How To Start A Career In Nuclear Power

A little over a decade ago I started a career in Nuclear Power.  I’ve primarily worked on Ice Condensers and Steam Generators, but I have also worked on a cavity decon job and I did one job as a scaffold builder helper. In the time I have been in this industry I have seen people chart dozens of different paths throughout the industry.  I’ve also seen people inadvertently sabotage their career. I love what I do and what I love the most about it is that I have control over my life.  I work for multiple employers and have between 12 – 30 weeks off per year.  Very few professions can state this. I can’t stress the value that this has overall.  A career in nuclear contracting is one of the best jobs that you can have to set yourself up for a highly profitable semi-retired career. Nuclear power plants shut down every 18 to 24 months for refueling and during this time the plants perform scheduled maintenance activities, which require several hundred contract workers.  The pay is often pretty good, the hours are long, and travel is required for the majority of plants (unless you live close to multiple plants).

Many of the skills and abilities needed to be successful as a nuclear technician are also required to be successful in other fields.

Work Hard and Be Nice To People:

Check Your Ego: Very few of the people that are successful in this industry have a large ego.  You just can’t do it. You need to be able to get things done efficiently and you need to be flexible to do that.  In this industry you might be “the boss” on one job, but then a few months later working for another company you are a worker bee and one of the guys that had been on your crew previously is your boss.

Networking: Be Likable: I have worked in several other jobs besides nuclear and in nuclear power being likable is extremely important.  Nuclear contractors tend to work for multiple different employers at different job sites around the country.  Employees are often asked by their employers if they have any suggestions for people to add to the crew.  You want your name to be the top of the list for everyone you encounter.

On the same subject, don’t be the “networking guy”  Once upon a time we had a guy come to work for one of my employers, whose work ethic, physical ability, and mental toughness to do the job just were not up to par, but he was by FAR the best networking guy I have ever come across.  Within 10 seconds of meeting him he was asking me what other employers I work for, what their numbers are and trying to get my number.  That’s a little extreme.  This guy made his way around a half dozen employers in like 2 years, burning bridges along the way.  Figure out how to be a good worker before you become a professional job hopper.  It’s a good idea to try to get along with people and get your name and number in their phone and friend them on Facebook, just don’t be obnoxious about it.

Be Flexible: You need to be flexible in your daily habits as well in the jobs you do. You might miss lunch some times.  You might get stuck in containment for 10 hours (hot environment no ability to eat, drink, or use the restroom, much less check your phone).  Always pack some sort of meal in your bag.  Keep a bunch of ones and quarters with you as well.  You might need to go from one job to another in quick succession.  The more rigid you are and the more you complain about inconveniences the less likely you are to be successful and get called for future jobs.

Listen:  Working at a nuclear power plant is not like working at any other job.  There are rules and regulations that seem over bearing, but must be followed.  You need to understand what is expected of you and make damn sure that if you are uncertain about something, STOP and get resolution from your supervisor.  You want to be industrious, but you also can’t have a “Get er done’ attitude”.  There is tons of procedures and paperwork that must be followed correctly.  HOW you do the job is often more important that how efficiently you get the job done.

Be Comfortable with being uncomfortable:  Containment is hot.  Now add in that you are wearing two sets of clothing, sometimes 3. Add in a face-shield and start moving around heavy objects. Not a comfortable situation.  Some days end up being 16 hours long.  Sometimes you have to fly from 1 site to another with little rest in between. Some areas you work in are cramped as hell and were not designed for people to perform maintenance in them.

Planning and Outside Of Work:

Be Organized: I have the jobs I am going to work planned out fairly solidly 2 years in advance, with a rough idea for the following year as well.  This isn’t to say I don’t allow flexibility for changes, but I like to have a good idea of where I am going to be and how much (ballpark) I am going to be earning. You want to know when different plants are shutting down for their outages so you can contact employers that have the contracts at those plants ahead of time.  I get calls all the time from people who I’ve worked with in the past who end up calling me too late for me to get them in at a job.

Don’t Be An Issue: Don’t be the guy who adds drama and stress to your coworkers and employers.  Don’t be smoking in company rental cars/hotel rooms,  hitting on the hotel staff, getting arrested for DUIs in company vehicles, forgetting your work badge or work boots at home, etc. You don’t want to be a headache to your employer and coworkers.  These are short term temporary jobs and those that sink towards the bottom end up not having their phones ring the next time a job roles around.

Drug Free: I should have started with this one.  It shouldn’t be a big shocker that nuclear power plants drug test.  In addition to an initial drug test at the start of each job, the plants also do random drug testing.  I personally have seen over a half dozen people walked off site because they failed either an initial test or a random test.  I’m not against marijuana, drinking, or whatever your poison may be, but we all know the rules going into this,  you have to be clean to work here.  Failing a drug test is a MINIMUM 3 year ban from the industry for a contractor. Failing a second time, trying to circumvent a test or refusing to take one is a lifetime ban. Failing a breathalyzer test at work has the same effect as failing a drug test. Don’t put yourself in that position.  I’ve seen people rely on a “30 day period” to let marijuana exit their system, and still fail a drug test.

