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2012 October 29 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Going Nuclear

Photo courtesy Indian River Community College
Optimal alignment of a laser system engages students in the Photonics Laboratory in the Indian River State College Brown Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The center serves as headquarters for the Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training.

C  O  V  E  R   S  T  O  R  Y
Going Nuclear
College Consortium Aims to Standardize
Nuclear Tech Curriculum
By Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week

In the not too distant future, most of the skilled technicians working at nuclear power plants across the country likely will have been trained at a community college.


They will have learned their math, chemistry and physics through a common curriculum offered nationwide and is consistent state-to-state. Many will have gained hands-on experience from industry partners in their essential job duties: monitoring the performance of equipment used in nuclear power generation; measuring the levels of types of radiation; collecting test samples of air and water for radioactive contamination; instructing personnel on radiation safety procedures and warning them when conditions are hazardous; maintaining, monitoring and operating equipment.

In years past, many of these workers required only a high school diploma and intense on-the-job training. Many had gone to work at nuclear power plants straight from the nuclear Navy.

But as demand for nuclear energy grows — stemming from overall growth in energy demand and greater interest in energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases — so has demand for skilled technicians holding associate degrees, especially as the current workforce ages and nears retirement.

Community and technical colleges around the country now offer associate degree programs in nuclear science, nuclear technology or related fields, with students studying nuclear energy and radiation and training on equipment and components used in nuclear power plants and labs.

But curriculum and coursework varies widely from state to state, and even from college to college. Now, an effort being led by Florida’s Indian River State College aims to change that.

Last year, IRSC won a four-year, $3.1 million National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education grant to establish the nation’s first Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training. RC-NET is intended to assure that the future demand for skilled nuclear technicians is met in a standardized and systematic way.

“What we want to do is create an industry-recognized credential that can carry across state lines,” said Kevin Cooper, director of advanced technology at the college and principal investigator for the NSF grant. “The idea is to create a national curriculum for nuclear technicians.”

Though called a regional center,
RC-NET is actually a broad consortium that includes 46 colleges and universities from across the country, in addition to 35 industry partners and multiple government agencies. Primary partners include Central Virginia Community College, Chattanooga State Community College (Tenn.), Midlands Technical College (S.C.) and North Carolina State University.

Over time, the center hopes to develop a model that can be utilized at the national level to benefit utilities and colleges providing nuclear energy training. Acting as a centralized resource, RC-NET will provide curriculum, training for faculty and staff and facilitate communication and collaboration across the nuclear industry, colleges and universities.

The center’s goals include:

  • Providing standardized curriculum, problem-based learning and hands-on labs for nuclear technicians.

  • Development of a learning repository for nuclear curriculum.

  • Providing professional development for technicians already working in the field.

  • Embedding unique training systems and 21st century technologies into the classroom.

  • Providing career and academic pathways and promoting nuclear energy and nuclear careers.

Located on Florida’s east coast, IRSC was a natural choice for the task. The college has established itself as a leader in energy education, helping the region transform itself from an agricultural center into a research hub.

Last April, the college cut the ribbon on its Brown Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a $21.6 million facility aimed at connecting training in energy and technology with services for business start-ups on what has come to be called Florida’s Research Coast.

Education in alternative energy and sustainability is central to the mission of the center. Students learn how to produce biofuels, construct photovoltaic cells, experiment with light technologies and gain hands-on experience in energy efficient building construction.

“Our vision was to build a facility and focus on clean energy, life sciences and ocean sciences to meet a local demand,” said college President Edwin R. Massey. “Over time the energy sector has not received a lot of attention. But if we are going to meet the need for the jobs of the future, community colleges have to step up.”

RC-NET, which is housed in the Brown Center, builds on IRSC’s successful Power Plant Technology Institute, which was created in 2006 to support the growing need for maintenance technicians at Florida Power and Light’s St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, said Jose Farinos, IRSC dean of advanced technology.

Central to the PPTI is the partnership with Florida Power and Light. Students enrolled in the program get hands-on experience at the St. Lucie nuclear plant with paid summer internships. Graduates not only get a degree, but also earn a nationally-recognized certificate from the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program.

The hands-on element is critical, Farinos said.

“We have the opportunity to work with our partners on a regular basis,” he said. “We get together and we talk about what works and what doesn’t. Many of the core courses are taught by representatives of the industry.”

The PPTI has been a resounding success. In 2007, the PPTI received the 2007 Innovation of the Year Award from the League for Innovation in the Community College. The program has a retention rate of better than 95 percent, and its job placement rate is similarly high. More than 140 graduates got jobs immediately after graduation, most at the St. Lucie plant, Farinos said. Entry-level employees can earn more than $55,000 a year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of nuclear technicians was $68,090 in May 2010.

RC-NET aims to replicate the successes of the Power Plant Technology Institute on a national scale. It comes at a time when the nuclear power industry is trying to find, train and hire more than 41,000 skilled nuclear employees by 2030 to replace those who will retire. About 40 percent of the current nuclear workforce will be eligible for retirement within five years, according to industry estimates.

There are currently 104 nuclear reactors at 65 power plants across the country. In addition, there are 30 applications for licenses for new plants currently before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with each new facility employing 400 to 700 workers, though enthusiasm for new plants has waned following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and meltdown following the Japanese tsunami in March 2011.

Some observers believe the Japanese disaster has actually created an imperative for more training. The nuclear industry must address new safety and operation protocols, and these new procedures will result in increased oversight and in the implementation of emergency systems, all of which will require added manpower.

Those who are designing the RC-NET curriculum know they have a challenge ahead. Getting community college students through demanding courses like chemistry, physics and nuclear engineering can be a daunting task. The college has taken an approach that emphasizes applied science, teaching academic skills within the context of the power plant program, Massey said.

“If we can get students through internships and applied research, if we can get them working in the facilities we built, they’ll be much better prepared for the world of work,” he said.

Industry partners have also said workers need more than a strong academic background. The so-called soft skills — critical thinking, listening and communication skills — are also essential, Cooper said.

For example, nuclear technicians must be able to explain their work to scientists, engineers and reactor operators. They must instruct others on safety procedures and warn them when conditions are hazardous. Nuclear technicians receive complex instructions from scientists and engineers that they must follow exactly. They have to be able to ask questions to clarify anything they do not understand.

The program also faces the imperative of increasing the ranks of women and minorities in the nuclear program. The nuclear industry workforce includes only a small percentage of women and members of minority groups.

Massey said the college plans to continue its efforts to reach out to students in high schools and middle schools and get young students interested in science.

“It’s vital that we reach the students with examples of applied research,” Massey said. “If we can do that, we can facilitate that upward path.”

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