Power Engineering

Nuclear Workforce: Refueling for a New Generation

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A look inside the Browns Ferry control room. Photo courtesy TVA.

By Brian Wheeler, Associate Editor

When the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry took flight over 50 years ago, many skilled workers selected it as their career. But with an average worker’s age now in the mid-50s, it is no secret that a large portion of the workforce in the United States nuclear power industry is approaching retirement.

For the 104 operating reactors in the U.S., the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) expects that the industry will need to replace 25,000 workers over the next five years. And to date, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received 13 applications for 22 new reactors across the country. Each new reactor that enters commercial operation comes with the need for another 400 to 800 full-time, qualified employees to operate the plant.

A low rate of attrition over the last few decades has been the result of the decline in the number of plants being constructed. Now, the industry is growing and is back to being a desirable career option, said Renee Milner, Tennessee Valley Authority’s general manager of Nuclear Training.

Recognizing the need for a technical, knowledgeable workforce, NEI and industry executives began focusing their attention on the educational pipelines that were established to fill the workforce needs of the future. At the end of 2007, NEI, in cooperation with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), established the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program (NUCP) to develop Associate’s degree programs for individuals to fill maintenance, chemistry, radiation protection and non-licensed operator entry level positions.

“Through this initiative we realized we could develop a network of schools that could help educate people to a higher, more specific level where they could be more useful when they entered workforce,” said Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, NEI manager of Industry Infrastructure and program manager for NUCP.

NEI and INPO have been able to bring utilities and colleges together and share ideas and best practices, something that has not been done in the past.

“By sharing those best practices, all of us can begin to ramp up our knowledge, and it’s cost effective,” said Clarence Fenner, workforce development coordinator for the South Texas Project.

Today, 43 schools scattered across the U.S. participate in the program. One of those two-year colleges is located in Chattanooga, Tenn. Chattanooga State Community College started its Radiation Protection program three years ago and since has added three different degrees: Non-Destructive Testing, Quality Assurance/Quality Control and Nuclear Power Engineering Technology, a non-licensed operator program.

“With four programs slanted towards the nuclear industry, one of our big growth initiatives is gearing up for the nuclear industry as a whole,” said Tim McGhee, dean of the Engineering Technology Division at the community college.

The college and the Tennessee Valley Authority are partners in getting the knowledgeable students from the classroom into the plants. And with 250 students currently enrolled in the nuclear programs at Chattanooga State, TVA has an abundance of students to look at when needing to fill positions. Milner said that of the students that TVA has hired, they have all worked out well for the utility.

“We have found that the students were very dedicated and very knowledgeable when they came out of the program,” she said.

A similar program is in place in Texas. Three years ago, the Nuclear Power Institute (NPI) was launched to train and educate workers to operate planned reactors in the state. Headed by Texas A&M University and funded with a $1 million grant from the Texas Workforce Commission, the institute now consists of six universities and six community colleges.

“The concern was having the skilled people to operate these plants for a long period of time,” said John Poston, professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University.

NPI anticipates the need for 500 full-time workers for each additional reactor built. Seventy percent of those workers will be technicians from two-year programs. The other 30 percent graduate from schools with a four-year focus, with around 10 percent holding degrees in nuclear engineering.

“The biggest myth that we are trying to debunk is the fact that we only hire nuclear engineers,” said McAndrew-Benavides. “Most of the plant is not nuclear. It is electricity generating equipment and we need people who know how to work with electrons just like we need people to work with neutrons.”

At the NPI-partnered schools, the majority of graduates are mechanical engineers. And administrators have established programs for these engineers to prepare for jobs in the nuclear industry, if they are interested.

“These programs should reduce training once they go to work,” said Poston. “We are hoping to cut the 18-month engineer training time in half, or even more.”

Valerie Segovia, director of outreach and development at the Nuclear Power Institute, said the industry must begin reaching out to students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics earlier than at the college age. After NPI was developed, Segovia launched the Powerful Opportunities for Women Eager and Ready for Science, Engineering and Technology program, or POWER SET for short.

Segovia, who was a high school principal when NPI approached her with the idea, said the program provides a path to careers in science and mathematics for girls in rural south Texas. To be accepted into the program, POWER SET applicants must be in the 10th, 11th or 12th grade and must also have an overall GPA of 3.5 or better. The first year of POWER SET included one high school and 19 students. Today, the program has grown to five participating high schools and 102 students.

And to get the young women into the plants and keep them interested in a profession that has been male dominated for years, NPI has worked with the South Texas Project to establish a mentoring program. Through NPI, women in science and math-based careers at South Texas serve as mentors to the young women in high school.

“We are looking for diversity to meet growing challenges,” said Fenner.

Giving students the ability to interact with the current workforce helps pass knowledge from generation to generation, he said.

Success Stories

In May 2010, Chattanooga State graduated its first class of students from its Radiation Protection program. Thirteen of the original 18 students moved on to internship programs at TVA. During scheduled refueling outages, the students spend a week in the classroom and work 12-hour, hands-on shifts on the weekends.

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Fatma Yilmaz, STP Risk Management, works with Texas A&M University students (from left) Ryah Bigelow and Brent Mayorga. Photo courtesy South Texas Project.

“The dedication and work ethic of these students is tremendous,” said Milner.

After spending six months in training during the internship, eight students have been hired full-time at TVA as Radiation Protection Technicians.

“In education, when you graduate someone, depending on how well they do in employment, that will sink your program or it will propel one” said McGhee. “In this case, most of those students that graduated are now full-time employees at TVA.”

Today, those employees are sharing their success stories with current students, said McGhee. “And that gets the students excited.” In May 2010, Chattanooga State was one of the first two schools to award an NUCP Certificate showing that the students completed the required learning objectives with an 80 percent or better score. Upon graduation, current and future students who meet all requirements receive industry-wide certificates that will allow them to transfer to any utility and be eligible for advanced placement in initial training programs.

As a pilot utility for the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program, STP has worked with the local community colleges and shared the products and services that they have been building. What started out as one school with Nuclear Power Technology as its lone degree program, the curriculum has grown to several degree programs at numerous schools with a $4.2 million investment over a seven-year period. Similar to the process at TVA, students spend time at the plant during an internship process, Fenner said, which is when they are evaluated by plant management. Last May, 39 students graduated. And all 39 were hired at the South Texas Project station.

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