Power Plant Operators

Nuclear Power Plant Jobs

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 Nuclear Power Plant Operators Jobs & Statistics

 

Significant Points - Power Plant Operators

  • Overall employment is projected to experience little or no change over the next decade, but job prospects are expected to be excellent for qualified applicants as many workers retire.
  • Several years of classroom and on-the-job training are required to become fully qualified.
  • Familiarity with computers and a basic understanding of science and math are helpful for those entering the field.

Nature of the Work - Power Plant Operators

 

Electricity is one of our nation’s most vital resources. It powers everything from light bulbs and appliances that you use around your house to supercomputers that power the Internet. From the moment you flip the first switch each morning, you are connecting to a huge network of people, electric lines, and generating equipment. Power plant operators control the machinery that generates electricity. Power plant distributors and dispatchers control the flow of electricity as it travels through a network of transmission lines from the power plant to industrial plants and substations, and then flows through distribution lines to residential users.

Power plant operators control and monitor boilers, turbines, generators, and auxiliary equipment in power-generating plants. They distribute power among generators, regulate the output from several generators, and monitor instruments to maintain voltage and regulate electricity flows from the plant. When demand changes, power plant operators communicate with dispatchers at distribution centers to match production with system the load. On the basis of this communication, they start and stop generators, altering the amount of electricity output. They also go on rounds to check that everything in the plant is operating correctly and keep records of switching operations and loads on generators, lines, and transformers. In all of these tasks, they use computers to report unusual incidents, malfunctioning equipment, or maintenance performed during their shifts.

Nuclear power reactor operators perform similar tasks at a nuclear power plant. Most start working as equipment operators or auxiliary operators. At this stage, they help the more senior workers with equipment maintenance and operation while learning the basics of plant operation. With experience and training they may be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as reactor operators, making them authorized to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. Senior reactor operators supervise the operation of all controls in the control room. At least one senior operator must be on duty during each shift to act as the plant supervisor.

Power distributors and dispatchers, also called load dispatchers or systems operators, work for utility companies, non-utility generators, and other companies that access the power grid. They control the flow of electricity through transmission lines to industrial plants and substations that supply residential and commercial needs for electricity. They monitor and operate current converters, voltage transformers, and circuit breakers. Dispatchers also monitor other distribution equipment and record readings at a map board—a diagram of the transmission grid system showing the status of transmission circuits and connections with substations and industrial plants. In doing this, they communicate closely with power plant operators, energy traders, and local utilities to route energy from generating stations to customers.

Dispatchers anticipate changes in power needs caused by weather, such as increased demand for power on a hot day or outages during a thunderstorm. They also react to changes in the structure of the grid due to transformer or transmission line failures and route current around affected areas. In substations, they operate and monitor equipment that increases or decreases voltage and they operate switchboard levers to control the flow of electricity in and out of the substations.

Work environment. Operators, distributors, and dispatchers who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at a control station. The work is not physically strenuous, but it does require constant attention. When operators are on rounds or performing other work outside of the control room, they may be exposed to danger from electric shock, falls, and burns. In addition, nuclear reactor operators may be exposed to small amounts of ionizing radiation during the course of their work.

Because power transmission is both vitally important and sensitive to attacks, security is a major concern for energy companies. Nuclear power plants and transmission stations have especially high security, and workers should be prepared to work in secured environments.

Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators, distributors, and dispatchers usually work one of three 8-hour shifts or one of two 12-hour shifts on a rotating basis. Shift assignments may change periodically so that all operators share less desirable shifts. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and fatiguing because of the constant changes in living and sleeping patterns.

Power plant operators use computers to report unusual incidents, malfunctioning equipment, or maintenance performed during their shifts.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

 

Power plant operators, dispatchers, and distributors generally need a combination of education, on-the-job training, and experience. Candidates with strong mechanical, technical and computer skills are generally preferred.

Both operators and dispatchers are subject to random drug and alcohol tests. Nuclear reactor operators must pass a medical examination every 2 years.

