July 2010

Resurgent Industry Primes for a Revival

index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to www.ibew.org

(Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series about the job opportunities for IBEW members in a nuclear renaissance.)

Nate McGoldrick remembers spending summer days as a child riding his bike and playing soccer in his pastoral hometown of Stillman Valley, Ill. A two-hour drive west of Chicago, the town of 1,000 offers a slice of life familiar to many small Midwestern locales: champion high school football teams, traditional values and tight-knit families. McGoldrick, an ace athlete, once considered going to a nearby college in the hopes of getting a teaching degree and coaching soccer at Stillman Valley High School, where he graduated in 2009.

But while further contemplating career options, something else critical to the town drew his attention: the twin cooling towers of nearby Byron Nuclear Generating Station that loom like stout pillars against the otherwise flat horizon. For people old enough to remember the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, Byron can prompt suspicion among skeptics of the industry. But for 19-year-old McGoldrick and many of his peers, it has always simply been a benign part of the scenery.

"I know people in the past have been kind of afraid of nuclear, but it was just something that we grew up with and didn’t really think about in negative terms," said McGoldrick, the son of Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15 Vice President and Assistant Business Manager Terry McGoldrick. "I knew as a kid that it has been a good thing for our community, as far as jobs were concerned."

McGoldrick now sees those towers less as scenery and more as security in a slippery economic climate. Instead of racking up debt to attend a pricey four-year university, McGoldrick is learning radiation protection at Linn State Technical College for a career in—what experts hope will be—a revived nuclear sector.

McGoldrick says the realities of the recession and the promises of a union job helped steer him toward the two-year program, and his classmates share similar stories. For many of McGoldrick’s generation, the idea of nuclear energy being some sort of environmental bogeyman has subsided, while the fear of financial uncertainty has spiked considerably.

The enhanced safety record of plants has also contributed to a favorable shift in popular perception. According to the most recent Gallup poll measuring people’s attitudes toward nuclear power, a record-high 62 percent of respondents view the industry favorably.

At the same time, the offshore oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has done as much to enrage the populace as it has to devastate the environment and the economies of the Gulf states. While the "Drill, Baby, Drill" crowd has quieted, the disaster has prompted President Obama to throw support behind safer, carbon-free methods of feeding America’s increasing appetite for electricity—especially by splitting atoms.

Opportunities and Hurdles

"Without a doubt, we’re at a defining moment for the industry," said Dave Mullen, International Representative in the Utility Department at the IBEW headquarters in Washington, D.C., who worked for 15 years at Quad City Nuclear Power Station on the Iowa-Illinois border. He applauds President Obama’s February announcement at Lanham, Md., Local 26 of $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build two new reactors—the first in three decades—at the Southern Co. owned-and-operated Vogtle Electric Generating Plant near Augusta, Ga. (See "IBEW Hosts Obama Announcement on Loan Guarantees for Georgia Nuclear Project," www.ibew.org.)

But Mullen also recognizes the time it might take for the rebounding industry to transition from small steps to ground-gripping strides.

"Building a plant takes about six years," Mullen said. "So the reality is that this is all going to take a while. But in the long term, it’s clear that nuclear is coming back with Obama’s announcement. So what happens at Vogtle is certainly going to be the measuring stick."

In short, the union needs to cross the finish line for Vogtle on-time and on-budget to get future projects off the ground.

"We’re talking about a huge effort over in Georgia that can create thousands of new jobs in the next few years," Mullen said. "With that loan money comes the chance for us to really prove ourselves and show what we can do as professionals in the industry."

"But if we fail, that’s it," he said. "The renaissance could be finished before it really begins."

Education for Tomorrow

The industry is betting that efforts at Vogtle will succeed, and major players aren’t sitting on the sidelines waiting to get into the game—especially with projects in south Texas and at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland next up in the queue.

Through an innovative partnership between the Nuclear Energy Institute, the IBEW and large companies like Exelon Corp., industry insiders and academics have joined forces to streamline comprehensive courses of study in nuclear power operation at 52 technical colleges nationwide—including Linn State, where McGoldrick takes courses. As a result, more young men and women than ever are flocking toward careers in the industry, and time is of the essence.

At nuclear facilities across the country, the sector is looking at a 38 percent retirement rate in the next five years, with a current shortfall of skilled labor to replace former employees.

