Nuclear Power Industry Faces Critical Labor Shortage


In the decades following Three Mile Island -- the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history -- the nuclear power industry became a pariah and plants went begging for workers. But now, as the industry receives unprecedented levels of government support, it's facing an all-out talent drought.

Last month, Obama announced that the government would provide $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for the first two nuclear reactors to be built in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The new reactors, which will be built in Georgia, are the first of many deals expected to be backed by the government. According to the Energy Information Administration, 18 commercial nuclear projects are now under consideration. To build and operate all of those new plants, the industry will need plenty of bodies.

"To maintain the current nuclear work force, the industry may need to hire as many as 25,000 more workers in the next five years," according to data released in 2009 by the trade group Nuclear Energy Institute.

A Graying Employee Base

Compounding matters is the fact that the existing workforce is aging.

"The reality is that a large proportion of [nuclear power plant] workers are within 10 years of retirement." says Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That's a pool of knowledge that is going to be difficult to be replaced. It's sort of a demographic certainty that we are going to be losing a lot of people from the industry. There are ground for concerns."

To help address these issues, plants like Public Service Enterprise Group Inc.'s (PEG) operation in Southern New Jersey, have forged alliances with local community colleges to train and attract qualified workers. The selling point? Nuclear power plants employ as many as 700 workers and pay "substantially more than average local salaries," according to the NEI.

Also, the skills required to work at a plant are more transferable than they have been in the past. For decades, each plant was custom designed and used proprietary technology that required specialized training. But these days plants are built using off-the-shelf technology that is standardized. So now a worker who is trained at one plant can use those skills to work at other plants.

Going Nuclear: Will Obama's Efforts Be in Vain?

Both liberals and conservatives have argued that the government's nuclear loan guarantees are a waste of money. Even though the technology is seen as a solution to global warming, it still has many critics. These groups argue that nuclear power plants are too costly to build and expensive to maintain -- especially given the problem of nuclear waste disposal, which has yet to be resolved.

Last month, the Vermont State Senate overwhelmingly voted to close Entergy Corp.'s (ETR) Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in 2012. Entergy's reputation in Vermont is in tatters. As the Boston Globereported, the 625-megawatt plant has been plagued by leaks of radioactive tritium. "Almost worse, officials at Entergy , the plant's owner, twice told state officials falsely that there were no underground pipes at the plant that could leak tritium," the paper said.

For now, though, the Obama administration is willing to bet that Vermont Yankee is the exception rather than the rule. Ever since Obama called for a "new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants" in his State of the Union address, hiring managers at reactors took note. Nuclear Street, a web site dedicated to hiring in the industry, has seen an increase in job postings ever since Obama's speech, says Steve Heiser, the site's managing editor.

"We are doing better this year than we have done in the past five years," Mark Raspotnik, senior recruiter at Atlanta-based Spear Group. says. "I spoke today to a candidate that is getting calls for stuff in 2012. The work is coming. It's just a matter of when they get the funding to do it."