Nuclear faces a somewhat uncertain future in the U.S., owing to questions about costs -- especially in an era of cheap natural gas -- as well as safety concerns and public acceptance issues in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. But another pressing concern for the industry is how to fill rapidly rising job vacancies at existing plants, as well as the needs of plants under construction.
“Almost 50 percent of the current nuclear workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years, and there’s going to be a huge increase in labor demand,” according to Christine Whitman, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition Co-Chair and former New Jersey governor. “Many of them have come in the past from the nuclear Navy, but that can’t solve all of the nuclear industry’s problems.”
And there is a dearth of new entrants into the field, something Whitman attributed in part to the decades-long lull in new U.S. nuclear development. “We’ve been out of the nuclear business, really, since the 1970s,” she said. “There hasn’t been a lot of new construction until now.”
With nuclear so far out of the spotlight, it simply does not occur to many students choosing an academic focus with an eye to a career ahead. “It hasn’t been at the forefront of people’s minds, and they’ve thought that to work in the nuclear industry, you have to be a nuclear engineer.”
But the industry is facing labor shortages across a broad spectrum of vocations -- not just nuclear engineering, but plant operation, security, construction, electrical, plumbing and even janitorial. “There is a panoply of needs there, and in general, nuclear pays 36 percent more than equivalent jobs at other employers in those communities,” Whitman said. “The average reactor has anywhere from 300 to 500 permanent jobs, or as many as 700, depending on the size of the reactor.”
The Clean and Safe Energy (CASEnergy) Coalition has been working with a number of utilities on outreach programs specifically targeting women and minorities in two-year college programs. “We’re getting information out to let them know that there is a role for them in the nuclear industry,” Whitman said. “These are good-paying jobs that will still be there once reactors are built and up and running.”
And utilities are also engaged in a lot of outreach on their own, or in partnership with universities, vocational schools and community colleges. Florida Power and Light is working with Miami Dade Community College, and students that complete the program receive both a diploma and a job offer at graduation. “That’s happening with different utilities all across the country,” Whitman said.
While public acceptance is a contentious issue for the nuclear industry in general, Whitman said it does not factor into student enrollment in programs that aim to feed more talent into the nuclear workforce. “I haven’t seen or talked to colleges or professors that have had any kind of pushback,” Whitman said. “Most of those programs have waiting lists.”