Rita Baranwal didn’t realize how much passion she had for nuclear energy until she was standing inside the USS Ronald Reagan while it was being built.
Baranwal, a 1989 graduate of Stow-Munroe Falls High School, was working for the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory at the time and was helping develop advanced nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear fleet.
"As I stood in the cavity of the reactor compartment, looking several stories up, the magnitude of my work overwhelmed me,” she said last week. “I realized that the material that I was researching could soon be used to propel an aircraft carrier. That moment was pivotal to my career; it was then that I truly appreciated the magnitude of the energy density that nuclear power provides. It reliably produces nearly 20 percent of our electricity, and is clean, secure, and resilient."
Her passion is one of the reasons she has been nominated by President Trump to serve as the U.S. assistant secretary of nuclear energy.
Baranwal, who now directs the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative at the U.S. Department of Energy, will undergo a confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"We are lagging behind China and Russia in nuclear technology and leadership," she said in a telephone interview. "We invented this technology and we brought this technology to life in the United States and I want to make sure we remain the world leader for nuclear energy and technology."
She has worked in the nuclear industry for more than two decades.
Before heading GAIN, Baranwal, 46, was director of technology development and application at Westinghouse and was a manager in materials technology at Bechtel Bettis Inc., where she led research and development in nuclear fuel materials for U.S. naval reactors.
Her parents, Krishna and Arti Baranwal, live in Cuyahoga Falls. She has a bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and doctorate from the University of Michigan. She also serves on advisory boards for MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering Department.
Baranwal, who is Indian-American, has special memories of growing up in the Akron area, especially hiking in the Summit Metro Parks and participating in numerous cultural events with the Indian Community Association of Greater Akron and India Sunday School.
She now lives in Gibsonia, Pa. just north of Pittsburgh, with her husband Peter Johnson and children Sanjay Johnson, 16, and Amiya Johnson, 13.
Rose Mary Stehman-Humble, a retired Stow-Munroe Falls English teacher and guidance counselor, recalled Baranwal as a stellar student.
“She was so highly respected by her peers, teachers and community,” Stehman-Humble said in an email. “Her academic excellence, her extraordinary leadership endeavors and her humble demeanor are just some of her dominant assets.
“Most of all, I remember her respect, her caring demeanor and her ability to relate to all; she genuinely cared for others. Having worked with over 20,000 students, I can honestly say she remains at the apex. Her meritorious appointment to the White House Nuclear Energy team certainly attests and speaks volumes of her superlative character and work ethics.”
Baranwal was recommended for the high-level position by several nuclear energy groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute.
"We are pleased with the president’s nomination of Dr. Rita Baranwal to head the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy," Nuclear Energy Institute President and CEO Maria Korsnick said in a prepared statement. "She brings with her a wealth of knowledge and experience that will help advance nuclear energy and Secretary Perry’s policy agenda. This nomination further affirms the administration’s strong support and confidence in the nuclear industry to help meet the nation’s energy, environmental and national security goals."
Baranwal was flattered at the support, saying it speaks to her experience and leadership.
"I intend to focus on the development of advanced nuclear technologies, to support the administration’s goals of providing domestic sources of secure energy, reducing greenhouse gases and enhancing national security," she said about her goals. "Nuclear power, the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity, ... contributes nearly 20 percent of the electricity generated in America. The United States has used nuclear power for more than 60 years to produce reliable, low-carbon energy and to support national defense activities. Nuclear power continues to be an crucial part of America’s energy portfolio, as we strive to reduce carbon emissions and address the threat of global climate change."
Nuclear energy is a particularly important issue in Akron with FirstEnergy Solutions, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp., based in the city, she said. FirstEnergy Solutions is shutting down three nuclear power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“Dr. Baranwal’s strong credentials in nuclear research and industry make her an outstanding candidate for this important post. Her Akron connection makes her doubly aware of the importance of nuclear energy to our region," FirstEnergy Solutions spokesman Thomas S. Mulligan said. "We look forward to working with her.”
Baranwal admitted the muddy political climate in Washington gave her pause at first about the job.
"That's been a question on my mind but I'm not going to sit on the sidelines because I have the skill-set and drive and passion regardless of the environment," she said.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.