ATLANTA — It's a "brain drain" of sorts, but it's one the nuclear power industry has been preparing for.
Of the roughly 120,000 workers in the nuclear power industry, nearly 38 percent are eligible to retire within the next five years. For companies like Southern Nuclear, the expected worker shortage comes at a critical time: Southern Nuclear operates six reactors: two at Plant Farley in Alabama and two each at Plant Hatch and Plant Vogtle in Georgia.
The company also will operate two new units at Vogtle when they open in 2016 and 2017.
"Our issue is a little bit larger than maybe some other utilities," said Steven Kuczynski, chief executive officer for Southern Nuclear.
One answer for finding trained workers has been the Navy. About 11 percent of employees at the company's parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., are military veterans. For the nuclear unit, that percentage is higher, Kuczynski said.
"We rely much more heavily on nuclear skills," said Kuczynski, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
That Navy-to-nuclear career pipeline was made formal Wednesday after industry leaders met at the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in Atlanta. Southern Nuclear was one of a dozen nuclear power companies to agree to hire retiring naval personnel with nuclear training. The agreement also expands what's known as the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program to let the Navy recruit from 38 community colleges across the country.
The idea of the public-private partnership is threefold. Navy veterans with nuclear training have a clear path to a new job. Utilities with nuclear plants have easy access to trained workers. And students at technical schools can start on a career in the nuclear industry by joining the Navy.
The agreement formalizes what the industry has been doing for years, said Stephen Trautman, deputy director of the U.S. Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program.
"Our folks are routinely highly sought after because of their skills, but this helps them know what opportunities are available in the commercial nuclear business," Trautman said.
Georgia Power and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. are the first two utilities in the United States to win approvals to build new nuclear units from scratch in nearly three decades. But the need for workers stretches beyond that. Utilities operate 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. Engineers, technicians and maintenance workers will be needed to replace retiring employees.
"There's a potential for high turnover," because of the retirements, said Randy Edington, executive vice president and chief nuclear officer for Phoenix-based Arizona Public Service Co. The utility operates three reactors including the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which is the nation's largest reactor.
Edington said he's hired 800 employees in the last four years and plans to hire another 800 in the next four. In the meantime, 700 workers have retired.
The community colleges and technical schools already have been a training ground for utilities such as Southern Nuclear and its sister company, Georgia Power. The companies recently hired a group of graduates from Augusta Technical College's nuclear engineering technology program to work at the Vogtle 3 and 4 units.
Augusta Technical has had about twice as many applicants for its nuclear engineering technology program, which prepares students to work at Vogtle or other nuclear plants.
"They are coming in at kind of our entry level and can develop and progress," Kuczynski said. "Our industry has really been built off of this expertise."