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Who will staff the nuclear renaissance?

Nuclear power's unlikely revival has left the industry scrambling to fill a demand for qualified professionals.

By Christina Rexrode, Times Staff Writer
Published June 10, 2007


The nuclear industry skipped a generation. Here's how:

Through the 1980s, the '90s and even into the new century, the business seemed headed toward an eventual but certain termination.

After the Three Mile Island near-meltdown in 1979, power companies stopped planning for new nuclear plants. The existing plants, it was widely assumed, would be shuttered when their 40-year licenses ran out - just about the time when most of their employees would be ready to retire.

More than half of the country's college programs in nuclear engineering were shut down, students stopped majoring in nuclear sciences, and plants stopped hiring.

Now, nuclear science is on the brink of a renaissance. New nuclear power plants are being planned. St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Florida, part of a North Carolina power company, expects to build two reactors in Levy County. Florida Power & Light Co., based in Miami, has also said it expects to build a reactor in the state.

Many existing plants are getting their licenses extended, including Progress Energy's plant in Crystal River. And nuclear science is becoming more important in medicine, homeland security and energy demands. Environmentalists who once grimaced at the words "nuclear power" increasingly are being won over by its appealing lack of greenhouse gas emissions.

The industry's quandary, of course, is that it is expanding at a time when many of its workers are almost ready to call it quits - and there's a cavernous shortage of mid-career workers to take their place.

So, more than ever before, nuclear players like power companies, laboratories, government agencies and vendors like AREVA and Westinghouse are aggressively courting fresh-faced college graduates.

Dr. Alireza Haghighat, chairman of the University of Florida's Nuclear and Radiological Engineering department, said his students don't even bother applying for jobs. Recruiters are always jockeying for them anyway.

"And they are lucky to hire one or two, " he said.

This year, about 400 students across the country graduated with bachelor's degrees in nuclear engineering. That's not nearly enough, Haghighat said, because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission alone wants to hire 400 nuclear engineers each year.

Starting salaries average about $51, 000, according to the Department of Labor.

High demand, high wages - students are starting to notice the once-withering nuclear industry. Even though 400 new engineers per year is short of total demand, it's a fourfold increase from the late '90s. At the University of Florida, when Haghighat arrived in 2001, his department had 74 students. This year, there were 194, and he expects that number to increase in the fall.

"They get very high salaries, and they get signing bonuses, and they can demand different things, " Haghighat said of his students. "I told somebody I should apply."

Like his students, his department also benefited. Haghighat said he expects the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering department to receive $450, 000 in grants this school year, up from about $40, 000 the year he arrived. Last year, for example, Progress Energy funded labs for radiation detection. This year, the company funded an upgrade for the training reactor.

But while employers work hard to court and educate nuclear engineers, they've got other workers to entice, as well. Nuclear plants need operators, electricians, welders and pipe fitters. Health physicists - the scientists specializing in radiation protection - are in especially high demand. In 10 years, the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that the demand for health physicists will be more than double the supply.

Said Tom Veenstra, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light: "We know, with the statistics facing us, that we can't just sit idly by."

So, the Department of Labor has named nuclear power as one of the high-growth sectors that it's willing to pump money into for training and recruiting. Last year, several utilities formed the nonprofit Center for Energy Workforce Development to generate buzz about jobs in utilities. Progress Energy, in recent years, reinstituted its co-op program with college students.

And Florida Power & Light, for its part, stepped up its military recruiting by joining the Army's Partnership for Youth Success program in March. FPL also has launched programs this year with Miami Dade College (near its Turkey Point plants) and Indian River Community College (near its St. Lucie plants) to offer associate's degrees leading to jobs at the FPL plants in controls, electrical maintenance or mechanical maintenance.

Troy Spillman, who is 36 and a senior reactor operator at FPL's St. Lucie site, said the work force demographics have changed since he arrived, to include more young people.

When he started at FPL five years ago, he was "one of maybe two people" from St. Lucie to attend the annual conference of North American Young Generation in Nuclear, a young professionals group.

This year, St. Lucie sent 14.

Christina Rexrode can be reached at or (727) 893-8318.

By the numbers

15,600 Number of workers in the commercial nuclear energy industry who are eligible to retire in the next five years (27 percent).

8 Percentage of workers who are younger than 32.

47 Approximate median age of workers.

29 Number of U.S. universities with nuclear engineering programs.

65 Number of universities with such programs in 1980.

103 Number of operating nuclear reactors in the country.

48 Number of those that have had their licenses extended by 20 years since 2000.

Source: Nuclear Energy Institute

Where the reactors are

There are five nuclear reactors in Florida:

- One in Crystal River (Progress Energy Florida. Expected to apply for renewal in 2009.)

- Two in St. Lucie (Florida Power & Light. Granted a 20-year license extension.)

- Two in Turkey Point (Florida Power & Light. Granted a 20-year license extension.)

Only a handful of states - Alabama, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina - have five or more reactors.

Progress Energy Florida has said it expects to build two reactors in Levy County. Florida Power & Light has also said it expects to build a reactor in the state.

Sources: Nuclear Energy Institute; Times files

Nuclear industry salaries

$84,880: Median annual salary for nuclear engineers. (It's higher than all other engineering disciplines, except petroleum engineering. Salaries for nuclear engineers start at about $51, 000.)

$64,090: Median annual salary for nuclear power reactor operators.

$56,450: Median annual salary for nuclear medicine technologists.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

[Last modified June 8, 2007, 19:46:35]

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