In the search for a low-carbon energy mix to bring the United States to a cleaner future, nuclear energy is a polarizing subject. But ChemE alumna (’83) and Vice President of Exelon Generation Marilyn C. Kray has devoted her career to advancing the nuclear industry and its standing in America. Thanks to her decades of hard work and devotion, she has recently been named President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), the country’s foremost organization committed to the development of nuclear technologies.
“Our organization represents the approximately 10,000 professionals from over 40 countries devoted to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology,” Kray says. “These fields include nuclear physics, commercial nuclear power, biology and medicine, and even aerospace. The Society is the steward of nuclear technology.”
Much of the current press surrounding nuclear technology focuses on the public fear of nuclear weapons—but Kray is out to change that. As leader of the ANS, she is responsible for helping the media, lawmakers, and the general public understand the benefits of nuclear technologies. And while there is still a long way to go, there is growing consensus among energy decision makers that nuclear energy is a necessary part of the path to climate change mitigation.
“What excites me most about the field of nuclear energy is its social relevance,” says Kray. “Nuclear power has a major role to play in staving off the 2 degree increase in average global temperature. There is a growing recognition that nuclear power is the nexus between energy and climate change mitigation. While renewable energy is certainly part of the solution to climate change, nuclear power must also be part of the mix as it is a source of reliable and clean energy.”
As a young chemical engineering major, Kray assumed she would go to work in the petroleum industry. In the years leading up to her entry into the ChemE department, the petroleum industry was booming. But by the time she started her undergraduate degree in the early 1980s, it had hit a major downturn. So when she Kray graduated in 1983, jobs in petroleum were few and far between.
But the market was changing for other energy sectors as well. In 1979, the Three Mile Island accident occurred. In response, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was in a heavy period of recruitment, looking for professionals trained in chemical engineering and other technical disciplines. Kray’s CMU ChemE education made her a perfect fit. And so, shortly after graduating, she joined the NRC as a project manager in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation in Bethesda, Maryland. From then on, she never looked back.
“The nuclear industry is a collaborative, tight-knit community that is focused on safety culture, problem solving and continuous improvement,” says Kray. “Some of my fondest memories from my time at CMU are tied to working with my fellow ChemE students in study groups. My group came together in the first semester of sophomore year and we stayed together until graduation. I still keep in touch with them. That kind of group collaboration was what I loved about CMU, and it’s part of what I love about the nuclear industry.”
“In addition to the rigorous technical preparation,” she continues, “my CMU ChemE experience taught me about time optimization. It wasn’t until I got to CMU that I felt there weren’t enough hours in a day to do everything that needed to be done. I realized I needed to determine what needed to be done. That included not only prioritizing tasks, but figuring out the most efficient and effective way to tackle each task.
Thanks to these skills, she is able to work as Vice President of Exelon Generation, and President of the American Nuclear Society. Among the various initiatives, ANS is now launching the Navigating Nuclear program, in partnership with Discovery Education, designed to increase the inclusion of nuclear technology education into elementary, middle, and high school curricula. This way, students interested in chemical engineering will enter their undergraduate programs thinking of the nuclear industry as a viable option for their futures.
“When I decided to pursue chemical engineering, I thought I knew exactly what I would do with my degree,” says Kray. “But by the time I graduated, I had to adjust my outlook and consider other areas. And that adjustment led me to a successful and fulfilling career. I would encourage any ChemE student to keep their minds open to opportunities. You never know where they might lead.”