this job because it allows me to go back to my coursework and apply those principles practically.”
So though he surprised many back home in Sri Lanka with his career choices in high school and university, Uditha has no doubt that he made the right choices for him.
“We have to remember that we spend half of our conscious hours at work. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you won’t survive for long…The only way to do that is to make the right career choice and then make sure that you do something fun. The rest will follow.”