New generation of nuclear workers entering field

Father-son fishing trips on Lake Erie were the closest TJ Corder thought he’d ever get to a nuclear power plant. From a distance, he saw the cooling towers of Ohio’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station on the shore but knew next to nothing about how it produced power.

Now, talk about nuclear energy and lights go on for Corder. A 26-year-old nuclear engineer for Atlanta-based Southern Co., Corder is training to operate the systems and equipment for two new nuclear reactors under construction at Waynesboro’s Plant Vogtle, the first nuclear reactors licensed in the U.S. in more than three decades.

The nuclear renaissance has birthed a new crop of bright, young nuclear professionals who, like Corder, radiate an eagerness for clean energy and safe, advanced technology. The emerging pack of engineers, mechanics, technicians and operators have jumped at opportunities for highly-skilled, high-paying jobs during critical years for the industry.

By 2018, the Nuclear Energy Institute says 38 percent of the 120,000 commercial nuclear workers will reach retirement age. At the same time, Vogtle’s new reactors are expected to come online creating labor shortages that must be filled.

Corder’s entry into the nuclear field began when he finished a high school physics test early. Idling in the hallway, he saw a poster advertising a fast-track program at the University of Cincinnati for a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering. He drove to the college, talked to a professor and was hooked.

“We need this for our energy future. We need to have talented people come into the industry to learn from the experienced guys that have been in the industry for a while,” Corder said.

A decade ago, the nuclear industry launched efforts to educate and recruit new workers to replace the first generation of nuclear workers. The Nuclear Energy Institute designed a standardized nuclear education curriculum taught at 35 community colleges, including Augusta and Aiken technical colleges. The programs train graduates to work at any commercial nuclear power plant across the nation, skills that can be transferred to related work at Savannah River Site.

Alex Beyersdoerfer graduated from Augusta Technical College’s nuclear engineering program in June. He is one of 40 trainees in the first class of nuclear production workers trained at SRS in more than 15 years.

Just 22 years old, Beyersdoerfer is the youngest worker at L-Area, a former nuclear reactor at the U.S. Energy Department Site where workers now dispose of spent nuclear research fuel. Training now less than two months, he’s taking every opportunity to learn from seasoned workers.

“We are the new generation of nuclear workers and the best way to learn is from the old guys’ experience,” he said.

Attrition, combined with staffing needs for new reactors, has created a lucrative career path for a new generation of workers, experts say. The average starting salary for a community college graduate in the nuclear field is $67,000 annually. College graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn about the same but have opportunities to move into supervisory roles.

Several years ago, commercial power companies began hiring in anticipation of the looming retirement wave. More than 25,000 workers with an average age of 28 have been hired in six years.

Dennis Huff turned to nuclear as a second career after working 10 years at the Sweetheart Cup Co., now the Dart Container facility on Wrightsboro Road. Huff, 32, knew nothing about the nuclear field except there were ample job opportunities, especially close to home where he started raising a family.

Huff, also a member of the new SRS training class, said the industry’s commitment to safety and regulation drives his penchant for the work. He, too, wants to be part of nuclear’s future, even if that means disposing of its waste.

“It’s probably the safest industry you can work in because it’s so heavily regulated,” he said. “You want to get in as soon as you can so you can learn from these people (that are retiring).”

Kris Honomichl, a Burke County native now living in Lincolnton, Ga., worked her way up at Plant Vogtle, where she started in maintenance after serving 10 years in the U.S. Navy. When hiring began for the new Vogtle reactors, she applied for the first jobs posted.

“This is exciting. This is our chance to install new systems, learn new technology,” said Honomichl, 35.

Honomichl’s enthusiasm for nuclear energy matches her peers. Despite uncertainties in the industry where new nuclear reactors have been stymied by falling natural gas prices, she’s confident nuclear is clean, safe and promises job stability.

“If they never ever built another nuclear facility, the skills, training, culture, lifestyle you learn in nuclear can be transferred to any other company,” she said.

For Corder, the nuclear renaissance brings challenges he welcomes. He’s anxious to help lower the nation’s carbon footprint and says nuclear isn’t going away. Vogtle’s new reactors are expected to operate for 60 years, longer than his career will last.

“If I really want to make a difference in climate and energy, building nuclear is the best way to do that,” Corder said.

 

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