Susan Sallade

I have been a nuclear plant worker for over 30 years. I am a Nuclear Engineer, Trainer, Manager, and Senior Reactor Operator. But the most rewarding title I have ever held is that of “mom.” 

I was in high school in Florida in 1979 when Three Mile Island made the news, and questions about nuclear power began spinning around in my head. I had aptitude in engineering, was fascinated by the technology, and had a passion to learn more. I became a nuclear engineer and started working in the operations department of a nuclear power plant.

There were very few professional females in the plant 30 years ago, and when I certified as a Senior Reactor Operator, I was one of only six women in the nation holding that title. The industry was definitely male-dominated, and I struggled for years to find my place. The job was challenging but rewarding, and was my primary focus until I became a mother. That’s when I began working part-time. I left my position in the plant’s Control Room and began training the site’s operators. It enabled me to have reduced and flexible hours, and I was able to play a more active role in my daughters’ childhood. From our backyard, we could see the water vapor plumes rising from the site’s cooling towers.

Sometimes friends and family would ask about the safety of the plant; my answer always seemed obvious to me… I would never raise my children so close to anything that I perceived as potentially harmful. If fact, I strongly believe that nuclear power is not only safe but also our most viable clean source of energy. 

While I was fortunate to have a great job and flexible hours, being a single mother still felt like a juggling act. My daughters occasionally came to work with me in our training center. They had drawers cluttered with art supplies, children’s games, and snacks in my office. They could watch me teach from behind one-way glass in our control room simulator, and though it was many years ago, they still remember coming to Mom’s office.

We also spent a lot of time outdoors, swimming, hiking, and exploring. I was the Girl Scout Leader, and we began camping when they were about 4 years old; those experiences helped mold our appreciation for the environment. My daughters are grown now, and chasing their own education and careers, but we still enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. Last year we hiked into the Grand Canyon and camped in its basin. Lying beneath the stars and looking up at the canyon walls shaped my life perspective in ways that are difficult for a scientific mind to explain.

This month I will begin backpacking the Appalachian Trail with one of my lifelong friends. She and I have hiked together for years, but I am looking forward to the challenge with an unlikely mixture of exhilaration and uneasiness. The trek is a bit of a leap for a woman with a desk job and an AARP card, but I know it will add to the collection of experiences and education that has shaped me as a nuclear professional, a nature lover, a woman, and a mother. And, as I look back over my life, I realize that I have finally found my place.

“The beauty of our environment is something to be protected for future generations.” —Susan Sallade