She’s Got the Power: Selma Spratley

Dominion Energy’s Top Safety Official Reflects on Her Career in Nuclear Energy

by Susan Corbett

One summer while a student at Hampton University, Selma Spratley got a part-time job that changed her life. A psychology major, she was considering graduate school. A master’s degree would allow her to become a counselor.

A friend of her brother told her the Surry Power Station, in her hometown, was hiring. She got a job there, restocking the vending machines with snacks and drinks, mopping up spills.

No way but up from there, right?

Forty years later, Spratley is the plant’s top safety official, superintendent of Health Physics Operations at Dominion Energy’s nuclear power plant, the person responsible for making sure the plant’s 900 employees and the wider community are protected from radiation accidents.

There are not a lot of women in the top echelons of nuclear power management; there are even fewer who are Black.

“I want to say I’m the first black female to hold this role here and I am proud of that because, like I said, I worked my way up to where I am now,” Spratley says.

After graduating from Hampton, Spratley was hired full-time as an entry-level decontamination technician. Even a nuclear facility with few safety problems will have mechanical repairs that need to be made. Every time something is opened, there’s a possibility of a radiation leak. Spratley and her colleagues would don paper suits and clean areas where repairs had been made.

If an image of Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood in a hairnet and white coveralls comes to mind, that’s what Spratley and her colleagues wear, too. But everything else in popular films about nuclear power plants is pretty much wrong, Spratley says. “There are some minute (tiny) truths, that’s all.”

Currently, Spratley oversees a team of 30 people who monitor radiation and contamination levels at Surry. Part of the job is keeping up with nuclear power plants around the world. Spratley has an eye on what’s going on with the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine, the largest nuclear power facility in Europe and a center of concern since Russia invaded the country in February 2022 and took control of the station.

Surry Power Station

Surry Power Station

Spratley’s team detected higher radiation levels in the air here after a 2011 earthquake caused a radiation leak at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. “When things happen, our first question is always, ‘Could it happen here?’ Spratley says. “A lot of the safety systems and redundancies we have in place were the result of TMI (Three Mile Island). We have layers and layers of protection because we understand what’s at stake.”

Spratley lives 12 miles from the Surry Power Station. She is not worried.

Though it’s hard not to think of Spratley as the scientific analog to the brilliant mathematicians made famous by Hidden Figures, she shies from the comparison. “I wouldn’t equate myself to ‘Hidden Figures,’” she said. “I’m not doing complex equations like they were, I’m just doing my best. My mother always said ‘If you do a job, big or small, do it right, or not at all.’”

The Surry plant opened in 1972-73 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The reactors supply 41% of the clean energy used in Virginia and 14% of all energy used by Virginians. More than 420,000 homes rely on electricity produced by the plant.

Regulations change frequently; the staff has experienced a lot of turnover recently.

“When I started we had a lot of people, maybe too many people,” Spratley says. In recent years, in part because of the pandemic, there’s been a higher number of retirements. That in itself can be a challenge. “People who had been here forever who retired in the past few years took all that knowledge with them. I spend a lot of my time now integrating the new hires into the way we do business.”

Retirement is not on the immediate horizon for Spratley, who says she is not a “sit-down” kind of person. She feels “blessed” to have lucked into a career where she feels she has made a difference.

“When I first started I didn’t think of what I was doing as a service but over the years I have gained respect for everything we supply to the community,” she says.
Her advice to people beginning their careers is to “shop around.”

“It’s OK to not know what you want to do when you start college. Try a lot of things,” she says. “When you find something you do like, go all in on what you want. Go into a field with a mindset that, if other people made it, you can make it too.”

You never know where restocking the vending machines can take you.

“I definitely didn’t think I would be here in 40 years,” she shares. “Hopefully, I’ve instilled in some younger ladies coming up that hard work really does pay off.”

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