B.S., Radiological Health, 1986
Major General, Retired
Blue Den Ranch, co-owner
The worst nuclear disaster in history happened in April 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. Two months later, newly commissioned U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Julie Bentz — who had just graduated from Oregon State University, where she studied radiological health science — headed to Europe to help with the disaster. With the depth of experience she gained during that time, and in many subsequent years developing federal nuclear defense strategy, she was among the first to get a call in 2011 when Japan experienced the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Bentz said, “Those of us with experience at Chernobyl were able to oversee a new generation of nuclear experts in disaster response. This is where Oregon State University has a critical role to play.”
“We have to be serious about making sure we have people trained in (the nuclear) field. Oregon State University is one of the few places that can take on that important role.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Julie Bentz, Ph.D., served for more than three decades in active and reserve military and National Guard commissioned service. She served at the White House with multiple appointments between 2004 and 2019 to the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council, including as senior advisor for emerging technologies and director of strategic capabilities. At different times, she also held several roles in the Department of Defense at the Pentagon.
“I’m still in awe that I had the opportunity to work in the same policy realm through three presidential administrations,” Bentz said.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks renewed serious attention on nuclear power. After the power plant disasters and the end of the Cold War, nuclear studies atrophied. When Bentz was at Oregon State, 62 universities had a nuclear research reactor affiliated with their engineering programs; fewer than half that number are in operation today.
“If there is a future crisis, our communities are going to rely heavily on the nuclear engineering program at OSU,” she said.
Bentz feels strongly about promoting STEM learning success in the U.S. as a national security issue. During her time in the White House, she was in frequent communication with Oregon State faculty about recruiting and retaining students to the sciences.
Now retired, Bentz has returned to Oregon with her husband to live on her family’s 700-acre forestry farm and fish hatchery, the oldest privately owned hatchery in the state. She believes the current crop of nuclear engineers will be in high demand, not only to design and provide safe operation of plants to meet increasing energy needs, but also for technical expertise in nuclear weapons nonproliferation, countering nuclear terrorism, and managing increasingly complex relationships with the world’s other major nuclear superpowers, Russia and China. “Nuclear is a broad field; it’s more than a reactor, it’s more than energy,” Bentz said. “OSU can ensure that we have people who are ready to provide advice, expertise, and information support to lead our national policies.”
Bentz came to Oregon State from the small community of Jordan, Oregon on an ROTC scholarship. Though she initially thought she wanted to study nuclear engineering, she ultimately chose radiological health sciences. “I loved it,” she said. “We focused on the impact radiation has on living tissue, which proved timely.”
Bentz enjoyed her studies, but laughingly remembers nearly starting a citywide panic in Corvallis. She was checking emergency kits at a hospital and casually mentioned to a receptionist that a container of Radiacwash decontaminant had burst. By the time she got back to campus, the president of the hospital was on the phone with Art Johnson, then director of Oregon State’s Radiation Center, asking if the hospital needed to be evacuated.
“I learned how important communication is, especially in this field; never assume our lexicon is the same as others’,” she said.
Bentz built on her Oregon State education with a master’s degree in health physics and a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the University of Missouri. She also received a master’s degree in national security strategy from the National War College at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and an honorary doctorate from Oregon State.
“It’s been my philosophy that when a door opens, go through it, then look around at the things that need to be done, and do them. Then go through the next door that opens and repeat the process.”