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Nuclear Fishin’ : Unique industry offers 100-megaton opportunities.

Posted on 07 October 2008

Quick: Name the three most common images associated with nuclear power. Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Homer Simpson. This is an industry with serious image problems, but job opportunities abound.

An Abrupt Halt
When one of two reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant overheated to the point of destruction in 1979, nuclear power suddenly became the pariah of the U.S. energy industry. New plant construction abruptly halted. Budgets were frozen and layoffs were rampant, leaving the remaining plants struggling to increase efficiencies with declining resources.

Fast-forward to the year 2000. A blazing U.S. economy is gobbling power at an unprecedented rate. Rolling blackouts shock the 24-7 generation. Searching for energy solutions, a newly-elected federal government states its intention to reintroduce nuclear energy as a key element in the country’s energy policy.

Easy to Say, Hard to Do
David Wizner, Senior Technical Reviewer at the D.C. Cook Power Plant in Bridgman, MI, is unequivocal about the industry’s current status. “The U.S. nuclear power industry is definitely not experiencing any growth,” he says.

Wizner cites two critical factors working against constructing new plants:

  • Costs of $3,000 per kilowatt, compared with $2,000 for a coal-fired plant and $700 for gas
  • Ongoing efforts to deregulate the electric utility industry

“No one is quite sure how the electricity industry will be transformed,” he notes. “So the companies are not about to commit large sums of capital–$1.5 billion–to build new nuclear plants with the current uncertainties for return on investment.”

Recognizing the challenges, President Bush’s revitalized energy policy suggests the country’s 65 existing plant sites could handle additional reactors. Even if that does happen (and there is considerable debate about its viability) Wizner contends there will be a long line for any available jobs.

“The plants in operation have made significant strides in efficiency improvements and reductions in operating costs,” he says. “What that means is that a large number of industry employees are no longer working in the industry. Therefore, there is a sizeable pool of experienced individuals who would have the advantage if any significant staff increases were to take place.”

Great Careers Available
Okay, so the current career outlook in the U.S. nuclear power industry is less than buoyant. Bear in mind, however, that in good times, building and running nuclear power plants can offer a smorgasbord of opportunities for the science and technology-oriented individual.

The National Energy Institute, a U.S. industry trade organization, provides extensive career information on its Web site (nei.org). Included are detailed explanations of numerous relevant career paths, sorted into two categories: plant design and modification, and plant operations and maintenance.

Design and modification positions include a variety of engineering disciplines in the following areas:

  • Nuclear
  • Mechanical
  • Electrical
  • Chemical
  • Materials
  • Civil/structural

Plant operations and maintenance tend to cross more disciplines and often require special government licenses. Positions include:

  • Reactor operators, licensed and unlicensed
  • Reactor engineers
  • Systems engineers
  • Maintenance engineers
  • Health physicists
  • Chemists
  • High-voltage electrical engineers
  • Electrical engineers
  • Instrumentation and control engineers
  • Fire protection engineers
  • Process/project managers
  • Information systems professionals

From all of the above, Wizner sees the greatest immediate demand for IT expertise. “The need to constantly improve efficiency and cut costs is presently best achieved through improvements in the use of computer technology.”

The Industry’s Best Hope
Unfortunately, as consolidation continues to produce efficiencies, young professionals will likely find fewer existing plants for their job applications. In a special report on nuclear power,The Economist magazine revealed that in the United States, consolidation has affected about one-quarter of the country’s nuclear capacity. The report argued that, “in the near future, today’s 50 nuclear utilities will probably be reduced to a dozen.”

As far as Wizner is concerned, the best hope for his industry’s future lies in distributed generation. This concept involves building smaller power plants very close to where the power is used. He is particularly positive about fuel cell technology. “These relatively small, packaged generation facilities can be easily situated just about anywhere and the only by-products are water and heat, which can be used for heating water, buildings, or other purposes,” he enthuses.

You may find just terrific job fishin’ in the nuclear industry.

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  1. The Enlightened American » 115th Edition of the Festival of Stocks says:

    [...] Nuclear Fishin’ : Unique industry offers 100-megaton opportunities at Higher Education and Career Blog For the unemployed among us (right here!), Khan recommends taking a look at the nuclear industry. I imagine entry level positions might be hard to come by. Stocks: [...]

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