COLUMBIA, SC — In 2009, fresh out of college with a civil engineering degree from Clemson University, 26-year-old Findlay Salter was driving a forklift at a Lowe’s store in the wake of the worst recession in a lifetime.
While growing up in Irmo, Salter said, he had never heard of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in Jenkinsville, 30 minutes outside Columbia.
But just months after starting his forklift job, Salter was hired into S.C. Electric & Gas Company’s new licensing department just in time to assist as the company sought its all-important construction and operating licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“When I got the call … I jumped about 3 feet in the air,” he said.
Salter is part of a bright new posse of nuclear professionals fresh on the scene in the Palmetto State, ready to help design and shape the next generation of nuclear energy production.
V.C. Summer – SCE&G’s only nuclear energy production site in the state – is located a mere 25 miles northwest of downtown Columbia and is in the midst of a massive, multibillion-dollar expansion that has garnered major national attention. The new reactors under construction at Summer are two of only four new commercial nuclear reactors being built in the United States – the first in 30 years.
The $10.8 billion reactor project will triple Summer’s energy production capacity and could help the plant continue for another half a century the role it plays in a $20 billion annual economic impact on the region that university studies show is nuclear-driven and well underway.
The nuclear renaissance – which critics say was stymied after the four new operating permits in South Carolina and Georgia were issued – has provided a lucrative career path for a new generation of workers in a still shaky economy as their counterparts who started at new plants 30 years ago work toward retirement. SCE&G said it does not publicly disclose salary information, but referred to the Nuclear Energy Institute’s website, which lists the industry’s median salary for non-licensed operators at $65,080 and the median salary for a general engineer at $90,960.
As the Summer Nuclear Station this month recognizes 30 years of operations, the young professionals are part of a significant and widely welcomed influx of new nuclear professionals at the plant who believe in the “nuclear renaissance,” love the challenges it presents, and say they are anxious and excited about the opportunity to tackle such challenges.
“I had been hearing about this nuclear renaissance, that it was coming, probably before high school,” said Chris Wolfe, a trainee in the senior reactor operator program at V.C. Summer. She was playing golf on the LPGA tour in 2007. She left golf for the nuclear profession when the recession took a bite out of sponsorships – and paychecks – during the recession.
Wolfe, whose father is a Nuclear Regulatory Commission retiree, grew up living near nuclear plants across the Southeast.
“Whether I took an interest in that in high school is probably not the case. I was aware of it, though, and my parents did encourage me to stay in the engineering field,” said Wolfe, who started out at Vanderbilt University on a golf scholarship, studying to be a biomedical engineer.
Bracing for retirements
As young professionals are joining the industry, SCE&G officials say they are preparing for what likely is a coming wave of retirements at the Summer plant. It’s common for workers to spend their entire careers at the plant.
“The thing that all utilities that are operating nuclear plants are seeing, is, there’s a lot of people like me, who are 50-something, that have worked here for a long time, that are looking to retire,” said George Lippard, SCE&G general manager of nuclear plant operations at V.C. Summer.
Lippard has worked at the plant the entire 30 years it has operated.
“If I look at my age demographic, I’ve got kind of a double-hump curve right now,” Lippard said. “I’ve got a lot of people that are early-30s and 20s, that have been here for less than five years, then I’ve got a lot of people like me that have been here 25 years plus.
“My biggest challenge right now is to make sure that as experienced people walk out the door here, that I’m capturing as much of what’s in their heads as possible.”
Lippard is responsible for about 900 employees in the existing, Unit 1 reactor operation – 660 operations employees and about 300 contract employees, including the plant’s entire security force and maintenance and modification division. It is responsible for cleaning and decontamination duties at the plant.
The most critical position at the Summer plant is that of operators, Lippard said. Operators control and monitor the nuclear plant and its electrical output by manipulating control panels either in a control room or out in the field.
Operators man the nuclear plant 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and if necessary, would be responsible for taking the reactor offline in an emergency and shutting down the plant.
Nuclear operators are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, trained at the plant, and then must pass a rigorous, one-week examination to earn their licensing credentials.
