Dr. Rita Baranwal is the new assistant secretary for nuclear energy, making her the first woman to lead the office at the U.S. Department of Energy.
As a strong advocate for nuclear energy, she brings more than 20 years of experience in the nuclear field and takes over a $1.3 billion portfolio to promote the research and development of current and advanced nuclear technologies.
We sat down with our new boss to hear her thoughts on the current state of the industry and her vision for what’s ahead.
Q: How did you get involved in the nuclear field?
A: Sort of by happenstance. All of my degrees are in material science and engineering. When I was applying for jobs out of grad school, the internet was just getting started. I got a letter from a head hunter asking me to fill out a form to match me up with potential employers. I eventually got an interview with Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.
I remember walking into the HR office apologizing. I said, “I am very sorry. I don’t have any idea what you do here.” They said, “That’s how we like it.” Throughout the day I went around, met with folks, toured the labs and I realized I really wanted to work at this place. They had fantastic, state-of-the-art equipment to do materials research. I accepted their job offer and haven’t left the industry since.
Q: How did your previous experience prepare you for this role that you’re stepping into?
A: I came to this role from Idaho National Lab where I was the GAIN [Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear] director. We created private-public partnerships for advanced nuclear technologies, intending for them to be commercialized faster and more cost-effectively.
Before that, I spent almost 10 years at Westinghouse Electric Corporation working on advanced nuclear fuel research and development projects, and leading Core Engineering and R&D departments. Prior to that, I spent nearly 10 years at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory developing advanced nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines.
I’m very fortunate to have experience both in the public and private sector in this field. Understanding what American nuclear companies are working on is important to me, and I think it is important to this role that we better understand what they’re trying to deliver and commercialize.
Q: What are your top priorities in this new role?
A: I would like to have something built by 2025 to, with a sense of urgency, show not only the United States, but the rest of the world that we are still a powerhouse in this arena. This would likely be a micro-reactor or small modular reactor.
We need to demonstrate technology much sooner rather than later to validate that we are still at the top of our game. The U.S. has been developing advanced designs for several years. We have the technology and we have the expertise, but we need to deliver something.
My perception is that, globally, we are getting bypassed by other countries that are building and selling comprehensive packages faster. They are not going to wait for the United States. We are struggling to keep up and some of our policies are getting in the way. We invented this technology, so we are certainly capable of maintaining our leadership.
Another priority is to change the way this country values nuclear energy. It’s not the cheapest option right now, but over its lifetime it is the most valuable piece of our domestic energy portfolio. We need to look at things over the long haul and assess the benefits in a 10-year or 50-year plan.
Finally, it’s absolutely critical (pun intended) that we maintain our current fleet of robust reactors and develop new advanced technologies and supply chains to expand U.S. nuclear innovations around the world.
Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge stepping into this role?
A: The biggest barrier is trying to get the many entities involved in nuclear technology development to collaborate.
There are lots of different players in this field. There are private technology developers, private reactor developers, all of our national labs, universities…so there’s a lot of competition. I think to develop this 2025 project, we’re going to all have to come together, and some compromise will be required. Whether that looks like joint ventures or mergers in terms of the private industry space, something has to give. We cannot succeed if we have 60+ companies competing at the same time.
Q: As the first woman assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, what was your experience like working in a predominantly male field? And how did it shape your career?
A: It taught me to be tougher probably earlier than I might have if I had more women counterparts. I had to learn pretty quickly that if I didn’t speak up, and if I didn’t sit at the table, I wouldn’t get acknowledged. I learned a little faster on how to interact in this business.
Q: What advice would you have for young women who might want to join the nuclear energy field or any kind of STEM field?
A: I would say YES. Do that. Join us here.
We need more diversity of thought in this industry. It’s getting better in terms of demographics as far as not always being the only woman in a meeting. The real sign of progress is when there’s a line for the women’s restroom during a break at a nuclear-energy related conference!
Do what you want to do, not what others think you should be doing. My advice would be if you are in this field, sit at the table. Don’t take the seat that is at the perimeter of the room. When you attend a meeting, do so with a purpose. Show up on time, sit at the table (or in the front), and engage. If you can’t do those things, maybe you should ask yourself “why am I even here?”
Q: What legacy would you like to leave behind? What accomplishment would you like to be known for?
A: I would like to be responsible for entering into additional 123 Agreements. This would demonstrate that the U.S. is serious about wanting to export U.S. nuclear energy goods, in addition to helping advance our strong nonproliferation principles.
Dr. Baranwal holds a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She earned her master's degree and Ph.D. in the same discipline from the University of Michigan. Her solid background in nuclear fuel as a material engineer and her leadership in Nuclear Fuel, Core Engineering, and Innovative Nuclear R&D have made her a prominent name in the nuclear community.