Roll into this mid-Missouri town and when you see Abel’s Quik Stop convenience store, look to the left.
You’ll see a low-slung gray building, labeled Advanced Technology Center, that you wouldn’t think twice about. But inside, along with classrooms and laboratories, you’d find some very unusual equipment, such as a whole-body radioactive counter.
Welcome to one of the best schools in America for educating students for jobs in nuclear power plants.
Linn State Technical College’s nuclear technology program has 81 students this fall. They’re easy to spot rushing to class: They wear yellow and orange lanyards listing nuclear plant safety rules.
The program includes a summer internship at a nuclear plant paying $17 an hour, and a good chance for a job with a starting salary of $65,000 a year plus benefits. Some graduates with a couple of years’ experience are raking in more than $100,000 annually with overtime. Tuition is a quarter of what the University of Missouri charges.
“You’d think people would be all over this place,” said Jacob Carey, 25. He has a bachelor of arts degree and had worked as an assistant hotel manager and truck fleet manager before moving his family from Illinois to attend the school.
Another attraction of the training program is that it’s led by Bruce Meffert, a former Navy nuclear submarine officer, a taskmaster ready to bar a student from class for being late.
“He is respected across the nation for the culture he’s created,” said Kevin Cooper, director of the Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training in Fort Pierce, Fla.
The school’s course of study, fused to its no-nonsense attitude, has created an outsized reputation for the school in the U.S. and beyond.
A United Nations energy agency has used the program as a model for other countries. It has also served as an “inspiration and benchmark” for nuclear training programs started in recent years at other U.S. community colleges, said Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, a senior manager for workforce policy at the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute.
The school has won admirers across the nuclear power industry. Exelon, which operates the country’s largest fleet of nuclear plants, is a big supporter. The company along with other utilities routinely hires its graduates, even as more schools offer the training.
Linn State “is exemplary and recognized as a leader in producing well-trained and educated nuclear professionals,” said James Auld, director of training initiatives for Nextera Energy, which has nuclear plants in Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
Most of Linn State’s nuclear technology students, drawn by its reputation, come from out of state.
The program got its start in 2003 after Ameren Corp., which runs the Callaway Energy Center, Missouri’s only nuclear power plant, approached Linn State.
The nuclear power industry was facing a shortage of skilled workers as employees reached retirement age. Although the wave of retirements slowed with the recession because many of the older employees decided to stay a few more years, retirements are rising again, said Lorne Poindexter, a superintendent of maintenance at the Callaway plant, which is 35 miles south of Mexico.
Job prospects for the program’s grads are also getting a boost because nuclear energy is attracting attention as a way to fight global warming. Four nuclear plants are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. Smaller reactors, which would cost less, are being considered in several states including Missouri.
After approaching Linn State, Ameren was referred to Randy Etter, then the executive director of the Advanced Technology Center in Mexico, which is jointly owned by the school and another community college. Linn State itself is based in Linn, Mo., 21 miles east of Jefferson City.
Etter is a former captain in the U.S. Navy who served on a nuclear powered cruiser. He reached out to the University of Missouri, which has a nuclear engineering program and a research nuclear reactor. The university agreed to help, and Ameren joined the collaboration.
A federal grant provided the money to get started, and Meffert was hired as department chairman and instructor.
“We thought we could be the center of training and education on this, and as it turned out that is pretty much how it turned out,” said Etter, who now owns a consulting firm in Jefferson City.
The Mexico campus offers other educational programs, but the yellow and orange lanyards the nuclear-technology students are required to wear make them stand out. The lanyards list the nuclear industry’s employee performance procedures. An example: When unsure about something, stop doing what you’re doing and talk to a supervisor.
The training program, which has grown from eight students to the current 81, has four instructors. The student body is mostly white and male, reflecting the composition of the industry’s workforce.
But that is starting to change. Jackie Goulding, 19, said she has been well accepted at the school, and the reception she got at the nuclear plant she interned at this summer erased any lingering question about her choice of a career.
“They have a lot of old white males now, but I was welcomed,” she said.
The students earn a two-year associate college degree, with requirements to take some liberal arts courses including English and government. But most of the curriculum is directly related to their planned careers as nuclear plant operators, maintenance technicians or radiological protection specialists.
They discover a demanding program. On a recent morning, students in a nuclear math class were learning about atomic numbers and mass, and how to calculate the potency of a radioactive leak in a river. Meffert brought it home by offering a scenario of some of the water being used to cook a meal.
“At the end of their supper how much radioactivity are the kids going to have inside them?” he asked.
Another room is unlike any you’ll find in a typical school. Refashioned into a simulated radiation area, it has warning signs plastered on the door. Inside are radiation monitors like those used in nuclear power plants, and mannequins fitted out with protective wear. Students entering the room put on jump suits, shoe covers and rubber gloves.
There are no radioactive materials in the room, and elsewhere in the school only in minute amounts that are common in high school laboratories and not considered dangerous.
The students are then tested on the protocol for radiation detection and protection. Among the rules: Your hands never touch your face, to avoid spreading any radioactivity. Chewing gum is forbidden, to avoid the possibility of taking it out of your mouth and causing internal contamination.
“If you’re chewing gum, you fail the test,” said Gary Nevels, an instructor and also a Navy nuclear submarine veteran.
Taking a hard line ripples through the program to prepare the students for work in a nuclear plant. The emphasis starts early. A mother recently accompanied her son to the program’s new-student orientation to make sure he had everything he needed. She was quietly informed that that was for him to do.
“There are helicopter parents out there, and we have to do that a lot,” said Meffert.
Two other students, just days before they were to graduate last year, were discovered to have fabricated an instructor’s signature on a form stating they had completed a lab assignment. They were suspended for at least a year.
A tough attendance policy is also enforced. Students are allowed to be late or absent twice from a class. Do it again and you’re kicked out of the class.
“If you don’t come, we throw you out,” said Meffert. “We ride our students pretty hard.”
In the end, the students think it’s worth it, and the hope is to be rewarded with a good job. Nate Coughlin, a 2012 Linn State graduate, got a “a job even before I even graduated” at an Exelon plant in Illinois.
Not everyone is as fortunate, but over the life of the program 85 percent of students have gotten jobs they were trained to do. The current students say they like their chances.
Brad Perry, a second-year student from Braidwood, Ill., said, “We’ve got a leg up going here.”