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2009 September 8 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Colleges Look To Nuclear Industry To Help Finance Training Programs

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — In an area where nuclear waste cleanup and atomic energy research keep the economy humming, businesses and government agencies are having trouble finding workers with nuclear credentials.

A local community college was poised to step in and educate new workers, but state lawmakers declined to provide money for the program during the economic downturn. Now the college is scrounging for cash from companies that stand to benefit most when the program gets off the ground.

Columbia Basin College, which laid out its plans for the program in a 40-page business plan, can look to dozens of colleges around the country where nuclear program salaries, tuition and equipment are increasingly being supported by the industry itself.

“These programs are definitely needed. There’s an aging work force, and it’s getting to be an important situation,” Columbia Basin College President Richard Cummins said. “As these folks retire, they’re the brain trust for this work, and we don’t have a lot of people in the pipelines to make sure our systems are safe and reliable.”

The number of colleges and universities offering degrees in nuclear sciences has grown to about five dozen in recent years. But five years ago, fewer than 10 were driven by corporate sponsors, said Carol Berrigan, senior director for industry infrastructure for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Today, more than 45 programs around the country get corporate donations, she said.

In some cases, companies send their experienced nuclear workers to step in part-time as instructors. Some pay for laboratory equipment or salaries. Many provide scholarships and internships.

The South Texas Project committed $4.2 million to three community colleges — plus support for nuclear education programs at two four-year schools — over the next half-decade to educate a local pool of workers.

The project’s two nuclear reactors 90 miles southwest of Houston supply enough electricity for nearly 2 million homes. With plans to build two more reactors, the utility estimates it will need 1,200 workers over the next seven years, spokesman Buddy Eller said.

“It’s a very competitive market,” he said. “Our whole emphasis, for lack of a better term, is to grow our own workers.”

In Virginia, the French nuclear services company Areva Inc. contributed $1 million toward a new technology center at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, Va. The college also partnered with Dominion, a Richmond, Va. energy company that owns and operates four nuclear power stations.

Most of the support has come in the form of scholarships and internships, but Dominion also has provided instructors or cash support to community colleges in Connecticut and Wisconsin to recruit and educate local workers, said Lisa Stiles, project manager of work force planning.

“The downturn in the economy could actually help us a little bit. People aren’t retiring in quite the numbers we expected, but we don’t expect that to last,” she said.

Long known as a nuclear hub, Southeast Washington is home to the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, the Hanford nuclear reservation, and the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power plant.

The biggest holes to fill aren’t necessarily for nuclear operators or engineers, though they are needed, said Vic Parrish, CEO of Energy Northwest, the consortium that operates the plant. Rather, they are the craft workers — mechanics or welders who must know how to work in a radiological environment — and radiation technicians who check to make sure areas are safe for other workers.

An example: Hanford contractor Washington Closure hired six new radiation technicians earlier this summer, with openings for 10 more. Each position required at least three years of experience.

The company hasn’t contributed to the nuclear technologies program but did donate $10,000 to the school’s foundation to be used as it pleases, spokesman Todd Nelson said.

Cummins, the college president, estimates he needs $300,000 a year to get the program started. He declined to say how much has been committed so far.

As a public agency, Energy Northwest can’t contribute cash but is offering internships and its staff members as instructors.

“Businesses have a responsibility to educate workers too. It’s really a business investment,” Parrish said. “It’s one of those things where you have to take the long view, and if you don’t you’re going to come up short.”

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