When Margarita Villa is at the store with her family shopping in the produce section and they pass by the organic foods, she likes to say that nuclear energy is the organic food of the energy world.
“I like to call it organic energy,” says Villa, a mechanical design engineer at the Limerick Generating Station of Exelon Nuclear in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. “Just like when you go to the store and buy organic tomatoes, nuclear is an organic form of energy. It’s the best quality and cleanest form of energy.”
Exelon Nuclear, a division of Exelon Generation, operates the largest fleet of nuclear plants in America with 21 reactors. Nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gases, so nuclear power plants are helping address climate change, providing 20% of the nation’s electricity and more than 50% of its clean, zero-carbon energy.
Nuclear energy is the only form of carbon-free generation that is always on, 24/7/365. “Nuclear energy is available at all times – even during extreme weather conditions,” Villa explains.
We talked with Villa to find out more about her work in nuclear and its place in current and future energy.
What is your typical day like?
Every day, I prioritize items to go after. I check in on projects and get back to people requesting information. I attend meetings; I love meetings. I get a chance to hear different perspectives and points of view. I enjoy getting quiet people in the room to talk more so everyone has a voice.
I’m a very hands-on person, so my favorite part of the day is when I can do site inspections and lay eyes on a project and get to see people face to face and see them installing what I’ve designed and learn how it’s working or about any challenges they have or how it can be done better. We’re constantly designing products to upgrade the power plant, so that is our focus. We deal with state-of-the-art technology, robust concrete, stainless steel, and other materials so we can build safe, sturdy equipment.
What kind of training brought you to your role?
When I was in college, I studied mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. While I was in heat transfer classes, different companies would come in and talk about what they do. In Colombia, South America, where I’m from, they are rich in coal and oil and don’t have nuclear. So, while I had a lot of opportunity to work in those areas, I wanted my career to be more meaningful. I wanted to make the right choice for the planet. That’s what drove me to choose nuclear. To me, nuclear had what I was looking for: something cool, innovative, and clean.
What’s the most rewarding part of your work?
The opportunity this company gives me to give back to the community and educate others on nuclear energy. During this past summer, I got to educate children through the ACLAMO Summer Camp here at Limerick. We invite the children to a summer camp where they can check out the nuclear plant with their own eyes. ACLAMO provides educational programs, social services, and access to health and wellness programs to Latinos and other community members to empower them to fully achieve their life potential.
What would surprise people most about your work?
The nuclear plant is robustly built with safety and efficiency in mind. We can run year-round – whether there is rain or sun or wind. We have two reactors that produce power every day for two years straight. We shut down one reactor for a couple weeks every other year for upgrades, such as putting new fuel in the core and maintaining the reactor. We are constantly producing power, so 1.5 million homes in the area have guaranteed power.
What kind of career growth is next for you?
For me at the moment, I’m passionate on giving back to the community and letting others know what I’ve done, how I’ve done it, and what careers are possible so they too can join the energy workforce. I want to bring people in my community to the company so they can learn about clean energy, too.
What advice would you give to people interested in getting involved in nuclear energy?
To get a job in nuclear energy, all you really need is a high school degree and a two-year technical degree and that’s really it. We look for people with passion. You don’t necessarily have to be technical; the company will train you. But we want passionate people who care about doing the right things for the planet.