By Jarret Adams
U.S. nuclear energy sector has long offered promising careers for highly skilled workers earning salaries much higher than other electricity generation, U.S. policy organization of the nuclear technologies industry Nuclear Energy Institute reports. But the mix of nuclear energy workers is evolving along with the next generation of nuclear plant designs.
The next generation of nuclear plant workers can still expect the job security and above-average pay, but the U.S. nuclear energy sector is looking ahead to the changes in the skill sets required. The advent of small modular reactors (SMRs) will mean fewer workers building plants on site; more employees will work at the facilities that manufacture SMRs and their main components, many being shipped for the plant construction site for assembly
This will also mean fewer construction workers at the plant site. This approach avoids significant amounts of additional time and cost.
Today the nuclear energy industry “directly employs nearly 100,000 people in high-quality, long-term jobs,” according to NEI. That figure increases to nearly 500,000 workers when you include indirect employment such as contractors and suppliers, but that mix of workers is expected to evolve along with the technology.
“The nuclear energy industry is a powerful engine for job creation,” said Lori Brady, Senior Director of Human Resources, Training and Development at NEI. “Our employment record goes beyond the nuclear engineering, creating lasting, high-paying jobs for people from a wide range of fields and educational backgrounds from craft workers to cyber security. Recruiting from universities, community colleges, the military and the trades, nuclear power plants provide worker salaries 50 percent higher on average than other electricity sources.”
In addition to engineering, chemistry and physics, the development of these next-generation nuclear plants also will require people with expertise in areas such as communication, geology, licensing, and regulation. The industry is recognizing that building and operating nuclear facilities depends on more than just the technical expertise to operate the plant.
Organizations are recognizing a broad range of experience required for nuclear energy to remain part of the energy mix. They will need to understand the context in which nuclear facilities operate, how plants can stay competitive in the marketplace, and keep the support of stakeholders.
As a result, educators are trying to prepare the next generation of nuclear energy professionals with a broad set of skills to meet what awaits them.
“The modern nuclear workforce needs to be technically savvy, understand the economics of energy systems, appreciate the influence of the policy environment, and respect the opinions of the communities with which they engage,” said Todd Allen, Department Chair of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan.
The nuclear industry is also striving to develop a workforce more reflective of the U.S. population by funding an array of programs to educate and attract a more diverse workforce. Attracting and retaining such a workforce requires having an inclusive environment that values different backgrounds and perspectives.
“This is true domestically as well as with international engagements,” Allen added. Since nuclear energy is inherently a global business, having a good understanding of cultural differences is a necessary to successful operation.
The U.S. Department of Energy is developing the next generation of leaders through its University Nuclear Leadership Program, announcing $5 million in scholarships and fellowships for students pursuing degrees in nuclear energy and engineering. This program supports those leaders who are developing carbon-free nuclear innovations, helping meet the Biden Administration’s net-zero emissions goals.