Partnerships Help Establish a Qualified Workforce

Issue 3 and Volume 4.

By Brian Wheeler, Editor

Southern Co. is one of several utilities in the United States moving dirt and commencing construction activities to build the first new reactors in the country in over 30 years. Land has been cleared and cranes have been delivered as Southern prepares the future site for Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, which are expected to be generating power in 2016 and 2017, if all requirements are met with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

With plans for new reactors nearing the “go” or “no-go” stage and the industry continuing to lose qualified workers to retirement, Southern Co. and other utilities throughout the U.S. need to revamp the nuclear workforce. Two years ago, Southern Co. partnered with Augusta Technical College to develop a two-year Associate’s Degree Nuclear Engineering Technology program to gear up for the growth and attrition within the industry. The mission of Augusta Tech is workforce development. With that in mind, the college, with the help of Southern Co. and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), developed four of the six degree programs that are based on the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program (NUCP) that similar two-year colleges are using.

“We just happened to be right here in the middle of the nuclear renaissance,” said Jo Anne Robinson, M. Ed., Dean of Information and Engineering Technology at Augusta Technical College.

Last September, Augusta Tech accepted 41 students in the first class. The college is teaching Electrical Maintenance, Mechanical Maintenance, Non-Licensed Operator and Instrumentation and Control degree programs. Augusta Tech is not offering Radiation Protection and Chemistry Technician programs because Southern Co. requires four-year degrees for those programs. The school, however, has developed a model that will train a well-rounded student for the industry when he or she enters the workforce. Because of Southern Co.’s workforce needs, said Robinson, and the fact that the college could not develop four separate programs due to expense and time considerations, Augusta Tech is teaching all four disciplines in a single program.

“The benefit to this model is that a student coming in does not have to choose upfront before they know anything about the nuclear industry,” she said. “They get to know all four programs.”

Giving Operators a “Jump Start”

Realizing the need for qualified workers and the lack of extensive math and science education in high school to be prepared for the nuclear industry, GSE Systems, a company that has been supplying the nuclear power sector with simulators for over 40 years, developed Operator Jump Start. The concept is a 20-week screening program which includes 12 weeks of fundamentals training, four weeks of systems training and four weeks of operations training and “hands-on” simulator work. During fundamentals training, students take classes on topics ranging from mechanical science to instrumentation and control to nuclear physics. The program’s goal is to provide essential knowledge and skill to potential operators and determine if candidates have the ability to successfully complete the utility’s Control Room Operator Training Program.

GSE instructors with students at the Augusta Tech Training Center. Photo courtesy of GSE Systems.

“We needed a ‘boot camp-style’ approach so we could introduce individuals to nuclear power who may have never had any experience with it before,” said Charles Kelly, vice president of Training for GSE Systems.

In addition to weekly exams through the duration of the course, students take an NRC-level General Fundamentals Examination at the end of the fundamentals training. Kelly said the exams give instructors and potential employers not only the knowledge of how the students perform mentally, but also how they interact with the rest of the team.

Representatives from Southern Co., which has corporate offices in Atlanta, saw a presentation on GSE System’s VPanel Simulator at the campus of Georgia Tech and approached GSE about how the VPanel could also prepare students for work at the new Vogtle units. Southern wanted the individuals participating in the training and screening course to take the NRC’s official General Fundamentals Examination upon completion of the 20-week session. Working with INPO, GSE is now audited on their materials and quality assurance for teaching General Fundamentals. Now in their fifth class, GSE Systems said it has a 100 percent pass rate for every student they have recommended.

Following the completion of the fundamentals section of the course, students must return for systems training and operations, which is when they use the patented VPanel simulator. Systems training teaches students about the different systems that make up the nuclear island as well as the major systems of the secondary side of the plant, such as the main turbine and main generator. The operations section of the course includes unit start up, shut down, normal operations, abnormal operations and emergency operations.

GSE engineer using a VPanel to operate a plant auxiliary panel connected to a DCS based control room simulator. Photo courtesy of GSE Systems.

“The simulator really gives the student the hands-on training that they need,” said Kelly.

The VPanel Simulator is comprised of three, 46 inch screens inside individual consoles that stack onto each other, similar to that of an older vertical panel. Every switch that is on a control panel is represented, except instead of a mechanical switch, it is a virtual switch.

“It is an exact replica of their control room except that it is on flat, touch screen panels instead of switches that you turn,” said Kelly.

He said, for example, that once the student gets the simulation load running and wants to start a pump, he or she must actually touch the switch on the simulation panel and rotate the switch to the “start” position.

“Introducing more three-dimensional technology into our learning material to make it more visual and more interactive adopts towards the learning style of the next generation plant workers,” said Gill Grady, senior vice president of Business Development for GSE Systems.


The timeframe to employ qualified workers may get shorter, according to Kelly. He said workers may begin to retire over the next two- to three-year time period instead of a five-year time frame as expected, due to the economy. One nuclear plant lost 22 operators over the last year, he said.

To keep up with demand, Augusta Tech will take a new class in its Nuclear Engineering Technology program every year. This August, Augusta Tech will accept 60 students and the first class will graduate in June 2012. Since Augusta Tech already had an agreement with Southern Nuclear, Southern asked if GSE could implement its Operator Jump Start program into the college curriculum, the first large-scale implementation of the training approach. GSE’s materials have been approved through the Technical College of Georgia Review Board and students who take the GSE classes outside of college will also receive college credit.

For the students at Augusta Tech to receive the needed hands-on training, GSE delivers the VPanel simulator to the classroom. Using Vogtle Units 1 and 2 for simulation, students get the opportunity to see what the actual controls are before ever visiting the plant. The portable, steel cabinet-held units move easily from classroom to classroom, said Kelly. Having the simulator in the classroom essentially allows students to train on exact replicas of the Vogtle control panel.

Construction activities take place for Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4. In the background are Units 1 and 2. Photo courtesy of Southern Co.

“When they go into the real simulator there is no learning curve,” said Grady. “They knew exactly where to go and how to operate everything and we did not have to worry about having to retrain.”

Working together, GSE and Augusta Technical College are helping Southern Co. prepare for the next generation workforce as it prepares to bring the next generation of nuclear power reactors online in the United States.

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