"A lot of the younger generation looks at nuclear as being up-to-date, and without the drawbacks of carbon emissions," said IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter. About 80 percent of the nuclear sector is unionized, the bulk of which comprises IBEW members. About 15,000 IBEW operators, technicians and maintenance workers service 42 sites nationwide. "We’re going to need to quickly—but thoroughly—train the next batch of professionals who are going to run and maintain these new systems when the veterans have hung up their hardhats," Hunter added.

‘A Shot in the Arm’ for Electricians

While the students coming out of the NEI partner programs will virtually be guaranteed jobs, the infusion of loan guarantee money into the nuclear sector also looks promising for rank-and-file construction members—especially as the construction industry stares down nearly 30 percent unemployment.

Due to stringent licensing rules, nuclear facilities demand constant upgrades almost immediately following construction. In addition to the hundreds of workers who will be employed on the construction side of the Vogtle project—and, hopefully, similar projects in the future—a fully-functioning plant can require as many as 400 to 800 permanent workers whose jobs cannot be outsourced.

Augusta, Ga., Local 1579 Assistant Business Manager Will Salters helps represent nearly 100 members on the construction and maintenance sides at Vogtle, and he worked with local leaders prior to President Obama’s 2008 election victory to ensure that any expansion projects were kept within union jurisdiction.

"If things go according to plan, we’re looking at a serious shot in the arm for our membership—both here and nationwide," said Salters, who also serves as secretary-treasurer for the Augusta Building Trades. "I anticipate that we’ll have 600 members at work during Vogtle’s peak in the next few years."

And the numbers keep rising. Back in Washington, Hunter says an ambitious—but very realistic—goal is to construct 40 new plants within the next few decades.

"People ask, ‘Is this really possible?’" said Hunter. "But consider that in the ’60s and ’70s, we built a lot of plants on a relatively short timetable. And these are by far the best paying construction jobs within 100 miles of a nuke site. Can you imagine all the people who will move into an area during the construction phase? From an operations and maintenance standpoint, 40 new sites would yield about 20,000 careers—not just jobs. These are well-paying careers that people will comfortably retire from after decades on the shop floor."

Putting Union Expertise up Front

In May, International President Edwin D. Hill presented ideas to key players in the industry at the Nuclear Energy Institute Executive Conference in San Francisco—highlighting the efforts that the IBEW has taken in order to be the standard bearers in a brave new world of power generation. The NEI is composed of company leaders from the nuclear technologies sector.

"[N]uclear power is essential to our energy mix now and in the future," President Hill told the assembly. "We all know it has taken years to overcome negative attitudes and falsehoods about our industry. We have worked hard to get this opportunity to prove ourselves once again, and we will be held to very high standards with little margin of error. If we fail, then we may not get another chance for a generation. And I for one don’t want to think about the consequences if that were to happen. But we will not fail if we commit to making our industry an example of the highest quality and performance."

Part of what will give the IBEW a shot at proving itself is the attachment of project labor agreements to Obama’s promised loan guarantees—a move that experts say will force the industry to take the high road of constructing, wiring and maintaining new facilities for decades to come.

"If you were to build these new facilities without PLAs, work could very easily be passed on to less-skilled, nonunion workers who don’t have a long-term investment in a nuclear renaissance," said Hunter. "They look at it as one job, not a mission—so it’s to our benefit not only to ensure that the renaissance goes forward, but that we have a solid foothold in any developments down the road. President Hill’s statements to the NEI reinforce that importance."

The Road Ahead

On break from Linn College’s rigorous schedule, Nate McGoldrick is spending time in Illinois with his family and gearing up for the next semester of school—which includes an intensive radiation protection program with possible field work on outages at facilities across the country.

McGoldrick makes no bones about his decision to move into the next generation of nuclear work.

"A while ago, I was like a lot of young people. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do," he said. "But I’ve done my homework on this. I’m proud of the choices I’ve made so far. And I am looking forward to working at a nuclear plant and being a union member.

"If that’s not a good opportunity," McGoldrick said, "I don’t know what is."

Construction is underway for the first nuclear plant to be built in the U.S. in decades. The seven-year, $15 billion project to install two reactors on the 42-acre site at plant Vogtle outside Augusta, Ga., is putting IBEW members to work—and nuclear’s renaissance could mean thousands of jobs for union members in the construction and utility sectors.

(Photo credit: Southern Co.)