Approximately 15 percent of employees in the Unit 1 workforce have been at the plant at least 30 years, Lippard said. Generally speaking, anyone who reaches 55 years of age with that kind of time in at the plant can retire, he said.
Turnover at the Summer plant is “very low” though, Lippard said – “one of the lowest in the industry.”
On the new side of the Summer plant, Alan Torres is the Unit 2 and Unit 3 nuclear construction general manager for SCE&G. In July, he will have been at the plant for 39 years, arriving straight out of college when the Unit 1 reactor was under construction.
Now, Torres manages construction of the new reactor sites, responsible for everything that happens on the construction side of the plant, which SCE&G manages separately from the nuclear operations side, or Unit 1.
“Most of the current staff that works for me, the average age is probably less than 30,” said Torres, “so they’re all new, both to the company and in some cases to nuclear power.” Torres began hiring staff for Unit 2 and 3 in 2009. “So the longest-term employee I have with me right now is five years with SCE&G.”
However, the company also “seeded” the Unit 2 and Unit 3 Summer construction organization six or seven years ago with about a dozen key leaders from the Unit 1 side of the plant to manage and guide the new professionals.
“Anytime you start a new job or a new phase of your life, you get energized,” Torres said. That energy for him came in 2007, with the task of building a cutting-edge, first-of-a-kind nuclear plant, facing the question, how do you build the project?
“The answer is you build it with talent. So I was excited to have the opportunity to go and look for that talent, knowing that if you pick right, you’re looking toward the long-term success not only of your project, but our company.”
How the recession helped
In an odd way, the most devastating recession since the Great Depression has assisted SCE&G in those hiring goals for the new plants, bringing to its doorsteps college graduates that in a different economic environment might have sought and found work in Simi Valley, Calif., or The Research Triangle in North Carolina.
“Because of the way the economy has been over the last several years, I think young talent as they have become more mature in their mid- to late 20s, they are recognizing it’s not so much fun to have to go looking for a job every year, or every two years,” Torres said.
“One of the unseen benefits of the recession was that we could go get that talent. That talent was looking for security. They were looking for a home. I have some outstanding young talent that in a more robust economy, may have been occupied in other jobs and other venues of life,” Torres said. “But we were very fortunate. It was an unfortunate time for our country, but it was a very fortunate time for staffing a major project.”
The evolutionary hiring experience going on at the Summer plant is both necessary and good for the future and public safety, acknowledges Columbia’s Tom Clements, South Carolina Sierra Club chapter adviser and longtime nuclear industry watchdog.
But that experience is not indicative of what is happening anywhere else in the nuclear industry across the United States, he said.
“The much-touted ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ has fizzled and only five new reactors are under construction nationwide, while four reactors were closed in 2013, meaning little net growth in nuclear employment,” Clements said. “The prognosis for the immediate future is bleak in that few, if any, additional nuclear units will be added and other units may close, resulting in restricted employment opportunities.
“While there may be new jobs in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, that is a unique situation not being repeated anywhere else in the U.S.,” Clements said.
The only reason that new reactors are moving forward – with predicted cost increases and schedule delays – in South Carolina and Georgia is because of unjust laws that force customers to pay in advance and place all of the project’s financial risks on the backs of those customers, Clements says.
Legislatures elsewhere are unlikely to take a similar route, Clements predicts, so he views other new reactors as unlikely.
Meanwhile, opportunities abound at the Summer plant, which needs engineers, design engineers, plant support engineers, probabilistic risk assessment engineers, and others, officials said.
“I have attracted a lot of very good engineering talent over the last five years. I’m tickled to death with some of the folks that we’ve hired over the last five years … very talented people, very energetic people. I say they are wired right to be nukes,” Lippard said.
“Let’s face it, we’ve got an exciting project going on out here. There are only two utilities in this country that are building new nuclear units.”
Southern Company, parent company of Georgia Power, got its construction and operating license to build two new reactor units at Plant Vogtle, 30 miles southeast of Augusta
“We’re seeing a nuclear renaissance in this country, despite what happened at Fukushima. It’s an exciting place to work right now,” said Lippard. “If I were a senior or a junior in college, this is one of the places I’d be looking to, because the work is challenging, you can be part of something that’s historical.”
