Jeffrey Archie, SCE&G’s chief nuclear officer, is a Fairfield County native son who came to the local power plant looking for a job three decades ago and never left.
The V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville was in the very early stages of constructing its first generating plant at the time, the summer of 1976. It was a $1.3 billion project coming into an isolated portion of a rural county where opportunities were few.
Archie’s story is unique. Few Fairfield County locals found a career at the new plant, as much of the work force was not trained for the specialty work. And today, only a handful of the plant’s workers actually live in the county.
But as S.C. Electric & Gas begins work on two new $10 billion reactors at that same power plant, Fairfield County is working feverishly to give its residents every opportunity to create a future the way Archie did three decades ago – from expunging criminal records to building a career center for training potential workers.
As they build careers, leaders hope the economic impact of well-paying jobs also will build up the community, with more homes and retail outlets – something that didn’t happen on a widespread scale the first time around.
“The economic impact of two new plants at V.C. Summer will be far-reaching and life-changing for our citizens and the quality of life in our communities,” said Terri Vickers, Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce president.
In addition to job creation, the project will increase the tax base and could lead to more economic development, broadband availability, tourism promotion and added attention to existing businesses, Vickers said.
Ramping up education and tapping into specialized job training are the surest ways for Fairfield County and its 24,000 residents to reap the economic, social and civic benefits of having one of the largest construction projects in the country in its backyard, area leaders say.
Doing things differently
Completed in 1984, the Summer plant already is Fairfield County’s largest employer, retaining about 800 permanent workers to operate the current reactor.
Workers at the plant earn pay that is on average 36 percent higher than others in the area. But only about 23 percent of the workers live in Fairfield and adjoining Newberry counties. The rest come from other counties, some as far away as Kershaw and Chester.
Construction of the new reactors already has drawn 1,400 craft workers to the site as activity cranks up in earnest, and the Shaw Co. predicts it will hire up to 3,000 construction workers at peak activity.
When the units go into operation in 2017 and 2018, SCE&G will need 800 more permanent operations workers to run the plants, in an industry where the majority of workers earn between $75,000 to $100,000 annually, and the second-largest group of employees earns between $100,001 and $150,000 a year.
Critics say nuclear plants often do not live up to pre-construction expectations in terms of promoting positive economic development in the counties where they are built. In fact, they say, the plants often have the reverse effect on rural, agricultural counties such as Fairfield, driving away potential development due to fear factors relating to safety and health.
Another criticism is that the bulk of high-paying permanent operations jobs often are filled by people who live outside the county the plant is located in, who commute and opt for the amenities offered in larger cities. Largely, that is what has happened in Fairfield County, which had a 12.2 percent unemployment rate in May – slightly higher than this time last year and more than 3 percentage points higher than South Carolina’s rate.
SCE&G is encouraging local folks go to school in areas such as engineering, nuclear operations training or radiation protection, Archie said.
“We want local people to be involved in those programs, because it’s our history that when we hire permanent employees, if they have local roots, then they tend to stay with us longer than folks that may come in from the Midwest or the Northeast or places like that.
“We make them aware of those opportunities because we want them to get engaged in those opportunities,” he said.
But if Fairfield leaders are going to reap the economic benefits of the reactors this time around, they have some hurdles to clear.
“We’ve got two major problems,” said David Ferguson, Fairfield County Council chairman. We’ve got a work force where a lot of our kids made mistakes when they were younger (and have blemishes on their records) – and you can’t work at a nuclear station, not even building and constructing it, if you have the least little score against your name for anything. That’s one big problem we are having right now.”
Ferguson said the county is working with the sheriff’s department and attorneys seeking expungement of records for some non-violent crimes. “That’s a bigger problem than people may realize,” he said.
One big plus for filling more jobs with more local people this time around is the county’s new Midlands Technical College campus.
Opened in July 2010, the 10,600-square-foot Fairfield QuickJobs Center is designed to provide area residents with rapid training to fill high-demand jobs.
The school’s industrial component provides advanced technology needed to train students for careers in welding, pipefitting and other crafts. Heath care education, EMT training, computer technology and nuclear operations training also are offered, all through the QuickJobs program.
That leads to the county’s second employment problem, Ferguson said.
“We’ve got slots in the Career Center (for remedial basic courses) and we’ve got slots at Midlands Tech that aren’t being utilized by folks in the county as well as they could be. We’ve got it, if they’ll take advantage of it.”
The U.S. Department of Commerce provided more than $2 million in grants to build and equip the facility. SCANA, the parent company of SCE&G, added $100,000 to help purchase equipment there.
Getting trained in the nuclear industry opens doors to jobs at any of the state’s existing seven reactor sites, Archie noted. Those stretch from Duke Power Co.’s Catawba plants near Rock Hill to Progress Energy’s H.B. Robinson plant near Hartsville, and Duke’s Oconee plant near Seneca.
Additionally, Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel has for more than 40 years operated a nuclear fuel fabrication plant off Bluff Road in Columbia, where it signed a new $400 million contract with SCE&G in February to provide reactor fuel for the plants in Fairfield County for decades to come.
First construction after 30 years
Two hours from the Summer plant, the only other new nuclear reactor project in the country is under way at Georgia Power Co.’s Plant Vogtle site, about 20 miles east of Waynesboro, Ga., on the shores of the Savannah River.
Burke County officials and residents express some of the same concerns heard in Fairfield County, and they harbor some of the same hopes for future growth.
Constructing $25 billion worth of new nuclear plants in the immediate region after a more than 30-year construction hiatus gives the area expectations of a huge economic development payoff over the next eight to 10 years, according to Sonny White, Midlands Technical College president.
“We’ve got more going on in nuclear in this region than anywhere in the United States,” said White, who co-chairs a collaborative public-private, higher education and work force group called NuHub. The group’s goal is to maximize job creation and economic opportunities for the nuclear industry and establish central South Carolina as a hub and global leader for nuclear energy innovation.
Enormous construction costs, reduced U.S. electrical demand and the abandoning of cheap natural gas make future energy production via large-scale reactors such as those coming to Summer and Vogtle improbable, White said.
The Department of Energy recently let a $450 million bid for the design and advancement of two small modular reactors, which White thinks will be the prototype for the next generation of nuclear reactors.
Working in conjunction with the Savannah River Site, NuHub is partnering with two of the small modular reactor vendors to get one of the two DOE contracts for the prototype.
“We in the Midlands want the manufacturing plant for the small modular reactors,” White said.
“These small reactors in the future would be sold all over the world, but they would be manufactured out of a plant, and why not here in the Midlands, because we’re in the middle of the renaissance in nuclear right now?”
Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398.