The chairs of 47 nuclear engineering departments in North America regularly discuss concerns about their academic programs. After the Fukushima Dai-ichi incident unfolded, one question was on everyone’s mind: Would nuclear engineering take a hit? E-mails were quickly exchanged among the group members, and the clear answer was no. Students were not dropping the major, and engineering freshmen were still just as interested in it.
“We’re now accepting applications for 2012, and they are on track to be equivalent to last year’s numbers,” says Kathryn Higley, head of the nuclear engineering and radiation health physics department at Oregon State University, in Corvallis.
It has been only a year since Fukushima, but the continuing student interest is an indication that the discipline is holding its ground. The industry, bolstered by the need for carbon-free energy, is on its way up, and nuclear engineering remains a solid career path, says Arthur Motta, chair of Pennsylvania State University’s nuclear engineering program. “Even if the United States doesn’t build any new plants right now, 20 percent of our power is from nuclear, and that’s not going away anytime soon,” Motta says.
And not just in the United States. Germany and Italy have backpedaled, but many other countries are forging ahead with nuclear power. And with the Fukushima incident highlighting the need for improved reactors and better safety measures, the demand for nuclear engineers will only increase.
The contrast with the 1980s is striking. After Chernobyl, the nuclear industry buckled, and academic programs in nuclear science and engineering languished around the world. U.S. enrollments plummeted, bottoming out in 2000. But over time, the industry’s reputation has healed. Concerned about both nuclear security and a diminishing workforce, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy have been supporting nuclear engineering programs through scholarships and internships.
The result is skyrocketing enrollments. In the freshman class of 2000 at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, there were 37 nuclear engineering majors; this year there are 209. Other schools show similar trends.
This past December, the NRC approved Westinghouse Electric Co.’s new AP1000 nuclear reactor design, clearing the path for two utilities to build new plants. This has boosted confidence among academics and the industry, says Yousry Azmy, head of the nuclear engineering department at NCSU.
Nuclear engineering graduates work mostly for utility companies and for vendors such as Westinghouse, GE, and Areva. Some go to national laboratories, regulatory agencies, or into nuclear medicine. But nuclear engineers gain systems and engineering skills, along with a solid background that they can apply to other realms. “Even if the market shifts, students will have a versatile tool kit and abilities that will allow them to move around,” Higley says. During the nuclear power lull in the early 2000s, many graduates went to computer chip and software companies, she points out.
Besides, Azmy says, “The future of nuclear engineering education in the United States isn’t entirely held hostage to the utilities in this country.” China is building 27 new reactors and expects to have another 120 operating within the next two decades. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam are actively building new nuclear power programs. “Many jobs will materialize in the United States and Europe,” says Azmy.
Recognizing the need for a talented nuclear workforce, countries such as China, Poland, and the United Arab Emirates are building their own academic programs in nuclear engineering. Many U.S. universities are making concerted efforts to build connections with these countries through student exchanges and international design projects. This gives students the chance to work with people from different cultures, Higley points out. “The companies they will work for have an international footprint and will want their employees to work with people in other countries that are using their technology.”
This article originally appeared in print as "Going Nuclear."