Ep 158: Susan Landahl - Senior Vice President, Exelon Generation
1) Timestamp 00:54
Brett Kugelmass: So what is your story? How did you get involved in nuclear?
Guest: I grew up loving math and science, so I was pretty sure I wanted to be some kind of engineer, I just didn’t know which kind. I thought about being an agricultural engineer, then I thought about being an industrial engineer. During my upbringing, my father and brother both developed lung cancer, which exposed me to the notion of radiation and nuclear, which ultimately led me on my current path. I went to MIT in Nuclear Engineering in a 5-year co-op program, which allowed me a simultaneous bachelors and masters degree. I had an interest in Radiation Protection, or Health Physics, in nuclear power, which I discussed with a professor in my last year of college. Serendipitously, a new joint program was being initiated between MIT and Harvard School of Public Health for a Master’s in Nuclear Engineering program, with a concentration in Health Physics. Subsequently, I ended up staying another year in a Fellowship with this new program. That program was a great opportunity for the rest of my career and gave me an excellent educational lens for the industry.
2) Timestamp 05:41
Brett Kugelmass: What do you think is wrong in the nuclear industry?
Guest: From the beginning, since nuclear is a somewhat difficult subject to understand, it was seldom mentioned to the public because it wasn’t easily put into simple terms. Even today, the mindset is to lay low and not to draw attention to the industry so as to stay out of trouble. I also find that, generally, engineers tend to be poor communicators that appeal more to the technical side of the industry rather than the emotional one.
3) Timestamp 07:31
Brett Kugelmass: Are there other tactics that other engineering industries have employed for successful communication?
Guest: Certainly! Even the notion of a podcast such as this one is a newfound means of productive communication about the industry. In the past, the only representative allowed to talk to the media on nuclear-related issues was a company spokesperson, which discouraged employees to be proud and vocal about their occupation. Social media, however, has completely taken over the media, so the nuclear industry has to be ready for that just like any industry.
4) Timestamp 09:58
Brett Kugelmass: I got into nuclear primarily in relation to its effects on climate change, and I find that many climate change advocates won’t even dwell on the topic of nuclear, seems hypocritical, don’t you think?
Guest: Well, I believe that in the future, there is no way to meet our climate change goals without the aid of nuclear. It is a very important part of our current energy mix right now, especially considering it’s a constantly reliable energy source makes it vital. While wind, solar, and other renewables are also very important, it doesn’t complete the whole picture.
5) Timestamp 11:18
Brett Kugelmass: So did you end up pursuing the route of the health perspective within nuclear?
Guest: Yes; after going through this fellowship program between MIT and Harvard School of Public Health, I had a great understanding of both the technical side, as well as the health side of the business.
I was still in college when 3-mile-island happened, and my family lived nearby to the plant. So right before I was about to graduate, there arose this great crisis in the industry, and everyone was sure I would change my major. But I saw this as an opportunity because the industry was in need of reliable and educated professionals then more than ever. So after the fellowship, I worked in radiation protection for both a consulting firm, then for Boston Edison Company in administration. Then I went to working within the Pilgrim plant as radiation protection manager, and then I moved into Operations, and was in fact the first woman licensed to operate that plant. Then I moved to Illinois and joined Commonwealth Edison, first in the corporate office, and then the Plant Manager & Site Vice President. At my heart, I love the Operations department.
6) Timestamp 16:40
Brett Kugelmass: When first studying radiation protection, what was the theory on this threshold model? This still seems to be the one thing that the industry is fundamentally split on.
Guest: What I learned is still the basis today, but I am aware of the controversy. Unfortunately, the largest data source is the Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors, the dose of which was exponentially greater than what we see working within a nuclear plant. The dose:effect ratio shows that the more dose they receive, the more serious the effects. So based on the data of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki population, the “linear non-threshold theory” shows that there will still be an effect even at 0 exposure. So we always try to minimize dose received as much as possible within a plant, keeping it all at low enough levels to not adversely impact people.
Prior to that accident, basis probably went back to the Radium Dial Painters: in the early 1900s, people recognized that radium glowed in the dark, so it was utilized for various things such as watches and dials, etc. The dial painters, mostly women, had to dip their brushes in the radioactive Radium, and then lick the brush to get a fine tip for painting. At the time, no one was suspicious; radiation poisoning wasn’t even understood. But eventually, many of these women died as a result of bone cancer from the radium. So this non-threshold theory is one of our first real data sets, though there are a lot of varying factors in reading that data. There is another theory, called radiation hormesis, which claims that low-level radiation is actually good for you: if a cell is already weak, radiation would kill off the weak cell that could potentially develop into a cancer.
