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Striving to Make a Difference: A Trailblazer Woman’s Career in Nuclear Safety


Vesselina Ranguelova moderating a session on nuclear security at a 2018 IAEA conference. She was a diplomat at the European Commission at the time. She now heads the Safety Assessment Section at the IAEA. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Vesselina Ranguelova does not leave many stones unturned when it comes to nuclear installation safety. In a career spanning 35 years at major national, regional and global institutions, she played a key role in drafting IAEA safety standards for legal and governmental infrastructure for nuclear safety in the 1990s, participated in devising the European Union’s Directive on Nuclear Safety in the 2000s and was the first, and to date the only, woman to have led IAEA expert missions reviewing the operational safety of nuclear power plants. 

The Head of the Nuclear Safety Assessments Section of the IAEA since 2020, she and her team are now leading the work of 200 experts in assessing the applicability of the IAEA’s safety standard to small modular reactors, a new reactor type to be deployed in several countries around the world.

Ranguelova’s passion for mathematics and modern science coupled with her drive to work in an adventurous and innovative field prompted her to join the nuclear industry — a relatively new area for women to pursue a career in back in the 1980s.

She has subsequently earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Moscow Power Engineering University and a post graduate diploma in probabilistic safety assessment for nuclear power plants from Manchester University.

Drafting safety regulations

Ranguelova reviewing operational safety at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant in Russia in 2017. (Photo: IAEA)

Ranguelova’s career began in her native Bulgaria at the country’s Regulatory Authority in 1988 — it was here that she found her confidence, inspiration, and passion for nuclear safety, she says. She was part of the team that modernized the country’s nuclear safety laws and regulations, 14 years after it had begun using nuclear power and just two years after the Chernobyl accident.

“I saw nuclear safety as an area in which I can contribute and support my country first and eventually the wider world,” she adds.

And indeed, she quickly realized that in order to increase the impact of her contribution to nuclear safety, she needed to expand her horizons beyond Bulgaria. In 1997 she joined the IAEA as a Nuclear Safety Officer and contributed to the development of the new edition of the IAEA Safety Standards. At the European Commission, from 2004 to 2014, she was part of the team that prepared the EU Directive on Nuclear Safety and the establishment of the Euratom Research and Training Programmes.

“Being a woman and negotiating research and training programmes specific to nuclear technology safety was not an easy task,” Ranguelova recalls. “Most people still expect to see a man in such a role. Regardless of whether you are a man or woman though, once you demonstrate your competence the nuclear community respects you.”

She returned to the IAEA in 2014 as the leader of the team that manages the IAEA’s safety review of nuclear power plants, called Operational Safety Review Team (OSART) missions, for four years. After a two-year stint as an EU diplomat in the area of nuclear safety, she re-joined the IAEA in 2020 as Head of the Safety Assessment Section. She is in charge of the development and revision of IAEA safety standards for nuclear power plant design safety and related safety assessments.  

 “Working and collaborating with the people responsible for ensuring the safety of nuclear installations — who take your ideas and recommendations into consideration — is very rewarding,” she says.  “There are many fields that provide international cooperation opportunities, but our area is unique because of its global nature and the dedication demonstrated in the work by all to ensure high standards of safety.  As we say — an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere — and thus the cooperation and mutual support in our field is exceptional.”

Commitment, dynamism, passion

Ranguelova, the only woman to have led operational safety missions of the IAEA to date, presenting the lessons learned from such missions at a conference in the United States in 2015. (Photo: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Ranguelova’s dynamism and passion for nuclear safety is well-recognized by her co-workers. “No matter the subject, Vesselina is instantly enthusiastic and energized. Her passion for nuclear safety is contagious, and that’s the trademark of her leadership,” said Greg Rzentkowski, her boss as Director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety.

The nuclear industry is still largely dominated by men, so there are not many women in leading positions in nuclear safety. Ranguelova is a trailblazer in this respect at the IAEA as well —being the only woman to have led an OSART Mission – she has led more than 10 of the around 200 missions that have been conducted. She has led missions to Canada, China, France, Finland, Russia, the UK and the US.

“Leading an OSART mission is an achievement I am particularly proud of, because it demonstrated that women and men can equally do a good job in this role,” she says adding that, “this was also a feat because during such missions we, as a team, identified several opportunities for Member States to improve the operational safety of the nuclear power plants we visited, and the recognition received for this work has been rewarding.”

At the IAEA, she manages a section of 18 staff, and she highlighted the close bonds she has established within her team. “I find great pleasure in guiding and motivating my staff. I am inspired by their competence and enthusiasm. We have excellent technical debates and we deliver well as a team. Working with them has been a privilege.”  

She illustrated the importance of teamwork by highlighting the role of a task force led by her section’s experts to assess the applicability of the IAEA’s safety standards to small modular reactors — a new type of advanced reactor that produces electricity of up to 300 MW(e) per module and offers the possibility to combine nuclear energy with alternative energy sources. This initiative involves 50 experts from across the IAEA and 150 specialists from around the world: regulatory authorities, designers, operators and vendors. It was initiated in mid-2020 due to the heightened interest among several countries to deploy small modular reactors for the first time. Based on the findings, the IAEA will release a report by the end of 2021 that will help to define the Agency’s future work regarding the specific gaps to be addressed to ensure the robust safety of such innovative technologies, she said.

“I am honoured to have been able to contribute to strengthening nuclear safety in Bulgaria, the EU and the world,” she says. “I look forward to increasing my impact and working with many excellent professionals in this field.”

The IAEA’s commitment to gender equality

The IAEA strives to increase the representation of women both in the nuclear field in general and in the IAEA in particular, having committed to achieving gender parity – 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women – in the Agency by 2025.

Read more about the IAEA’s work on gender equality.

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