Gaston College offers program to meet nuclear industry

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 18, 2013

GASTONIA (AP) — The nuclear industry will need about 25,000 workers by 2015 as baby boomers retire, and a group at Gaston College could be among the potential employees who fill that work force gap.
Gaston College started its nuclear technology program in the fall of 2011 after working with Duke Energy to create a program for nuclear power plant operators.
The first students in Gaston College’s nuclear technology program are set to graduate this spring. Graduates will leave with a degree that should qualify them to become entry level nuclear reactor service technicians or provide the base for more education if they want to climb higher up within the nuclear field. Nuclear reactor field service technicians inspect nuclear power plants and make repairs and modifications.
Drakko Allison is one of eight students in the program. He intended to go to Gaston College for mechanical engineering technology, but switched into the nuclear technology program when it started two years ago. He’ll graduate this fall with an associate’s degree in nuclear technology.
Over the summer Allison and the seven other students in the program did a work co-op with either the McGuire Nuclear Plant near Huntersville or the Catawba Nuclear Plant northeast of York, S.C., to see what daily life was like for a non-licensed operator. Students are required to have a 320-hour co-op with one of the Duke Energy nuclear plants over the summer of their first and second year in the program.
“It’s very challenging,” said Allison, a 2010 Forestview High graduate. “It was a lot I wasn’t expecting.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute and Institute of Nuclear Power Operations created a basic curriculum for community colleges. The program goes hand in hand with what the training required when a person is hired at a nuclear power plant for a technical position.
“They have to learn the science and the mathematics that’s behind the operation of a steam power plant and a nuclear reactor,” said Virgil Cox, dean of engineering and industrial technologies at Gaston College. “There is an enormous amount of information that is required of these people and a pretty significant ability to be able to understand the connection between components, systems and procedures.”
Graduates will earn an associate of applied science degree in nuclear technology and a certification from Duke Energy and the National Academy for Nuclear Training if they meet certification performance requirements.
“Working at Duke Energy is an opportunity I can have,” Allison said.
Duke Energy has six nuclear power plants in the Carolinas. At the Catawba Nuclear Plant alone, Duke has about 1,100 employees on site, said Duke Energy and Catawba Nuclear Station spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Green.
Duke’s peak workers are between 50 and retirement age, she said. And Duke Energy’s not alone.
Almost 38 percent of workers in the nuclear industry will be eligible to retire by 2015, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
“We are looking forward to having some of those students in our work force,” Green said.
Nuclear energy has seen a resurgence in recent years as more nuclear plants are built. In the Southeast, five new nuclear units should be completed by the end of the decade, said Steve Kerekes, senior director of media relations for the Nuclear Energy Institute. Two units in Georgia, two in South Carolina and one in Tennessee are in the works.
The expansions at Vogtle Electric Generating Plant near Augusta, Ga., and the Summer Nuclear Generating Station north of Columbia, S.C., will be the first nuclear reactors built in the U.S. in 30 years.
“It’s kind of a new nuclear renaissance,” Green said.