As one of the first women to graduate Iowa State with an undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering, Margaret Harding finds herself at the heart of the nuclear industry over 30 years later. Routinely receiving acclamation for her outstanding work, she continues to push forward in hopes of igniting a brighter future for the field.
Harding initially chose to attend Iowa State for the applied mathematics program, but after the oil crisis occurred in 1978 due to the Iranian Revolution, her interests began to shift. At the same time, Iowa State had just introduced its new undergraduate program in nuclear engineering.
“At the beginning of my sophomore year, I switched my major to nuclear engineering with the idea that it would be game-changing technology and I’d have the opportunity to affect how the country uses energy,” she explains.
As nuclear energy began to grow in the United States, so did Harding’s knowledge of the industry as she delved deeper into her studies. Her graduating class also swelled, reaching about 30 students when unexpected disaster struck with the Three Mile Island incident in the spring of 1979. When Harding returned to campus the following fall, only 15 students remained, and she was the only woman.
“We all hoped the country would see past the incident and nuclear energy would continue to advance, but the economy slowed electricity demand, and nuclear power as an industry ceased to flourish,” says Harding.
In 1981, Iowa State’s second nuclear engineering graduating class departed into industry, and Harding was among them. Despite the downfall of the nuclear industry, there was still a demand for nuclear engineers at agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and utility companies sought their expertise in control rooms.
Breaking into industry
The summer after graduation, Harding secured a position at General Electric (GE) in California, where she would serve in a variety of roles throughout the next 28 years. One of the highlights of the beginning of her career was traveling to plants in Switzerland to conduct nuclear analysis on reactors there.
As she continued to gain experience, her responsibilities steadily increased, and she constantly found herself asking, “What’s next?” She worked on projects in software development before eventually specializing in core and fuel design.
“I became very well versed in the core designs that went into pretty much every GE reactor around the world,” she says. “This led to the opportunity for me to travel to different utilities and explain to the companies why they might want to use the things I was suggesting for core design.”
GE soon realized Harding had impressive management skills, and after 15 years at the company, she was moved into positions where she could lead others and offer valuable input.
“I was often thought of as a ‘smoke jumper’,” explains Harding. “For a good chunk of time if the company had a problem, they would ask me to solve it. Often I didn’t know how to do the work, but I knew how to think through the problems, which is what engineers really do, and sometimes I think we lose sight of that.”
One instance where she had to salvage a situation occurred during the Y2K panic, when the world feared computer data would be lost as the new millennium struck. Just as all companies were doing, GE began to look at what functions of its technology relied on date and time.
The company identified that its core monitoring software used time and power level to determine how the core was behaving and how much energy was being generated—making it a potential weakness. When the group began falling behind schedule, Harding was pulled in to run the project.
“There were a very complex series of issues to solve as well as customers and schedules to attend to, but I am very proud to say we managed to successfully reset the date and time features and deliver all the requirements before deadline,” says Harding.
Forging her own path
As Harding’s career at GE thrived, her interests began taking her in a different direction.
“In 2009, I decided there were things I could do to help smaller companies develop within the nuclear market; things that didn’t fit within the scope of a big company,” she explains.
That’s when Harding started her own company, 4 Factor Consulting, LLC, providing consulting services for businesses in nuclear technology, nuclear quality assurance, and regulatory processes.
Harding spends a lot of her time visiting with companies to figure out their issues and help put them on a path to recovery. She is also involved in connecting companies together, matching one company’s useful services with another in need of help.
Most recently, she has been an influential spokesperson for the industry, trying to educate people on nuclear energy and improve its acceptance.
Aside from the usual challenges presented when starting a business, Harding struggled with changing her natural approach to get her name recognized in the industry.
“You have to learn how to advertise yourself, and as Iowans, we are raised to be polite and not pushy,” she says. “Learning how to stand up and tell people that I was an expert and they needed me was very difficult.”
Eventually Harding did earn recognition, but no event pushed her into the spotlight more than the nuclear incident at Fukushima in the spring of 2011. Harding quickly became the United States’ point of contact and industry expert.
She spent hours speaking with the media, helping to make sense of what happened. Often, press releases were filled with jargon and acronyms unfamiliar to the population and hurried translations from Japanese to English left the true message distorted. Harding made it her duty to clear up these issues and bring truth to the world.
“I was very factual about the event, which gave me a lot of credibility with the media and provided the opportunity to continue to talk about the incident inside the industry,” says Harding.
Her involvement and service in the wake of the Fukushima incident led to many accolades, most recently the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Special Award for excellence in media and communications.
“I was so pleased and honored to receive the award,” she says. “It’s just an incredible honor to be recognized by ANS because this is the organization you want to belong to if you are a professional committed to this field.”
Harding adds the meaningfulness of the award stretches back to her time as a student, when she first became involved with the group and served as the vice president of the student chapter at Iowa State. Over the years, she co-chaired the student annual conference in 1981, winning an award for that work; has received a presidential citation; and currently sits on three different committees for the organization. This year, she is considering running for treasurer of the board.
In addition to ANS recognition, Harding says one of her most coveted awards was the TWIN award (Tribute to Women and INdustry), given to her in 2002 from the YWCA in Santa Clara, California.
“Being a woman in the industry is rare; being a leader as a woman is even rarer, so it was such an honor to be recognized,” she explains.
Supporting the future
Although past events have made some shy away from nuclear energy, Harding stands strong in her belief that nuclear energy is the future. She hopes her efforts in the industry will help increase use of the energy source globally and push the United States to become a leader in generating nuclear power.
Harding says there are key, short-term tasks that must be done for the industry to grow. First, Vogtle, the new nuclear plant in Georgia, must be built on time and close to budget to demonstrate that adding plants can be done successfully and within reason. Second, the nation needs to decided on a clear policy about carbon, weigh the impacts it’s having on the world, and decide what mix of clean energy is going to benefit our future most.
“There was a long time when I thought I was going to close the door and retire, but now I’m finally excited again about the future of nuclear energy,” Harding says. “If we are truly concerned about carbon-based energy, nuclear energy is a real solution and has to be a part of the mix.”