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Diana Hart

Nuclear Engagement: A Powerful Attraction Keeps Diana Hart ’92 in the Energy Industry

It was love at first sight.

In her sophomore year, Diana Hart piled into a van with the other students in Professor John Mayer’s nuclear engineering class for a field trip to the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. Almost three decades later, she vividly recalls what was running through her head when she first glimpsed the reactor. “Oh my god, I want to do this. I want to work at one of these.”

While her classmates were entertained with tall tales about the enormous lobsters that gathered in warm waters around the plant’s outflow, Hart was overwhelmed by the sheer size and complexity of the plant. It’s an attraction that defies words. “There’s just something about the nuclear aspect—because I understand it, and I have always been fascinated by it—so it just draws me,” she says.

Apart from a few years in hydroelectric operations, Hart has spent her entire career in nuclear safety. She holds thousands of lives in her hands, with the confidence grounded in solid education.

Hart standing on a dock overlooking the riverA physics major, she took all the nuclear engineering classes (then offered by the mechanical engineering department) that she could. She speaks glowingly of labs done in WPI’s Leslie C. Wilbur Nuclear Reactor: activating Tums antacid tablets, a section of sewer pipe, and a bit of gold foil. The students were outfitted with meters to measure radiation, but that never worried Hart. “I found it exciting. It wasn’t scary. I thought it was really interesting and new.”   

A health physics class during her sophomore year helped define her niche. She liked the blend of theoretical physics and fact-based engineering, and she went on to earn a master’s in the field. A second master’s in environmental engineering and science broadened her scope.

Her early work with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission involved inspecting facilities and improving radiation protection programs. It was a valuable foundation, she says. “I still pick up my 10 CFR [the document that defines federal standards for the energy industry] when I have questions on how to interpret a regulation,” she says. “Of course, most of it is online these days, but I still keep that big fat book on my desk.”

Yet, all along, she yearned to get closer to the operations side of things. She joined Exelon in 2003 to manage radiation protection and industrial safety. Within a few years she was offered the opportunity to manage the company’s Conowingo Hydroelectric facility—an offer she couldn’t turn down. Although hydro power might sound like a cakewalk compared to nuclear, it could be a wild ride at times. When Tropical Storm Lee raged in the fall of 2011, she had to make crucial decisions about opening the plant’s 50 floodgates, some of which were more than 80 years old.

Even in more peaceful times, when raging floodwaters weren’t threatening thousands of downstream residents, lives still hung in the balance. She recalls with humor one delicate standoff: One afternoon, as she was about to rev up for the evening’s peak power demand, she saw through the window five deer that had wandered in from the adjacent parklands. The innocent animals were huddled on a ledge right in front of the dam.

“I said a word I won’t repeat here,” Hart relates. “I am a huge animal lover. I knew we would kill those deer if we turned the units on. I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this; and I really don’t want to do this in front of members of the public, some with children.’” She put in a call to corporate relations to broach the idea of delaying operations. She also knew that soon customers would be reaching their homes and turning on the TV, the oven, the dishwasher … maybe starting a load of laundry.

After some deliberation, a decision was reached to close the park. But once the intimidating throng of people dispersed, the deer took off. “It was the crowd that was keeping them there all along,” she says. “Now we know how to get rid of deer if that happens again!”

Nuclear Strong

As much as she thrived on the challenge of running 1,619 mW worth of hydro, Hart was pulled back to her first love in 2012, when she joined GE Hitachi in Wilmington, N.C. Today, as a vice president with numerous managers of the various safety and security areas reporting to her, she favors being “boots on the ground,” out where the real work is being done, rather than sitting behind a desk or in endless meetings. To make this clear, she set up a second office within the controlled access area, to be in better touch with her “rad protection” monitors and nuclear safety team. She takes every opportunity to “dress out” in an anti-contamination jumpsuit, gloves, and booties, and “badge in” to the radiological areas to observe workers in action.

That allows for the kind of ongoing dialog she says is vital for improving processes and procedures. Asking questions—like “What’s not working for you?” or “How can we make this better?”—helps her zero in on improvement opportunities.

Much of Hart’s work centers on fostering a culture of nuclear safety in which everyone takes responsibility. She explains, “If you look back in this industry, there are examples where employees didn’t always feel comfortable raising concerns to the management. We want them to know that anyone can raise a concern, and we offer employees multiple pathways for problem identification and resolution.” GE Hitachi has developed a program it calls “Nuclear Strong,” inspired by the NRC’s policy statement of traits that define a positive safety culture.

“You need to look at your leadership, your communications, and your work processes,” says Hart. “It’s important to refine procedures so they’re simple, straightforward, and clear. You need to make certain that workers have the right tools and products to do their jobs.” She stresses that in her own role, she needs to be more than a slot on the org chart, or a nameplate on an office door. “When you’re talking about driving a culture, you can only do that by being an example and interacting with folks. When I tell them, ‘If you’ve got a concern, I want to hear about it,’ then I need to be there to hear about it.”

A Stubborn Streak

What keeps her up at night? After a hearty laugh, Hart replies, “The problem somebody doesn’t want to tell me about!”