95% of work in the nuclear industry happens between March – May and September – November, and many nuke workers use the time off to recreate.  Keep in mind that the phone can ring at any time. Great opportunities do come up.  I have had great jobs in the winter and last summer I received a couple opportunities that I had to turn down for family reasons.  How stupid would you feel if you missed out on a $10,000 job because you had just smoked a joint? or worse yet showed up anyways and lost your career?  Don’t be an idiot.

DUIs/arrests etc: Don’t put yourself in the position to get arrested while working in this industry.  Getting a DUI will almost certainly cause you to lose the current job your’e working on and can sometimes cause longer effects.

Plan Your Benefits: 99% of contracting positions do not come with any employee benefits to speak of.  One of my employers offers a 401K without a match, and that’s about it.  You are on your own for life insurance, health insurance, retirement, and any other benefits that a normal job may provide.  Set money aside for retirement from day 1 and look into what you need to do to get health insurance through Healthcare.gov.

Research The Area Before You Go: There are some really cool places around nuclear plants.  I’ve been able to collect fossils, visit Niagra Falls, visit a defunct military base, and even pet a stingray during my off days while working at nuclear plants.  Research the areas you are travelling to to get more out of your trips.

Starting A Career In Nuclear Power: Getting Your Foot In The Door:

Union Halls: Many contracting companies hire directly from union halls for skilled craftsman;  Laborers, Carpenters, Ironworkers, Millwrights, Welders, Electricians, etc.

People Already In The Industry: This is the best way to get your foot in the door, knowing somebody already in the industry who can recommend you for a job and get you in. (Note: I’m not that guy, I am not referring people I meet over the internet for jobs, sorry. ) Most contracting companies don’t like to bring in new people because it is very expensive to run the initial background check.  Once you have been badged and have had a badge within the past 365 days it is much easier to get work.

College Programs: Some contracting companies like Framatome have a college program where they pay for schooling, train you, and employ you.  This is an excellent way to get outage experience and a degree.

Through Job boards: Roadtechs.com Nukeworker.com and Nuclearstreet.com.   Anything that you may be remotely qualified for is worth applying for. There are great contracting positions posted all the time, so make sure the check frequently.

Ice Condenser: We hire people new to nuclear all the time for our refueling outages.  We host a couple job fairs a year in Southwest MI to hire people in for our ice project.  For our project we need around 150 people and between outages we tend to lose between 20 and 60 people each time.  Once you get your foot in the door our company occasionally has opportunities at other nuclear sites and through networking with your coworkers even brand new workers can find other opportunities throughout the industry.

Misc. Advice For Starting A Career In Nuclear Power:

If you have the above mentioned skills  and abilities required to succeed in nuclear power, and you’ve found a way in, ask yourself the following questions to verify that you can handle it:

  1. Do I think long term or short term?  This is not a career for short term thinkers.   You have to be planning out your work ahead of time, planning out your income, and planning out what you need to do to increase your pay rates as time goes on. Many positions have low starting pay rates and it takes a few years to get your total income up, you have to think long term.
  2. Can I handle variable income? This is the biggest hurdle for most people.  Sure you get some awesome checks for a few weeks, but what if you were planning on having 2 jobs in the season and 1 fell through?  What if you are off work for 16 weeks in a row? What if your employer changes your hours from 72 hours per week to 60 hours per week? What if your claim for Unemployment Insurance is denied?
  3. Do I have a plan for earning money in the off season? Most people do something in the off season.  Some guys flip houses, some work on cars, some deliver groceries, some run their own construction/snow removal businesses.  You need to have something you can do in the offseason to earn a bit of extra cash to keep the low income months from completely draining your savings.
  4. Can my family stand me travelling? This is a big one.  Travelling for work is really hard on family life. You have to find the right balance of travelling, being off work, and working at your “home plant”, if you are fortunate enough to have one that you can work at during the outages.
  5. Do I have the discipline to turn down jobs that don’t mesh with my family’s needs?  I have turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in jobs.  The divorce rate in this field of work is extremely high because there is a tendency to gravitate towards being on the road for close to half the year, if not more; not many relationships can survive this.  When someone offers you a job making $2,000 a week for 6 months, but you will be gone that entire time, do you have the discipline to say “no” ?
  6. Am I physically fit and do I plan to remain physically fit? There is a lot of stairs, a lot of lifting, a lot of physical work involved in this career, as well as long hours (12 hour shifts 6 days a week is the norm).  You need to be fit and stay fit to be capable in this field.

If you are interested in starting a career in nuclear power, check out this book, The Essential Guide to Getting a Job in the Nuclear Power Industry: How To Secure Full-Time Employment or Contract Work.  Any questions on what a career as a nuclear contractor is like?  I’d be happy to shine some more light on the industry!

 

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John uses the free tool Personal Capital to track his net worth and posts quarterly updates on his finances. Check out the Action Economics archives section for all past posts.

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