Saturday, June 16, 2001

Nuclear talent getting scarcer

Few young workers means slow progress

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CROSBY TOWNSHIP — America might have plenty of raw materials, such as stockpiled uranium and plutonium, to expand the nation's nuclear energy capacity — but it is running short on the people with the technical skills to make it happen.

        During a tour Friday of a multibillion-dollar cleanup at the former Fernald uranium processing plant, Sen. George Voinovich said America needs to increase its use of nuclear energy to reduce energy shortages like those experienced in California.

        “I'm going to do everything I can to increase production of nuclear power in this country. We're way behind Europe,” Mr. Voinovich said.

        “I know of businesspeople willing to build six new reactors right now” if they could get approval to act, Mr. Voinovich said.

        But actually building such plants could be a problem.

        John Bradburne, president and CEO of Fluor-Fernald Inc., says America has more uranium and plutonium than it really needs. What it lacks, however, are the people and the facilities to build and run the facilities.

        “We haven't built one in 20 years or more,” Mr. Bradburne said. “If we wanted to order a plant right now, we'd have to go to France or other countries to get it.”

        In fact, the people problem goes beyond nuclear power plants to affect the Department of Defense, the State Department and other vital government functions, Mr. Voinovich said.

        “America is facing a human capital crisis. You can have all this stuff (such as stockpiles of nuclear fuel), but if you don't have people to get the job done, you've got deep trouble,” Mr. Voinovich said.

        For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has six times as many employees older than 60 as it does under age 30. One third of the civilian workers in the Department of Defense are older than 51.

        At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton — which employs more than 10,000 civilians and serves as headquarters of the Air Force Materiel Command — about 60 percent of its workers will be eligible for retirement or early retirement by 2005.

        By that time, less than 2 percent of its staff will be under age 34.

        Not only do the retirements threaten the loss of valuable institutional knowledge, the lack of young people coming into jobs means government agencies are falling even more behind on new technology skills.

        Mr. Voinovich and Sen. Mike DeWine have proposed legislation to make it easier for retired civilians to return to key government jobs. He also wants to see increased government recruiting at the nation's universities, including possible tuition or student loan repayment incentives.


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