NEWARK, NJ — When Judy Rodriguez was a sophomore at Elizabeth High School, her history teacher gave her a key piece of information that would empower her, then one day power New Jersey.
"She gave us an aptitude test, and the result for me was that I would be good at the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Her reaction was 'You should try for MIT', and I'm like 'What is MIT?'" said Rodriguez, born 30 years ago to immigrant parents from El Salvador who fled that country's civil war. "From then on, I just based everything I did on getting into MIT. That was my whole goal. It was everything I focused on."
Rodriguez's drive led her from Elizabeth to her 2013 graduation from MIT with a degree in nuclear science and engineering. Her focus is now channeled into helping to run PSEG's nuclear power plants in Salem County in South Jersey, the source of 40 percent of the electricity used in the entire state. Her goal - provide power for her people in a safe, clean, and green way that addresses the challenge of climate change in the years to come.
What Rodriguez does every day would boggle the mind and test the endurance of most people. She earned her Senior Reactor Operator license in 2019 and now works as a nuclear shift supervisor, with the shifts lasting three or four days a week for 12 hours each day. She does this working around a panel with the types of lights, dials, switches and knobs that to some could seem like science fiction rather than creating the power that fuels our daily lives. But when explaining her job, Rodriguez flips the switch to simple facts.
"Our plants work like generic fossil fuel plants in that we produce energy from making heat, to making steam, to turning a turbine, to generating electricity in the generator. The major difference is that we don't burn fossil fuel - we have nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is simply splitting atoms, the process of which makes heat, and that heat makes energy. Everything that goes on in the unit that I'm in charge of that day goes through me. I have to make sure that everything's working properly."
The need for everything to work properly at PSEG'S South Jersey plants isn't just for the short-term need to continue to produce the one hundred percent of the nuclear energy generated in New Jersey and about 90 percent of the carbon-free electricity generated in the state. Rodriguez's efforts also contribute to meeting the goal of Gov. Phil Murphy's energy master plan to achieve 100 percent clean energy for New Jersey by reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
"Clean energy should be at the top of our priorities as far as what we need to address. It all goes back to climate change. I think New Jersey as a whole has already made the choice to invest in our plants, and there is going to be a payoff," Rodriguez said. "It's expensive to decommission a nuclear power plant, and it's expensive to replace in the long term. We have really ambitious goals for being clean in New Jersey. We're not going to be able to do that without nuclear plants without it costing a lot more. It's pay now or pay later."
Rodriguez pointed to the personal fuel that keeps her and her co-workers going when examining the economic landscape of a New Jersey without nuclear plants.
"We'd be losing about 1,000 continuous jobs, including all of the supplemental people that we hire every year. We get pizza from nearby Salem all the time. Without us, they'd lose revenue," Rodriguez said. "What we do at our plants makes a huge impact locally and for all of New Jersey."
Rodriguez also knows that she is helping to prove the impact that more women working in science-related jobs can have on our society.
"I think the lack of women working in STEM is still evident. I'm the only female licensed senior reactor operator where I work, for example. That's not representative of what our society actually looks like," Rodriguez said. "I'll pick up the phone identifying myself as the unit control room supervisor, and they're like 'Oh, I think I got the wrong number', then hang up. Then they call back the same number, and I'll inform them that they're talking to the right person. People have to get used to the idea that more women are going to be the right person."
Rodriguez is an exemplar of the benefits of diversity in the workplace as she works to make sure New Jersey has a diversity of energy sources through nuclear power. But what powers her every day is when she thinks of her family back in Elizabeth, proud of the person who always loved science.
"I'm from Jersey. My goal is always to protect the health and safety of the public. But I have my own interest and my family's interest in mind all the time." Rodriguez said. "I'm saying this to anybody who asks about nuclear power - trust me. And you should trust our power process if you trust me. After all, I love science. And I love my job."