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Nuclear tech in demand despite concerns with industry

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Students in Cape Fear Community College’s nuclear technology program receive hands-on training for careers in nuclear maintenance. ​​​

​Since earthquakes and a tsunami left Japan on the brink of a nuclear meltdown this spring, nuclear technology students at Cape Fear Community College (CFCC)  have been glued to the situation—monitoring it, discussing it in class and considering the “what ifs.”

Though the emergency occurred on the other side of the world at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, the students at CFCC in North Carolina had a vested interest:  The nuclear reactor they use for training—a General Electric (GE) reactor—is the same kind that was affected in Japan.

For CFCC students, it brought home the importance of the program and their prospective jobs in servicing nuclear facilities in the U.S.

“It’s made for some very interesting classroom discussions,” said R.B. Richey, CFCC’s lead nuclear technology instructor.

Among the topics that have come up: job security. However, despite concerns about nuclear energy safety following the accident in Japan, it probably won’t hurt the industry in the long term nor affect students’ chances of finding jobs in the field, according to industry experts. In fact, after lessons are drawn from the incident, there will likely be an uptick in hiring, according to Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, manager of industry infrastructure at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a Washington, D.C.-based policy organization.

“It’s a misconception that plants will shut down,” she said.

An aging workforce

Nuclear tech programs are becoming more popular at community colleges as several U.S. nuclear plants have opened in the last decade and as a large portion of the industry’s workforce approaches retirement. About 38 percent of the people working in the industry—25,000 workers—will retire within the next five years, according to NEI.

Faculty shortage may hurt nuclear tech programsIn June 2010, CFCC graduated its first students with associate in applied science degrees in nuclear maintenance technology. Many of them were already guaranteed a job. The college has partnered with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Granite International to provide up to 20 students entering the program each semester with full scholarships and three years of guaranteed employment after they complete the program. 

But that only comes after a competitive screening process, rigorous coursework and a co-op semester where scholarship students travel to reactor sites around the U.S. for work-based learning.

“It’s not for everybody,” Richey said.

At Three Rivers Community College (TRCC) in Connecticut, despite the intensity of the nuclear engineering technology program, there’s a long waiting list for students who want to enroll. Workforce demand, a good starting salary and the opportunity for upward mobility all play a part in that.

Evolving energy needs

It wasn’t always this way, though. After the 1979 core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, concerns were raised regarding training in the industry. In Connecticut, TRCC began working with Northeast Utilities in 1983 to address those concerns in its training program.  

“They saw the handwriting on the wall about the requirement for education,” said Jim Sherrard, the college’s program coordinator.

TRCC works with the local Millstone Power Station, which also annually provides full scholarships for 15 incoming freshmen. Seventy-five to 100 people apply each year for the scholarships, Sherrard said.

About half of the graduates enter the workforce immediately, most at the Millstone facility. For a long time, TRCC was one of only a handful of institutions training people for the industry, mainly because there wasn’t a demand for nuclear facilities. However, the recent escalation in energy demands coupled with supply and environmental concerns over fossil fuels and coal, Sherrard said nuclear energy is growing again in popularity and creating jobs.

“Nuclear is a source of bulk power that does not pollute the atmosphere. It doesn’t increase our reliance on oil,” Richey said.

Keeping programs relevant

Like the industry, the programs at TRCC and CFCC continue to evolve. Advisory committees review curriculum annually to ensure it is up to industry standards. TRCC is also part of NEI’s Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program, which helps align partnerships and curriculum. The program has industry partners handling oversight and visiting classrooms at least twice a semester to make sure certain learning objectives are taught. NEI issues the first industry-recognized portable credential for the industry—the nuclear uniform certificate. Thirty-six colleges are part of the program.

As lessons are learned from Fukushima Daiichi, the information may be incorporated into classroom discussions. Richey said he has always discussed Three Mile Island and Chernobyl with students. Now he’ll add Fukushima Daiichi to the list. Students too young to remember the two older accidents will now have a present-day example of safety concerns that they can relate to—something that will help them better understand the power and responsibility that comes with working in the nuclear industry. 

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