Nuclear in SC by the numbers
3,800: Current number of workers on site daily at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County
960: Workers at the currently operating Unit 1, including 660 in operations and 300 in plant security
36: Number of top construction staff working at the two new reactors, Units 2 and 3
435: SCE&G personnel associated with the two new reactors; that number will grow to 780 for permanent operations
2,200: Construction personnel on site; that number will grow to 3,500 in a year
New faces of nuclear in sc
Latavius Belton, 25
The assistant engineer at V.C. Summer grew up in Winnsboro, about 10 miles from the plant, and went to Fairfield Central High School. But as a senior in high school, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. A biology teacher held a forum at the school and invited SCANA personnel from all facets of the corporation. Then-Unit 1 vice president Jeff Archie was among the attendees, Belton said, and became a mentor. Belton was persuaded by his biology teacher to consider engineering and enrolled at South Carolina State University as a nuclear engineering major. During his summers, Belton interned at the Summer plant. He worked in various departments where he said he gained knowledge of several engineering disciplines. “You’re very much exposed to what is going in the industry (during the internships),” Belton said. Though the economy was bad, Belton said there were plenty of opportunities through the university and elsewhere, particularly for minority students majoring in nuclear engineering. “Being at the genesis of the (nuclear) renaissance, you had opportunities in various locations, not just in the state of South Carolina,” Belton said. When he graduated from South Carolina State University in 2011, he was offered a job full-time in operation readiness at the plant.
“It was unique, unlike any other department in Unit 1,” Belton said. He since has moved to Unit 2 and Unit 3 – the new units – at Summer, working in various engineering programs including maintenance rule, equipment liability, licensing, probabilistic self-assessment and other areas.
“At that time (in 2007), first-year college students weren’t offered opportunities to intern,” Belton said. “They kind of changed the format and now they offer first-year college students and also high school students the opportunity to come out and intern.”
Chester Rodrigues III, 24
The Greenville native is well-traveled for someone his age, but the South Carolina State University graduate has a very serious job.
Rodrigues earned a nuclear engineering degree in 2011, the same year reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan melted down after being hit by a powerful tsunami following an earthquake. He travels to various manufacturing sites to inspect parts that are shipped to the V.C. Summer plant for installation.
He makes the trips with an experienced SCE&G worker who teaches Rodrigues what to look for in performing his job, he said.
“I interface with vendor sites that we buy our components from,” Rodrigues said. “We witness different tests, manufacturing sequences, nondestructive examinations, testing our components, document package reviews, to ensure that the components meet the quality that the specifications say they are being made under.” Rodrigues comes from a family that includes several engineers, and said he knew from an early age he wanted to be one, too. However, he was thinking architectural engineering rather than nuclear. “I’ve been to several countries, witnessing the manufacturing of our components, and that opportunity I would have never been given had I not chosen this field and what I wanted to do,” Rodrigues said.
Courtney Tampas, 24
Tampas is a safety engineer at the V.C. Summer Nuclear plant, originally from Brandon, Fla. “I think I really got stuck on nuclear energy when I was in high school,” Tampas said. She studied honors chemistry and one week of nuclear energy. She got the opportunity to study nuclear energy more in her senior year, she said, and liked it even more. In college at the University of Florida, Tampas decided to major in nuclear engineering and never strayed from that. Hired at the Summer plant in 2012, Tampas was placed in the company’s probabilistic risk assessment group alongside seasoned engineers, and earned respect for her professionalism and technical knowledge.
“The whole industry just amazes me, everything about it,” Tampas says. Still, three months after graduation in December 2011, she had no job. She had hoped to stay in Florida near her family, but the nuclear plant closest to her Tampa home, Progress Energy’s Crystal River, experienced problems and now is being decommissioned, she said. Tampas interviewed at Summer, “just clicked with it” and got an offer the day before the NRC issued the Summer plant its license. “I liked the environment, I liked where we were, you could already see the heavy-lift derrick and it was doing work, and I was in awe,” Tampas said.