Hart’s self-described stubbornness has served her well, dating back to high school, when she nearly flunked a physics test.

Diana Hart“It was the only D I ever got,” she says, “and that’s what I decided to major in.” After “freaking out” over the grade, “I went for all the extra credit I could, and I went to the teacher for extra help until it clicked.” She ended up getting an A in the class.

To the question “Why nuclear?” she replies, “I like something that’s not easy. With every job I’ve ever taken, I’ve always had some nervousness: Am I really ready for this? Am I am really capable? If my answer is ‘Heck, yeah, I can do this!’ then I’m probably not interested. I like being challenged!”

As the lone female physics major for much of her time at WPI, and a minority in her profession, she says, “To get where I am, I’ve seen some … let’s call it ‘adversity,’ and some non-supportive people.” She prefers to focus on the mentors who helped her along the way, and to return the favor by working with the Society of Women and Engineers, and U.S. Women in Nuclear. Today, she says, “There are still not many women on the operations side of the nuclear industry.” She also worries about declining interest in the academic discipline. (See sidebar)

“Back in 2005, to about 2007, we were looking at a nuclear renaissance, with plans to build a lot of new plants. The school programs dusted off their books. We saw a resurgence of students going back into nuclear-specific engineering programs. Then, with the Fukushima disaster in 2011, that sort of ended that renaissance. It’s unfortunate. I personally feel that we as a nation are in need of a balanced portfolio.

I don’t think that renewables alone can meet our [power] generation needs. To reduce greenhouse gasses and our reliance on fossil fuels, I think nuclear has to be a part of that mix. To do that, you’re going to need people that understand it and can work
Diana Hart

Apart from her brief stint in hydro, Hart has stayed true to her first love. “I came back to it, because that’s where my passion is. I like the rigor that is applied in nuclear. It’s a highly regulated industry—I would say, equal to aviation, in terms of oversight from the regulators. There’s just something about that rigor that appeals to me.”

As for reactions to her chosen occupation, she notes dryly, “People do tend to provide their opinion.” Although she’s always willing to answer genuine questions, she says, “I tend not to engage in debate at this point in my life. I don’t find it gets me anywhere, really.” To those who ask “Do you glow?” she’ll quip, “Only in the dark.”

“Not everyone loves nuclear,” she acknowledges. “I’ve always said, and I still maintain, people are afraid of what they don’t understand. And I can’t expect everyone to understand nuclear power. I’d rather live next to a nuclear power plant than a plant that manufactures acids. Because I don’t know what their safety requirements are, or what they have in place. So I understand why people feel the way they do about nuclear, to some extent.”

Asked how she copes with the responsibility of all the lives she holds in her hands—nearly a thousand employees, and thousands more surrounding GE Hitachi’s facilities in the US and Japan—she says, “I will say that our plants are very safe, and I feel very comfortable working here. And so should the people who live near them.”

WPI’s Nuclear Discipline

1953 “The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?”
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly

1958 “The nuclear program on campus, the first one to be available for training purposes in New England, shows again the pioneering spirit of W.P.I.”
—Professor Donald N. Zwiep, on WPI’s Leslie C. Wilbur Nuclear Reactor (named in 1995) in the Washburn Shops. In 1967 WPI’s reactor is upgraded from 1 kW to 10 kW, and nuclear engineering courses see a similar surge in enrollment.

1980 “One important thing the nuclear people learned was that you can’t put men with only a high school diploma and a little Navy training in charge of operation of a nuclear plant.”
—Professor Leslie C. Wilbur, in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident. Construction of new power plants in the U.S. ceased, and enrollment in nuclear engineering programs declined.

1990 “If the trends in nuclear engineering education continue, a rising demand for nuclear engineers will outstrip the supply within a few years.”
—“U.S. Nuclear Engineering Educations: Status and Prospects,”
National Academy of Engineering report

2000s With course enrollment declining, the WPI faculty votes to phase out Nuclear Engineering major in 2000. The Wilbur reactor is decommissioned, with a “Possession Only” license issued in 2007, and decontamination continues over the next seven years. 

2014 WPI receives more than $1.1 million in grants from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to educate a new generation
of nuclear scientists and engineers to fill a critical need. The awards support the development of new curricula, graduate fellowships, and faculty research.
“There is both a domestic and worldwide need for highly qualified nuclear professionals to keep nuclear power plants and nuclear materials safe and secure. … These grant programs offer college and university recipients an opportunity to encourage their best and brightest to pursue careers in nuclear engineering, health physics, radiochemistry, and related sciences.”
—NRC Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane

2017 and Beyond
A master’s program in nuclear science and engineering and a PhD program in health and medical physics will soon be formalized at WPI, in addition to the undergraduate courses and graduate certificate currently available. The curriculum for a restored undergraduate major is under development. The university supports the national objective of reinvigorating the nuclear power industry, as well as fostering research on medical therapies and imaging technologies.


Behind the Scenes

GE Hitachi's environmental sampling dock 


Behind the Scenes

GE Hitachi’s change room

First published in WPI Journal, Fall 2017 edition