Senior Public Affairs Officer
U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operators must have the training, experience and skills to safely operate the reactor — and they must possess a license issued by the NRC.
The nation’s four new nuclear units being built, two at the Vogtle site in Georgia and two at the Summer site in South Carolina, will need licensed teams of operators and the companies building those plants are working with the NRC to ensure those operators will be ready when the plants are finished.
The control rooms for those new units replace the traditional layout packed with levers, switches, dials and lighted indicators with large digital screens and plant equipment interfaces as part of the Westinghouse AP1000 design. Even older nuclear plants use digital screens in the control rooms to augment the information for operators, but the new plants will be the first in this country equipped with the new control rooms. While the look may be different, the operator qualifications do not change.
“Requirements for obtaining an operator license for the new nuclear plants and the previous generation plants are equally stringent,” said NRC Region II License Examiner Mark Bates. “The licensing process requires that all operators be evaluated based on their competence in areas important for safe operation.”
The NRC issues licenses to reactor operators, who handle the controls of the plant, and senior reactor operators, who oversee and direct the licensed activities of the reactor operators. To become a reactor operator, an applicant must have at least three years of power plant experience and at least six months as a non-licensed operator. Senior reactor operator applicants must have at least 18 months experience as a qualified non-licensed operator, plant engineer or manager at a commercial nuclear power plant.
Reactor operator candidates do not need a college degree, but they must have the required experience and training. A college degree in engineering, engineering technology, or related sciences is typically required for anyone testing directly for a senior reactor operator license. However, a reactor operator with at least a year of active experience at a similar nuclear plant may take the senior reactor operator exam, whether or not they have a college degree.
Applicants for operator licenses must complete rigorous training provided by the company operating the plant before taking the NRC’s detailed written examination and a hands-on operating test on a simulator exactly like the plant’s control room. Although the company prepares and administers the tests, the NRC approves the test material and grades the applicants.
Even after receiving a license, operators continue to train on a regular basis every few weeks and as part of an NRC-approved requalification program, both reactor operators and senior reactor operators must pass an operating test every year and a written examination every two years to maintain their license.
More information on the licensing process for nuclear reactor operators, including more specific training and qualification requirements, can be found on the NRC website.