Exelon Generation Senior Training Instructor Mark Rasmussen came to Byron Station in 1982 to help with the initial startup of the plant’s two nuclear units. Thirty-five years later, and almost 1,000 miles away in Waynesboro, Georgia, Mark’s daughter Suzy is busy with a nuclear startup project of her own – working as a Mechanical Field Engineer for Southern Co. on the new Vogtle Units 3 and 4.
Similar beginnings in the nuclear industry, yes, but the paths to their respective careers have been quite different.
“I joined the nuclear industry almost by accident,” Mark says. “I needed some help paying for college, and since my small town had no corporate organizations that offered scholarships, and I wasn’t about to get a scholarship playing quarterback at the University of Wisconsin, I applied for an ROTC scholarship from the Air Force.”
Mark was convinced he wanted to become as astronomer but soon found the Air Force didn’t really need any astronomers; though it did have room for nuclear engineers. Studying nuclear engineering was intriguing for Rasmussen, and the job market was better than it was for astronomers. “So, I stuck with nuclear engineering as a career; one of the best choices I ever made!”
Upon graduation Mark was fortunate to have a plant under construction not too far from his home in southern Wisconsin. He came to Byron Station in 1982 and was excited to work at a plant under construction. Byron Unit 1 eventually went online in 1985 and Unit 2 in 1987.
“I wanted to see the ‘bones’ of the place as it was built,” he said. “I wanted to be able to see, touch, and in some cases actually climb inside of components that are too radioactive to touch at an operating plant. And I wanted to work on the newest and most modern facility available.”
When Mark’s daughter Suzy approached him about wanting to study nuclear engineering at UW-Madison, he initially thought she was pulling his leg. “She had never expressed more than a polite interest in my career.”
Suzy’s entrance into the nuclear industry might stem from growing up just a few miles from a nuclear power plant – and correcting misinformation from others when they would hear where she lived.
“The annoying questions I would get from misinformed peers at inter-school events were always irritating,” Suzy said. “Things like, ‘Do you have three-eyed fish? Do you glow at night?’ I like to think I went into nuclear to gain the knowledge to rise above all that.”
Suzy interned at Byron in the Engineering department in 2011 and 2012. She graduated from Wisconsin in 2014 with a BS in nuclear engineering and engineering physics. Then came the difficult decision of where to start a career.
“When she was faced with the tough choice of starting her career at Byron or at Vogtle I was torn,” Mark said. “It would have been wonderful to see my daughter join the team here at Byron, to do the ‘dad thing’ and help guide her through the first years of her career. In the end I think she made the right choice for herself by going to Vogtle and helping build a new plant. Her choice affirms the choices I myself made so many years ago. I can’t think of anything she could do that would make me more proud of her.”
Suzy is currently seconded (on loan) to Bechtel to support the construction of Vogtle 3, assigned to the Unit 3 Turbine Building – specifically supporting the installation of all mechanical equipment including the structural and piping work of the condensers.
“In my role I perform inspections and verifications of field activities, initiate design changes and resolve field non-conformances,” she said. “I also order material, revise work packages, interface with vendors and more. I spend a lot of time working with Design Engineering and interfacing with onsite vendor representatives to make sure the equipment is installed per design and with the best chance of successful operation.”
Even though her career is just beginning, Suzy is already taking physical and mental notes about the plant’s construction. Being on site at the beginning means her knowledge in future years will be vital for newer workers.
“While interning at Byron, the people who were a part of construction and start-up were almost revered for their knowledge,” she said. “They were the go-to people for questions about the history behind why a system operated in a certain way, or the arrangement of something now hidden forever behind another component. I am so lucky to be a part of installing all the equipment in the Turbine Building at Vogtle, and I already see myself collecting all the stories about why things are the way they are.”
Last week Southern Co. took actions to prepare for Hurricane Michael, which drenched the area but did not cause any major issues at Vogtle. Living in the South means possible hurricanes and hotter summers, but Suzy said there are upsides.
“My brother lives close enough to be able to spend the occasional weekend or holiday together,” she said. “Plus, with half my parents’ kids down south, it’s easier to convince them to visit us rather than us always having to go back to Byron!”
On her calls back home, conversations with her father eventually turn to work. “One of my favorite things to do is talk to my dad about what I am experiencing at work. I love telling him my adventures supporting construction and getting to touch/see things that will be impossible once we start up,” she said. “He helped start up Byron, so I think hearing me so excited at my plant’s progress and future reminds him of when he started working with ComEd.”
Suzy has also continued her work with young students, helping establish the Vogtle 1-4 Women In Nuclear (WIN) group, speaking in a local high school career symposium on school STEM (science, technology, engineering & math), and volunteering with Technical Women in Georgia (TWIG) – another Georgia Power employee group.
“I think while we are moving towards a future where there are more females in tech and science careers, we are not where we need to be yet,” Suzy said. “I volunteer so much because I want to show young women that having a career in STEM is more than beakers, lab coats and chalkboards. It’s solving problems, working with people, and helping the world.”
Mark has been a mainstay for every Byron tour, open house and family day. His interactions with visitors and positive manner in educating the guests is something that has transferred to his daughter’s skillset.
“When Suzy was an undergrad in college, she would come and help me with the simulator tours during Byron Open House events,” Mark said. “At one of these events, a group of Girl Scouts asked Suzy to talk to them about being an engineer and STEM careers.
“I watched her give this talk, and these young girls and their parents were absolutely enthralled. Suzy confidently and eloquently explained why STEM was important, how women were traditionally not well-represented in STEM fields, but how that was all changing as young women were entering these fields in ever-growing numbers. These girls are probably college age by now, and I would not be surprised in the least if some of these girls had decided on studying in a STEM field, perhaps inspired in part by Suzy’s talk at Byron when they were 12 or 13 years old.”
A new generation of nuclear workers using the knowledge and experience from their predecessors to inspire today’s youth into STEM careers. Perhaps the current challenges of the nuclear industry in America are just that – challenges. With a new group of workers ready to meet them head-on.