The last impediment to the large-scale deployment of nuclear power is the availability of skilled, trained, and experienced workers and operators. As the French discovered with the construction of the first two EPR's, one must have trained workers who can produce the materials and components needed for a nuclear power plant and a construction workforce that can build the facilities to exacting standards. Every safety significant component or structure in a nuclear power plant is subject to extensive testing and inspection to ensure that each meets the required standards. The reinforcing bars and concrete used to make the reactor containment must be strong enough in the event of an accident so that the containment building will not fail. Similarly, the welds used to connect the piping of the reactor coolant system must be defect-free to avoid a pipe failure and subsequent loss-of-coolant accident. To achieve these high standards requires a trained, skilled workforce. Training and qualification programs must be developed to create such a workforce. Currently there are not enough workers available to support the construction of 24-32 nuclear power plants per year.
U.S. utilities that have plans to build are working with local technical schools to develop such a workforce. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been tasked by the U.S. Congress to aid in this effort through the use of seed grants to help schools develop the necessary curriculums. Such efforts are needed at all levels if the construction and manufacturing human capital needs are to be met. The current economic slowdown actually provides an opportunity to train this workforce since workers who might otherwise be employed are being let go or are not fully employed and could be retrained for these high paying skilled jobs.
Lastly, operators are needed to run these new facilities. At one time, many of these people in the U.S. received their training from the U.S. Navy. With the downturn in the number of nuclear powered ships and submarines after the end of the cold war, this is no longer a viable source to staff new nuclear power plants. It takes 5-8 years to train a reactor operator. Each person must pass an examination and demonstrate his or her ability to cope with the unusual conditions that might occur should there be an accident. U.S. utilities have recognized this need and are working to establish new training and educational programs to help develop new operators. Duke Power, a large utility located in the southeastern United States, has recently announced the establishment of a comprehensive educational program that would lead high school graduates to not only be qualified reactor operators, but would also provide for advanced college degrees and life long learning. Such approaches can lead to providing the personnel needed to fill these positions.
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