Revival in nuclear energy puts engineers in demand: Purdue concerned about possible shortage in field

May 26, 2008

A renewed interest in nuclear energy coming at the same time aging workers are leaving the industry has created the elements for a shortage of nuclear engineers.

Nuclear energy as an electricity source is enjoying a resurgence nearly 30 years after a reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania severely tarnished the industry's image.

Escalating oil prices and stiffening environmental regulations on coal-based systems are helping to spawn the rebirth of nuclear technology.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Maryland expects to receive 22 nuclear-plant construction applications through 2010, which ultimately could lead to the building of 33 reactors.

On top of that, the existing 104 reactors in the United States need maintaining. Yet, with the number of nuclear engineering programs at universities declining, as well as the number of workers within the sector, alarm bells are beginning to sound.

"I recently learned about the planned increase in nuclear plants, and my first thought was, 'Will we have the nuclear engineers to actually do this?'" asked Lisa Frehill, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Commission on Professions in Science and Technology.

An unusual major

Purdue University is just one of 18 colleges-down from 53 in 1990-in the country offering a nuclear engineering program. Last year, it accounted for nearly 10 percent [39 of 413] of all nuclear engineering graduates earning a bachelor's degree.

The total number of students enrolled in Purdue's program has climbed from 45 in 2000 to 135 in the fall of 2007, providing a glimpse of optimism that interest in the profession may be on the rise.

"They don't even know what Three Mile Island is; they don't know what Chernobyl is," said Vincent Bralts, interim head of Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering. "They don't have the memories from those issues."

Even so, encouraging signs are met with caution. Frehill is among those in the industry who think the uptick is due more to the growing use of nuclear applications in medicine rather than energy.

Concerns over a worker shortage are serious enough to warrant attention from Congress. Both U.S. senators from Indiana, Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh, are supporting an appropriations bill that encourages employment in the nuclear energy industry.

And nuclear engineering academics appeared before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to lobby for more money. For fiscal 2009, they asked that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's university program budget increase from $15 million to $20 million.

Supporters say the NRC can use the additional funding to help universities create new undergraduate and graduate programs. The remaining $15 million would allow the NRC to continue sponsoring the existing programs for scholarships, fellowships and young faculty assistance.

"Our chairman has been talking to Congress and leaders of higher education," NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said, "driving home the point we need talented people, and we're gong to need them in the foreseeable future."

The average starting salary for a nuclear engineer is $56,587, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Within the engineering sector, only chemical and petroleum engineers make more. Due to demand, however, offers to beginning nuclear engineers are typically topping $60,000, Bralts said.

Mini-nuclear reactor

Purdue has a long history of churning out engineers. Graduates of the nuclear program enjoy the benefit of training on what's known as a research reactor that is on campus. Only about a dozen universities have one. Purdue's model generates just enough electricity to light 10, 100-watt light bulbs.

"But that is enough to get to the point," Bralts said. "It's functional, and it's a great educational tool."

Purdue hired three professors last year to bolster its nuclear engineering program and is submitting grant proposals to fund more research.

That's encouraging, considering complicated regulations, uncertainties in licensing requirements, and excessive costs have led electric utilities during the past few decades to shelve nuclear power.

Until the mid-1970s, experts predicted there would be 1,000 reactors in the country by the turn of the century. By 1978, utilities had placed orders for 250 of them. But many ultimately were canceled.

Standardized plant designs, created to cut costs, have been formulated to make construction less cumbersome.

It costs nearly 2 cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity derived from nuclear power, about the same as coal, compared with 6 cents per kilowatt hour for oil and natural gas. Still, detractors argue that the potential hazards involved in the disposal of nuclear waste are not considered when factoring those costs.

Nuclear generation accounts for nearly 20 percent of the nation's electricity consumption. In Vermont, the amount tops 70 percent. Thirty-one states have operating reactors, the last built in Tennessee in 1996.

Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power operates two units at its Cook Nuclear Plant near Bridgman, Mich. They serve AEP's 400,000 Indiana customers in the northeastern portion of the state.

Indiana's lone attempt to build a reactor resulted in the Marble Hill fiasco. Plainfield-based PSI, now a part of North Carolina-based Duke Energy, shelved construction of the plant in southeastern Indiana in 1984, six years after the project started. The utility spent more than $2 billion on the failed project.
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