News & Insights

22.01.20

Nuclear Future talks to Gwen Parry-Jones, Chief Executive of Magnox and incoming President of the Nuclear Institute

"We have to make sure that we offer role models and career paths”

 “It’s quite a departure from what I was doing before because for all of my career I’ve either been involved in operating nuclear power stations or in future plans to build new nuclear power stations...” 

Gwen Parry-Jones may only be a few months into her new job but, in a way, she has come full circle.

“I first worked for Magnox 30 years ago at the beginning of my career,” she says. “So I started at Wylfa in 1989, and I left Magnox 24 years ago. After all that time I’ve come back again and I’ve been in post since July.” As chief executive of Magnox and incoming President of the Nuclear Institute, Gwen has a lot on her plate. But she is enjoying every minute. “I’ve been reacquainting myself with all the stations and sites and the people but also refreshing my knowledge of where we’ve got up to in terms of their decommissioning missions. I’ve been delighted to find great progress in a lot of areas.”

She adds: “It’s quite a departure from what I was doing before because for all of my career I’ve either been involved in operating nuclear power stations or in future plans to build new nuclear power stations. So coming to the other end of the life cycle is quite different but, in some ways, very familiar. We all came from the same DNA effectively so a lot of the people and the issues and processes feel very familiar. In some ways it’s a little bit like coming home. Hopefully I can bring what I’ve learned from other things back into this arena of decommissioning, and they can teach me a lot too.”

 NEW STRUCTURE

Magnox became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in September after ownership transferred from the parent body organisation, Cavendish Fluor Partnership. It marks a new approach to managing the UK’s 13 Magnox sites – 10 former Magnox nuclear power stations, two nuclear research sites and a hydroelectric plant. But it’s not just the approach which is new, as Gwen explains. “In terms of being a subsidiary of the NDA,we’ve got a brand new executive team in place because the previous team was supplied by the contract partner. “I’m really pleased about the diversity in the team as well as the experience and capability of the whole team. There are four female members of a team so it’s a good diversity ratio, and these are very experienced people.”

 DIVERSIFICATION

Needless to say, when Gwen began her career as a reactor physicist at Magnox’s Wylfa power station in the late 1980s, diversity wasn’t top of the industry’s agenda. However, it didn’t stop her from becoming the first woman in the UK to run a nuclear power station (at Heysham 1 in 2008) and nor did it hinder her progress which has included roles as a director at EDF Energy as well as operational development director for Horizon Nuclear Power. She was also awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to science and technology. As for the future, her focus is very much on Magnox. “We have a clear mission which is to decommission the sites that we look after... What’s in front of us is clear, it’s hazard reduction work to enable decommissioning.” She continues: “I have three aspects to my job. The first is to decommission the Magnox fleet. The second is to look at the engagement and cultural aspects because we have to make sure that we keep offering the right things to our staff and people are feeling that they fit in here. The third part is potentially to earn the right to be involved in future things, whatever they may be, because if you think about it I have a couple of thousand of people who have a huge skill in decommissioning… How do we leverage that for the UK?” Licensed under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, Magnox has played a pivotal role in the UK’s energy requirements.

Gwen says: “Magnox was a great servant to the UK infrastructure. Quietly away, the units generated a huge amount of the UK’s electricity for 50 years or more. That’s almost been forgotten and I want to celebrate that with my staff because I’m really proud of what they did.” And what of Gwen’s past? What made her want to work in the nuclear industry?

“I was always fascinated by physics and the science of why things work… I had a really good physics teacher who was an academic enthusiast. I also come from a family of scientists so everybody was interested in how things worked. It became a natural progression. I ended up being offered a job as a reactor physicist at Wylfa and I remember being so excited on my first day of work about the unique responsibility of something I feel is so important to do properly. I’m definitely a nuclear geek.”

 NEW PRESIDENT

Her self-confessed nuclear geekery will stand her in good stead as the new President of the NI. And it’s also worth noting that Gwen is the first female President of the institute in its current form. Does she think it’s important to encourage more women to work in the nuclear industry? “I think we need the best of everything and we’re not going to get that from just having 50% of the population involved. Therefore we have to make sure that we offer role models and career paths. People often look to see if there’s “someone like me” in that organisation, for me it’s really important that there is some visibility and people can see that there’s someone like them there.” The presidency is a two-year term and Gwen is looking forward to it. “One of the key things that the institute offers is to do with connecting people. Where else in the industry has people who are just starting out on their careers having access to some of the nuclear icons of our generation? Where else would you have people sitting talking with people they normally wouldn’t get access to?” She continues: “That networking across generations and the knowledge transfer that can happen through something like the NI is one of its strongest attributes.”

Meanwhile, Gwen is convinced that the nuclear industry has to continue to make its case to be included in a Net Zero future.

 BIG CHALLENGE

“We have to work really hard on our reputation, our accident tolerance, our openness, our transparency to make sure that we earn our place in that future because I genuinely believe that we can play a very strong part in future systems, stability, security, reliability, affordability but we have to continue to work really hard on that. In particular, we have to make sure that we create affordable solutions. That is a big challenge. “But the other side of the challenge is the human side where if you look at the expectations of the people entering the workforce now, they demand diversity and inclusion. They demand to be listened to, and so they should. And they demand to work in an environment where they can be the best version of themselves. I think that the nuclear industry has to work hard to meet these legitimate expectations of the new generation of workforce.”

QUICK-FIRE QUESTIONS 

Q   Who is your professional mentor? 

A   Andy Spurr was a really critical friend for me. He did more than mentor me, he sponsored me and pushed me forward when perhaps I was nervous about taking a step... He gave me both the challenge but also the confidence to act. 

 If there was one thing you wish more people knew about nuclear, what would it be?

A   People assume that somehow we’re different or what we’re doing is somehow secretive or very complicated. But we’re just normal people doing a really good job. 

Q   What’s been your nuclear career highlight to date?

A   Being the CEO of Magnox and having the great privilege and responsibility to do the best for the employees of Magnox and for the sites that we look after. 

Q   What advice would you give to young nuclear Professionals?

A   I would say, never think that your question is in any way stupid because it’s likely that many in the room are wishing that they’d asked that question. Speak up because there is absolutely no such thing as a stupid question.  

 Q If there's one thinkg you could change about the nuclear sector, what would it be?

A  Probably the number of women who are retained  into senior roles.  You get really good people starting off and somehow, during their career, they get lost to the industry so they don't appear as the station directors or the board members.

 

Gwen Parry-Jones, Chief Executive of Magnox

Gwen Parry-Jones OBE started her career in 1989 as a reactor physicist at Magnox’s Wylfa power station. She then worked at several advanced gas reactors, pressurised water reactors, boiling water reactors and CANDU stations on both commercial and technical challenges, in the US, Canada and the UK. This culminated in being the Plant Manager at Sizewell B and then the Station Director at Heysham 1 where she was the first woman in the UK to have run a nuclear power station. She was subsequently a board director for EDF Energy, looking after safety, security and assurance for the nuclear, coal, gas, battery and renewables fleet. During her time at EDF Energy, she was awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to science and technology. Gwen was then appointed as the Generation Development Director, looking at future opportunities, including defuelling, deconstruction and decommissioning of the advanced gas reactor fleet. Subsequently, she became the Operational Development Director for Horizon Nuclear Power, developing the concept for a new reactor at Wylfa. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and the incoming President of the Nuclear Institute.

The story was taken from the Nuclear Future magazine-November/December 2019- nuclearinst.com

This magazine is free to all members - to find out more about membership, please email Hansa Kaul at membership@nuclearinst.com

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