Wharton County Junior College: Nuclear Power Technology Program, An Energizing Partnership Between Educators and Industry

Member Spotlight

When Wharton County Junior College (WCJC) opened its fourth campus in the small town of Bay City, Texas, in August 2007, it did so through a strong industry partnership. Bay City, home to nearly 20,000 residents, lies just 30 minutes from the Texas Gulf Coast and serves as the county seat for Matagorda County.  Major employers in the county include the South Texas Project (STP) nuclear power generation plant and the Celanese and Equistar petrochemical plants, all of which have representatives on WCJC program advisory committees. In all, there are 40 plants within a 50-mile radius of Bay City.

The WCJC Bay City campus is located in the Center for Energy Development building, which has also housed STP's project expansion teams responsible for adding two nuclear reactors to its nearby power plant. Prior to the opening of the Center for Energy Development, WCJC offered a process technology program nearby. The new WCJC campus brought together, under one roof, the process technology program and the new nuclear power technology program to further fuel area employment needs.

"Our Bay City campus is certainly meeting the community's educational needs and providing a highly trained workforce for Matagorda County," said WCJC President Betty McCrohan. "It's an added bonus to have the campus located in close proximity to STP and other area industry as it makes it extremely easy for students to interview for internships and jobs and to participate in plant tours and industry events."

The WCJC Nuclear Power Technology program is also supported by the Nuclear Power Institute (NPI), headquartered at Texas A&M University. NPI brings together K-16 educational institutions with the nuclear power industry; state and local organizations; and state, federal, and international agencies to meet the challenge of providing the trained workforce needed to operate new and existing reactors in Texas. Nationwide, the nuclear power industry predicts significant growth as baby boomers retire and plants expand. The WCJC program was one of the first in the country to receive support from NPI.

A large percentage of nuclear power technicians for the Matagorda County power generation industry have successfully completed WCJC's two-year Associate of Applied Science in Nuclear Power Technology. Some hold a degree in process technology and have chosen to enhance their degree and broaden their employment with a nuclear certificate that consists of six nuclear power technology classes.

High Salaries Just One Benefit of Nuclear Power Career

Students who enter the WCJC Nuclear Power Technology program are lured by a stable career with excellent pay and the ability to live close to idyllic seaside towns and world-class fishing and boating. Starting salaries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are near $50,000 and can go higher with overtime pay. Following a three-year apprenticeship, salaries can double depending on the position.

The WCJC Nuclear Power Technology program trains students in plant operation processes to prepare them for work in a variety of areas, including operations, maintenance, electrical, chemistry, and health physics. Instruction provides both theory and practical, hands-on experience. Year one of the program concentrates on power plant fundamentals, plant systems, and components. In year two, students specialize in one of three areas: Operations, Electrical Technician, or Instrumentation and Controls Technician.

The WCJC program provides numerous opportunities for students to train on state-of-the-art power generation equipment including the Hands On Training (HOT) Skid Unit, gas-fired boiler, steam turbine, and electrical generator. It also includes simulators, Delta V controls, and plant-specific electrical and instrumentation and controls equipment. Grant funding helped purchase the industry-standard equipment following recommendations from the program's advisory committee.

Scholarships Help Pay the Way

In addition to serving on the program advisory committee to shape course offerings and lab equipment, STP offers full scholarships to help qualified students study nuclear power technology on a full-time basis. While STP looks at applicants who attend other programs in Texas, the majority of recipients are WCJC students.

Additional scholarships are available through the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These Nuclear Education Scholarships are limited and require a recommendation from WCJC. They are awarded to students with the greatest financial need and proven academic performance.

Interest From Abroad

Word is spreading around the globe about WCJC's successful nuclear power technology program. Annually, the Nuclear Power Institute and WCJC host international educators at the college's Bay City campus. In addition to receiving an overview of the nuclear power technology curriculum, visitors tour the program's state-of-the-art labs. Most of the countries represented lack two-year programs and industry-standard labs to train their nuclear power technicians.

In recent years, visitors to the WCJC campus have represented China, Japan, France, Russia, Bulgaria, Kenya, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Jordan, Vietnam, and Thailand.

"Receiving international attention for our small-town nuclear power technology program sure turns a lot of heads," said McCrohan. "This recognition is a direct result of our strong industry partnerships that have shaped and supported this program from its inception."