Nuclear Regulatory Commission Aggressively Expands Headcount

By Bridget Testa

Feb. 9, 2009

Almost as soon as the nuclear power “renaissance” began around 2000, the industry realized it had a human resources problem. With little hiring since the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979, college and university programs in nuclear engineering and related disciplines had mostly vanished.

The next-generation pipeline was empty. Yet, the response for potential new jobs was swift.

“The industry’s recruiting has greatly increased across the board,” says Carol Berrigan, senior director of industry infrastructure for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear trade and advocacy group. “It’s reaching out to lots of two- and four-year colleges. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is [also] doing a good job of recruiting. It’s aggressive and filling vacancies for both retirement and new licensing.”

In the early 2000s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission knew it would have to continue its daily monitoring and safety enforcement activities at all 104 nuclear power plants in the United States. On top of that, it was expecting up to 20 new nuclear plant license applications between 2007 and 2009 (to date, 17 have been filed). It would also have to address requests to increase the number of nuclear fuel processing facilities and evaluate the Department of Energy’s controversial proposal to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

One nuclear plant review takes 100,000 hours or 30 months, not counting another 12 months for public hearings. To deal with the new work, the NRC needed more staff. The agency identified workforce development as a major organizational issue in a 2004 strategic planning document and followed up with immediate action to increase hiring.

“As part of the process for hiring at the entry level, you must invest a good bit into relationship-building at colleges,” says Susan Salter, chief of the NRC’s recruitment branch. “We work with the faculty to identify good candidates, and we have senior-level ‘champions’ adopt the school and provide a presence on campus.”

In 2007, the NRC held 37 on-site career fairs. It also began a series of continuing grant programs for faculty at selected colleges and universities, curriculum development assistance, and scholarships and fellowships for promising undergraduate and graduate students.

Security clearance delays for entry-level hires represent a major NRC challenge.

“If it takes 60 to 90 days before new hires can start, they might leave,” Salter says.

The NRC’s office of personnel management processes security applications, and it has added personnel to speed things up. Waivers were also instituted so new hires can work while they wait.

“It’s not a problem of getting the clearances,” Salter says. “It’s just the time involved.”

Sign-on bonuses and expanded training and development programs at the NRC have also been instrumental in bringing on entry-level personnel. From 2004 to 2006, the NRC expanded total spending for sign-on bonuses from $77,000 to $979,000, and individual awards went from $5,400 to $20,000.

Haile Lindsay received a sign-on bonus, but he credits the training, work environment and career opportunities as the main reasons he joined the NRC as an entry-level thermal engineer in the Office of Nuclear Materials Safety and Safeguards. The Greensboro, North Carolina, native completed his doctorate in mechanical engineering in December 2007 and went to work for the NRC in March 2008.

“I met my colleagues in June when I interviewed with my future supervisor,” Lindsay says. “I saw how I’d be helped and trained. I like the feeling of communicating with peers and even with supervisors on a first-name basis.” Supervisors are open-minded and willing to listen, he says. “It gives you can opportunity to grow.”

Lindsay is in the NRC’s formal two-year nuclear safety professional development program. The program involves structured coursework, formal and informal training opportunities and two rotations. Lindsay’s first rotation will be in human resources and training; the second is yet to be determined. He’ll complete both by October 2010.

In the last three fiscal years, the NRC has hired 1,332 new employees: 369 in 2006; 441 in 2007; and 522 in 2008. With attrition levels totaling about 200 per year, the net gain is 169 in 2006; 241 in 2007; 322 in 2008.

About two-thirds of these are technical personnel, and about 25 percent are entry level, like Lindsay. The rest are at mid- and senior-career levels.

To compete with industries for experienced professionals, the NRC analyzes salary and other statistics for key disciplines like nuclear and health physics and strives to make competitive offers. As with Lindsay, however, less tangible criteria may be more important. “The NRC was voted the best place to work in the federal government in 2007,” says the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Berrigan. “It offers a positive environment for new people.”

The NRC makes good use of its best-place-to-work fame in hiring experienced personnel. “We look for people who are working in the industry and have lots of stress. The money may not be as competitive, but the working environment is good,” Salter says.

With all the entry-level and experienced new hires, the NRC now has a staff of about 3,800. That’s enough for ongoing and new responsibilities.

“From here on out, we’ll have little to no growth,” Salter says. “It will be mainly replacement hires.”

Nevertheless, the agency will maintain its college and university connections. “Even when you’re not in a big push, you want to keep the relationships,” she says.

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