EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in a series of occasional profiles of individuals working on the two new reactors at Plant Vogtle for Southern Nuclear, which are under construction and three years away from starting operations.
Cade and Jennifer Harrelson love their jobs and each other as one of the handful of married couples working for Southern Nuclear at Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4.
The engineers met in 2009 through a co-worker. Cade was at Plant Farley, Southern Co.’s nuclear plant near Dothan, Ala., and Jennifer was working 200 miles away at the company’s Birmingham headquarters.
“Out of the blue, this friend of ours said, ‘I just recall a conversation I had with another friend of mine. I think the two of you would get along.’” Cade said, adding that the matchmaker sent photos and phone numbers to each.
They talked for a month before meeting.
“It kind of, sort of was a blind date, long distance, but it worked out,” he said.
After two years of dating, he convinced her to join him at Farley, and they eventually married.
When they learned of openings at Vogtle, they jumped at the chance because of the opportunity for them as engineers.
“We’re making history,” Jennifer said. “Not a lot of people in the nuclear field can say that.”
Both of her grandfathers had been engineers. They passed along their love of math to her, and engineering camp in high school clinched her career decision.
An internship led Jennifer to the field of equipment reliability, which she compared to a routine physical.
“We’re trying to keep the plant healthy, similar to what your doctor does,” she said.
They even use some of the same tools, such as infrared cameras, stethoscopes, ultrasounds and lab tests – only on lubricants rather than blood.
Unusual heat, sounds or vibrations are often clues that something is wearing out that could cause a machine to break down. Jennifer’s job is to diagnose and do preventive maintenance.
Since Units 3 and 4 won’t begin operations for at least three years, she is spending the time getting ready. That means ensuring procedures are in place, crews are trained, and needed spare parts are in inventory.
“My days are very full,” she said. “There’s a lot to be done. This is a monumental project.”
If she needs help with a problem, she can consult an industry listing of other reactors that experienced a similar problem anywhere in the country for advice.
“That is one good thing about the nuclear industry – other plants are just a phone call away,” she said.
Her boss, Engineering Director John G. Aufdenkampe Jr., describes her as a leader.
“Her current assignment as equipment-reliability manager is establishing the foundation for long-term, safe operation of the station. She constantly demonstrates her commitment to the success of the project,” he said.
At Farley, Cade was in maintenance and Jennifer was in construction. At Vogtle, she’s back in the maintenance field she gave up to be near Cade, and he returned to construction.
For him, coming to Vogtle had to do with wanting to put more of his training as a civil engineer to work building a new plant as opposed to making occasional modifications to an existing one.
“Cade is a superb project manager who is totally committed to providing the required oversight to achieve safe, quality, compliant construction,” said Terry R. Takats, the manager of project-management organization and project controls.
Unlike his college classmates building bridges, water systems or roads, Cade’s skills are challenged by the added safety demands of nuclear construction.
“The nuclear processes, the human-performance tools that you use, you want to minimize the probability of making a mistake, and you want to minimize the consequences if you do make a mistake,” he said. “The number of checklists and peer checks and procedures that you do, it does add time …. You’ve got to learn how to become a part of that culture. If you can’t, then it probably won’t be the career for you.”
Part of his job is ensuring the subcontractors and workers he supervises embrace the nuclear-safety mentality.
The job offers lessons every day that keep it interesting to him and to her.
And they get to share that fascination – in addition to enjoying time with their 8-month-old child.
“We talk about work in the car ride home. We talk about it at home,” Cade said. “We talk about it in the car ride into work.”