Retooling the Workforce for Small Modular Reactors
Dec25

Retooling the Workforce for Small Modular Reactors

Smaller reactors have many advantages, but in order to be cost effective in competitive energy markets a typical small modular reactor (SMR) will need to operate with a much smaller workforce than today’s large commercial nuclear energy facilities.  This will mandate a retooling of existing nuclear training programs to align with the knowledge and skills needed by the SMR staff. As opposed to fossil-fueled power plants in which the majority of operating costs are associated with the fuel they burn, the majority of the costs of generating electricity from nuclear energy are associated with the costs of capital to build the plant, and the ongoing cost of people needed to operate and maintain (O&M) the plant.  The capital costs, determined by construction & financing costs, are generally fixed during the first decades of operation.  The O&M costs, however, vary over the life of the plant and are highly dependent on overall labor costs; the number of people required and their salaries and benefits, contracted labor costs, and the cost of out-sourced services. For this reason the long-term economic viability of nuclear energy facilities relies upon maintaining capacity factors high and labor costs reasonable and predictable.  Obviously, the balance sheet also depends on the structure of the energy market in which the facility is located. Anti-nuclear groups understand this connection between labor costs and economic viability.  For years their strategy has been to convince nuclear regulators of the need for ever-tougher standards resulting in larger and larger staff sizes and thus tighter profit margins.  They are, in a very deliberate way, working to regulate nuclear energy out of business.  Coupled with lower electricity market prices brought about by falling natural gas prices, these higher labor costs mean some smaller nuclear plants are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain profitability. Utilities planning to deploy SMRs can expect these same anti-nuclear groups to push for regulations to limit their ability to operate with the smaller staff sizes needed. Using “ball park” numbers, today’s large 1000 MWe nuclear plants typically employ a staff of about 700 people, or about 0.7 people per megawatt. At this ratio a 100 MWe SMR would employ only about 70.  Under today’s paradigm of division of labor within a nuclear plant, separate groups of specialized workers perform various functions; operators operate the plant, maintenance technicians maintain and repair the equipment, chemists monitor and control the chemistry within plant systems, planners and schedulers do the planning and scheduling, and radiation protection technicians monitor radiation levels and help ensure everyone works safely.  The staff size enables economies of scale; in this case specialization is efficient because the amount of work...

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5 Nuclear Jobs Starting at $50,000 Without a 4-year Degree
Dec13

5 Nuclear Jobs Starting at $50,000 Without a 4-year Degree

“If I only knew then what I know now!” I was having a conversation with a friend who had spent years working full time while putting himself through college. His business degree had landed him a good job in the corporate support organization of  a large electric utility.  He was happy to have it and his smarts, maturity, and work ethic had served him well. Yet to some extent he lamented his choice of a four-year business degree because he saw friends in nuclear technical fields advancing faster and earning more money.  Rather than being graduates of four-year colleges or universities, many had started their careers with an associate degree, military training or a certificate in a skilled trade. In many cases this meant they began earning more at an earlier age and had little student loan debt.  If my colleague had been aware of these opportunities he may have chosen a different path. In the least he would  have made an informed decision. Even in the highly technical field of nuclear energy there are many jobs that do not require a 4-year degree for an entry-level position.  Most of these have starting wages of about $50,000 per year (more if you include overtime and bonuses). In each of these positions there is an established career progression. Pay increases as you complete company-provided training and achieve higher levels of qualification.  I have known many coworkers in these types of jobs who with just two or three years of experience routinely earn more than $100,000 per year with overtime and bonuses.  Even better, these positions are the entry points for supervisory and management positions meaning there is opportunity for long-term career growth. So what are these great jobs that don’t require a 4-year degree?  Here are some examples:   Radiation Protection Technician (also called health physics technician) Radiation protection technicians monitor radiation levels throughout the nuclear energy facility. They also maintain and calibrate radiation protection instruments and equipment. They play an important role in helping fellow employees work safely in areas where radiation levels are greater than natural background. Electrical Technician (also called nuclear electrician) Electrical technicians install, repair and maintain the highly complex electrical and electronic equipment in the nuclear plant. They work on power plant equipment like motors, circuit breakers, electrical cables, switchgear, generators, transformers, and batteries. Instrument & Controls Technician I&C technicians are the “industrial computer technicians” in nuclear energy facilities. They install, test, calibrate, troubleshoot, and repair nuclear plant instrumentation and control equipment and systems. Mechanical Maintenance Technician (also called nuclear mechanic) Mechanical maintenance technicians keep all the power plant and reactor mechanical systems and equipment running...

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The Global Nuclear Renaissance Rolls On, Career Opportunities Continue
Dec11

