By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — SEABROOK — Born and raised in Lawrence, it isn’t surprising that after working far away for decades, Paul Cataldo is delighted to be back in the region as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s latest senior resident inspector at Seabrook Station nuclear power plant.
Since the late 1970s, the NRC has used resident inspectors daily at each of the nation’s nuclear power plants, to act as the agency’s eyes and ears. Each plant has at least two on-site inspectors to ensure they run safely and in compliance with NRC rules and regulations.
Cataldo, who has worked for the NRC since 1997 at nuclear power plants in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York, assumed his role as senior resident inspector at NextEra Energy Seabrook nuclear power plant in May 2013, joining inspector Chris Newport.
“I always loved science as a kid,” said Cataldo, 49. “I was always taking things apart because I wanted to see how they worked. And my dad worked for the nuclear industry as a senior health physicist involved in radiation protection. That really got me interested in nuclear power.”
The son of Sam and Joan Cataldo, he grew up in Lawrence, with his brother David, who currently lives in Salisbury, and three sisters, Jane, Nancy and Susan. Attending local schools, including Central Catholic High School until his junior year, Cataldo headed out to New Jersey to finish up at Admiral Farragut Academy, a naval prep school, graduating in 1983.
With a love for the sea, Cataldo enlisted in the Navy in 1984, taking a test to see if he had what it took to enter the nuclear program. He passed, and after boot camp, Cataldo began training to become part of the “nuclear Navy.”
He was assigned to duty as a petty officer on the nuclear powered submarine the U.S.S. Seahorse, remaining there until he left the Navy in 1989. By then, his mom had moved to Salisbury, which is where Cataldo set up home base after leaving military duty.
For a while he worked in the region, including an Amesbury company for about two years, then decided to get back into the field he enjoyed.
“I decided to go back to school, and I enrolled in the nuclear engineering program at U Lowell,” Cataldo said.
The University of Lowell has a small one-megawatt nuclear test reactor at the school, and Cataldo got a job there while he was a student. That’s when he came into contact with a retired NRC resident inspector who had been hired to supervise the college’s reactor and its personnel.
“I became the chief reactor operator the U Lowell and worked closely with him,” Cataldo said. “He told me, ‘If you’re interested in public service you should consider working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
Serving the public good, whether in the Navy or as a civilian, is important to Cataldo. Graduating in 1996 with a bachelor of science degree in nuclear engineering, he headed for the NRC and was first assigned to Millstone nuclear power plant in Connecticut, where he stayed from 1997 to 2003.
His next assignment was as the NRC senior resident inspector at the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania until 2007, then to the Indian Point power plant in New York until 2013.
“Resident inspectors are assigned to plants for five to seven years, then they’re moved,” Cataldo said. “I think it’s good that they move people. It keeps our objectivity and our skills fresh.”
Cataldo is pleased to be able to return to an area of the county he always considered home, and where his family lives. His father, a retired nuclear engineer and Air Force veteran, after four terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives is serving his first term as the Republican New Hampshire state senator from Farmington, representing from District 6.
“My father came to (Seabrook Station) with a few other state senators for a tour and he had a chance to see my office,” Cataldo said.
Cataldo is very open about his job and admits he speaks his mind. He understands nuclear energy is controversial, but he isn’t involved the politics. He respects individuals who voice their opinions — good or bad — about nuclear energy in general and Seabrook Station in particular. He said, as an independent regulatory agency, the NRC welcomes public comment and is transparent in its regulations and rulings. His regular reports are published so the public can read them, a factor that’s important to him.
“I don’t set policy, I do what I do: I inspect,” he said. “I focus on the daily activity of the plant and making sure it’s operated, and maintained, and safe for the public.”
The recent controversy over Seabrook Station’s application for a license extension to 2050, as well as its concrete degradation problem have raised concerns and drawn criticism from its opponents.
Cataldo agrees with other inspectors at the NRC that the plant is currently safe due to the thick, steel reinforced walls. But, like the agency he works for, he’s awaiting the results of the ongoing investigation into the issue.
“I absolutely believe the plant is safe,” he said. “I know I can do my part to make this plant safe. I have a vested interest. I have family members living in this area, a brother in Salisbury, sisters in East Kingston and Kingston. And do you know where I go if there’s an accident here? I come here.”
He’s recently settled into his new home in nearby Brentwood, with his wife Kim, son, Andrew, 12 and nine-year-old daughter Abby.
“I love being home, being (at Seabrook Station) lets me do the two things I love the most: I love my job and getting a chance to protect the public safety, and I love being back with my family after being away for so many years.”