The Aging Nuclear Workforce

A third of all workers in U.S. plants will be eligible to retire in the next five years

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

The partial core meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan came just when nuclear engineering had been on the rebound. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has 19 license applications under active review for 26 new nuclear power plants. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group in Washington, D.C., had expected four new plants to come on line by 2019, and construction is rampant all around the world [see "Will Nuclear Energy Charge Ahead?" The Data, in this issue].

But there's a problem— a problem that's also an opportunity for engineers. A third of all workers at the 104 currently operating U.S. plants could retire in the next five years, says Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, manager of industry infrastructure at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Many of the tens of thousands of jobs created will be for engineers—not just nuclear but also civil, mechanical, and electrical. In fact, only about 10 percent of engineers at operating power plants are nuclear engineers by training. But nuclear engineers will also be needed in the United States at the Department of Energy's research labs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, defense agencies, and in the medical technology field.

Fortunately, students are "looking at nuclear engineering with a fresh set of eyes," McAndrew-Benavides says. "There's now a lot of energy and excitement surrounding nuclear careers, but more important, there is an understanding of the safety nuclear engineers provide to the world." Close to 400 bachelor's degrees in nuclear engineering were awarded in the United States in 2009, roughly twice as many as at the start of the decade, according to the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. And undergrad enrollment in 2009 was the highest it has been since the mid-1980s.

The Department of Energy has awarded more than US $80 million to universities for education, new equipment, and upgrades to research reactors since 2008. And nuclear power companies are partnering with universities and community colleges, giving millions of scholarship dollars, providing internships, and hiring graduates.

University programs are adapting. Richard Lester, head of MIT's nuclear science and engineering department, says that MIT, based on feedback from industry leaders, is expanding its core curriculum to include nuclear reactor simulation and modeling and materials science in extreme environments. Students are also learning more about risk assessment, licensing and regulation issues, and newer reactor technologies, says Per Peterson, chair of the University of California, Berkeley's nuclear engineering department.

Before the 11 March earthquake, nuclear engineering's upswing had been apparent in Europe as well. Sweden and Italy had ended their nuclear power bans and planned to build new reactors. Finland, Spain, and the United Kingdom were also ready to expand their nuclear energy programs. Following the Japanese nuclear emergency, however, Italy said it would be toning down its expansion plans. Presumably other European countries will be reviewing their plans, too.

East Asia is the leader in actual construction, with China alone accounting for 27 of the 65 plants under construction worldwide. India and South Korea also have ambitious expansion plans. Meanwhile, countries such as Indonesia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plan to build their first nuclear power plants.

U.S. nuclear engineering expertise will play a role in these burgeoning national nuclear programs, according to McAndrew-Benavides. Many nuclear engineering schools in the United States have research ties in place with those in other countries: The UAE is consulting with U.S. educators and industry executives as it establishes nuclear engineering education programs, for example. Westinghouse Electric Co., which has a contract to design four nuclear power plants in China, has representatives there to help during construction as well as training.

About the Author

As an IEEE Spectrum contributing editor, Prachi Patel has written on a variety of topics, including the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome [see "Computing the Caveman," July 2010]. "I'm fascinated by archaeology, so that story was especially fun to write," she says.