From a young age, Michelle Zietlow-Miller was always academic. Her success in academics would bring her to Cordova, Illinois, where she works as an outage manager for Exelon Nuclear.
Zietlow-Miller grew up in Great Bend, North Dakota, where she attended Wahpeton Public Schools.
“I was in high school trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. My mom was like, ‘You know, you’re really good at math and science, you should just be an engineer. They make really good money.’ … I researched different engineering options, and I landed on chemical engineering because I liked chemistry.”
She ended up heeding her mom’s advice which first took her to the North Dakota State College of Science for two years to obtain an associate’s degree in engineering. From there, she made her way to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and later transferred to Iowa State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.
“I was really interested in the less traditional engineering roles. I wasn’t interested in doing design per se, I was more interested in being a systems-type engineer. And while I was doing the interviews, I was challenged by one of my roommates to interview with a company called Exelon,” she said.
That challenge proved useful — for 16 years Zietlow-Miller has worked for Exelon Nuclear in Cordova, Illinois, which is part of a region known as the Quad Cities.
“That wasn’t something that was on my mind. I was thinking General Mills, go work for Nestle, make candy, but, okay, I’ll go interview with this nuclear power facility. I interviewed with them and they ended up giving me a job offer,” she said.
The Quad Cities generating station has two nuclear reactors which produce approximately 1,900 megawatts annually, enough to provide electricity to over 1 million homes, according to Exelon’s website.
She spent the first three and a half years at Exelon Nuclear as a systems engineer before becoming a senior reactor operator. The senior reactor operator position required 18 months of training, learning how to operate a nuclear facility.
As a senior reactor operator, she oversaw the safety of the public, ensuring the facility was running within its capabilities.
In 2012, she moved to outage work control and eventually became senior manager of refueling outages at the Quad Cities location.
Every year Zietlow-Miller plans and coordinates maintenance on the reactor as it goes down. Contractors perform maintenance and other tasks on the reactor that would otherwise be impossible while functioning.
“When I started here in 2005, outages were in the 30 to 40-day range. Our last outage, which was my first as the outage manager, was a record-setting outage for us at 16 days and 23 hours,” she said.
The goal is to get all the required maintenance done in 17 days. On a regular day, 700 employees can be found onsite but during a refueling outage, that number swells to 2,000.
“It’s like this giant puzzle of how do I put everything together and make it happen in 17 days,” she said.
When that 17 days is up, it’s right back to the drawing board and figuring out how the next outage is going to run.
However, it’s not just all about work. Zietlow-Miller lives in the Quad Cities with her husband Scott, stepson Logan, and three dogs. The family enjoys doing outdoor activities together such as skiing, biking and walking.
“I’m very passionate, especially at the senior manager level, about disconnecting when I leave work — especially when I’m on vacation. So it’s important to me that I focus on my family and just turn everything off,” she said.
In 10 years, she would like to see herself at the plant manager level or as a senior executive.
“I say that because I bring a lot of different skills to the table as far as I’m really good with high-level strategy, looking out into the future and setting up plans and going and getting things done.”
And even though she’s in the Quad Cities Zietlow-Miller said she’ll always consider North Dakota her home.
“When people ask me where my home is, the answer is always North Dakota. It’s not Illinois where I currently live. So there is a special attachment. That’s where I grew up, that’s always going to be my home and I love to get back there. I don’t see myself ever moving back per se, but I love the area.”