The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium (VNEC) hosted a half day summit in Richmond on Monday, June 6 for government officials and industry leaders from the fields of research, education, power generation, defense, and security to discuss the role and value of nuclear energy in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The governor and legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia have stated that they want the state’s nuclear sector to grow so that it can contribute to expanding employment opportunities and to a clean energy future.
Maurice Jones, Virginia’s Commerce Secretary, set the tone for the meeting with strong words of encouragement. He brought greetings from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), saying he was “delighted” that the summit was taking place.
He “expects that Virginia will be the leading global entity when it comes to the nuclear space and jobs in the nuclear industry.”
He emphasized the fact that four reactors supply 35-40% of the electricity consumed in Virginia. e state has companies like Bechtel, BWX Technologies (NYSE: BWXT), Huntington Industries (NYSE:HII), AREVA and Dominion (NYSE:D) employing thousands of people at high paying jobs. There is a large base of suppliers supporting these companies.
Jones gave the specific example that Dominion’s two nuclear plant sites, North Anna and Surry, each employ close to 1,000 workers with average pay exceeding $80,000.
The numbers were verified from the audience by Bill Murray, Dominion’s managing director of corporate public policy.
Looking to the future, he noted that nuclear energy will remain important and that the state will need an additional 4 GW of electricity by the early 2020s.
He expects that nuclear will play a central role, and he asked for the industry’s help in making sure that happens.
Sec. Jones said the governor has studies in hand that indicate that the global nuclear energy market will reach nearly $1 trillion over the next decade.
Gov. McAuliffe has said he wants Virginia to capture its share of the jobs involved in supplying that market.
“Make sure that we are preparing the workers needed to do the work in a 700-800 billion dollar global industry…We’ve got to make sure that we have the critical mass of people to do the work in this space…There’s some urgency about this. This growth is in the next ten years.”
Jones’s final point was the importance of the growing demand for zero-emitting energy, including nuclear. He invited the industry to work with the government on a “branding journey” to combat “other issues” in the public’s mind.
He stated that nuclear energy is “one of the tools that we have available and Virginia is already a leader. We need to make sure that people know this is one source (of clean power).”
Nuke Degrees at State Colleges
After he gave his kick-off speech, Secretary Jones left the meeting. Had he stayed, he would have heard a number of messages about workforce development and education.
There are two Virginia universities, Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Tech, offering nuclear engineering degree programs.
Dr. Sama Bilbao y Leon, the head of VCU’s program, provided a brief summary. VCU’s program is nine years old, has five full-time faculty members, is growing rapidly, has about 100 undergraduates and 60-80 graduate students, and offers a summer study abroad program in Dresden, Germany, that provides students the opportunity to operate a reactor for experiments.
Dr. Bilbao noted that her program is attracting excited, high quality students, but seemed concerned that they might graduate but not be able to find the kinds of job opportunities they’re expecting.
That’s a possibility if the industry delays hiring or investments in growth.
Virginia Tech began offering nuclear engineering degrees in 2013. It has 3.5 faculty members and does not offer an undergraduate degree.
Dr. Alireza Haghighat, head of nuclear engineering at VA Tech, stated the need to invest in facilities like a research reactor and its associated laboratories in order to attract high quality research professors and students.
Though the University of Virginia (UVA) no longer offers a nuclear engineering degree, Dr. Sean Agnew noted that there are several engineering programs of interest to the nuclear industry.
He also reported that UVA has a strong public policy program. Students have expressed strong interest in energy as a potential minor.
They’re paying close attention to the worldwide interest in clean energy and energy diplomacy.
Dr. Agnew said there is a major need for Virginia nuclear interests to ensure that their vital technology is well-represented in the policy discussions.
Skilled Technicians Needed
Central Virginia Community College’s William Sandidge reported that his school has a work-study program with AREVA that produces 9 graduates per year with an associate’s degree in nuclear technology. That is the only community college degree program in the state.
One panel focused on technical careers that need specialized training but not four-year degrees. Participants emphasized the need to start early to attract students into fields like manufacturing, health physics and electrical power technology that are not offen at the top of career lists for guidance counselors.
Nat Marshall from BWXT and the Virginia Board of Workforce Development suggested that Manufacturing Technician 1 certification programs would be valuable for prospective employees.
Jim Hunter from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers described apprenticeship pipelines as having plenty of capacity, but reminding the employers in the room that such programs are incomplete if there is no job at the end.
GE-Hitachi’s Kim Bankston stated that her company is planning for the new skilled technicians that will be required to support ESBWR and Prism manufacturing.
Marshall Cohen, the VNEC Executive Director, asked representatives from Newport News and BWXT if Virginia suppliers could take advantage of proximity to Nuclear Navy facilities. Bob Granata responded that the aircraft carrier supplier base included representation from 48 of the 50 states.
Several large companies representatives reminded the audience that Virginia is not the only place where nuclear has a strong base from which to grow.
There is abundant competition, an opportunity to reduce wasteful duplication by sharing best practices and a need to focus on core competencies.
Maria Korsnick, the Chief Operating Officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, was one of the final speakers of the day.
She described the industry’s initiative to reduce operating costs by 30% so that it can deliver the nuclear promise of cost effective clean power.
An important component of the effort is helping policy makers understand and reward the value of nuclear in terms of grid stability, clean power and fuel diversity.
Note: The above article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week issue number 665 on June 9, 2016. It is republished here with permission.