Chance leads Ottawa’s Rich Jurden to high-powered career

Former U.S. Navy nuclear specialist, family thriving in Ottawa

Navy Veteran Rich Jurden, who works at the La Salle nuclear power plant in Marseilles, poses with his display of veterans caps at his Ottawa home. Nautical drafting, shipbuilding and design were among the areas of the Navy he first looked to join, but it was suggested he take a test to work on nuclear aircraft. It would shape the rest of his career.

Working in the field of nuclear energy wasn’t exactly Rich Jurden’s first choice when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

But now, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jurden, who now resides in Ottawa with his wife, Claire, and their son, Case, years ago turned a chance suggestion into a career, first working on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and now at the La Salle nuclear power plant in Marseilles.

“It was never anything that I ever considered, but you learn there’s so much more that it could be. I had to try it.”

—  Rich Jurden, U.S. Navy veteran on working on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers

Over the years, he worked his way up to the position of maintenance planning supervisor at Constellation Energy’s La Salle nuclear plant, which he has held for the past three months, and is eyeing further advancement in the growing and essential national industry.

“I was able to succeed and excel within,” Jurden said, “to the point where I was able to qualify much higher for the in-depth qualifications in the Navy, involved at power plant watch officer and watch supervisor, which is involved in the overall management of the plant.

“It’s really been an amazing and very interesting trip.”

A native of Newark, Ohio, 20 miles east of Columbus, Jurden left after finishing high school – with several college credits already earned – to join the Navy. He attended boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago before heading to his first nuclear propulsion training school at Goose Creek, South Carolina.

“Initially, my thought was to get into nautical drafting, shipbuilding and design, but that required more experience than I had at the time, so I tried welding, but that didn’t work for me,” Jurden said. “But when they found out I was so close to Ohio State University and the tech classes they had there, they said, ‘Why don’t you just take this nuclear test?’

“I passed, and they offered me some things that were more enticing at the time, so I decided to see what that was all about. … It was never anything that I ever considered, but you learn there’s so much more that it could be. I had to try it.”

After finishing nuclear machinist school, he moved across the building to the nuclear power school, then ended up doing the next six months of schooling in New York. He graduated as a qualified mechanical operator working for the Navy at the prototype NPTU nuclear power plant at Ballston Spa in Saratoga County, New York.

Jurden completed the fast-paced nuclear power program, earning the equivalent of a four-year degree in only six months.

Jurden was given a choice of where to serve next, and he chose San Diego, to work on the USS John C. Stennis, the seventh of the Navy’s Nimitz-class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

In response to the 9/11 attacks, he was deployed three times to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He and the crew spent several monthslong stints at sea before returning home.

He spent 3½ years on the Stennis, which included stops in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Tasmania and Hawaii, as well as multiple crossings of the international date line and equator, before returning to teach at one of the other prototype plants back in New York.

He later served on the USS Abraham Lincoln and was a chief petty officer first class with that ship in Washington state when he decided to leave the service and move with his son, Jack, to New Hampshire.

There, Jurden accepted a job as a plant operator at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant and believed that because that plant had just been certified for another 20 years of operation, he was set until he turned 50. However, 18 months later, it was announced that the plant was closing.

After applying for operator positions at plants across the country, including in Arizona and at the Hoover Dam in Colorado, he got little response, so he used his nuclear machinist’s mate certification and was offered a job as a mechanical maintenance supervisor at the Braidwood plant.

Two days later, he resigned from the Vermont plant and headed to Illinois.

Jurden eventually transferred to the La Salle plant, where he takes part in daily meetings, working with shift supervisors to plan, carry out and document solutions to problems that come up during the night, as well as schedule mechanical, electrical and instrumentational maintenance.

But before leaving Braidwood, he met the woman who would be his wife, the former Claire Conness, a 2006 graduate of Marquette Academy in Ottawa. Now together for six years and married for three, their family is thriving in Ottawa.

“Every time we go somewhere, there’s always someone saying hello to Claire,” Jurden said with a laugh. “There are so many of her friends I have yet to meet. Her social network is so huge. … Between her and some of my co-workers who are friends of friends of friends, I’m learning the area.

“Among my first experiences in Ottawa, I skydived and then went to Lone Buffalo, so everything about Ottawa was great. I knew it would be a great place to live, and I was right.”

Navy Veteran Rich Jurden shows off his display of veterans caps at his Ottawa home.