Back to the future: Retired employee reflects on ‘big picture’ benefits of Vogtle project
Viewed through the windshield of his 1982 Mercury Lynx, two cooling towers rising above the pine trees served as guiding beacons for John Aufdenkampe as he drove to the Plant Vogtle construction site for his first day on the job. That cool April morning in 1984 launched his long and rewarding career with Southern Company, a 33-year journey that would eventually lead him back to where he started.
“During interviews before starting work at Vogtle Unit 1, I told myself, ‘They’re going to finish this,” said Aufdenkampe, who served as engineering director at Vogtle 3 and 4 before retiring at the end of August. “I could just tell by the company’s commitment to the project that they were going to complete it.”
Aufdenkampe’s foresight proved to be correct. Plant Vogtle Unit 1 began commercial operation in May 1987, followed by Unit 2 in May 1989. His desire to be with an organization that was determined to cross the finish line was shaped by his previous work experience.
As a University of Cincinnati student, he worked as a co-op at the nearby Zimmer Nuclear Power Station. He continued working there for three years after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering.
“These days, you won’t find Zimmer on a map of nuclear plants,” Aufdenkampe explained.
Although the plant was 94 percent complete when he worked there in the early 1980s, construction had stalled due to regulatory and economic challenges. Therefore, the plant’s parent company, Cincinnati Gas & Electric, decided to convert Zimmer to a coal-fired facility, allowing it to be placed in the rate base.
“When that happened, I still wanted to be a part of building a nuclear power plant,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, ’I still want to start one of these up.’”
Aufdenkampe’s interest in nuclear power stemmed from his admitted attraction to “big, monumental evolutions.”
“I found nuclear power to be exciting and challenging,” he explained. “To me, it was similar to aerospace in those ways. I grew up during the time of the ‘Space Race,’ so my original goal was to work in the aerospace industry. Once I began working at Zimmer during college, I found nuclear power to be equally interesting and challenging.”
After doing some research to find nuclear power projects across the country that were moving forward, Aufdenkampe began interviewing for jobs at Plant Vogtle. It didn’t take long before he was hired.
“We moved down here in 1984, three years before fuel load for Unit 1,” said Aufdenkampe. “About six weeks after I arrived, I was lead test supervisor for Integrated Testing. I did the big integrated tests like primary hydro, secondary hydro – all of the big milestones.”
After units 1 and 2 went on line, Aufdenkampe earned an SRO Operator’s License for both units. Then, in 1993, he was given an opportunity “to do design work” at Southern Nuclear in Birmingham. During the next 16 years, he worked there in several engineering related roles.
In 2010, he was presented with one more opportunity to work at the Vogtle site when he was asked to be engineering director at Vogtle 3 and 4. He knew the job would be a good fit, and he enjoyed it ever since.
“I’m very proud of the entire team,” he said. “We have a very strong team that will ensure safe, quality, compliant construction and successful operation of the new units during the next 60 years.”
Knowing he helped set the stage for future success, Aufdenkampe recently announced his decision to retire – a decision that came only after considerable soul searching and deliberation.
“My wife and I had already been making our retirement plans for several year, and we carefully considered the best time to retire,” he explained. “When I talked with (Executive Vice President) Mark Rauckhorst about my decision to leave, it affected me more than I expected…I was very emotional. It was a difficult decision. There are a lot of great people here, and I will miss them.”
Noting that the project itself is worthwhile and important, Aufdenkampe said he is confident that the new units will be completed. He now sees the same commitment and long-term view that he observed when he first set foot on the initial Vogtle construction site 33 years ago.
“To add perspective, units 1 and 2 have been producing reliable electric energy for more than a quarter century, and they will continue operation for many years into the future,” he said. “I feel the same now as I did when I first arrived. I’m proud to work for a company that sees the big picture.”