Laid off from the Dorsey Corp. after five years on the job, Paul Talbott wanted a more stable career.
The 44-year-old Highland Park resident thinks he has found it in the nuclear power industry.
Mr. Talbott is enrolled this fall in a new program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College that could put nearly 40 radiation protection technicians in the field by 2010, each with the potential to earn more than $50,000 a year.
“Nuclear power looks like an industry that is going to be recessionproof, and it’s a well-paying industry with a bright future,” he said.
The prospect of a revival of nuclear power construction across the South is enticing more students such as Mr. Talbott to pursue careers in the nuclear industry. The Tennessee Valley Authority projects it will need to hire about 250 workers a year to replace retiring workers in its nuclear power division. The federal utility and others may hire thousands more workers if they move ahead with pending applications to build the next generation of nuclear power plants.
“This industry is growing, and we know there will be a demand for more workers,” said Tim McGhee, head of the engineering technology department at Chattanooga State, which recently reinstated its radiation protection technology program at the request of TVA.
Direaka Brown, a 33-year-old licensed practical nurse at Erlanger hospital, is studying in Chattanooga State’s new program to join the burgeoning industry.
“It was a real calling for me, and I feel like I can help protect people in this job,” the East Brainerd resident said.
No new nuclear plants have been started in the United States in more than three decades. But in the past year, TVA, Southern Co. and four other utilities in the South have begun preparing plans for new nuclear plants.
The utilities have asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for one of the new streamlined, combined operating licenses to build a Westinghouse AP-1000 reactor, which is designed to be simpler, safer and less expensive than the current generation of plants.
Critics of nuclear power question the wisdom of investing more in a technology that still hasn’t found a permanent repository for its radioactive wastes.
“The massive costs of building nuclear plants just isn’t worth it,” said Sandy Kurtz, a Chattanooga environmental activist for the anti-nuclear group Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team. “We would create more jobs investing in efficiency and renewable power than we will investing in nuclear power.”
But supporters of nuclear power insist more reactors are needed to meet the growing demand for electricity without the greenhouse gases from coal- or gas-fired power plants that add to global warming.
“As the Obama administration prepares to take office, a central question is whether or not we are going to advance nuclear power,” said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. “I’ll tell you, if we do advance nuclear, it will dramatically help our region become more resilient during a down economic time.”
To supply parts for such plants, Westinghouse and Alstom Power Co. are expanding their Chattanooga facilities and Chicago Bridge and Iron Co. has bought 60 acres on the Tennessee River in Marion County for a fabrication plant. Collectively, the nuclear supply companies could hire nearly 800 more local workers in the next couple of years.
BY THE NUMBERS
* 30 — Number of proposed nuclear reactors being pursued by 17 utilities or energy companies in the United States.
* 250 — Number of nuclear power jobs TVA needs to fill each year to replace retiring workers.
* 2,300 — Number of construction jobs planned for the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 2 completion.
* 350-400 — Number of jobs being added to staff a $280 million expansion by Alstom Power in Chattanooga.
* 50 — Number of employees being added in Chattanooga for Westinghouse nuclear services.
Sources: Nuclear Energy Institute, Dalton Utilities, TVA
The nuclear component makers in metropolitan Chattanooga, combined with planned startups of new nuclear reactors in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, make Chattanooga a hub for the growing revival of nuclear power, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said.
“We have a rich heritage in nuclear power here, and I think that will be even bigger in the future,” he said.
J. Wayne Cropp, chief executive of Chattanooga’s Enterprise Center, which promotes local technology-related growth plans, said his group is working with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce to recruit more nuclear power suppliers to the area.
“We’re trying to figure out how best to position Chattanooga for the nuclear renaissance that we anticipate in this country,” Mr. Cropp said. “We are a great manufacturing city with rail and river access and a developing engineering and science base, so we have a lot to offer this industry.”
Nuclear power was birthed in East Tennessee from research done in Oak Ridge, where the Oak Ridge National Laboratory still spends nearly $100 million a year on research related to nuclear power technologies.
TVA is spending $2.5 billion to finish a second reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City that could be the last reactor of its kind to be completed in America. TVA also is the reference applicant for the AP-1000 reactors proposed to be built at TVA’s Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Ala.
Southern Co. may move ahead of TVA with its plans for two AP-1000 reactors at its Plant Vogtle nuclear site near Waynesboro, Ga. Dalton Utilities plans to invest about $190 million in the new Vogtle reactors, utility President Don Cope said.
Such investments, combined with the retirement of baby boomer workers who have staffed nuclear plants since the 1970s, are creating a renewed demand for nuclear plant workers.
Donna Curry, recruiting program manager for TVA’s nuclear program, said TVA needs to hire 440 workers in the next three years just for its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. If new reactors are built at the Bellefonte site as proposed, TVA officials say another 1,000 workers will be needed, in addition to the thousands of construction workers needed to build the new plants.
The nuclear renaissance in the South helped attract Andrea Sterdis to TVA in Chattanooga from her previous job with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh.
“The potential of being a part of this nuclear renaissance was reason enough to attract me to Chattanooga far from my home and family,” she said. “It’s a new environment down here. When we had meetings down in North Alabama (about building new units at Bellefonte), we were received so openly for the work we are doing down there that I just want to make sure we continue that and keep this excitement moving ahead.”