This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Nuclear Power Gets a Second Look
These are the college years of the post-Three Mile Island generation. Most of this fall's freshmen were born after the 1979 nuclear reactor accident in Harrisburg, Pa. During the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, they were kids in elementary school, and for more than a decade since then have been tuning in to TV's Homer Simpson as he bungles his way through Springfield's nuclear power plant. Nuclear engineering has been stigmatized as dangerous and frowned on at cocktail parties, and students have not wanted to study for a career in it. Certainly enrollments have dropped; the number of junior and senior undergraduate nuclear engineering majors declined from 1800 in 1992 to just over 500 in the year 2000. Some graduate programs suffered a similar decline.
But hope is stirring this autumn, to judge by anecdotal evidence at least. A number of surprised nuclear engineering department heads are reporting their enrollments are up, in some cases for the first time in almost a decade, and are cautiously optimistic that this heralds a turnaround. At Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., there are 70 undergraduate nuclear engineering majors this fall, up from 47 just a year ago. Twice as many sophomores are opting for nuclear engineering as did last year. At Texas A&M University, in College Station, 134 undergraduates now study nuclear engineering; in the fall of 1998, there were only 55 [see figure].
Several explanations are possible. There's the Bush administration's pro-nuclear energy plan and the concern about the effects of burning fossil fuels on global warming. Also, some 40-year nuclear plant licenses nearing their end are being extended for 20 years, [see "Campus Reactors Need Rescue"] and new reactor designs are on the drawing boards. So a nuclear career looks less of a dead end than it did only a few years ago; there may be a new positive attitude toward the field as universities, industry, and the U.S. federal government have stepped up efforts to recruit students in the past few years with an infusion of scholarship money.
The supply-demand crisis
For a time, nobody seemed willing to fill the shoes of the first eager generation of nuclear engineers. They clambered on board in the 1960s and 1970s, and 3 out of 10 are due to retire in the next five years. Three jobs now await each nuclear engineering student to receive his or her sheepskin. Nuclear engineering departments, as well as the nuclear industry, have realized that they need to attract more people into the career pipeline to replace the aging nuclear workforce. Even the nuclear navy is not the workforce reserve it was before military downsizing. The U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md., closed its program and graduated its last nuclear engineers in 1999.
The situation is not unique to the United States. Last year, the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, reported that a current or impending shortage of nuclear engineers faces all of its 27 member countries (including the United States and European and Asian nations). "The pipeline has never been less populated than it is now," lamented one professor.
Oddly enough, although the ratio of jobs to available engineers is now 3:1, supply seemed to balance demand right up to 1998. Enrollments were plummeting during the 1990s, but the industry demand for new nuclear engineers was small, too. So what was different about 1998?
Spring of that year saw a convergence of trends in the nuclear community that can be traced back at least as far as 1992. In 1992, enrollments at university nuclear program enrollments began their nose-dive. By 1998, students were so few that entire programs began to falter. Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., were among schools that axed their departments. Another trend was industry downsizing, which helped to balance supply and demand, at first. Third, the reality of future retirements of older engineers began to sink in.
In 1990, a report of the National Research Council, Washington, D.C., had predicted future retirement and demand needs, but the supply crisis reached the nuclear education community only eight or so years later, after the number of departments, students, and research reactors had declined steeply. "By 1998, there was the realization that there were jobs to be done, retirements within the next few years, and a difficulty finding people." noted Andrew C. Klein, head of the nuclear engineering department at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. A member of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), La Grange Park, Ill., the nuclear community's scientific professional organization, Klein is vice chairman of its task force for recruiting more students into nuclear engineering.