At age 43, Tom Gardner started a new career last week.

The former owner of the Donut Palace in Dayton, Tenn., wanted more job security and the chance to earn more money, so he went back to school two years ago to be trained to work in a nuclear power plant.

As a graduate of the nation's first industry-certified radiation protection training program at Chattanooga State Community College, Mr. Gardner started working at TVA as a junior radiation protection technician earning nearly $50,000 a year.

"I learned a lot and had some great experiences running my own doughnut shop, but this is definitely a job with more opportunity and stability," Mr. Gardner said this week while working at TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. "The nuclear field right now is wide open with a lot of opportunity."

So much opportunity that Mr. Gardner's 20-year-old son also joined the radiation protection training class at Chattanooga State last fall. The elder Gardner said he is excited about the opportunities available for his son at a young age. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the median annual salary for a radiation protection technician is $69,056, and with overtime many such technicians make more than $80,000 a year.

When the elder Gardner and 13 other radiation protection students picked up their associate's degrees this month from Chattanooga State, they had no trouble finding jobs.

"I know a lot of other graduates were not so fortunate this spring," said Latricia Lloyd, who lost her job in marketing at age 46 and decided to join the nuclear power industry by getting another college degree at Chattanooga State.

Renee Milner, director of nuclear recruitment for the Tennessee Valley Authority, said the radiation protection program is vital to helping meet the utility's future staffing needs.

More than 1,000 employees in TVA's nuclear power division will be eligible to retire in the next 12 months, Ms. Milner said. The federal utility also is preparing to add another reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant by 2012 and may add a new reactor at its Bellefonte Nuclear Plant site in Alabama within the next decade to help reduce the amount of coal it burns to generate electricity.

"As we become more carbon conscious, it's very important to look more toward nuclear," said Laura Paddock, senior nuclear recruitment program manager at TVA. "As kids look forward to the future for their careers, it's really a great option for them."


* 15,000 -- Number of jobs added to the U.S. nuclear power industry in the past three years

* 21,000 -- Potential number of new jobs in the nuclear industry if all 26 reactor applications are approved and built

* 1,000 -- Number of TVA nuclear employees eligible to retire in the next year

* 500 -- Average number of employees at a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant, compared with 220 at a comparable coal plant and 60 at a comparable natural gas plant

Sources: Nuclear Energy Institute, Tennessee Valley Authority

Last year, TVA hired more than 1,000 new employees for all of TVA, about half for nuclear, and TVA is on pace for similar hiring this year.

Nationwide, half the nuclear industry's work force will be eligible to retire during the next 10 years, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C. Although no new nuclear plants have been built in the past 30 years, 17 utilities have filed applications with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build up to 26 nuclear reactors by 2018.

Chattanooga State reinstated its radiation-tech program last fall at TVA's request to help meet the growing demand for new workers.

The 2-year program required long hours of work and study for Mr. Gardner, who worked at the Donut Palace most days from 1 a.m. to noon before going to Chattanooga State to classes in the afternoon and studying in the evening. Mr. Gardner sold his Donut Palace on May 1 to one of his workers.

"It was a lot of work, but I'm glad I did it, and glad that part of my training is over," he said.

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