Nuclear industry ponders lack of qualified personnel

BRATTLEBORO, VERMONT - Are there enough qualified people to keep Vermont Yankee operating until 2032?

Or what about any of the other 103 commercial reactors in the United States?

Across the industry, personnel shortages could lead to the loss of institutional knowledge and years of experience. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Energy Institute are helping to bridge the gap between supply and demand for qualified nuclear engineers and other nuclear industry employees.

"Both industry and the NRC are feeling the effects of the aging nuclear workforce," said NRC Chairman Dale Klein. "This fact, and the corresponding loss of experienced people, are happening right at the time that industry is prepared to grow."

It's not just the industry that needs qualified people over the next few years, he said. It's also the NRC.

In one two-week pay period in 2007, he said, "1,000 years of regulatory experience walked out of the agency due to retirements (and) 75 percent of the workforce at the Department of Energy's National Labs will be eligible for retirement by 2010."

"This is not a crisis... yet," said Klein. "But it has the potential to become one."

In the past, the NRC used to hire 30 to 50 people per year, but in 2005 the NRC set a goal of 600 new employees. In 2007, the NRC hired 441 people, 60 percent of whom were women and minorities.

This creates a problem for the NRC because one-third of its workforce has three years of NRC experience or less.

"So in addition to finding qualified people, we are also facing the challenge of knowledge transfer," said Klein. "But let me emphasize that for now and the foreseeable future, our agency has in place the staff, the expertise and the policies to oversee a safe expansion in domestic nuclear power."

Nearly 35 percent of nuclear workers will be eligible to retire in five years, according to the NRC.

"We need to get people worked up through the ranks now," said Tom Kauffman, media relations manager for NEI, especially with the potential growth of the industry.

"We are doing all kinds of stuff to develop the next generation workforce," said Carol Berrigan, the senior director of industry infrastructure for the Nuclear Energy Institute, which has an objective "to ensure the formation of policies that promote the beneficial uses of nuclear energies and technologies in the United States and around the world," according to

NEI has been closely tracking workforce issues since 2000, said Berrigan, and working to shore up the educational infrastructure and encourage students to go into career fields needed in the nuclear industry.

"We have seen tremendous results," she said. Since the 1990s the industry has seen a four-fold increase in nuclear engineers.

It's not just positions directly related to the operation of nuclear reactors that are needed, said Berrigan. A number of career fields are in demand in the industry, she said, including radiation protection technicians, maintenance personnel, electricians, mechanics and welders.

The industry and the NRC are working with 42 community colleges around the country to encourage people to go into those fields.

"We are developing local relationships and programs to support workforce development needs on a local level," said Berrigan.

In addition to grants to community colleges, the NRC also gives grants to universities and colleges such as Rensselaer Polytechnic University, Texas A&M, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Florida to help them develop faculty and offer scholarships and fellowships.

"Enrollment in university and college programs has been increasing for several years," said Howard Shaffer, a nuclear engineer who helped start up Yankee in 1972. New graduates can quickly rise in the nuclear industry because of the demand, he said.


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