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Workers needed as nuclear power makes a comeback

CHATTANOOGA (AP) — Nuclear power is making a comeback, but there may not be enough workers to build and man the plants.

A new Department of Labor report has found that more than a third of workers in the nuclear power industry are baby boomers who will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

To replace them and build and operate new power plants that are on the drawing board will require thousands of new electricians, pipefitters and engineers.

No new nuclear plant has been ordered in the United States since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. But utilities in the South are preparing plans to build as many as 27 new reactors, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The first of those could be Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor. It was half-built when construction was stopped in 1988 over safety concerns, but the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to restart construction next year.

“We missed a generation of workers because we were not hiring and were reducing our work force through much of the 1980s and ’90s,” said TVA’s senior manager of labor relations Keith Fogleman.

The nation’s largest public utility needs thousands of contract workers for Watts Bar as well as two reactors tentatively planned for the Bellefonte Nuclear Site in Alabama.

Despite an overall shortage of qualified workers in the Southeast, TVA could be in better shape than many other utilities.

Since the last wave of nuclear power construction in the 1970s, more than half of the collegiate nuclear engineering programs were shut down, but the University of Tennessee’s program was not among them.

And TVA already has employed more than 2,500 contract workers over the past five years for repair of its oldest reactor at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Alabama.

“Overall, we met the need, but at times there were some specialty needs like welders that became a challenge for us,” Fogleman said. “Even with the predicted shortage of workers in the future in our region, Watts Bar is going to be ahead of the other plants planned in the region.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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