TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is getting good at celebrating firsts. In June 2016, Unit 2 became the first new U.S. nuclear reactor to connect to the grid in the 21st century, with enough megawatts to power 650,000 homes. June 2020 brings another first for the plant with the first woman in TVA nuclear to be selected as plant manager.
TVA values a diverse workforce, and there are currently women serving in a variety of leadership roles enterprise-wide from supervisor to executive vice president. In nuclear alone there are 45 women in leadership positions.
To date, more women have flown in space than have managed a nuclear power plant. As of early 2020, 65 space travelers have been women. Jhansi Kandasamy, chair of U.S. Women in Nuclear, estimates less than 10 nuclear plant managers in the entire history of nuclear power plants have been women. As of 2020, there are 60 plant managers at commercial nuclear power plants across the nation, and of those only 4 currently have a woman in the role.
“I am proud to be a part of the U.S. WIN initiative to help close the gender gap in the executive ranks with the Leadership Cohort Program,” says Kandasamy. “Three of the twelve women in the program have been promoted to plant managers, and they were the only three plant managers currently in the role in the industry, until Beth. I am excited TVA has taken the steps to identify and promote an extremely qualified leader.”
Beth Jenkins assumes the role of Watts Bar Nuclear plant manager after serving as the site’s director of engineering the past three years. It’s a responsibility Jenkins earned based on 21 years of experience, expertise, passion and commitment to nuclear energy — with the assistance of both quality mentors and teammates along the way.
So How Did She Get Here?
“Since my first job in nuclear at Bechtel, I’ve had mangers all along the way who encouraged me and knew I aspired for a leadership role,” says Jenkins. “More than any one person, I give credit to a number of supportive mangers and mentors who encouraged me to further my education and to take the initial (reactor operator) license training that altered the course of my career and directed me to where I am today.”
Jenkins was focused on engineering from the start, earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in Indiana, and then a master’s degree in engineering from Union College in New York. Her career began when she went to work for Bechtel, where she supported projects for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear fleet.
She then moved to commercial nuclear generation and into nuclear plant operations, earning her Senior Reactor Operator license at the Dresden Generating Station in Illinois.
“Safety is the number one priority with every role at the station. In operations, your focus is always the safe operation of the plant,” says Jenkins. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but you also understand that an entire region is depending on the low-cost, reliable, carbon-free electricity your site is producing around the clock. That’s something you never take for granted.”
One of the most challenging career decisions Jenkins made was moving to TVA and leaving Dresden Station near Chicago as her family grew. “My family and I love the outdoors. We had visited Tennessee and knew it was the right time to make the change for our family. It was a tough decision to leave, but we love the people and our home in the mountains.”
Jenkins initial role with TVA was as an engineering program manager who supported all three TVA nuclear plants, helping to ensure reliability of plant systems and equipment. In 2016, she joined the Watts Bar site team, first as plant support director then as plant engineering director.
Through her career progression, Jenkins noted that words of support and encouragement often carried her through her challenging decisions. “Give the best in the job you are in now, even if it’s not where you want to be going forward,” she says. “The behaviors you exhibit are what carry you forward. New opportunities might not always be comfortable, but don’t be afraid to step out. The most challenging roles tend to be where we learn and grow the most.”
The Value of Teamwork
Jenkins said another lesson she’s learned from her time in the nuclear industry is the power of teamwork — be it at the plant site or at home while raising her family.
“It takes teamwork at work and teamwork at home, just like everyone else who works in nuclear or other demanding careers. My husband and I have three children ranging in age from 8 to 17, and we do what works for us knowing that work/life balance isn’t a one size fits all approach,” says Jenkins. “I am fortunate to have the support of my family and we communicate and adapt as we go.”
“At the same time, being selected for this opportunity as Watts Bar’s plant manger is my proudest career accomplishment. I care a lot about the people at Watts Bar and continuing to be a part of improving Watts Bar’s performance. There is a lot of great teamwork happening here. I’m committed to bringing my best to the Watts Bar team and I’m thankful that the choices I’ve made — and the support I’ve had — during my career have helped bring me to this opportunity to serve at TVA.”