An Industry Recharged

By Bridget Testa

May. 4, 2007

Commercial nuclear power in the U.S. got its start in 1957 when the first generating plant opened in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, and for a time, the future seemed bright for the nascent nuclear age.

    “In the 1960s, we saw a 7 percent increase in energy consumption every year,” says William H. Miller, professor at the Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “New power plants were coming on line and being built as fast as possible.”

    Then came the 1970s, with the OPEC oil embargo, energy conservation, excess electric-generation plant capacity and, not least of all, Three Mile Island. Utilities canceled nuclear plant orders, and the industry adopted a status-quo attitude toward everything, including its workforce.

    “Plants were built in the 1970s and 1980s and were fully staffed at that time,” says Carol Berrigan, director of industry infrastructure at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group in Washington. “People were in their prime working years, and through the 1990s, there was no great need to hire.”

    Utilities also consolidated their nuclear plant fleets in the ’80s and ’90s, seeking operational economies. “[Plants] got more efficient, and that led to downsizing,” Berrigan says. “So there was less need for new hires.”

    With more experienced employees than it could use, the last thing the industry needed was new recruits. Thus, it quit supporting college and university nuclear education and research. “Universities run on research dollars, and that stopped,” Miller says. “Programs weren’t being supported anymore. The professors couldn’t get research money, and the number of students dropped.” The number of nuclear engineering programs dropped too, from 38 in 1980 to 25 in 1996. By the 1990s, nuclear power was a dying industry.

    Then came 1998, when the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant in Lusby, Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay, applied for a license renewal. The plant was owned and operated at the time by Baltimore Gas and Electric and is now owned by Constellation Energy.

    “This had never happened before,” says industry consultant Chuck Goodnight. “It proved to other companies that they could extend their licenses, and it showed that the nuclear industry wasn’t dead.”

    September 11 added a frisson of urgency to the nuclear re-awakening, as the country was painfully reminded that much of its energy came from foreign and frequently unfriendly nations. So did government forecasts of a 40 percent rise in national electricity consumption from 2000 to 2020.

    Today, more than two-thirds of the 103 nuclear plants operating in the U.S. have requested license extensions, and four new plant proposals have been submitted. At least 25 more new plant proposals may be filed by 2013, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s a replay of the 1960s, except that in the 21st century, there’s no pre-existing cohort of millions of baby boomers fresh out of college and raring to find jobs in the Next Big Thing. This time around, the industry will have to build its workforce, one recruit at a time.

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