When Jhansi Kandasamy was growing up in Pennsylvania, the 500-foot-tall cooling towers from the nearby Limerick Generating Station, an 1,100-megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant outside Philadelphia, served as the backdrop for her family’s dinner conversations. Her father was a mechanical engineer who designed HVAC systems for nuclear facilities, and he had brought his family to the United States from India for education and opportunity.
Kandasamy was fascinated by her father’s descriptions of fans as large as houses that he developed to keep power plants cool. “Those conversations were one of the reasons I started to grow my passion for engineering,” she says.
Today she works for the nuclear energy company GE Hitachi, where she is developing a new generation of nuclear reactors called small modular reactors (SMRs). As the world continues to decarbonize and more and more renewable energy comes online, these reactors can step in when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. Unlike their much larger cousins that her father worked on, these reactors can be faster and cheaper to build while also producing electricity that is carbon-free during operation. “It’s fascinating for me to think about how I can play a small part in this initiative to help care for the earth,” she says.
Encouraged by her father to study in a technical field, she majored in electrical engineering at Penn State. Over the summers, she interned at the Limerick plant, which has two boiling water reactors designed by GE. She also found a mentor at Limerick: electrical engineer David Clayton, who sent her hunting through the plant to find a particular instrument and sketch it on paper. Sometimes, construction workers made it known that they didn’t believe a young woman fit in. “Initially they would be like, ‘Who is this girl? Why is she here?’” Kandasamy says. But she kept coming back every day, asking questions about how they installed equipment and even offering suggestions to make the plant operations more efficient. Eventually those same workers started asking for her opinion.
With her degree in her pocket — she was the only woman in her engineering class — Kandasamy moved up through the industry, benefiting from the work ethic she inherited from her father, as well as her natural curiosity and her love of learning. She has held just about every type of job at a nuclear power plant, from systems and startup engineer to maintenance supervisor to director of work management. She is also certified as a senior reactor operator.
In one role, as a chemistry manager, she helped a struggling department, within 18 months, to become the best in the fleet of power plants her employer operated. “That was a turning point for me,” she says. “I learned to shift from being a directive leader to becoming more collaborative, understanding what people want to accomplish and listening to their ideas.”
While Kandasamy has appreciated her own success, it bothered her that she remained one of the few women in her field. So she got involved with U.S. Women in Nuclear, or U.S. WIN, a nonprofit organization that encourages women to join and advance in the nuclear power industry. Eventually she became chair of U.S. WIN and helped start a leadership development group called Nuclear Executives of Tomorrow. Among the pilot group of 12 women, nine have been promoted to executive positions. Kandasamy says chief nuclear officers throughout the industry are eager to support more participants in closing the gender gap in the executive ranks. U.S. WIN has started a mentoring program to further increase the leadership pipeline and recently has broadened its focus to promote racial diversity and inclusion.
Kandasamy was working for Public Service Enterprise Group, headquartered in New Jersey, when GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy recruited her in 2015 to become its vice president of nuclear engineering services. Today she supports the operation of GE boiling water reactors around the globe while getting to use her creative side to help develop SMRs in the 150-to-300-MW range.
“The innovation that’s coming out of the engineering organization is phenomenal,” she says. She’s even worked on the concept of micro-reactors, which would produce less than 10 MW and could fit on the back of a truck, providing electricity that is carbon-free, during generation, for a mobile health clinic, for example. “We’re even talking about space right now — nuclear-powered rockets?”
Kandasamy lives with her husband in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she likes to go walking on the beach in the morning. She has two adult children; her daughter is a neuropsychologist and her son is a sommelier and chef. When she’s not thinking about nuclear energy, she paints and does woodworking. She recently constructed a wall-size map of the world from wood scraps that shows all the places her family has visited.
“Life is not just about work,” she says. “It’s about finding a balance, about the whole self. I wish somebody had told me that when I was younger. It probably would have cut back on some of the mental stresses throughout my career.”
Her father, who encouraged her at every step, found his balance in education. He got a second master’s degree in mechanical engineering after coming to the U.S. and went on to teach thermodynamics at Villanova University. After retirement, he used money from his 401(k) retirement savings to start Sri Nagalakshmi Ammal College of Sciences in Pappinayakkanpatti, the village where he grew up in southern India. When he died in January 2020, Kandasamy took over as chairman and president of the college. Now, in addition to her work at GE, she’s helping to provide underprivileged men and women in India with the same opportunities to succeed through education that her father did for his family.
“Going through his things, I found a notebook where he had written about how we need to make sure we invest in women,” Kandasamy says. “I will continue his legacy, which will become my legacy.”
Image credits: Jhansi Kandasamy. Video: GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy.