The nuclear energy industry has historically struggled to build commercial reactors on time and within budget. That’s part of the reason why the United States has only managed to bring two new reactors online since the mid-90s.
But with each new reactor built, lessons can be learned and applied to future projects.
One engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is bringing a wealth of knowledge in this area to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Gale Hauck is a new Senior Advisor in the Office of Nuclear Energy. She previously supported the successful construction of three commercial reactors at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in the Abu Dhabi desert.
We sat down with Gale to talk about her experience in helping to build the United Arab Emirates' only nuclear power plant, the challenges she faced, and her advice for women pursuing a career in nuclear energy.
Q: How did you get into nuclear energy?
A: I've always been interested in energy, power, and electricity. I started out my education in electrical engineering but got disillusioned with imaginary numbers and decided nuclear engineering seemed more fun. The more that I learned about nuclear energy, the more I realized how important it is for us, for the environment, and for addressing climate change.
After my undergrad, I worked at Indian Point as a reactor engineer where I experienced everything that happens at an operating plant. After about four years, I moved over to Westinghouse where I had the opportunity to travel all over the world. I eventually ended up on a couple of international assignments in Japan and then at Barakah from 2018 – 2021. After that, I returned to the U.S. to conduct research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and now I’m at DOE.
Q: What was it like working on the Barakah projects?
A: It was pretty intense. I was the Deputy Site Manager for Westinghouse and our scope supported the Koreans with some of the major equipment, such as the reactor coolant pumps, the vessel internals, and instrumentation and control systems. Barakah is near the “empty quarter” in the desert so it’s very hot. It was a three-hour drive from the closest major city in Abu Dhabi, so I would live at the site in the women’s dorm and go to the women’s gym. There were no pork products or alcohol there because it is a Muslim country. We did have a mixed cafeteria, so you were constantly surrounded by colleagues. There were people there from all over the world and we all wanted the project to be successful. I had the privilege of seeing Unit 1 start up, seeing Unit 2 go through most of its early start up testing, and supported projects on the Units 3 and 4. I congratulate all the folks who worked on that project. It’s really exciting to see new nuclear energy coming online.
Q: Was there anything unique about these projects?
A: I think the Barakah projects are the most unique nuclear projects that we've ever seen in the world and maybe we'll ever see. It was such an international collaboration between the Emiratis, the Koreans, and several other countries, including the U.S., who believe in nuclear energy. I was also impressed by the highly educated and motivated young women that worked on the project. I’d say between 20 and 30 percent were women. They were in engineering and operations, and it was a treat to have the opportunity to meet these Emirati women because it was of national importance to them.
Q: What lessons can the U.S. learn from the Barakah projects?
A: I think one of the major lessons learned from Barakah that we haven't necessarily seen as much here in the U.S industry is to not be afraid to bring in the expertise that you need, regardless of where it's coming from. When there was a challenge or an issue at Barakah, the Emirati company was not afraid to bring in resources from the U.S. or other countries. I think this is an important lesson to keep in mind when we're working on our projects. Let’s look at how things were done in other places and why they were successful and let's bring in those lessons learned and that expertise from our partners and friends in other places to make sure that our projects can be successful.
Q: What’s it like being a woman in the nuclear energy sector?
A: I think we often stick out a bit so people tend to know who we are, but we can also be overlooked, especially as an engineer. Sometimes people assume that we're an admin or we're support staff and won't necessarily come to us to ask for our expertise. We have to make our expertise known and be competent to make sure that we’re doing our jobs well and representing ourselves.
Q: What advice do you have for women today who are interested in pursuing a career in the nuclear sector?
A: It's not just nuclear engineers that work in the nuclear energy sector. There are lots of other important jobs. When I worked at an operating plant, there were five or six nuclear engineers at a two-unit site of 1,500 people. There are many more supporting electrical work, pipe fitting, operations, radiological checks, and other important roles. Finding a niche in an area that gets you excited about, where you can contribute, that's the area I recommend looking into for your career. We need people that are excited about science and are good communicators.
Gale Hauck has nearly 20 years of experience in the commercial nuclear industry, supporting all aspects from new construction to decommissioning. Gale has a BS in nuclear engineering and engineering physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a ME nuclear engineering and MBA from Penn State. She is also a student in the PhD Energy Science and Engineering program at University of Tennessee Knoxville.