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Nuclear Industry Professionals Shoulder Responsibility Early in Careers

Dec. 23, 2013—Some industries may be wedded to the idea that growth and leadership opportunities are tied more to age and career longevity than to an employee’s individual talents and personality.

The nuclear energy industry isn’t one of them.

Evidence comes through the experiences of two young engineers working on one of the new designs for small modular reactors—an innovative technology that holds great promise for the nation’s energy future.

Kate Haggerty graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May 2012 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering. She went right to work for Babcock & Wilcox mPower Inc. (B&W) in Lynchburg, Va. She began her career at B&W working on systems design and integration, specifically the emergency core cooling system (ECCS) of B&W’s small reactor design, the mPower.

Right from the start, Haggerty was given a lot of responsibility that included two major presentations and reports on the ECCS, one of the most important aspects of a nuclear power plant.

She worked as part of a team producing diagrams, reports and calculations for the ECCS in support of the reactor’s design certification. B&W expects to submit that application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2014. Less than two years into her working career, Haggerty became the lead on the ECCS. She also frequently engages with other engineers within and outside the company on various design and test plans.

Among the many redundant layers of safety and reliability that are built into a reactor design in order to meet NRC standards, Haggerty says, “the ECCS is the last line of defense in the operation of a nuclear plant.”

“It’s a system we hope never has to operate in a plant. I’ve not worked in other industries, but I can’t imagine that an emergency system in any other industry is designed at this level,” she added.

Kate Haggerty helps design safety systems for B&W’s mPower small modular reactor.

Emily Wheeler does have the perspective of working in another industry. She supports Haggerty’s view that the nuclear industry is unique in many ways, especially with its emphasis on safety. Wheeler is involved in the instrumentation and controls and simulation engineering group at B&W, where she helped develop and implement the mPower main control room human–system interface prototype and assists in managing the main control room prototype.

Wheeler graduated from West Virginia University in 2007 with Bachelor of Science degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering. She went to work out of college in the aerospace-defense industry on fighter jet technology. Wheeler came to B&W in April 2011.

“Safety was obviously a high priority to protect the pilot and a multi-million dollar aircraft, but safety was on par with reliability, affordability and maintainability,” Wheeler says. “I found that the nuclear industry stresses safety above everything else because of the potential wide impact of an incident with a plant.”

The upward mobility of these engineers isn’t by chance. Rather it’s a case of, as the adage suggests, “luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” They came into their careers with an excellent base of knowledge from rigorous academic programs, but that’s just the foundation.

As is the case with the overall nuclear industry, B&W provides resources for additional technical and leadership training that helps Haggerty, Wheeler and others develop and enhance their career skills. They work alongside experienced industry veterans and the company encourages strong mentor relationships. The training and experience also encompass various aspects of marketing and communications with potential customers and governments worldwide.

For example, representatives from many international government and private corporations have recently toured the Lynchburg facility to get a closer look at the mPower reactor. Wheeler was a presenter to many of these delegations.

“Since I work on the control room we have many interested customers and utilities that we bring to Lynchburg, and I participate in tours once or twice a week,” Wheeler says. “I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to interested parties from diverse specialties. We try to tailor presentations to their background.”

B&W Engineer Emily Wheeler monitoring the prototype mPower simulator in the main control room.

In addition to B&W’s mPower, other vendors are developing small reactor designs, including Holtec International, NuScale Power and Westinghouse. Small reactors are attracting significant attention, with their modular design and small size (300 megawatts or less of generating capacity). They are not substitutes for larger reactors, but as they can be added as needed to match growth in electricity demand they are capable of producing electricity for thousands of homes and businesses. Small reactors also can be used for process heat applications and water purification, have great potential for developing countries with small power grids, and have a shorter construction timeline that reduces costs.

For young engineers like Haggerty and Wheeler, there is a certain futuristic aspect and appeal to working in the nuclear industry similar to that of an earlier generation of engineers who worked on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space efforts in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“This is an incredibly exciting time to be a young engineer in the nuclear industry. The people within this organization have been very willing to teach me and the other young mPower engineers,” Haggerty says. “My manager promotes advancement in his engineering team by providing opportunities that are challenging as a result of the fast-paced nature of the project and work environment. But this has helped me to learn quickly and to develop skills unique to the project and the nuclear industry.”

Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, Nuclear Energy Institute’s senior manager for strategic workforce planning (and an engineer by training), has been heavily involved with nuclear workforce issues for many years. She sees a bright present and even brighter future for young nuclear professionals.

“Kate and Emily are perfect examples of how smart, young engineers can quickly thrive in the nuclear energy field,” McAndrew-Benavides says. “Nuclear is an industry where those who work hard are rewarded for helping others achieve a high quality of life through access to clean and reliable electricity.”