Specialty Emphasis Elective: Nuclear Power
As the maintenance training supervisor at Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant, Andy Pullam understands better than anyone the workforce requirements of his industry. Pullam’s experience with nuclear power goes back to 1981 when he began a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy serving as a nuclear trained machinist mate responsible for the comprehensive maintenance and operation of naval reactors.
Pullam served two tours aboard U.S.S. Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, his first tour as a machinist mate–nuke assigned to shipboard reactor maintenance and operation, his second tour as a chief machinist mate supervising maintenance and training operations. He was also stationed at the Nuclear Power Training Units in Windsor, Conn. and Charleston, S.C, where he served with the maintenance training groups assigned to prototype naval reactors based on submarine platforms. His job involved handling all crucial maintenance functions related to running the nuclear plants in support of training operations.
Add another nine years in the civilian sector working as a technical instructor and then as a maintenance training supervisor in state-of-the-power facilities at the Palisades, Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear generating plants, and Andy Pullam is equipped with a knowledge base that covers just about anything a person might want to know about maintaining a modern nuclear generating plant.
“Today, our industry is facing a shortage of trained nuclear technicians,” said Pullam, who supervises eight nuclear maintenance instructors at the Prairie Island Training Center. “We are looking at a large number of people retiring from key maintenance positions in the coming years. Energy companies across the nation are competing to hire nuclear maintenance techs from a rapidly diminishing labor pool.”
“I believe in nuclear power as a central part of our energy mix. It provides clean, baseload electricity. Nuclear is going to be part of our energy future. It has to be.”
Recognizing the problem, Dakota County Technical College partnered with Xcel Energy to deliver a new Energy Technical Specialist program with nuclear power as a specialty emphasis elective. The program begins fall semester 2010 and will provide the nuclear industry with a fresh pool of technicians with a solid foundation in nuclear technology.
The program utilizes the Nuclear Energy Institute Uniform Curriculum Guide, which was developed as part of an industry-wide workforce strategy to standardize curriculum and increase the efficiency of new, qualified nuclear workers focused on maintenance and non-licensed operations. Students will also be leveraging the extensive training facilities and mentoring opportunities at the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant.
“In the nuclear maintenance world, we have three groups of specialists,” said Pullam. “In the mechanical group we have the repairmen, riggers, steamfitter welders and machinists who work on pumps, valves, air compressors and heat exchangers. We also have the electrical technicians who handle the huge electrical needs of the plant. And we have the instrument control technicians who focus on the sophisticated control systems used for running the plant.”
Becoming a non-licensed operator is another avenue for the energy technical specialist. Non-licensed operators support reactor operators through such duties as equipment operations and directly monitoring equipment performance.
For nuclear-trained technician positions, entry-level apprentices start at $20.57/hour. Based on step progression, technicians could potentially earn between $31.26/hour and $35.39/hour as journeymen, depending on classification—welder, machinist, rigger, etc.
The DCTC program, which offers a 60-credit Energy Technical Specialist A.A.S. degree and a 16-credit Nuclear Energy certificate, provides pathways for all four groups. Experienced electricians and machinists could choose the certificate option to fast-track into the Xcel Energy four-year apprenticeship program. Graduates with the A.A.S. degree would have a two-year jump on the apprenticeship by obtaining the requisite nuclear piece while supporting Xcel’s long-term goal of hiring only college graduates for energy-related positions. All graduates of the Energy Technical Specialist program with the nuclear emphasis would be equipped with a strong potential for advancement in the nuclear energy industry.
When a single atom of Uranium-235 decays, it releases roughly 200 million electron volts, which means that one pound of highly enriched uranium, the kind used to power nuclear submarines, is equal to approximately one million gallons of gasoline.
With revenues topping $9 billion annually, Xcel Energy offers a complete portfolio of energy-related products and services to 3.4 million electricity customers and 1.9 million natural gas customers in eight Western and Midwestern states. Xcel Energy owns and operates two nuclear power generating plants in Minnesota, the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant near Monticello, and the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant near Red Wing, which combined produce more than 25 percent of the electricity the company provides to customers in the Upper Midwest.
Because nuclear energy is carbon-free, Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plants help the company avoid the production of hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases/air pollutants. Cost analysis data show that extending the operating licenses for the Monticello and Prairie Island plants for 20 years will save Minnesota electricity customers around $1 billion.