Nukes lacking people power
“No nukes,” the rallying cry of environmentalists who opposed nuclear energy in the 1970s and 1980s, is being replaced by a rallying cry from the industry itself: “No Nuclear Engineers,” or, more accurately, “Not Enough Nuclear Engineers.”
“The nuclear industry is seeing a resurgence,” said Ted Quinn, co-chair of the American Nuclear Society’s special commission on workforce development. “The average age in plants today is 49 to 50, and in five years, those people are going to be retiring, so we have a pretty big shortage of workers coming up.”
Higher prices for oil, coal and gas, as well as the greenhouse gases those fuels release, have people rethinking nuclear power’s perception as an inefficient and environmentally dangerous energy source. Meanwhile, China’s rapid growth, the recommissioning of existing U.S. nuclear plants and proposals to build the first domestic plant in more than two decades have helped push the industry’s resurgence along.
Work force development and attracting highly trained engineers to the industry will be primary topics when the American Nuclear Society holds its 50th annual meeting in Pittsburgh June 13-17.
“About five years ago, we decided to take on the challenge of getting students interested in careers in nuclear engineering,” said Andrew Kadak, a nuclear engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-chair of the American Nuclear Society’s special commission on work force development. “Students and parents thinking about careers were not really thinking about nuclear because there was no perceived future.”
At MIT, undergraduate enrollment in the nuclear engineering department has doubled, to about 50 students, in the past three academic years. Meanwhile, the school’s dominant engineering program, electrical and computer engineering, has seen enrollment decline from 350 to 180.
“Everybody wanted to be a dot-com person, and that bubble has pretty much burst,” Kadak said.
In addition to efforts by nuclear engineering departments at 28 U.S. universities and colleges, industry players, including Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, a Monroeville-based unit of BNFL plc, are also trying to raise awareness of careers in the field. At Westinghouse, the average engineer is 49, prompting the company to undertake an aggressive recruitment and hiring program at colleges and universities with strong engineering programs.
“We’re bringing in at least 50 new engineers every year, and we’ve brought in close to 350 in the past five years alone,” said Tony Greco, Westinghouse’s senior vice president of human resources and corporate relations. “The competition for top talent is getting so competitive that you’re really behind the eight ball if you’re not getting to people and making them offers before they go back for their senior year of college.”
When Chris Pankiewicz-Nohr, 23, of the South Side, and Kelly Hutchinson, 23, of Monroeville, started working at Westinghouse’s Waltz Mill site in Madison, Westmoreland County, a year ago, the average age of their engineering work group dropped from 52 to 48. Pankiewicz-Nohr, originally of St. Louis, was recruited from Notre Dame, while Hutchinson, originally of Murrysville, was recruited from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.
“My only reservation was that I hadn’t taken any classes in college related to this kind of work,” said Pankiewicz-Nohr. “But inside of a year, I’ve learned a lot, and I do feel this will be a valuable energy source in the future.”
In her first year, Hutchinson already has traveled to South Korea to work on Westinghouse projects currently under contract in that country. Westinghouse has worked on or built more than 200 of the world’s 450 nuclear power plants. Greco said the company has four new plants under construction in South Korea and hopes to sign a contract to build two more there by early next year.
“It’s been interesting,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to learn.”
Westinghouse also is part of a seven-company consortium that hopes to build the next-generation nuclear power plant in the United States. The company also has been working to relicense existing U.S. plants, which now account for 20 percent of all domestic power production.
Pankiewicz-Nohr and Hutchinson were paired with Rob Wepfer and Karan K. Gupta, two older engineers, known as “graybeards” at Westinghouse who act as mentors. Because of the intricate nature of the work, Westinghouse estimates new engineers need five years of on-the-job training before they’re fully proficient in their line of work.
“It’s very rewarding to see the new guys come on and pick up where we were 20 years ago,” Wepfer said.
MIT’s Kadak sees the construction of a new U.S. plant as crucial to maintaining and increasing interest in the field. Without the development of new technologies, many potential nuclear engineers will see the field as maintenance work and the use of older technologies, not the development of new ones.
Kadak, who previously ran a small nuclear power plant in Massachusetts, also sees a need for companies to boost hiring and make a presence at college job fairs to raise awareness that opportunities exist in the field.
“The industry needs to make a clear commitment that we do need young nuclear engineers in the field and they should follow that up with a commitment to hire,” Kadak said. “When I was running Yankee Electric Co. we hired two engineers every year, even though we didn’t necessarily need them. But if every company would commit to hiring two or three graduating nuclear engineers every year at each plant, that would be a huge message to the community that this industry is in fact very strong.”
A powerful history
The American Nuclear Society will mark its 50th anniversary when it conducts its annual meeting at the Omni William Penn Hotel June 13-17. Pittsburgh was selected in part because the first commercial nuclear power plant started operation in December 1957 in Shippingport.
The society was formed in 1954 as a nonprofit after President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 United Nations speech calling for international knowledge sharing for development of civilian nuclear science and technology. The body’s first annual meeting was in 1955.
The Shippingport facility was the world’s first large-scale nuclear power plant and within three weeks of opening on Dec. 2, 1957, it had reached full power, providing energy to the Pittsburgh area. The plant closed in 1982 and was succeeded by the Beaver Valley nuclear plant, in Calcutta, Beaver County.
Beaver Valley began operations on Oct. 1, 1976. The plant has two reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s license on the plant’s 810-megawatt reactor expires in 2016. A second, 831-megawatt reactor went online in 1987 and its license is set to expire in 2027.
The plant is owned by First Energy, the holding company for Ohio Edison, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. and the Pennsylvania Power Co.
Shippingport was also the site of the nation’s first light water breeder reactor, which went into full power on Dec. 2, 1977.
Pittsburgh’s ties to the nuclear power plant, however, reach further back than 1957. Westinghouse Electric Corp., a predecessor of today’s Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, built the Westinghouse Atom Smasher in Forest Hills in 1937.
The Atom Smasher was the centerpiece of the first large-scale program in nuclear physics, and the company’s 1936 decision to build the device to measure nuclear reactions came three full years before the discovery of nuclear fission, which opened up the possibility for nuclear power generation. In 1947, Westinghouse named Dr. William E. Shoupp head of its newly formed Department of Nuclear Electronics and Physics.
Shoupp, a research fellow with the original Atom Smasher project, went on to head the new unit as Westinghouse developed nuclear reactor technologies for large-scale, commercial applications, including the Shippingport facility, as well as submarine propulsion, at the company’s Bettis plant in West Mifflin.
Today, Westinghouse still has about a third of its 9,000 employees in the region and is by far the nuclear industry’s dominant service provider. Nearly 50 percent of the nuclear reactors in the world and 60 percent in the United States are based on Westinghouse technology.