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The Interview: Gwen Parry-Jones, EDF Energy

EDF Energy’s Gwen Parry-Jones talks about her career, royal honours and the future of nuclear energy.
Gavin Greene, Editor, Inside WANO

IMG_0287.JPGWhat's your career history so far?

I studied physics at Manchester University, then completed a Master's in economics. I started as a reactor physicist at the Wylfa Plant in Wales, and secured a job as an operator, running the reactor for three years. I wanted to get as much experience as I could, so I moved to work in Barnwood (then British Energy's offices) as an investment planning analyst, before being offered the finance manager role at Heysham 2 in Lancashire. From there, I moved to Canada, working on the lease of Bruce Power for British Energy.

I worked for a while as the chairman's Technical Assistant, then became Technical and Safety Manager at Heysham 1 soon after. I was then promoted to become first female Plant Manager at Sizewell B, an incredible, elegantly-designed plant. It was a breakthrough moment for me, and was where I learned that being yourself is by far the best strategy: be authentic, and ask if you don't know.

I returned to Heysham 1 as Station Director; I'm still the only female Station Director in the UK to this date. Then in autumn last year, I was asked to take on a role of looking at the long-term strategy for EDF Energy Generation, focusing on creating a sustainable future for the company.

What's the best part of your job?

I love the technology part of it; the uniqueness and the responsibility that comes with nuclear power. I find it fascinating that from millions of components, we can harness that energy for good. I also get great pleasure from seeing people grow in their careers – helping people to be the best that they can be.

How does WANO help you in your current role?

I've had some marvellous experiences with WANO, and I've been lucky to have participated in a number of Peer Reviews and Technical Support Missions. The first thing that strikes me is how much I've learned every time from colleagues. I have a great network of international contacts; dedicated, respected, professional experts who make me better able to do my job. Going to look at someone else's facility makes you really question your own plant; it's not just about being an expert and giving advice to others – it makes you apply those same challenges back to your own workplace.

How has the nuclear industry changed in the time you've been here?

Your perception changes. When I started, it was all very hierarchical; people would progress according to their age, and it wasn't usual to challenge your superiors. Now, I think that the industry has learned that diversity of thought and access to decision making gets us the best outcome from both a nuclear safety and commercial point of view. You have to work at it – it doesn't happen by chance.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

My role is about looking at the people and the assets that EDF Energy Generation has, and thinking about how that fits into the future world. We've asked the people within our company for their suggestions, and we have had a deluge of really good ideas. What we have is a challenge in creating some order from a huge amount of enthusiasm, helping us all to co-create our future. The economist John Maynard Keynes once said: "The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones." I want that philosophy to be what people think about with the work that we're doing.

The Queen awards Gwen with her OBE medal.What was your reaction to receiving an OBE? 

It came completely out of the blue. A letter arrived on the doormat, which at first I thought it might be a spoof, from a newspaper reporter or something. Once I realised it was real, I was absolutely delighted, and was leaping around with my piece of paper. Of course, you can't tell anybody until New Year's Eve, when they publish the list in the London Gazette. I received the award for services to science and technology, and collected my medal from the Queen at Windsor Castle, which was a huge privilege. It really was a great day.

What's the best advice you've ever been given?

There was an incident at my school where someone was rude to a dinner lady, and the headmaster got the whole school together and gave everybody a piece of his mind about how that's not acceptable. Treating people with respect is an important part of being a good leader; you can strike a relationship and rapport with people, from security guards and visitor centre staff to reactor physicists. All people are important, and they need to be able to tell you what they think – if you treat them badly in any way, you won't necessarily get the best outcome for the plant. The nuclear safety of a power station could depend on it.

What's the last lie you told?

How much my horse cost.

Which three people would you invite to a dinner party?

Admiral Rickover, the father of the US nuclear navy. If you look at the things he said, his view of the world is still relevant, despite the fact that it was said over 50 years ago. I'd also invite Marie Curie, to understand what it was like for her being a woman at the time at which she was in the scientific community, and what the challenges were for her. Lastly, it would have to be Brian Cox – the rock star of physics.

What's your idea of a perfect day?

I'm 50 this year. When I was 30 I wrote a letter, pretending I was 50, writing back to myself aged 30. It was about creating my career, and saying what a perfect day looked like. I've still got that letter. In it, I talked about having flexibility to be outside in the natural environment, spending time with friends and family. I wanted to be able to work with other people in a way that's creative, feeling like the work was important to the grand scheme of things. In my current job at EDF Energy, I feel I have succeeded with those things that I wrote in that letter.