As Director of Security, Natalie Willis provides executive leadership and oversight for security at Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) in Erwin, Tennessee, a BWX Technologies, Inc. company.
NFS plays an important role in the defense of the U.S. and its allies. The company is the sole provider of nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy, manufacturing fuel material for all U.S. naval nuclear reactors used in U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers. In addition, its Erwin plant is one of only two facilities in the United States licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to store and convert Cold War-era government stockpiles of highly enriched uranium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, which can be used to generate electricity.
Maintaining and protecting this precious material requires a rigorous safety program and a highly trained security force. Willis’ role is to ensure this security mission is executed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Shortly after college, Willis joined NFS in 2002 as an entry-level tactical response officer. Since then, she has held almost every security job — in compliance, operations, training, technical security and classification — along the way to becoming the first and only female to hold the role of Director of Security. As a result, Willis possesses a deep understanding of the inner workings of NFS, its mission, its business operations and security requirements.
Not only is she responsible for every facet of security at the site, she is also responsible for fostering an effective safety culture that is required for operations in NFS’ exacting, high-consequence nuclear environment.
Daily, NFS has more than 1,200 individuals onsite, including employees, security personnel and contract workers. Willis oversees more than 200 security officers and support staff, spanning physical security, policy, training, compliance and access control. Protecting employees, the public and the environment by limiting potential industrial, chemical or radiological exposure is of the utmost importance.
Her main goal is to focus on creating a best-in-class safety culture. “I want to create an environment where people look forward to coming into work because they feel appreciated and respected,” she explains. “If we are all excited and motivated to be here, then we’re all on the same mission.”
Just as critical to supporting NFS and its mission is her people-first leadership approach. It’s certainly not a one-person mission. “It’s about all of us within NFS sharing the same mission and the same goals.” Recently, Willis says they created a department motto, “Strength in Unity,” to emphasize the importance of teamwork in fostering better communication, support and safety and security processes.
Improved hazard recognition and correction, as well as reduced occupational injuries, illnesses and negative safety impacts, can only be achieved with a safety-first culture. “It’s paramount to our overall success,” not only because of heavily regulated safety and security requirements, “but because keeping facilities and employees protected is important to the business, and also critical to the defense of the country,” she says.
As a former training manager and now as a director, Willis works with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to provide education and development opportunities for officers. NFS makes its state-of-the-art Security Training Complex and training specialists available to the State of Tennessee, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies to train in the indoor firing range. Willis is charged with developing those public and private partnerships.
“You cannot have security without people, and that includes partners outside the organization,” she explains. Offering facilities as a way for law enforcement agencies to train for their annual qualification requirements has allowed Willis and NFS to build up that relationship with local partners and has served as a force multiplier in the event that an incident requires disaster response.
While it is challenging to ensure security at the highest level 24/7 and 365 days a year, Willis says her job and career at NFS have been very rewarding along the way and have given her a better understanding of safety and security and the importance of leadership. “I’ve had the privilege to work in various aspects of security, having a peer group of senior leaders who have helped me adapt my leadership style,” she says. “It has given me a unique perspective on the organization, making me a better director.”
Within and outside of the organization, Willis serves as a mentor, formally and informally, sharing her experiences and helping prepare the next generation of security leaders. Willis is active in a BWXT and NFS mentoring program called Emerging Leaders, where mentees and mentors partner and have one-on-one sessions to focus on the development of the individual mentee’s skills as well as their career development.
She is also an active member of the U.S. Women in Nuclear and ASIS International. The networking opportunities provided by both organizations are invaluable, Willis says. “Not only do I enhance my understanding and awareness of the threats faced by the nuclear industry, but also the professional development and networking present great opportunities to broaden my knowledge of the industry.”
Outside work, Willis enjoys hiking on the Appalachian Trail, as well as volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), taking on individual cases to assist neglected and abused children in the court system, as well as helping fundraise for the nonprofit.