Kugler, first-ever female VP at PSEG Nuclear, talks about industry — and role women can play in it

Shelly Kugler.

When Shelly Kugler was promoted to vice president, corporate operations support, of PSEG Nuclear earlier this month — becoming the first female vice president in PSEG Nuclear history — she got all the congratulatory calls and texts that she was expecting from women in the industry.

But, they weren’t the only ones who reached out.

“I was very shocked at how many fathers at (Public Service Enterprise Group) reached out to me to share their excitement,” she said. “They said having a woman in a VP role was really reassuring and let them know their daughters could succeed in this business.

“That was extremely impactful to me. That’s what I want to be: I want to show women that being a VP at a nuclear plant is a viable career path.”

In her role, Kugler will oversee maintenance services, outage services, projects, the fire department and the warehouse at PSEG Nuclear’s three nuclear plants at its Salem site: Salem 1, Salem 2 and Hope Creek.

The promotion of the veteran of nearly three decades was well-deserved, PSEG Nuclear President and Chief Nuclear Officer Eric Carr said.

“Shelly is a proven leader,” he said. “With her broad background and extensive knowledge of the PSEG Nuclear fleet’s operations, I’m confident she will excel in this role.”

And be a role model.

“This well-deserved promotion exemplifies how our investment in top talent ensures we have diverse candidates for elevated positions within our fleet and our company,” Carr said.

Kugler recently spoke with ROI-NJ about the new role, the industry in general — and the role women can play in it. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the industry in general. A few years back — in New Jersey and nationwide — it appeared to be one with a limited future. Now, its future looks bright, as more people realize nuclear is the leading producer of carbon-free electricity in the country. Give us your take on the industry.

Shelly Kugler: It’s an extremely exciting time for nuclear right now. The Inflation Reduction Act that was passed in August of 2022 has reinvigorated nuclear. We’re looking at extending the life of the plants, performing power upgrades, new builds, new technology — with (small modular reactors) and a new generation of carbon-free hydrogen.

ROI: How important is nuclear to clean energy?

SK: Nuclear power generates 50% of carbon-free electricity in the United States. And we generate 90% of the carbon-free power in the state of New Jersey. That’s huge. It really is. And that’s one of the things I tell people — that I work for a company that produces carbon-free, safe power every single day.

Shutting down all the fossil fuel plants really put us out there in the shining light. People realized, ‘We need carbon-free electricity, but we need electricity, and we need diversity of sources.’ We’re getting that from nuclear and all of the other renewables. We’re an important part of the solution. Without nuclear, I don’t think we can get to where we want to be.

ROI: The state of the industry isn’t perfect. Talk about the workforce challenges.

SK: I’m part of a team that’s called Next (Nuclear EXecutives of Tomorrow). We’re really focusing on attracting talent, to rebuild and sustain our highly skilled and competitive workforce pipeline into the nuclear industry.

Even though there are all these exciting new things happening, most of us are part of an aging workforce. We need to retain and attract new people. My focus is more so on females in the industry. So, having me in this role is really crucial to the younger generation to see what’s achievable. When they see that I’m a vice president in a nuclear power plant, they can imagine that, someday, they could be sitting in the same seat.

ROI: Talk about your career path. How difficult was it to reach the VP level — and what advice would you have for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

SK: This is a male-dominated industry. Most of your senior leaders have very similar backgrounds and very similar ideas. As a diversity candidate for very many years, often the only female and only diverse person sitting at the table, you have to be very strong.

I think that’s what got me here: Being strong and making sure that I had a voice at the table. When I got to the table, I knew I belonged at the table. And I made sure I shared what my vision was.

Women in the workplace

Shelly Kugler is the ninth woman appointed to a senior role at Public Service Enterprise Group during the past 13 months. More than 30% of PSEG executives are women.

The other women PSEG recently appointed to leadership roles include:

  • Bernice Rivera Adams: Director, Project Management Office;
  • Susanna Chiu: Senior director, workforce development and operational service – renewables;
  • Helen Gregory: Director, environmental;
  • Lola Holness: Executive director, human resources – people advisory partner;
  • Angela Ortiz: Director, environmental, social & governance and sustainability;
  • Debra Pool: Senior director, talent, learning & organizational development;
  • Katherine Smith: Managing counsel, state regulatory affairs;
  • Trina Washington: Senior director, corporate security.

ROI: PSEG has long been a champion of diversity in the workforce. You are one of nine women recently promoted to senior positions. But, it’s still a challenge. Talk about how you and PSEG are working to overcome these challenges.

SK: Diversity & inclusion has been a really important goal for this organization for many years.

Typically, we’ll see some diversity & inclusion in engineering. But, at the trade level, it’s harder. There are some amazing jobs out there and opportunities for females to come in and perform those jobs.

I don’t know that we’ve done a really good job of reaching out. We need to go back to what we did when nuclear was new — going to the grade schools and the high schools and telling them from a trade perspective and engineering perspective what they can get out of us and what we can get out of them.

ROI: The industry certainly needs it. Many of the existing plants already are set to go until at least 2050. It sounds as if there are opportunities.

SK: Nuclear is going to be a viable energy for a very long time. Knowing that we do not have the resources makes it a perfect time to get involved in this business, specifically for diversity candidates.