Powering North Carolina's Next-Generation Workforce

As nuclear energy grows, its workforce must, too.

The nuclear industry offers tremendous career opportunities. As it grows, we must bring more people in to learn cutting edge technology and benefit from these opportunities.

Steve Rea is the volunteer nuclear energy industry program manager for the North Carolina State University Libraries. Previously, he was a senior vice president of nuclear special projects based in Charlotte, North Carolina, at Heyward Incorporated and has experience working at Harris Nuclear Plant and Brunswick Nuclear Plant.

For those of us in the nuclear energy industry, the need for a skilled, qualified workforce has been top of mind recently.

The Department of Energy recently released a report projecting the U.S. will need 550 to 770 new gigawatts of clean firm power from all clean firm sources, including 100 to 200 gigawatts of additional nuclear energy capacity, to reach net zero by 2050. That’s a whole lot of new nuclear reactors getting built within a short time window, and a whole lot of new technology being added to our existing plants.

As an industry veteran, I can tell you this presents a significant workforce challenge on all fronts — both the people needed to plan, design and build capacity to meet the needs of a clean energy transition, and the people who will be tasked with rethinking and thoughtfully reconsidering an outdated regulatory framework.

If we look to my home state of North Carolina, we might just find some practical solutions to getting our workforce trained and ready for tomorrow’s energy solutions. Here are my five key takeaways from our workforce challenges, and a glimpse into potential steps forward:

1. The skillsets of the NRC staff must change to work in the industry.

The industry will need to retain enough quality workers to regulate a rapidly changing but vital industry. The U.S. Congress recently passed a bill, the ADVANCE Act of 2023, to address the workforce needs of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). As evidenced by the planned expansion of nuclear power, the size of the NRC must grow. Moreover, NRC staff must change their skillsets to work with the latest technology — advanced reactors, small modular reactors and micro-reactors. That’s why Congress is addressing NRC workforce needs head on.

2. Then we’ll need to build the rest of the workforce, especially our skilled trades.

For some idea of scale, the Department of Energy report estimates the U.S. would need about 375,000 additional workers with technical and non-technical skillsets to construct and operate 200 GW of advanced nuclear. Qualified personnel are needed to support the siting, designing, manufacturing, construction, startup, operations and maintenance of each new nuclear plant built.

Unlike the buildout of nuclear energy plants of the past, advanced nuclear and light water small modular reactors are very likely to end up in jurisdictions that have never considered nuclear energy before. For example, two advanced nuclear reactors are proposed in Wyoming. Wyoming does not have any nuclear energy-generating assets. Though people often think of nuclear engineers when considering careers, plants have an even greater need for people who are skilled in trades like manufacturing and construction, such as welders and pipefitters. An educational infrastructure analysis will need to take place wherever a new nuclear energy plant is slated for construction.

3. Educational programs will be the solution — and we better start thinking outside of the box.

Where can nuclear industry employers find skilled employees? The bulk of these workers should come out of trade schools and community colleges.

Wilmington, North Carolina, offers an excellent example of the out-of-the-box educational infrastructure thinking needed to support nuclear energy. In the early 2000s, Cape Fear Community College partnered with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) to create a custom two-year nuclear technologist degree. Cape Fear Community College educates young adults in this nuclear technologist degree, then GEH hires the graduates.

Public/private partnerships like this should be a template for other areas in the country, particularly since community colleges can offer people cross-training in multiple skill areas. Cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing and construction, drone technology, robotics and other programs are part of the new nuclear energy landscape.

A strong, healthy and extensive community college system is critical for this approach to succeed. North Carolina has one of the largest community college system footprints in the country. We should continue to invest our efforts in these systems.

The other clear choice for training would be trade schools, but it’s important to note it will fall to employers to provide a supplemental nuclear industry training certification in this scenario.

4. The people who design tomorrow’s plants are still in school today.

For those who will pursue engineering degrees, we need successful university programs. The nuclear energy industry employs engineers of all types. I’d love to see universities with engineering colleges offer nuclear science, engineering and industry electives. The nuclear energy industry can help connect universities with potential instructors who understand the real-world applications of these studies.

5. North Carolina’s experience could be replicated nationwide.

Here in North Carolina, I’m proud to report our academic institutions are taking pioneering approaches to tackle growing workforce needs — and their example could be a model for other areas of the country.

  • STEM in K-12: Recognizing the importance of starting the workforce pipeline as early as possible with qualified K-12 STEM teachers, the Kenan Fellows for Education Excellence is teaming up this academic year with the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and the NC State Nuclear Engineering Department to introduce young learners to nuclear science. ANS offers a Navigating Nuclear education product for teachers in K-12. The Kenan Fellows have several teachers dedicated to clean energy teaching.
  • Federal programs: North Carolina A&T University is currently executing a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to develop a clean energy workforce development platform for North Carolina, although nuclear is not yet included. This platform is being designed with the adaptability to deploy it in other states. Perhaps it’s time for Congress to mull over a similar workforce platform, including a value chain analysis for the U.S. nuclear energy industry. Some senators are starting to look at the public workforce needs to support the build out of the nuclear energy industry. We should encourage these efforts.
  • State government leadership: Lastly, we read about state legislatures around the country supporting either the expansion of their existing nuclear energy footprint or introducing new nuclear energy plants for the first time. Perhaps public/private nuclear energy training arrangements can be put in place as a downstream “to do” once new nuclear energy plant commitments are finalized. State departments of commerce could also be integrated into these plans. As an example for other states, North Carolina's state legislature is leading workforce development models with its robust commitment to community colleges.