Education and training. Operator and dispatcher jobs require at least a high school diploma. Workers with college or vocational school degrees will have advantages in finding a job, as well as more advancement opportunities, especially in nuclear power plants. Although it is not a prerequisite, many nuclear power reactor operators have bachelor's degrees in engineering or the physical sciences.

Workers selected for training as power plant operators or distributors undergo extensive on-the-job training and classroom instruction. Several years of training and experience are necessary to become fully qualified.

In addition to receiving initial training, a power plant operator, distributor, or dispatcher, is required to spend a certain number of hours each year taking refresher courses. Operators train on plant simulators designed to replicate situations that could occur at the plant. Similarly, dispatchers and system operators train extensively on power system simulators to keep skills sharp to prevent blackouts.

Licensure and certification. Some power plant operators, distributors and dispatchers must earn and maintain licenses. The specific requirements vary by job function and jurisdiction.

Power plant operators not working in a nuclear facility are often licensed as engineers or firemen by State licensing boards. Requirements vary from State to State and also depend on the specific job function of the operator and the license needed.

Nuclear power reactor operators must pass an examination and maintain licenses administered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Before beginning training, a nuclear power plant operator must have 3 years of power plant experience. At least 1 of the 3 years must be at the nuclear power plant where the operator is to be licensed, and 6 months should be as a nonlicensed operator at the plant. Training generally takes at least 1 year, after which the worker must take an NRC-administered written examination and operating test. To maintain their licenses, reactor operators must pass an annual practical plant-operating exam and a biennial written exam administered by their employers. Reactor operators can upgrade their licenses to the senior-reactor-operator level after a year of licensed experience at the plant by taking another examination given by the NRC. Individuals with a bachelor's degree in engineering or the equivalent may apply for senior operator's licenses directly if they have 3 years of nuclear power plant experience, with at least 6 months at the site. Training includes simulator and on-the-job training, classroom instruction, and individual study. Experience in other power plants or with Navy nuclear-propulsion plants also is helpful. Although waivers are possible, licensed nuclear power reactor operators and senior operators generally have to pass a new written examination and operating test administered by the NRC if they transfer to another facility.

Power distributors and dispatchers who are in positions in which they could affect the power grid must be certified by the North American Energy Reliability Corporation (NERC). There are three types of certification offered by NERC: reliability coordinator, transmission operator, and balancing authority. Each of these qualifies a worker to handle a different job function. Distributors and dispatchers who distribute power within local utilities generally do not need to be licensed or certified.

Other qualifications. Electric company recruiters generally look for individuals with strong math and science backgrounds for these highly technical jobs. Understanding electricity and math—especially algebra and trigonometry—are important, although workers learn many of these concepts and skills in specialized training courses. Workers should also be good at working with tools. Problem solving is an important part of most electrical workers’ jobs, so recruiters usually look for people who can easily figure out how things work. Successful utility workers are generally good with mechanics and enjoy fixing things.

In order to measure these aptitudes, many companies require that their workers take the Power Plant Maintenance (MASS) and Plant Operator (POSS) exams administered by the Edison Electrical Institute. These tests measure reading comprehension, understanding of mechanical concepts, spatial ability, and mathematical ability.

Advancement. After finishing work in the classroom, most entry-level workers start as helpers or laborers and advance to more responsible positions as they become comfortable in the plant. Workers are generally classified into 3–5 levels based on experience. For each level, there are training requirements, mandatory waiting times, and exams. With sufficient training and experience, workers can become shift supervisors, trainers, or consultants.

Because power plants have different systems and safety mechanisms, it can sometimes be difficult to advance by moving to a different company, although this is not always the case. Most power companies promote from within and most workers advance within a particular plant or by moving to another plant owned by the same utility.

Employment

 

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Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers held about 50,400 jobs in 2008, of which 5,000 were nuclear power reactor operators, 10,000 were power distributors and dispatchers, and 35,400 were power plant operators. Jobs were located throughout the country.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is projected to experience little or no change, but job opportunities are expected to be excellent because of the large number of retiring workers who must be replaced, an increased demand for energy, and recent legislation that paves the way for a number of new plants.

