Nuclear Jobs: Where More is Less…

Renaissance job? (From www.photosfan.com)

In a special section aptly titled, “The Business of Green” (April 22, 2010), the New York Times  gave itself over this week to a story on the resurgence of nuclear power and the “many thousands” of new jobs shortly to be created as the country’s 104 existing nuclear power plants and 27 proposed new facilities gear up for a “nuclear renaissance” (“The New Jobs in Atomic Energy,” by Steve Lohr).   We read that community colleges are playing a big role in the production of this new workforce, with the Nuclear Energy Institute  (an industry group) setting up partnerships with 52 schools to train nuclear technicians, some of whom will find jobs with starting salaries of $50,000.  Skilled, well-paying jobs, in a growing industry: All good, right?

Well, let’s think about it.  Job creation is a good thing, and a two-year degree can be a wonderful gateway into a STEM career.  But the uncritical views of the educators, civic planners, and nuclear industry reps recorded in this piece suggest that concerns about the huge environmental and safety risks of nuclear energy are not just fading in America, but that they were never very deeply held. Lohr summarizes that nuclear power, “so long anathema to environmentalists,” is “increasingly seen as clean energy.”  He does not make clear that  in most cases, the folks who currently see nuclear options as clean (the NEI’s subtitle is “Clean Air Energy) are not the same ones who have long studied and worried about these technologies. 

The National Resources Defense Council, for example, points out that while nuclear power brings lower emissions than carbon and other combustion- related air pollutants, nuclear plants still involve huge efforts at heat dissipation, the challenge of safely depositing spent fuels, and other processes that are extraordinarily burdensome on the environment.  Residential sprawl near nuclear plants, increased risks of terrorist acts, and other recent developments  make some long-standing worries of environmentalists more compelling than ever. And beyond our shores, uranium mining and milling in other countries (where the bulk of the uranium we need is found) are often conducted with very high health and safety risks to workers and those who live near these operations. Oddly, another article in the same section of the Times that day, (Edging Back to Nuclear Power, by Matthew L. Wald) even mentions some of these anxieties.

I think  Lohr’s labeling of the skills now needed by nuclear technicians as “computer-age”  (as the plants shift from older analog “levers and switches” to digital control systems) makes the whole idea of new nuclear jobs seem even rosier, reaffirming Americans’ persistent sense that where high-tech goes, safety and reliability will follow.  The article’s quotes from those who have found new jobs in the nuclear industry, or who are training now for such jobs, are moving: That a family can finally afford to buy a home is gratifying.  That young people will get technical training for lifelong employment? Also wonderful. But why in nuclear, rather than in solar, wind and other sustainable and far less risky technologies?  That question is suppressed, not answered, when we focus only on the number of jobs nuclear plants might produce. And, yes, we can “have it all”: jobs AND sustainability, safety, and even industrial profits…as long as we openly and honestly assess the benefits and risks of the energy and employment choices before us.

Atop the Turbine: A Fine View of Community College

 

Students stand at the foot of the Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine, in Duracell's adAs we start to see more daily reminders of the critical importance of  junior and community colleges in American job creation and equity –as the recession slogs on without promised new jobs, as the White House actively supports 2-year education–it will be interesting to see how explicitly (or not)  industries associate themselves with this type of education…long treated by many sectors of American culture as marginal to “real” higher ed, and certainly as remote from tech-sector R&D.  Take a look at an interesting artifact of the 2010 American economy: An ad produced by Duracell that celebrates, in as slick a marketing effort as you’ll see anywhere,  a community college program for training wind-turbine technicians.

This has to be one of the only times a community college has appeared in a mass-media marketing campaign, let alone hit our screens in such an unremittingly positive light.  (Surely we don’t count the NBC sit-com “Community”as boosterism, as funny and sympathetic as its misfit characters might be?  With every ethnicity, gender and age group given its own embarassing under-achiever? Its own diagnosable-if-warm-hearted representative in the world of 2-year education?)  The Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program of  Iowa Lakes Community College , in Duracell’s hands, comes across as exciting and cutting edge. The turbine is magnificent, standing tall against the sun-drenched countryside, as uniformed student/workers in hardhats and coveralls high atop the structure test its voltage.

From Duracell's video of Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine

 Not surprisingly, we are told that the students do this by using Duracell-battery powered voltage meters. And the ad is hardly breaking new visual ground: it looks and sounds a bit like recent fast-cut, emotionally uplifting military recruiting ads. But using those images and techniques, the ad makes it clear that this technical work is both physically challenging and intellectually rewarding, not to mention of vital national interest, as a child driving by stares up in wonder at the spinning turbine. If this ad draws more students to training in sustainable technologies, that alone would count as a contribution by Duracell.  If it draws away some of the stigma of community colleges among university-educated Americans, even better.

I have a couple of concerns about the ad:  I think I spotted one or two female students standing in a group shot (see above); hard to tell, though, and why were none visible among the confering meter-wielders, or  intrepid turbine-climbing technicians, that make up most of the video?  Finally, Duracell fudges more than a few environmental issues to associate itself here with the values of sustainability.  Do we really want to promote wind energy as a way to expand our already excessive use of energy? The child in the ad cools herself with a battery-powered miniature fan, as she sits inside a moving car!  Why not just open a window to the turbine-powering breezes obviously blowing outside?  But for the moment, confining ourselves to the image of community colleges, let’s think about what Duracell’s addition of a culturally marginalized institution to the glossy, green television landscape might well do to help chip away at  that marginality.