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Good Jobs for the Taking

Posted by | October 25, 2008

The fact that Baby Boomers are starting to retire creates changing job opportunities.  Some lucrative positions will be available in increasing numbers in the coming years. Entry-level positions are already open, with most starting salaries around $75,000. As an added bonus, if you take such a job you’ll be contributing everyday to America’s energy independence.

The positions I’ve got in mind are technical, but all that’s required by way of background is high school math and college-level freshman chemistry. And you’ll also need the ability to put up with glow-in-the-dark jokes from your Grandpa George or Aunt Alice. Beyond that, some of your neighbors will seriously think you are involved in a high-risk industry that they may not appreciate.  So there are some challenges – but also clear rewards.

The jobs are for people who can work as federally-licensed operators of a nuclear power plant. One good place to get a toehold in the industry is at a small, research reactor like the one at Washington State University.

Dr. Donald Wall is director of WSU’s reactor and he teaches undergraduates all they need to know to become licensed operators in an applied chemistry class.

“I believe wholeheartedly in nuclear power. This is my way of having a positive impact on the world,” he said.

Although the public isn’t generally aware of it, there are more than 100 nuclear reactors in this country that together make about 20 percent of our electricity.

Wall is used to questions about the safety of the American nuclear power industry. He is quick to point out there have been fatalities in all conventional power industries in the United States – coal, natural gas and hydroelectric – but there has never been a death in our nuclear power plants.

About half of the electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning coal. As all us geologists know, the coal industry is dirty and dangerous. Workers die in coalmines from collapses and fires. Some others die in their beds at home due to black lung. Transportation workers die in accidents that occur as enormous tonnages of coal are shipped around the country, and still another set of workers die due to hazards in the coal-fired power plants themselves.

Burning coal also creates air pollution, and the bad air kills people. Folks with breathing problems, as well as the elderly and the ill, succumb to this effect of coal. The estimate from medical sciences is that for every medium-size coal-fired power plant, about 30 Americans die each year from the downwind air pollution.

Wall points out that even if you throw Chernobyl onto the scales for consideration – a disaster in which 55 people died in and around the plant – the average death rate for nuclear powered electricity looks good compared to the annual death rate from coal. (Just for the record, Wall wants me to make it clear that American plants are not built like Chernobyl. And American nuclear plants have had no fatalities in 50 years.)

Many serious people have another concern. How can we support nuclear power if there isn’t a good place to bury the radioactive waste the plants create?

Wall responds readily to that question.

The fuel rods that power a nuke can be recycled – or reprocessed as some people say – so that more energy can be derived from them. The reprocessing has the added benefit of greatly reducing the volume of the waste itself, he said.

“The technology to reprocess or recycle nuclear fuel is available now,” Wall said. “France does it commercially for other nations that use nuclear power, making a lot of money while simultaneously reducing the amount of waste.”

The reason we Americans don’t reprocess our nuclear waste is that, under the Carter administration, we chose to follow a use-it-once approach. President Carter’s concern was that if we did any reprocessing, the nuclear waste might be diverted into the wrong hands.

That hasn’t happened in France. And now even some environmentalists – concerned about carbon emissions – support both nuclear power and reprocessing.

There’s clearly grounds for disagreement about nukes, but there’s also nothing for us Americans to lose by thinking through nuclear energy one more time.  Young people can usefully consider nuclear plant operations as a career path, and we citizens can discuss all the issues with our friends and relatives – perhaps even with Grandpa George and Aunt Alice.