Zabrina Johal

Director of Business Development
General Atomics

Where did you grow up? 0:14

Zabrina Johal is the director of business development at General Atomics. She grew up in Billings, Montana, where there was a lot of farming and agriculture and very little science, technology or engineering. Billings isn’t a high income area, and most locals own their own small businesses. But one thing Zabrina had a lot of growing up was wilderness exploration in the forest that was her backyard. 

Where did you go to college? 2:11

Zabrina only applied to two colleges during high school, and decided she would attend whichever she got into. That’s how she ended up attending Santa Clara University, a small college in Silicon Valley. She was initially a pre-med student, taking physics, biology and chemistry classes. During her senior year, Zabrina studied abroad, and it opened her world view and increased her patriotic views toward America. Upon returning, she was recruited into the US Navy Nuclear Power Program. It changed the course of her life. 

What was one of the most challenging parts? 5:40

School hadn’t felt challenging for Zabrina, and she was drawn to the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program because she wanted a challenge. Before getting accepted, Zabrina interviewed with three scientists at Naval Reactors in DC, and after passing those interviews she spoke with Admiral Skip Bowman. During the process, none of the people interviewing her were other women. Zabrina said it was a time honored tradition for the admiral in charge of the nuclear program to interview every officer that was applying into the program. The founder, Admiral Hyman Rickover, knew that one accident could put the entire program at risk. At the end of her interview, Admiral Bowman told her she was accepted into the program.


How did your parents feel about your new career path? 11:22  

Zabrina spoke with her parents frequently during the recruitment process. But the biggest surprise came after she was accepted when she found out she would be spending the next six years on a ship instead of stashed away in a bunker somewhere in the States running physics codes. Zabrina was specifically recruited because of her background in physics and chemistry. Within three months Zabrina was at Officer Candidate School (OCS) where they shaved her head after three days.

After Zabrina graduated OCS, she went to sea on her first ship. One day while serving as Officer of the Deck, there was a collision with an Iranian ship. When a ship goes to battle stations, the people best suited for navigating the boat or manning the weapons systems go and do that job. Zabrina said it created a loss of situational awareness as people scattered to their jobs around the ship. 


What happened next? 17:05       

After spending six months at sea, Zabrina’s ship was supposed to return home. But the end of her first six months coincided with the one year anniversary of 9/11. The admiral of the fleet had ordered her ship back to the Gulf to launch a tomahawk missile strike, and her captain wanted her, his tomahawk strike officer, to stay for the mission. During that first six months, Zabrina had felt very isolated as the first woman onboard the ship where the bathroom facilities had not yet been segregated. Also, she’d already shipped her belongings home and she’d trained her replacement. Zabrina felt as if it would be better for her to continue on to Nuclear Power School and Prototype School, so she got off in Australia to head home and the ship continued on for 10 more months. 

After her nuclear training, Zabrina ended up on a ship with a crew made up of 20% women, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. She said it was a much friendlier environment, likely because women were integrated much sooner. Aircraft carriers hold 5,000 people and up to 70 aircraft. 3,000 of those crew work on the ship itself, and the other 2,000 are part of the air wing, flying and supporting the aircraft. She was on the USS Carl Vinson for two years.  


How much did you know about nuclear power at that point? 21:15   

Before she was sent to the USS Carl Vinson, Zabrina had attended the year long Nuclear Power School and Prototype School program. The first six months were spent in the classroom on book based learning at Nuclear Power School. She learned reactor physics, reactor dynamics, and so much more. It was essentially a master’s degree in the course of a year. The next six months were Protype School, where everything was based on your ranking from Nuclear Power School. Zabrina scored well enough to lead her class at Prototype School upstate New York. There was a real submarine reactor and cruiser engine room. For those six months she operated the reactor for 12 hours shifts. 

The only frightening part was when they ran casualty drills. This meant, Zabrina would have to remember all of the steps to lead her team through casualty drills. 


When did you realize the importance of nuclear power? 25:11    

Zabrina operated the reactors on the USS Carl Vinson for two years, and during that time she came to realize how important nuclear power is for national security, which is an ongoing personal passion of hers. Zabrina left the Navy in 2006 and went to work at General Atomics in the nuclear fission program. In 2008, the owner of General Atomics challenged Zabrina and the team to come up with a design for a reactor that was cost effective, because reactors at that time were losing market share. Fuel and operating costs are elevated for reactors built in the 70s and 80s. New plants are not competing in the marketplace and are being shut down early.   


How do you change peoples’ opinions on the way they value nuclear? 27:50

Zabrina thinks change needs to happen at a state level, instead of federal level. Other people like herself have seen the benefits of nuclear for national security. But she says it’s also important to have a civilian reactor fleet. This is worrisome because China is working with several developing nations to build reactors in-country, meaning those countries are now in 100 year relationship with China for the duration of the plants. Zabrina asks, how is the US going to enter that playing field if there is little government support, unlike China where the reactors are state supported. 


There are seven billion people in this world, 1.1 billion of them don’t have access to electricity, and electricity equals prosperity. Zabrina says that the only way to meet the growing population’s needs is focusing on power density, the nucleus of the atom. That’s why General Atomics is working in both fission and fusion. Fission is splitting an atom into two; fusion is taking two atoms and making them into one. In magnetic fusion energy, you take the lightest element on earth, isotopes of hydrogen, and combine them to make helium. An energetic neutron comes off and the energy from that neutron can be put into a steam cycle to create electricity.


So you’re pro-fission and pro-fusion? 45:57

You need both fission and fusion. We need fission today until we can realize fusion. The US Department of Energy is assembling a fusion energy science advisory committee. There will be a report out at the end of 2020. The US needs a diverse set of technologies working together. Policy needs to help develop each of those sources. For example, for clean energy, for every nuclear plant that gets shut down, a natural gas plant starts up. You lose a lot of money decommissioning nuclear and spend a lot of money to build a natural gas plant. 

How do you get people outside of the nuclear community to believe in nuclear? 50:07

The nuclear community is really good about talking to other members of the nuclear community, but not so much with sharing outside of the nuclear field. Zabrina says they need to learn to get better at that. Because of the technical nature of fission and fusion, we leave it up to scientists and engineers to have those conversations, and it’s not resonating with other people outside of the nuclear field. Zabrina is working with the Nuclear Energy Institute, an organization that is doing a lot on better sharing the story of nuclear by involving communicators to establish the messaging. Right now, Zabrina is trying to establish a Fusion Communicators Council, drawing for a variety of US nuclear entities to collaborate and spread the message of fusion through broader publics.


What do you hope for the future of nuclear 54:13

Zabrina would like to see the US shift the strategies of funding advanced reactor technologies so at least two are selected and materials and fuel are tested. She would also like more recognition for the benefits of nuclear plants to prevent further premature closers.    

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