Employment change. Between 2008 and 2018, overall employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers is expected to experience little or no change. Although Americans’ energy use continues to grow annually, the intense competition among generators resulting from deregulation will temper that growth.

Power plant operators in non-nuclear power plants are expected to decline by 2 percent between 2008 and 2018, representing little or no change as energy companies continue to promote efficiency and build more efficient plants. While most of the major employment effects of deregulation have already occurred, generators continue to focus on cost cutting. As older, less efficient plants are retired, they are being replaced with new plants that have higher capacities and require fewer workers. Because the capacity of the new plants is higher, fewer are needed to produce the same amount of electricity.

Employment of nuclear power reactor operators is expected to grow by 19 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than the average for all occupations, because of plant construction and new rules on operator fatigue. Although no new plants have been licensed since the 1990s, many sites have applied for permits which will need to be staffed before the end of the projections decade. Further, newly enacted NRC regulations on fatigue limit the length of shifts, meaning that nuclear facilities may need more operators.

On the other hand, power distributor and dispatcher employment is expected to experience little or no change, declining by 2 percent between 2008 and 2018, reflecting further industry consolidation.

Job prospects. Job opportunities are expected to be excellent for well-qualified applicants because of a large number of retirements in the electric power industry. During the 1990s, the emphasis on cost cutting among utilities led to hiring freezes and the laying off of younger workers. The result is that many power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers are nearing retirement age. Utilities have responded by setting up new education programs at community colleges and high schools throughout the country. While many individuals are showing interest in these high-paying jobs, prospects will be best for workers with strong technical and mechanical skills and an understanding of science and mathematics.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix

Occupational Title

SOC Code

Employment, 2008

Projected
Employment, 2018

Change,
2008-18

Detailed Statistics

Number

Percent

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers

51-8010

50,400

50,600

200

0

[PDF]

[XLS]

Nuclear power reactor operators

51-8011

5,000

6,000

1,000

19

[PDF]

[XLS]

Power distributors and dispatchers

51-8012

10,000

9,800

-200

-2

[PDF]

[XLS]

Power plant operators

51-8013

35,400

34,800

-600

-2

[PDF]

[XLS]

    NOTE: Data in this table are rounded. See the discussion of the employment projections table in the Handbook introductory chapter on Occupational Information Included in the Handbook.

Earnings

Median annual wages of power plant operators were $58,470 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $47,850 and $68,250. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,390.

Median annual wages of nuclear power reactor operators were $73,320 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $63,440 and $82,540. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $55,730, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $96,480.

Median annual wages of power distributors and dispatchers were $65,890 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $55,520 and $77,780. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,010, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $88,500.

About 40 percent of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers were members of unions in 2008.

For the latest wage information:

The above wage data are from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey program, unless otherwise noted. For the latest National, State, and local earnings data, visit the following pages:

  • nuclear power reactor operators
  • power distributors and dispatchers
  • power plant operators
  • Other workers who monitor and operate plant and system equipment include:

    Stationary engineers and boiler operators

    Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators

    Other jobs working with electricity include:

    Line installers and repairers

    Electrical and electronics installers and repairers

    Electricians

    Sources of Additional Information


    Disclaimer:

    Links to non-BLS Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.


    For general information about power plant operators, nuclear power reactor operators, and power plant distributors and dispatchers, contact:

    • American Public Power Association, 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW., Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20009-5715. Internet: http://www.appanet.org
    • Center for Energy Workforce Development, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20004-2696. Internet: http://www.cewd.org
    • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 900 Seventh St NW., Washington, DC 20001. Internet: http://www.ibew.org

    Information on licensing for nuclear reactor operators and senior reactor operators is available from:

    Information on certification for power distributors and dispatchers is available from:

    • North American Electric Reliability Corporation, 116-390 Village Blvd., Princeton, NJ 08540-5721. Internet: http://www.nerc.com

    O*NET-SOC Code Coverage

    Get more information from O*NET—the Occupational Information Network:

    O*NET provides comprehensive information on key characteristics of workers and occupations. For information on a specific occupation, select the appropriate link below. For more information on O*NET, visit their homepage.



    Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos227.htm (visited April 10, 2011).