A missing generation of nuclear energy workers

The Exelon Bryon Nuclear Generating Stations cooling towers in Bryon, Ill.

KAI RYSSDAL: Twenty-one years ago today — in the middle of the night, actually — reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded. Even two decades later, there are still substantial fears about nuclear power. But in many corners of the world, they're giving way to even bigger fears about global warming and future energy shortages. Hundreds of new nuclear plants have been proposed worldwide, including two dozen here in the U.S. But Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, there is one little problem.


SARAH GARDNER: For a college student, there's nothing like walking into a career fair knowing the employers are desperate for young talent.
RECRUITERS: We're in a great location, expanding industry . . . If you like traveling, we can offer that traveling option . . . We are the largest nuclear utility in the United States.

Those are the voices of eager recruiters in the U.S. nuclear industry. They're at the University of Oregon, chatting up the fresh-faced engineering majors here for a national conference.

PAUL BURNESON: And your major is nuclear?

ENGINEERING STUDENT: Nuclear, mechanical. Dual major.

BURNESON: So tell me a little bit again about . . .

Westinghouse, AREVA, Exelon, the national labs, even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — they're all here, competing for a meager supply of young engineers.

BURNESON: We're at kind of a perfect storm from a staffing standpoint.

Paul Burneson is a recruiter for AREVA, a global company that designs and builds nuclear reactors.

BURNESON: We're at a time in the industry where you have the baby boomers retiring. So you've got those people leaving at the backend at a time when the industry is facing a resurgence.

In just three years, 27 percent of the nuclear workforce in the U.S. will be eligible for retirement. It's not clear if the U.S. can replace them, let alone staff new plants on the drawing boards. That's because we sort of skipped a generation when it comes to nuclear power.

CAROL BERRIGAN: In 1980, you had about 65 university nuclear engineering programs operating. Today, it's only about 29.

Carol Berrigan at the Nuclear Energy Institute says Three Mile Island and Chernobyl fueled the anti-nuclear sentiments that stalled industry growth.

But now, with rising energy prices and concern over fossil fuels, nuclear is trying to stage a comeback. Trouble is, the pipeline has been empty for a while.

Peter Lyons is a commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

PETER LYONS: The number of students has started to recover in this country, but it is not back to the levels of, say, the 80s.

Right now, the nuclear industry's furiously trying to fill the worker gap — and it's willing to pay.

CREIGHTON ADSIT: I'm expecting $50, $60,000 a year.

Creighton Adsit is a junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic, and he's expecting that kind of cash right out of college. Other students, like Tony Elliot, with offers in hand, know he's right.

TONY ELLIOT: Surprise to my dad is I'd be making more money when I start out than he's making right now.

CENK GULER: Oh yeah. There's a big competition going on as you can see.

Cenk Guler is here recruiting for Westinghouse. His company is offering signing bonuses, moving allowances . . .

GULER: Now, actually, students are selecting the companies. We are not selecting students. They have to like us.

And it can be hard to keep students like Caleb Robison happy.

CALEB ROBISON: I'm really big into reactor design. Theoretical design. But I don't like to do the modeling, like things.

RECRUITER: You want to be a researcher?

ROBISON: Right, but a hands-on researcher. I don't want to sit behind a desk.

Robison is a junior at Idaho State.

ROBISON: I'd like to get into a program somewhere where I could make a difference in the world with hands-on experience and making things better.

Twenty years ago, not many college students would have connected nuclear power to a better world.

In Corvallis, Ore., I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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