LOS ALAMOS, N.M.—A new cohort of students recently joined N3B’s Nuclear Operator Apprenticeship Program. And for Miquela Casados, from Ojo Caliente, some 30 miles north of Española, the program came at just the right time.

As a partnership between N3B and Northern New Mexico College (NNMC), the apprenticeship program spans six semesters and includes 50 college credits that put students in the educational pipeline for more advanced degrees, such as engineering or environmental science. N3B covers students’ tuition while paying a competitive salary and benefits. When the program culminates, apprentices stay on as full-time employees.

The apprentices become instrumental in N3B’s environmental cleanup mission to ship hazardous and radioactive waste to off-site repositories for permanent disposal. It’s a win-win for the student, the Department of Energy’s Environmental Management mission and the community looking for an educated, well-paid citizenry and a natural environment free of Cold War-era contamination.

Casados, 32, had her sights set on nursing school after graduating from high school and completed the appropriate prerequisite coursework. But like many youth offering financial support to their families, Casados left school to enter the workforce. She took a job at an assisted living facility as a Certified Nursing Assistant.

Then Casados’ mom passed away in 2014. Casados assumed the mortgage, payments and responsibility for her mom’s house. That same year, Casados broke her leg and was unemployed for two years.

When she returned to the workforce, Casados got a job at a casino and worked her way into a supervisory role. After two years, she felt she’d topped out with no further opportunity for advancement.

Then a friend told Casados about the N3B apprenticeship program. The ability to advance her career — both professionally and educationally — appealed to her.

“I’d been thinking about going back to school, and I was kind of thinking about going into engineering,” Casados said. “The apprenticeship program offers the opportunity for work and education” — including courses in physics, chemistry and engineering — “that will put me on track for that kind of degree.”

Casados was accepted into N3B’s second cohort of nuclear apprentices, along with Zac Martinez, of Los Alamos.

“Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) is incredibly proud of our partnership with N3B,” said Rick Bailey, NNMC’s president. “What we have built together is truly revolutionary as a higher education model, where students start to make a living on their first day of class. This partnership really provides wonderful opportunities for local students to get a world-class education leading to high paying jobs right here in our community.”

As nuclear operators, Casados and Martinez will be responsible for the proper handling, packaging, treatment and documentation of hazardous and radioactive waste. They provide technical support that includes opening waste containers, potentially removing waste items and documenting the results. Then they help coordinate the characterization, certification and disposition of that waste while ensuring regulatory compliance.

Ensuring safe disposition of waste is appealing to Casados because of her nursing background.

“I want to keep my colleagues and the community safe,” she said. “My dad’s family farmed in El Guique, so cleaning up the environment and making sure there aren’t spills or leaks that impact the water or environment, and that my nieces and nephews aren’t being affected — that’s important to me. We only have this one place to live. So it’s important we preserve it.”

Casados and Martinez have an anticipated graduation date of May 2022. Five apprentices in N3B’s first cohort of nuclear operators graduate this July.

Students Miquela Casados (left) and Zac Martinez (right), in N3B’s second cohort of nuclear operator apprentices.