Going Nuclear

Ken Cutler

I BEGAN MY FIRST JOB out of college 38 years ago. A newly minted electrical engineer, I was assigned by Philadelphia Electric Company to work at its Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Delta, Pennsylvania. As a young child, I had visited the Peach Bottom Unit 1 Visitor Center, never anticipating that I’d someday return to the site as an employee.

My concentration in college was power engineering, so I fully expected to be working in the transmission and distribution side of the electric power business. I’d taken exactly one credit hour of nuclear engineering classes in my undergraduate studies. But due to what I attribute to God’s providence, I ended up at Peach Bottom in the generation side of the business.

Less than a year after I started there, the Chernobyl accident occurred, casting a pall on the entire nuclear power industry. About a year after that, Peach Bottom was shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it wasn’t clear that the station would ever produce another megawatt.

Here I was two years into my new career, employed at the worst U.S. nuclear power plant and in a dying industry. I felt I’d made a boneheaded career move and my future would involve either extended unemployment or an entirely new field of work. If folks had told me back then that I’d still be at Peach Bottom in 2023, I would have laughed at them. At the time, even in the best-case scenario, the plant’s operating license only extended to 2008.

What happened? After two and a half years of turmoil, determination, hard work and necessary paradigm shifts, Peach Bottom was granted its license again and started making power. Fast forward through the next few decades, and the plant had been through several power uprates and two life-extension efforts, extending the plant’s operating life until at least 2053. For many years now, Peach Bottom has been recognized as one of the best-run nuclear power plants in the country, if not the world.

During my career, I’ve seen several up-and-down cycles in the nuclear power industry. In the 1990s, deregulation came to the electric power industry. The financial pressure on the affected utilities was acute. My company went through at least three major downsizings during that decade.

Over a quarter of the company’s employees left during the first reduction, which involved generous voluntary retirement incentives to all employees age 50 and over. These incentives included a nine-month salary lump-sum payment and a pension sweetener that added five years of age and five years of service to the defined benefit pension formula. By the time the third downsizing was complete, there were very few employees left over age 50.

In 2001, when I was 39, employees were offered the opportunity to convert their traditional pension to a cash-balance pension. The industry wasn’t exactly thriving financially, even though nuclear plants were running extremely well throughout the country. My informal assessment was that, if I was more than 90% confident of staying with the company until age 50, selecting the traditional plan would be the best choice. Lacking that confidence, I opted in to the cash-balance plan.

A few years ago, my employer—now called Exelon—again faced financial dilemmas related to its nuclear plants. The industry was in a down cycle, primarily due to the extraordinarily low price of natural gas at the time. Natural gas-fired plants were at that point much more economical at producing electricity. Some of the company’s nuclear plants, including Peach Bottom, were profitable. Other plants, particularly in Illinois, were hemorrhaging money, even though they were well-run and had high-capacity factors.

Absent a political solution, Exelon stated its intent to permanently shut down several of the financially struggling units. Hundreds of employees exited the affected plants to find other jobs. Once again, the future looked bleak for the company and industry. In September 2021, while some of the plants were in the process of shutting down for the final time, the Illinois legislature passed a bill that provided the necessary financial support to keep them running. It was a stunning turnaround, particularly noteworthy in an era of political dysfunction.

It seems that today, with the sustained focus on climate change and increased support for clean energy, nuclear power is again in an up cycle. Next generation small modular reactors are in various stages of development. Grace Stanke, 2023’s Miss America, is an outspoken advocate for nuclear power. Filmmaker Oliver Stone has put out a movie called Nuclear Now that’s strongly pro-nuclear. Even California is looking to extend operations at its last remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon. Plants that had been scheduled to shut down are now furiously hiring new workers.

Such is the environment today, as I look ahead to retirement in September. One result: I’ve found that I’m not quite ready to give up my connection to the industry or the specialized knowledge I’ve acquired over the past 38 years. But that may be a story for a future article.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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