When Susan Landahl decided to pursue her reactor operator license in the 1980’s, there were no women in Operations to help her navigate the male-dominated field. Landahl helped change that for all of Exelon’s nuclear fleet and many others in the industry.
She became the first woman to receive an operating license at the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant in Massachusetts. It was the first in a series of “firsts” she would achieve during a 36-year career in nuclear that came to a close with her retirement earlier this month.
“Thank you for refusing to be dismissed, denied, dissuaded or ignored on any and all topics,” Susan Korn, vice president of Nuclear Project Management, said during a virtual send-off celebration for Landahl. “Thank you for opening the doors that the rest of us gratefully pass through. Thank you for rocking boats, for beating drums and for questioning what many people take for granted.”
Landahl became the first female plant manager and then the first female site vice president in Exelon’s fleet and has held a long series of leadership positions. She’s purposefully leveraged all her accomplishments to inspire women in the nuclear industry, especially through her strong involvement in the Women in Nuclear (WIN) and NAYGN organizations.
“I have always thought, what good is it to be the first female plant manager if you become the only female plant manager?” Landahl said. “I think it’s sometimes very hard to imagine something you’ve never seen, so I think it becomes even more important when you begin achieving these things to encourage others. That helps other women out there to say, ‘I could become plant manager or site vice president or even chief nuclear officer.’”
Landahl attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She declared her major in nuclear engineering shortly after the Three Mile Island accident, and many people around her were surprised she didn’t change course. But Landahl knew early on she wanted to be an engineer, and she was particularly drawn to nuclear and the study of radiation after her father and older brother developed cancer while she was in high school.
She started her nuclear career at Pilgrim but joined ComEd in 1999 as Corporate Radiation Protection Manager with oversight of five Illinois plants. The next year ComEd merged with Philadelphia Electric Company to form Exelon. Landahl then moved to site positions at LaSalle, where she worked her way up to the position of site vice president. Landahl said her time at LaSalle was a highlight in her career because she worked with a great team to bring the plant back to successful operations.
“I came at the beginning of 2002 and the plant had just come back online, and the organization there was really beaten down. There were employees there who hadn’t had a day off in three years,” she recalled. “I came in with a different approach and not knowing the ins and outs of that particular plant, I had to rely on everyone else’s knowledge. But it took a while for people to believe ‘I do care what you think.’ I’m going to ask for your input and I’m going to use it.”
Landahl has held numerous corporate positions in Exelon’s nuclear organization, most recently as senior vice president for Organizational Effectiveness and Integrated Performance Assessment. She also spent time as a loaned executive at INPO.
“There is no one in the nuclear industry who has had the career you’ve had – the awards, the accolades and the accomplishments,” said Marri Marchionda-Palmer, who has stepped into the SVP role that Susan is leaving. “It’s like the ‘Kevin Bacon game.’ All roads lead to Susan.”
One of Landahl’s guiding principles is owning – but not being owned by – the decisions you make.
“I’ve never really regretted any decision I’ve made because I always say I made the best decision with the information I had at the time,” she said. “That’s not the same as saying I haven’t made mistakes, but I don’t dwell on it. I think that especially for women, there’s a tendency to feel the need to apologize 50 times for some small mistake. Don’t do that. Say you’re sorry and move on.”
Landahl served as a mentor to hundreds of employees during her tenure, including Deb McBreen, director of Organizational Performance and Regulatory Affairs at LaSalle.
“I started in 2004 at LaSalle Station under Susan and she’s mentored me at many key points through my career,” McBreen recalled during the virtual send off. “I remember standing in a Target parking lot for about an hour as she tried to convince me to go to Initial License Training, and I wasn’t sure because my husband was going to ILT training. At the end of the conversation, Susan just said, “I’m just going to let Shane (Marik) know I recommend you.” Needless to say, I went to the training, and now I’m on the senior leadership team at LaSalle.
“I forgot about that Target conversation,” Landahl replied. “It’s just proof you can mentor anywhere.”
And she has.