Energy Tech Specialists Enter Nuclear Industry

Energy Technology

Nuclear certified graduates meet nationally recognized standards

Five students, one instructor and a dean from Dakota County Technical College trekked down to the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant in Red Wing, Minn., Oct. 31, 2012, to celebrate a milestone in the college’s academic history.

The five students, plus three others not in attendance, were the first to graduate from DCTC with a Nuclear Energy Certificate. “Being one of the first graduates of the program is a great feeling,” said Jeffrey Veenendal, 36, of Ellsworth, Wis. “It’s also cool because you don’t hear about professions like this. To say I’ll work in a nuclear power plant sounds more James Bondish.”

The Energy Technical Specialist A.A.S. degree opened for enrollment at DCTC in 2011. The program prepares students for work in the field of renewable energy such as coal-fired electric power generation, wind turbine maintenance, biodiesel production and solar energy as well as nuclear power.

Above and beyond the 60 credit ETSA degree is the 14 credit Nuclear Energy Certificate. This is the 007 part that Jeffrey mentioned. The advanced training takes the ETSA program to a nuclear level.

Nuclear Energy – CertificateStudents who achieve the Nuclear Energy Certificate will also be qualified for employment in the nuclear energy industry. Even though it’s a highly specialized field, students can take their certificate and work anywhere in the U.S. How can they do that? Because the certificate meets the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program standards, set by the Nuclear Energy Institute.

In addition to the NUCP credential, the certificate includes the National Academy for Nuclear Training as the issuing authority. Gordon Gibis, ETSA instructor adds that NANT is also a nationally recognized entity, which is key for students who want to work outside of Minnesota.

Michael Opp, Dean of Transportation and Industry at DCTC, explains how universal the certificate really is, “If I wanted to go work in Florida, I could tell the Florida hiring manager that I completed the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program, with a certificate to prove it.”

That’s a lot of talk about nuclear energy, so let’s break it down a bit and go back to our days of physics and chemistry. What IS nuclear energy?

Let’s look at “The History of Nuclear Energy,” written by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, published on

“Although they are tiny, atoms have a large amount of energy holding their nuclei together. Certain isotopes of some elements can be split and will release part of their energy as heat. This splitting is called fission. The heat released in fission can be used to help generate electricity in powerplants.

Uranium-235 (U-235) is one of the isotopes that fissions easily. During fission, U-235 atoms absorb loose neutrons. This causes U-235 to become unstable and split into two light atoms called fission products.

The combined mass of the fission products is less than that of the original U-235. The reduction occurs because some of the matter changes into energy. The energy is released as HEAT.

A series of fissions is called a chain reaction. If enough uranium is brought together under the right conditions, a continuous chain reaction occurs. This is called a self-sustaining chain reaction. A self-sustaining chain reaction creates a great deal of heat, which can be used to help generate electricity.

Nuclear power plants generate electricity like any other steam-electric power plant. Water is heated, and steam from the boiling water turns turbines and generates electricity. The main difference in the various types of steam-electric plants is the heat source. Heat from a self-sustaining chain reaction boils the water in a nuclear power plant.”

As of 2011, there were 443 operating nuclear power reactors spread throughout 47 different countries (World Nuclear Association). The United States contains 104 nuclear power plants that supply an average of 20 percent of the electricity. Thirteen more reactors are planned to be running by the end of 2012.

Minnesota is home to two nuclear power plants. One is found in Monticello and the other in Prairie Island, both owned by Xcel Energy.

Not only is the nuclear energy industry growing, current workers are retiring by the handful, creating a need for thousands of new workers. Xcel Energy recognized this need and approached DCTC to build a program to train their future workforce.

“Just like any private business, they don’t make moves that aren’t financially in their best interest,” said Gibis. He explains that for the past 15 to 20 years, utility plants have hired in masses when a crisis arose, but found that employees left a couple years later. “That job offer attracted them, but they wanted to move back to where they came from.”

(left to right) Gordon Gibis, Andrew Reesen, Anthony Halfen, Jacquelyn Walsh, Ryan Borlik, and Jeffery Veenendal.Utility companies, like Xcel Energy, have turned to a new way of thinking. They want to train and hire a hometown workforce because they have roots in the local communities and will want to stay there throughout their careers. “It’s been a slow transition for them,” said Gibis, “but people are retiring and the pool is dwindling.”

Out of 19 ETSA students, six took on the challenge of the Nuclear Energy Certificate. For some, like Ryan Borlik, 38, of Farmington, Minn., it was because they were looking specifically for the nuclear energy field. “I continued onto the nuclear energy certificate for the sole purpose of working in a specialized industry,” said Ryan. “It’s more unique than working in an regular power plant.”

Others continued because of the growth in the field. “Being a program partner with the Dakota County Technical College provides a clear path to employ a young, diverse workforce in nuclear power,” said Jim Lynch, Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Site Vice President. “Programs like this are key to the success of the Prairie Island plant, as well as the industry.”

All agree that it’s a challenging, invaluable program. “It’s encouraging to be here. I still, now, have no regrets going through this program,” said Jeff.

Or as James Bond put it, “We aim to please.”

For more information about the DCTC Energy Technical Specialist program, contact: