Although it didn’t quite prepare him for 40 below zero temperatures in Siberia, Bill Wanderer credits a study abroad experience he had at Monmouth College for his career in international affairs.
Wanderer, who came to Monmouth from the Chicago suburb of Batavia, graduated in 2001 with degrees in political science and communications. In the spring of his junior year, he participated in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s London/Florence program.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t have been interested in international affairs if (MC professor) Tom Sienkewicz had not persuaded me to do an off-campus study program,” he said.
Today, Wanderer is a foreign affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). He implements the 1993 U.S.-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Purchase Agreement.
Under the agreement, Russia converts 500 metric tons of HEU, equal to about 20,000 nuclear weapons, into low enriched uranium used as fuel in U.S. commercial nuclear reactors. Nearly half of all U.S. nuclear energy, and 10 percent of total U.S. electricity, is now generated by fuel from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons.
Wanderer, who lives in Washington, D.C., leads teams of U.S. experts on monitoring visits to Russian facilities that process uranium under the agreement and serves as a policy expert for commercial, legislative and bilateral issues associated with the agreement.
“This is what Russia deemed excess to their national security,” said Wanderer of the 500 tons. “This represents warheads removed from Russian missiles, bombers and submarines. It’s a mutually beneficial program. Russia is getting access to the U.S. market, and we are lighting our homes by eliminating nuclear weapons.”
Wanderer explained that a lot of the fuel is still in the pipeline and is stored in a facility in Paducah, Ky.
“It will be a few years before the final weapons-origin fuel makes it into a power plant,” he said. “The market has seen the end of this (20-year) agreement coming for a long time. Going forward, we won’t have a shortage of nuclear fuel. The nuclear industry has already planned for it.”
His final monitoring trip in September was his 15th. That includes a two-month stay in Siberia in 2008. And how was the notoriously desolate area of Russia?
“Cold and dark,” Wanderer replied. “The coldest was 42 below. I learned that minus 40 is the same in Fahrenheit as it is in Celsius. That’s something that rarely comes up in conversation.”
Persuaded to come to Monmouth by long-time Chicago-area recruiter Peter Pitts, Wanderer was a well-rounded student at Monmouth. He didn’t waver from his original field of study – “Political science was the plan I went in with, but I had no idea what I would end up doing,” he says – but he did get involved in a diverse set of extracurricular activities.
He was involved in behind-the-scenes theatre work, wrote for the Courier newspaper, was a member of the improv group Anvilhead, served as a resident assistant and was president of the student senate for two years.
Two of Wanderer’s political science professors, Ira Smolensky and Farhat Haq, were “a big part of encouraging me to attend graduate school,” which he completed in 2004, receiving his master’s degree in international relations at the highly prestigious University of Chicago.
From 2004 to 2005, he was a Nonproliferation Graduate Fellow at the NNSA, and he then worked two years in Vienna, Austria, as an open source analyst in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Department of Safeguards. He returned to the NNSA in 2007.
“When I lead a U.S. delegation, I don’t need to be the top technical expert,” said Wanderer. “I need to have an expertise in policy, so I know what monitoring rights we have. I need to be able to deal with different disciplines on my team and keep the overall goal of the monitoring visit in mind.”
During his time on campus earlier this month as a Distinguished Alumni Visitor, Wanderer spoke to three classes and noted, “Most people aren’t familiar with the agreement.”
After explaining what it was all about, he made sure that Monmouth students understood three key messages – off-campus opportunities, continued learning and the value of a liberal arts education.
“Take the opportunity to study abroad,” he said, when asked what he stressed to the students. “Also, graduate school is really necessary for careers in international affairs.”
Wanderer also addressed Monmouth’s emphasis on the intersection of science and business.
“If a scientist can’t clearly communicate what they’ve done and what it means, they might as well not have done it,” he said. “Focus on writing and communication skills. For political science students: you’ve got to at least be technically literate, if not an expert.”