New generation of nuclear workers entering field

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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.

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T.J. Corder, an operations readiness engineer at Southern Company, poses in front of the construction of units 3 and 4 with the cooling tower, center, and heavy-lift derrick, left, at Plant Vogtle on Friday. Corder, 26, graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2010.   JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
T.J. Corder, an operations readiness engineer at Southern Company, poses in front of the construction of units 3 and 4 with the cooling tower, center, and heavy-lift derrick, left, at Plant Vogtle on Friday. Corder, 26, graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2010.

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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oldredneckman96 03/01/14 - 09:55 pm

I have worked in the power generation industry since the mid-seventies, a lot of that in nuclear power. Yes most of us are getting old, and we need new blood. The problem we face is finding people willing and able to work in this very regulated environment. So many applicants are not able to qualify for due to drug problems, and or the criminal background that goes with that. Southern Co. is doing their customers a long term favor by building now for the needs we will have later.

dwb619 03/01/14 - 11:17 pm

Having a DUI in the last seven years keeps you off a nuke.

Homer S.
Homer S. 03/02/14 - 12:07 am
dwb619 comment = Not true

"Having a DUI in the last seven years keeps you off a nuke."
100% Not true. I know more than one person who had a DUI and works at the plant. As long as your background otherwise checks out and you are honest and upfront, you will be OK. Also interesting to note that TJ is an engineer, but definitely not an operator. They (engineer vs. operator) are two very distinct and different roles.

dwb619 03/02/14 - 11:57 am

On Units 3 and 4 a DUI will DEFINITELY keep you off the site.
Any felonies in your background, same thing.
Unit 1 and 2, DUI is five years for construction personnel.
After the time limit, you must produce documentation of rehab.

Homer S.
Homer S. 03/02/14 - 12:25 pm
Still wrong

"construction personnel"
I suppose you think these rules are all inclusive for the few thousand people that work out there. There are many different companies that hire people for many different positions. Operating units included. Your all inclusive statements are simply not true. What you are saying may apply to specific companies or specific jobs, however your statements simply do not apply across the board.

dckyler 03/04/14 - 07:42 am
Not all jobs created equal, not all business beneficial

This brazenly unvarnished propaganda calls for a clarifying rebuttal. The article suggests that the number of jobs in nuclear power is far more significant than it is. Considering the scale of investment in nukes, there are remarkably few who work at these plants.

Per billion dollars invested, nuke plants create fewer than one-third as many jobs as clean power like wind and solar. [See: .]

Moreover, this distinction has significant wealth-distributing implications, since investment income goes primarily to the wealthy and the jobs “created” are held by those of moderate- or middle-income.

The fewer the jobs in ratio to a given amount of capital investment, the less wealth goes to the middle (working) class, and the more investment- generated income further concentrates wealth among the privileged few.

Also note that over $6 billion in federal funding support is going into the expansion of Plant Vogtle - raising serious questions about the fairness of this "business venture," and making Vogtle a mockery of free-market enterprise.

Wildly misleading claims are commonly made to justify “economic development” choices based on poorly evaluated job-creation or “tax-base enhancement,” without any accountable documentation of the actual impacts on local communities or the workforce.

Given that Georgia exports an enormous amount of power to surrounding states, it seems reasonable to ask - given the tradeoffs - if Plant Vogtle electricity is even serving the true interests of Georgians.

Of course, we should also be concerned about long-term financial, health, and/or environmental burdens created by poor development choices that leave the public holding the bag. Not the least of these serious residual problems is extremely dangerous radioactive waste, for which there is still no reliably secure storage “solution" after six decades and billions of federal dollars spent in seeking one.

The 40 million gallons of water vaporized daily in cooling Plant Vogtle, removed from the Savannah River, is also a questionable trade-off, especially when that burden will be doubled if and when the ongoing expansion becomes operational. When drought returns and as demands for water supply and recreation continue growing on both sides of the Savannah, river flow will be needed more than ever. Is this really how we want to be using our limited public water resources when far better alternatives are available?

It seems overwhelmingly obvious that we need to get much smarter in making decisions about economic development and job creation. Part of being smart is expanding the analysis to encompass full disclosure of all options and costs (including government subsidies), who pays and who benefits, and the cumulative consequences in the decades ahead.

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