Jobs in nuclear industry still an option for students

By Marissa Meredyth

Should the nuclear near-meltdown in Japan shake Erik Croushore?

Erik Croushore took an… Should the nuclear near-meltdown in Japan shake Erik Croushore?

Erik Croushore took an internship at Westinghouse Electric Co. in late 2009, thinking he was on his way toward landing a full-time job in Western Pennsylvania’s growing nuclear energy industry.

Croushore, a senior in the University’s nuclear engineering certificate program, may still get a job despite fears that the nuclear industry might be entering yet another period of stagnation.

While Japan’s crisis has triggered new debate over the safety of nuclear power, it is unclear what the future of nuclear power will be in Pennsylvania or what students’ job prospects will be down the road.

Complications persist at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan after the March 11, 9.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked the island nation and shut down the power plant’s active nuclear reactors. Workers are still struggling to keep the overheating cores of the reactors cool, and growing concerns over nuclear energy safety make it unclear whether U.S. regulators will continue approving permits for new nuclear power plants.

While the unfolding disaster in Japan did not have an effect on Croushore’s job prospects with Westinghouse — a global competitor in nuclear power based in Cranberry — he is worried that the crisis might reduce consumer faith in nuclear power and impede the likelihood he could land a job in the field in the more-distant future.

Croushoure plans to work for Process Combustion Corp. after graduation, an engineering company based in Pittsburgh that isn’t involved in the nuclear industry. But he wants to keep the nuclear engineering certificate on his resume and see what happens in the future.

Workers in the nuclear industry say it might be too early tell what impact the crisis will have on the production of nuclear energy nationally and in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is home to five nuclear power plants, the second-most of any state. The nuclear plants generate about 35 percent of the state’s total electricity, whereas coal plants generate 48 percent.

“We are all in this together,” Pitt alumnus Michael Mouser said. Mouser works as a programs engineer at the Beaver Valley Power Station.

“A disaster at any nuclear power plant will significantly affect every other plant in operation, no matter where in the world it’s located,” he said.

Fukushima Daiichi’s effect on the U.S.

Nuclear power is the number one source of emission-free electricity in United States, and accounts for about 20 percent of electricity generated. It accounts for slightly less worldwide — 14 percent, as estimated in 2009 by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a global policy organization that promotes the use of nuclear energy and technology.

At the beginning of this year, 29 countries worldwide were operating 442 nuclear reactors to generate electricity, and there are 65 new plants under construction in 15 countries.

Congress has already begun looking into the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants.

In the U.S. there are 31 states operating 104 nuclear reactors. Five cities in Pennsylvania have operating nuclear power plants, including the infamous Three Mile Island plant in Londonderry Township where a cooling system failed in 1979 causing a reactor to overheat and a core to partially melt.

The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Energy & Water Development held a hearing last Thursday to discuss what lessons can be learned from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. disaster.

Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the subcommittee that a task force had been created to do a review of “all technical and policy issues related to the event,” according to a statement on the commission’s website.

The commission is a government-created agency in charge of setting rules governing the operation of nuclear plants. A more extensive review, scheduled to last six months, will begin as more information becomes available, Jaczko said in the statement.

Michael Ramsey, a Pitt geology professor who currently teaches a course called Natural Disasters, said there were plans to increase the use of nuclear power in United State before this latest accident called into question its safety and reliability.

No new nuclear plants have been built in the United States for more than 30 years — since the Three Mile Island incident, Ramsey said.

The NRC was issuing new permits to build plants, but that progress is likely to slow or stop as reviews are conducted on the safety of nuclear plants because of the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, the professor said.

“The good thing is that, in Pa., we do not get large earthquakes/tsunamis that other states could get,” he said in an e-mail. “I think the chances of something similar to Japan happening here are very, very small.”

Working with Atomic Power

Mouser said he did not have any fears about working at a nuclear power plant.

After graduating in May 2010, he first did a co-op at AES Beaver Valley Inc., a coal-powered plant, before deciding to take a full-time position with the nuclear plant at BVPS. The decision to work in the nuclear field was not easy, but Mouser said that state plans to build new plants and expected job security factored into his decision.

Others agreed that the industry would likely only continue to grow in the future. Enrollment in Pitt’s nuclear certificate classes has sextupled, from about 50 students in the 2006-07 academic year to just under 300 this academic year, director of the nuclear engineering program John Metzgar said.

Mouser said Beaver Valley is at high risk for earthquakes, but the plant has “back-up plans upon back-up plans in place to mitigate damage following such a disaster.”

Tokyo Electric Power had similar contingency plans in place, and after the earthquake struck the plant shut down safely in seconds, as expected, Mouser said.

“It was not until water from the tsunami reached the station and destroyed emergency generators that things started to go downhill,” he said, noting that tsunamis are not something that Beaver Valley has to worry about.

Still, Mouser said nuclear plants around the world are constantly communicating to help improve safety conditions.

Metzgar said he could not predict what the impact would be on the growth of nuclear energy nationally or in Pennsylvania at this time, other than possible new regulatory responses from the commission.

The industry is looking at each plant to ensure each is prepared for any natural disaster that a given area may be at risk to experience, Metzgar said.

However, he said to keep in mind that, “the earthquake and tsunami were well beyond what was anticipated and ever experienced in modern history, and I am not speaking only about the nuclear industry, but Japan.”

Croushore agreed.

“You don’t plan for the fourth-largest earthquake in the world,” he said.