Nuclear plant strives to replace retiring workforce
Nov. 26, 2017 at 9:06 p.m.
WADSWORTH - Years ago, a Palacios High School student told a packed auditorium about how science, technology, engineering and math piqued her interest.
Then-Gov. Rick Perry was in the audience to present the school with a check to encourage other students' interest in the subjects.
Today, Perry is the U.S. Secretary of Energy and that student, Elizabeth Castanon, is a mechanical design engineer at South Texas Project (STP) Nuclear Operating Company, a few miles from her childhood home.
STP's yearslong effort to draw a diverse workforce from Matagorda County is being put to the test now that nearly half its workforce can retire.
"We knew this moment was coming," said Clarence Fenner, STP's supervisor of talent acquisition and planning. "We're on pace to hire 155 this year, and we believe we're going to breach 200 the next."
It's not easy to convince someone to move to a rural community, where nuclear plants are traditionally built. Realizing this, STP began partnering with schools in 2007 to grow its own workforce.
It grew Castanon.
She was the president of Powerset, which stands for Powerful Opportunities for Women Eager and Ready for Science, Engineering and Technology.
It was created to address the retirements and is now in 11 schools, Palacios High School Principal Stephanie Garcia said.
In Powerset, women in the nuclear industry mentor female students with a 3.5 grade point average who have scored highly on either their biology or algebra I end-of-course-exams.
"With the ratio of males to females in STEM being lopsided, the next logical step would be to seek what seems to be untapped resources - female students - to fill the gap," Garcia said.
Only 26 percent of STP's workforce is women, but Fenner said more of these women are in jobs traditionally filled by men.
"There's never enough," Castanon said. "Women bring a different perspective. When you have people who all come from the same background, the same school and the same thinking, then you make the same mistakes."
STP is the largest employer in Matagorda County. One reactor began operating in 1988, while the other began operating in 1989.
It was a big deal to get a job at STP then, and it still is.
Fenner said an entry-level position pays $45 an hour, or $93,600 a year before taxes. In contrast, the median household income in Matagorda County in 2015 was $40,797, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Martin Cortez and his 25-year-old daughter, Courtney, are a picture of this.
When Cortez graduated high school in Bay City in 1977, his parents couldn't afford to send him to college, so he worked for a local electrician, who taught him the trade.
With STP constructing the reactors then, electricians were needed to wire new homes.
When that work dried up, Cortez was an electrical contractor for plants in the area while starting his family. That work was, at times, unreliable, though.
He still remembers walking into a motel's conference room in 1984 and applying with 200 other men to be an electrician at STP.
"I've always thought I was so blessed. There were only six that they were going to hire then," he said.
Today, Cortez is the electrical maintenance manager at STP.
He could have retired three years ago, but he hasn't.
He sent all three of his children to college.
Both Castanon and the younger Cortez are alumni of the Texas A&M University system, which hosts the Nuclear Power Institute.
Like Powerset, STP helped create the Nuclear Power Institute in 2007 to address the retirements.
Most recently, STP gave its next generation of workers the job stability its first generation enjoyed by securing a license extension through 2048.
Nevertheless, nuclear plants generate less than a quarter of the country's electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The only other nuclear plant in Texas is in Glen Rose, which is about 70 miles north of Waco.
Tom "Smitty" Smith, the former director of Public Citizen's Texas office, said while women should take their rightful place in what has generally been a heavily male-dominated industry, he doubted STP would continue to be economical.
Last year, the federal government gave STP permission to construct two additional reactors, but that project's been mothballed because of low natural gas prices.
This raises the question - should young people be encouraged to enter this industry?
John Keeley, a spokesman for Nuclear Energy Institute, thinks so.
Nuclear plants generate energy more reliably than the wind or the sun and do so without polluting the air.
"The hurricanes that we saw ... were a powerful reminder that Mother Nature has a say in this and what you're seeing from the Trump Administration now is a fresh consideration of resiliency and reliability," Keeley said.
For both Castanon and Cortez, STP has been such a big part of their lives that they haven't considered how other sources of electricity may be undercutting it.
If Castanon hadn't been accepted for an internship at STP when she applied for a second time at her father's urging, she would have completed her doctorate degree in nuclear engineering.
"And if I had finished doing that, I would be doing research, probably in another state, but I had always wanted to move back here," she said.
She recently updated a calculation that shows how many new items can be placed in containment before there's a pressurization problem. Even though she's worked at STP for more than a year, a mentor oversees and signs off on her work.
"My mentor has been Wes, and he's retiring in January, so I have him for that long, but some people have had mentors for five or 10 years," Castanon said.
Just before Hurricane Harvey, when about 250 employees kept STP operating, Cortez switched departments.
Not only is the department closer to her dad ("A lot of people recognize my last name and immediately expect a lot out of me, which I appreciate"), it's closer to the reactor where she can see her work in action.
"I think it is - I won't use the word scary - but it will be challenging, and I feel like there's a lot of pressure on the new people to learn everything they possibly can before that entire generation retires. So, that's basically what I'm working on right now, just bothering my mentors constantly," she said.