Outlook 2022: Fluor, the company behind KAPL, has been involved with military, nuclear work since WWII

An aerial photo shows the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory campus in Niskayuna in the fall of 2020.
An aerial photo shows the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory campus in Niskayuna in the fall of 2020.

NISKAYUNA — Even people well aware of Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory and its secretive military work may never have heard of its most recent operator.

Fluor Marine Propulsion is a far less known company than previous operators such as General Electric, Lockheed Martin and Bechtel, but its parent company, Fluor Corp., has been quietly involved in military and nuclear work since World War II.

Knolls researches and develops the nuclear propulsion systems for the U.S. Navy on a sprawling complex that stretches from River Road to the Mohawk River. It has roughly 2,500 employees doing work that supports roughly another 1,000 U.S. Navy sailors and instructors.

The numbers place it with only GE as a large Schenectady County employer. The average annual salary is more than $77,000, according to online databases.

Despite its classified work and government mission, the 75-year-old facility is operated by private contractors under a series of multiyear contracts. In general, employees stay through such transitions, with only the corporate name on the paycheck changing.

Fluor Marine Propulsion is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fluor Corp. of Irving, Texas, a publicly traded company that specializes in highly complex construction and engineering projects.

Despite a low public profile, Fluor Corp. has an impressive resume: a long history of involvement in complex industrial construction, including work in nuclear energy stretching back to the Manhattan Project, which secretly developed the first atomic bombs during World War II.

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Knolls both develops nuclear reactors for powering current and future submarines and aircraft carriers, and helps train sailors to operate them at the Kenneth A. Kesseling nuclear training site in western Saratoga County.

KAPL was established in 1946 under a contract between GE and the federal government. In summary, it is responsible for the research, design, construction, operation and maintenance of naval nuclear reactors. The complex contains physics, chemistry and metallurgical laboratories, as well as machine shops, industrial storage, support facilities and administrative offices.

Presently, the focus is on building propulsion systems for the next-generation Columbia class of nuclear submarines — the first of which began the lengthy construction process in 2020. They won’t go into service until 2030. KAPL is also completing a refueling of the S8G prototype reactor at the Kesselring training site, according to a Navy spokeswoman.

Beyond that, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement that researchers are working on technology for the generation of submarine propulsion systems that will come after the Columbia class — in other words, submarines still many decades into the future.

Fluor entered the picture in late 2018 when it acquired the newest 10-year U.S. Navy and Department of Energy contract to operate Knolls. It succeeded defense contractor Bechtel.

The Naval Nuclear Security Administration said the contract — which also covers work to be done at the Bettis nuclear research lab near Pittsburgh and at a facility in Idaho — could be worth $30 billion over the life of the contract.

“We are very pleased that the U.S. government has placed its confidence in Fluor to ensure the continued preeminence of the nuclear Navy’s vital missions,” Tom D’Agostino, president of Fluor’s Government Group, said at the time.

Fluor Corp. was founded in southern California in 1912 by engineer John Simon Fluor. It initially focused on serving the fast developing oil and gas industry: building oil and chemical refineries, pipelines and similarly complex projects.

By the time of World War II it was a major producer of synthetic rubber and gasoline for the war effort. Fluor also built cooling towers and other facilities in Hanford, Washington, where industrial research for the Manhattan Project took place.

More recently, it has also been involved in Iraq War construction and the reconstruction in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Fluor was one of the major contractors on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, now the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, which opened in 2018 at a cost of $4 billion.

Fluor is also the majority investor in NuScale Power, an Oregon company developing small-scale nuclear reactors for potential commercial electrical power production.

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The company ranks as No. 196 on the Fortune 500 list of largest publicly traded corporations, with $17.3 billion in annual revenue in 2019. Its revenue declined by $2 billion in 2020, which the company blamed on pandemic-related economic disruptions.

The company has 44,000 employees worldwide, according to its 2020 annual report.

At Knolls, many employees are Ph.D.-level nuclear, mechanical and electrical engineers and scientists, though other workers include project managers, machine operators and laborers. In anonymous online employer reviews, the staff report a challenging and rewarding work environment with opportunities for advancement. But there were also complaints about the strict national security procedures, including bag searches on both arrival and departure, and personal cellphones not being allowed at work.

The important defense work goes on despite the COVID pandemic, but measures have been taken to protect employee health.

The Naval Nuclear Laboratory said in a statement that all Knolls facilities comply with federal rules and Centers for Disease Control guidance.

“The health and safety of our employees always has been and will continue to be a core value to who we are and our number one priority,” the Navy statement said. “We are taking every appropriate measure to protect them and mitigate the impact of the pandemic while continuing to meet our obligations to the U.S. Navy and the nation. … Use of masks and social distancing are incorporated into our safety protocols as well as encouraging our employees to telework when it is appropriate.”

With such a large workforce, turnover is constant — but the Navy said it has not had problems with recruiting the needed workforce.

“Because of the critical importance of the work that the Naval Nuclear Laboratory does to support the U.S. Navy’s mission, being able to effectively attract and hire external candidates is essential,” the statement said. “We continually hire individuals across all of our business functions and our recruiting team has done an excellent job identifying talented individuals from the local community and universities across the country.”

The Knolls properties include its 175-acre industrial complex at 2401 River Road, which has an estimated full market value of $180 million, according to town of Niskayuna assessment records. In addition, Knolls employees operate the nuclear training reactors at the 2,500-acre Kesselring site, located in the towns of Milton and Galway in Saratoga County. That property is owned by the Department of Energy.

As obvious as it might seem that Knolls plays a vital part in the nation’s defense as well as the Capital Region economy, its funding hasn’t always been assured. In 2014, there was a threat that Defense Department funding cuts would shut down one of the three training reactors in West Milton, with the potential loss of 100 jobs.

U.S. senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as local Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, successfully went to bat to keep funding for the Kesselring site in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program budget.

“The Kesselring Site in West Milton and the KAPL site in Schenectady are crucial for our military’s energy security,” Gillibrand said at the time.

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