The Global Nuclear Renaissance Rolls On, Career Opportunities Continue

Despite claims by anti-nuclear groups of the pending demise of nuclear energy production in the United States, the nuclear renaissance is alive and well. According to the non-partisan Energy Information Administration, nuclear energy production in the USA will continue to expand for the next 25 years. Electricity generation from nuclear power plants grows by 14 percent in the AEO2013 Reference case, from 790 billion kilowatt-hours in 2011 to 903 billion kilowatt-hours in 2040, accounting for about 17 percent of total generation in 2040 (compared with 19 percent in 2011). Nuclear generating capacity increases from 101 gigawatts in 2011 to a high of 114 gigawatts in 2025 through a combination of new construction (5.5 gigawatts), uprates at existing plants (8.0 gigawatts), and retirements (0.6 gigawatts). Coupled with retirements among the 120,000 people who work in the nuclear industry, this expansion means continued career opportunities building, operating and maintaining the nation’s fleet of commercial reactors.  And this is just the start.  In addition to the 100 commercial nuclear plants operating in United States, there are 335 in operation in other nations and 73 more under construction (including four in the USA). Recently announced shutdowns of four nuclear energy facilities in the USA has done little to dampen the demand for talent; the industry has more than enough demand for knowledgeable workers to absorb those displaced by plant closures. While some older nuclear plants will gradually go out of service over the next few decades they’ll be replaced with larger power plants that require larger staff sizes.  New technologies like small modular reactors may add even more jobs in advanced manufacturing and construction. What does all this mean for career opportunities? Every nuclear plant employs at about 600 to 1500 people depending on the power plant size, the technology used, and the number of reactors at the facility.  In the USA alone the combination of modest expansion and hiring to replace about 40% of the workforce over the next decade means nuclear energy companies will hire 30,000 to 50,000 new engineers, operators, and technicians.  The numbers are even larger in other countries where growth will create more than 70,000 career opportunities as new facilities come on line. More information about nuclear energy careers is available below: Explore Amazing Career Opportunities in Nuclear Energy 5 Nuclear Jobs Starting at $50,000 that don’t require a 4-year degree...

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Only the US Government Would Call a Tax a Subsidy
Dec24

Only the US Government Would Call a Tax a Subsidy

Podcast Episode 115 – Download the mp3 file Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.  Play the Podcast My first reaction was “Wow! Did I just read that correctly?!” It was one of those “ah-ha moments” when a seemingly mundane statement leapt out of the page and whacked me on the forehead.  This time the catalyst was a twitter reply from Chris Pragman (@ChrisPragman) who describes himself as an “Avid Podcast listener, Engineer, Nuclear Power, Fire Protection, and beer geek with a long commute!” You see, I had posted a tweet earlier in the day about the cost to taxpayers of some “green energy” jobs.  There’s a new wind farm in Oregon called Shepherds Flat that received federal cash grants totaling $490 million under the guise of job creation.  For that grand sum the Shepherds Flat project will create 35 new jobs.  The math is easy; $14 million per “green energy” job. Our tax dollars at work! This tidbit about Shepherds Flat was part of a larger report by the Energy Tribune that among other things compared the relative size of US government subsidies to various energy industries.  The report by Robert Bryce calculated subsidy dollars per unit energy produced and concluded the renewable energy industry receives 6.5 times more federal government subsidies than the nuclear industry, and 12 times more than the oil and gas industry.  That fact really didn’t surprise me considering the billions of dollars in grants, production tax credits, and favorable depreciation rules the government lavishes upon anything branded with the “renewable” label.  Then Chris asked a great question, “What do they consider nuclear subsidies?” When I dug into that question I learned the Congressional Budget Office is tasked with tracking the amount the government spends subsidizing various industries, and they publish their findings periodically.  There it was on page 3: $900 million in “subsidies” for the “favorable tax treatment of nuclear decommissioning funds.”  Hmmm. What could that be? You see, every nuclear plant owner is required by federal law to set aside funds to ensure there’ll be enough money to pay for decommissioning the plant when the time comes.  Typically plant operators add to the fund each year and over time the fund grows until it’s used. The NRC monitors each fund and will require plant owners to make additional payments if they think they’re behind.  These funds are essentially forced savings accounts that add to each nuclear plants annual operating expenses. So what’s the “favorable tax treatment?”  It turns out Title 26...

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Irrational Pro-Renewable Policies, Nuclear Energy Tax Hikes Harm Spain’s Economic Recovery
Dec19

Irrational Pro-Renewable Policies, Nuclear Energy Tax Hikes Harm Spain’s Economic Recovery

Spain’s electrical supply industry is caught in a decade long death spiral of failed energy policy, over-reliance on imported fuels, and massive debt. Their new taxes on nuclear energy, an attempt to reduce utility debt, are likely to worsen their economy. Spain imports fuel for about 51 % of their electricity production in the form of coal and natural gas. Payments for these imported commodities contribute to a debilitating trade imbalance. Nuclear energy makes up the lion’s share (47%) of Spain’s domestic energy production. Their eight nuclear energy facilities add tens of thousands of jobs and billions of euros per year to the national economy while reducing the need for imported coal or gas.  At the same time Spain’s nuclear plants provide reliable, predictable energy without greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of renewable energy generated in Spain has increased considerably over the last several years.  In fact, in 2012 wind energy production exceeded nuclear energy production for brief periods when demand was low, some nuclear plants were out of service, and wind conditions were nearly optimal.  Unfortunately, Spain’s methods of encouraging investment in renewables have contributed to their current financial crises. The Spanish electricity industry is carrying $32 billion of debt, putting serious strain on an already faltering economy. Spain began deregulating their electricity supply system in the late 1990’s.  Their approach was eerily similar to the failed California experiment; they removed price controls to allow power generators to compete among themselves, but they limited rates paid by customers. As wholesale energy prices rose utilities were unable to recover the higher costs through higher rates to customers.  The result was predictable: electric utilities began loosing money on a grand scale.  Since 2005 annual “energy deficits” have been in the billions of euros per year.  With slight-of-hand economics, the Spanish government allowed utilities to “bank” their annual deficits against future earnings.  Unfortunately those future earnings never materialized and deficits ballooned. A the same time Spain (like California) began a heavily subsidized renewable energy program that included “feed-in tariffs” which guaranteed wind and solar generators above market prices for all of the energy they could produce.  Consequently utilities were forced to buy wind and solar energy at inflated rates, but were not allowed to recover the costs because of those same price controls.  Solar and wind energy investors raked in billions of euros per year while the utility deficit grew even faster.  By some accounts electric utility debt in Spain now stands at $32 billion. These out-of-whack energy policies cost Spanish workers dearly; for every renewable energy job created more than five existing jobs were lost and unemployment soared to over 20%....

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