By Don Marpe
Not many years ago, there was a rumor of resurgence in the nuclear industry, and several companies started planning to add additional nuclear plants to their existing fleet. Then came shale oil and fracking. The new abundance of natural gas drove down the costs associated with natural gas generated electricity. This resulted in low wholesale prices for electricity, in some areas of the country, and it also forced some nuclear plants to sell their power at a loss. Over the past couple of years, these plants lost money, and the forecast predicts that they will likely continue to lose money in the future. Add on top of that the high costs of capital investments required to stay current with NRC requirements (i.e. Fukushima, Security, etc.) along with the costs of some major plant improvements needed to continue the plant life. The result will have company executives questioning whether or not to continue operation of the plants. Companies are facing these financial challenges today. Anti-nuclear groups and politicians, who do not understand and appreciate the real benefits of nuclear power, are also pushing to close plants. The new Clean Air Act does not give nuclear plants any credit on carbon emissions and the Department of Energy is adding limits on plant thermal discharge to protect fish. It is not surprising that executives are tired of fighting these battles.
As for Kewaunee Power Station, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), Crystal River 3 Nuclear Power Plant, and Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station; the decision to shut down the plants has already happened. In the cases Oyster Creek and Pilgrim, the decision to close has been made with the expected shutdown sometime in 2019. There are several other plants facing the same or similar situations with management decisions expected in the near future.
So what does this mean to the nuclear professionals that provide contract services to the industry? Assuming each of the plants has a staff of around 3600 people, some portion of the staff will be out looking for work as contract nuclear workers. Also, the contract workers that were supporting those sites, and they could have an influx of competition for the available work, which will likely happen over several years. If the staff at the shutdown sites is like most other nuclear sites, a third of the workers will likely be near retirement age. At this point some of these workers could be glad to take up residence on their own front porch in a rocking chair. The real impact should be small in regards to the shutdown of plants and the subsequent effects on the availability of good contract services opportunities.
Based on recent job requests and searches of available resources, BCP Engineers & Consultants is finding just the opposite trend that available work is larger than expected. There are more nuclear job opportunities than there are qualified personnel to fill them. This will likely worsen as fewer people look for work in the nuclear field. What engineer in their twenties is going to see a future in an industry that is closing plants, and operating plants are hoping to extend their plant’s life for another 20 plus years.
Fortunately for the future, some of the new plants considered several years ago are proceeding with the construction. Watts Bar 2 is essentially complete and is in the start-up testing phase. VC Summer Units 2 and 3 are expected to become operational in 2019 and 2020. Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are also expected to become operational in 2019 and 2020. The same plant design (Westinghouse AP1000) is being used to build plants across the globe in large which means there is a potential for additional work both in the U.S. and overseas. There is also great deal of the long-term promise offered by the small modular reactors and the liquid metal/pebble bed nuclear plants.
For most of you reading this article, the opportunities available in nuclear power will be here long after you retire. When all the current plants are gone and natural gas has become a limited resource, there will be a bright future in being a nuclear professional. For those who are in their twenties that have realized that there will be a need for nuclear power, BCP Engineers & Consultants is here to help find those opportunities now and in the future.