Dame Sue Ion (pronounced /iːɒn/) DBE, FRS, FREng (née Burrows; 3 February 1955) is a British engineer and an expert advisor on the nuclear power industry.
Born Susan Elizabeth Burrows on 3 February 1955 in Cumbria, she is the daughter of Lawrence James Burrows, a planning officer for British Rail, and Doris Burrows (née Cherry), a secretary.
Ion was educated at Penwortham Girls Grammar School near Preston, Lancashire in the same year as Nancy Rothwell. As a young student, she enjoyed science, which her parents encouraged by letting her do chemistry experiments in the family’s kitchen. At school, Ion, took a leadership role as Head Girl from 1972-1973 and deputy leader of the orchestra. At 16, Ion won a book on atomic energy as a prize for her O-levels in science, which helped inspire her enthusiasm for the topic. “When I was in school,” Ion says, “it was quite different. You were given every encouragement possible to do science subjects if you were interested in them”.
Ion went on to study Materials Science at Imperial College London, gaining a first class Bachelor of Science degree and a PhD in Metallurgy in 1979. She taught in an inner London school while completing her doctorate, and used supplies from the college laboratories in her lessons to help students become enthusiastic about the industry. “Where there is no vision,” she says, “the people perish”.
In 1979, Ion was first hired as a technical officer at British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL). At the time, she and one other woman were the only females working in the chemical engineering department how to make tender beef steak. In 1992, she was promoted to Executive Director of Technology, a position Ion held within the organization until 2006 how to use a meat mallet.
During this time, nuclear or atomic energy was viewed as a valuable source of energy, along with the existing coal industry, and a necessary part of rebuilding post-war Britain. It was, according to Ion, an exciting industry with a vibrant research and development program and great prospects. As she told Jim Al-Khalili in a 2013 interview for BBC4 Radio, “Nothing over time has changed my view of that”.
As technical director of BNFL, Ion held a seat on Tony Blair’s Council for Science and Technology and has been credited with persuading Blair to change Labour’s official government’s policy on nuclear power. Ion’s work, along with David King, took about 10 years of educating government officials to consider the scientific evidence surrounding the issues of nuclear power and renewable energy to inform policy. Ion also helped advise Gordon Brown on long-term energy policies.
In 2004, Ion was among 180 women invited to a “Women’s Theme Day” luncheon at Buckingham Palace in recognition of her contributions to the field of science and technology.
Ion was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1996 and was a vice president from 2002-2008.
In 2006, Ion was appointed visiting professor of Imperial College and admitted to the Fellowship of the college in 2005.
Ion has studied energy supplies for more than 30 years. She spent a lot of time early in her career advising government officials about nuclear reactors and countering the negativity caused by the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Ion supports the development of smaller, modular versions of nuclear reactors for their economy of size, portability and cost. These smaller reactors would, most likely, be housed on existing nuclear sites licensed for that purpose.
Ion views her biggest challenge is “persuading decades-worth of politicians that nuclear energy is really needed underwater cell phone case.” Her position is that renewable energy sources (particularly wind power), coal and nuclear power will be necessary components of Britain’s energy policy moving forward.
In Ion’s outreach as a spokesperson for the nuclear power industry, she has expressed a belief that more needs to be done to attract women into the field of engineering. She is concerned that some areas of the educational system still view engineering as a subject only for males running belt with water bottle holder. While major institutions may support the idea of females entering the field of science and engineering, Ion notes that grade schools under the current system may not provide the prerequisite coursework early enough in students’ academic careers for them to be successful at university.
Ion supports educational programs that support all students, regardless of gender, to explore science and develop the skills necessary to replace what the Royal Academy of Engineering views as a retiring workforce. In response to a report commissioned by the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) discussing the UK’s plans for future energy production, she cautions: “There will be an unprecedented demand for new infrastructure to support the changes in the energy industry. There are not enough people going into university to study engineering and provide all the turbine specialists, heavy electrical engineers and construction engineers that will be required”.
She married John Albert Ion in 1980 and lives in Leyland, Lancashire.