Industrial Testing Laboratory seeks to train nuclear inspectors

How do you get people to enter an industry that may or may not have a comeback?

Marty Wenzig, president of O’Hara-based Industrial Testing Laboratory Services, is trying to recruit more people to get involved in nuclear inspection — confident that the industry will need more employees even at a time when the industry’s future is uncertain.

A portion of Mr. Wenzig’s company is the recently opened Nuclear Technical Institute in the RIDC office park, which trains people to become commercial nuclear quality control inspectors. It‘‍s a job that involves verifying sites are meeting government standards and safety regulations.

As more companies continue to make the switch from nuclear power to natural gas, the once predicted nuclear renaissance remains unclear. The Fukushima accident of 2011 has also put a damper on nuclear activities. The accident was a reminder that plants that produce power can sometimes also cause problems.

“There’s no question that it’s had an impact on the energy power companies’ interest in building nuclear power plants,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “It’s not only affected nuclear power, it’s affected coal-fired power plants and other forms of production, as well.”

Despite those concerns, the nuclear industry is still moving forward. Worldwide, there are more than 170 new nuclear plant projects in the planning stages with 72 plants currently under construction. Domestically, four nuclear power stations are being built in South Carolina and Georgia, the first such projects in 30 years.

As a result, there’s a huge need for people with all kinds of qualifications, said John W. Poston, the associate director of the Nuclear Power Institute at Texas A&M University.

Mr. Wenzig is confident the industry will continue to flourish by building small modular reactors, which have the generating capacity to run cities. 

“With that in mind, I think really what’s going to happen, is there will be a lot more plants — they’ll be smaller — but there will be a lot more jobs,” he said.

And while there is a demand for employees, the number of qualified applicants is dwindling. At Mr. Poston’s institute — the largest nuclear school in the U.S. — there are just 400 students enrolled.

Meanwhile, the industry‘‍s workforce is aging. “A lot of the workers are retired or are preparing to retire,” Mr. Sheehan said. “We’ve had to hire new, young inspectors, and we’re still seeing that.”

The nuclear industry predicts that it will need about 25,000 employees, as 39 percent of its workforce will be eligible to retire by 2016, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.

The Beaver Valley Generating Station, a nuclear plant in Beaver County, has averaged 50 retirements each year for the past four years, said Jennifer Young, a spokeswoman with FirstEnergy Generation, which owns the station.

“The average age of employees at Beaver Valley is about 50,” she said. “In our company, people are eligible for retirement at age 55.”

To recruit younger workers, FirstEnergy Generation works closely with schools such as the University of Pittsburgh and Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, as well as the U.S. Navy.

One of the challenges, Ms. Young said, is that nuclear training programs were eliminated as new plant production stopped. But, she said, some schools are starting them again.

“We probably have more jobs in the industry than we have qualified people,” she said. “The colleges picking this up again are helping.”

Mr. Wenzig does not yet have enough participants to start his plans for a large-scale certification program, but some are already working in smaller classes.

He would like to offer a 25-week Commercial Nuclear Quality Control Inspector certification course. The school was approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2013 and was recently approved to offer a two-year associate degree program.

Nuclear companies want workers with experience, and Mr. Wenzig’s training program seeks to address that need.

“What we’re starting to see is utilities coming to us and saying, ’‍This is a pretty cool idea, this is OK,‘‍” he said. “The idea at this school was to be able to bottom-feed, to bring newbies in.”

Mr. Wenzig has already worked with a number of utilities and is looking to recruit high school graduates, electricians, welders and millwrights because “they’ll have some technical knowledge” from those disciplines.

At companies such as FirstEnergy Generation, most employees have two-year technical or four-year degrees. The utility has a dozen nuclear inspectors at each of its three plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“It goes beyond inspecting the equipment,” Ms. Young said. “They made sure our procedures and training programs are high quality. The maintenance doesn’t stop with just the equipment.”

Despite the need for formalized training, there is no substitute for on-site experience, Mr. Sheehan said.

“That’s really where we see our inspectors broaden their base of knowledge, once they’re out in the field,” he said. “That’s invaluable for them to be out in the field with experienced inspectors.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself has a need for well-trained inspectors as it employs at least two permanent inspectors at each of the 100 nuclear reactors in the U.S.

“The more training, the better the skill set they have coming to us, the more attractive candidate they will be,” he said.

Madasyn Czebiniak: or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak

Correction (Posted July 17, 2014) An earlier of this version had an incorrect name for the Industrial Testing Laboratory Services .

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