Past Shift Manager, Bruce Power & Board Member, Women in Nuclear Canada
Industry icon Tracy Primeau shares her experience starting as a woman in the nuclear industry, how the industry can be more diverse, and what exciting innovations to look out for.
What led you to a career in the nuclear energy industry?
I never considered working in the nuclear industry — I planned to be a history teacher. I went to the University of Waterloo, which had a co-op program that allowed me to spend some time with high school students. I then decided that teaching wasn’t the life for me. Even though I was in an arts program, I took many computer science courses, was really good at it, and loved it. But I didn’t want to start over again — I was tired of living on macaroni and ketchup and was newly married.
So, my dad suggested I apply to be an operator, and I did. I went through all the testing and interviews, and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) offered me a job as a nuclear operator in training in 1990. Until the ’80s, women weren’t even allowed to work in nuclear plants. I passed all the tests and had the smarts, but there was a bit of diversity and equity push at the time, which I’m sure helped me get chosen.
What was your experience as the first woman to enter the Bruce A Nuclear Generating Station control room as an authorized nuclear operator?
There was a lot of extra pressure, but it was mostly from myself. When I went through the program to get my certification, I wanted to be at the top of the class, get the highest mark on the tests, and I felt the need to be the best. There definitely were people watching me. Some older men didn’t want to work with me. There was a shift manager who didn’t want me on his crew.
Being the first woman to enter Bruce A came with a lot of proving myself, but the hard work I put in worked out to be great because I learned so much and gained so much knowledge in such a short time. The very first time I made a mistake, I was torn apart. My first mistake was made well into my career — I was trying to do too many things at once and pressed the wrong button, but I fixed it immediately. I made that mistake a part of my story that I would speak to women and young operators about. When you take your mistakes, learn from them, and use them productively, they make a difference.
Why is diversity in STEM jobs, specifically in the nuclear industry, so important?
The nuclear industry is currently going through a renaissance, and change, innovation, and growth in the industry will only be successful if we have diverse teams. We need people from diverse backgrounds who look different, think differently, and have differing experiences. And I’m not only talking about women or racialized groups or LGBTQ2+ groups here — I’m also talking about diversity in thinking and background.
I’ve always thought that what I bring to the OPG board is my CANDU nuclear experience leading a shift crew, my Indigenous background, and the fact that I was a blue-collar worker. I lived in coveralls for the first 10 years of my career, I worked shifts for most of my career, and I was a female in a non-traditional role for all of my career — which was another piece of diversity I brought.
If everyone around the table on your team looks like you, then you’re all going to have the same ideas and are just going to pat each other on the back. We need people on our teams from different backgrounds who look different and have differing experiences.
How can leaders in the nuclear industry respect and advance reconciliation with Indigenous communities across Canada?
The term that we’ve been using is lately Truth and Reconciliation. Reconciliation means that we had a good relationship to begin with, and now we’re reconciling. But that’s not really the case. The Truth is that Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples was never good, so we have to get to the Truth before we can talk about Reconciliation.
Until 1951, Indigenous Peoples were not considered Indians if they obtained a post-secondary school degree. So, if you became an engineer, lawyer, or doctor, you had to give up your Indian status. So, I like to share that with the nuclear people who work in the same or similar occupations so they can understand a bit of the Truth before we can talk about Reconciliation.
I also like to celebrate that even though Indigenous Peoples were excluded, they persisted. They’re the youngest and fastest-growing demographic in Canada. They’re creating businesses at nine times the rate of the average non-Indigenous Canadian. And Indigenous business leaders value and look at their employees as full people, which I think other businesses could learn from in their work.
Learning Indigenous history and educating yourself is important. It’s important to understand all the pieces of what it means to use Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge in your research, studies, and plans.
I also recognize now that people are uncomfortable and worried about saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong question, or saying something inappropriate, but that only stops the conversation and stalls the progress. Ask the questions, start the conversations, learn more about the history, and talk about it in your company and with your family.
In your opinion, what’s the most exciting innovation transforming Canada’s nuclear industry?
I’m really excited about the medical isotope production that’s happening right now. Isotopes used to be made in small research reactors or specialized reactors at universities and the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. Now, we’re producing isotopes in our reactors that also produce power.
Another innovation that I think I’m most excited about is small modular reactors. I’m excited about how they work, which is different and simpler than the reactors that I was trained on. I’m excited about the ability to build them faster than we ever could a full-sized reactor.
Finally, something else that I’m really excited about is the increasing diversity in Canada’s nuclear industry. To name a few:
- OPG’s Chief Operations Officer is Nicolle Butcher, a woman.
- The President of X-energy Canada is Katherine Moshonas Cole, a woman.
- The Canadian Country Leader of Small Modular Reactors for GE Hitachi’s Nuclear Products Division is Lisa McBride, a woman.
- The Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s President and CEO is Laurie Swami, a woman.
- The Chief Nuclear Engineer of Candu Energy (SNC-Lavalin) is Stephanie Smith, a woman.
You can see that women are leading, and the fact that they’re leading is really making a difference in partnerships happening in the industry.
Why does the world need nuclear?
There are many reasons, but I want to focus on why the world needs nuclear to fight climate change. Multiple things can be done to fight climate change, and nuclear complements them all. If we want to generate power without emissions, we have renewable energy, and we have nuclear. But we can’t always count on the water to run, the sun to shine, and the wind to blow, but we can always count on nuclear to provide us with a reliable, steady grid that’s emission-free. Nuclear provides us with a stable, baseload power that runs all the time, generating zero-emission power that also can be used to electrify cars, homes, and more.