7) Timestamp 24:31
Brett Kugelmass: Now that we’ve kind of seen the “worst case scenario”, such as with Fukushima, was there any after thought to revisit emergency planning?
Guest: There have been a lot of lessons learned, across the world, with various equipment available. Has anyone studied the radiation exposure? I’m sure someone has, but the way I see it, our primary focus is simply to keep all of the radioactive material contained.
8) Timestamp 26:38
Brett Kugelmass: You’re on the innovation side of the industry for the future, correct?
Guest: Yes. In the past, many people didn’t believe there was room for innovation in nuclear, and, in certain areas, I agree. The operators should follow procedure. However, there are better ways to conduct business, how to utilize our data most efficiently, and how to most effectively train our employees in a positive experience. One example of innovation in nuclear is virtual reality – If I can put you in a nuclear plant without you leaving your desk, then once you’re in the plant you are more prepared to handle it. Laser mapping also gives us more sophisticated and precise measurements of a plant for more accurate training scenarios. It also allows us to access virtually places within the plant that are usually inaccessible while the plant is operating, such as inside the containment structure, the dry well, or near the reactor. It’s also a great model for teaching and offering group class feedback.
9) Timestamp 30:30
Brett Kugelmass: Do you have any plants that are entirely mapped out?
Guest: We are very close at one – even from our top CEO down, we are always looking towards innovation, we even have a yearly innovation expo, which allows our employees to showcase their ideas. Last year, Damon John came and spoke about innovation, subjects across the entire company – electric cars, drones, etc.
We have 6 business imperatives that form the basis to our yearly strategic planning, things like operational excellence, organizational effectiveness, etc. and in 2016 we’ve added innovation to that list. And we’ve had terrific feedback.
10) Timestamp 34:21
Brett Kugelmass: How do these new innovation ideas develop?
Guest: I’ll give you an example: one new innovation is a laser that removes paint from metal, its very effective. When that concept first appeared, it was going to be very expensive, so first it went through our website called Reinvent, which allows multiple screenings from different teams at different levels. Then, if it gets to be something significant, it goes to our Innovation Review Board, who gives a final review and, in this case, passed the proposal and funded the project – and I’m glad we did. We just tested it and got excellent feedback. You can actually hold the laser, a bit like a leaf blower, and it’s very effective. Some of these innovations are cost effective, others improve safety or reliability. Although we don’t deal directly with our customers, we recognize that they are of vital importance to our business.
11) Timestamp 40:45
Brett Kugelmass: There is this great connection to the customers that everyone must feel, right?
Guest: Yes. And the other thing is that we had a hard hit from the polar vortex this last January. Our plants ran flawlessly through that extreme weather. Other plants find limitations, be it the flow of wind or gas, whatever. And while those may be rare occurrences, we always want our power, especially in those circumstances. Something that struck me is, say, European countries that are opting to shut down their nuclear plants, such as Germany. It makes me feel blessed that we have so many natural resources here in this country. While I don’t think we should be dependent on any one energy source, I also believe that nuclear has so many benefits that it has to be a part of the energy mix in a major way.
There was a lot of emotion after Fukushima, and in Germany’s case, though I don’t know for sure, I think that emotion might have been part of their choice in abandoning nuclear power. It’s surprising to me, though, and a shame, because Germany’s plants were so highly regarded, and its more than a matter of creature comforts, it’s a matter of national security for them, but I wish them the best.
12) Timestamp 48:30
Brett Kugelmass: So where do you see nuclear heading?
Guest: I think more and more people are recognizing the importance of nuclear power in our future. It’s currently still very expensive for many companies to build new plants, especially in the south of the country. MIT did a study looking at nuclear power in a carbon-constrained world, which gave some strong points: the government needs to supply some support, at least in small ways, be it building new plants, new technology, new safety systems, etc. In terms of our current plants, we need to change the market conditions; we need to level the energy playing field, and recognize what nuclear brings to the overall system, and ensure that the adequate financial incentives are in place. I also think the NRC could use some reforms to be more flexible to new design work. If we don’t see these changes in the US, we won’t be the leading model for nuclear in the future.