Facing the growth in nuclear power

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The new generation of nuclear engineers is essential to the growth of the technology but there are many others needed.
The nation's nuclear utilities, on the front lines of the war against global warming, will soon be getting a new wave of recruits from nuclear engineering programs at major universities.
But as utilities prepare for the additional supplies of clean electricity that will be needed to power our economy in the years ahead, state governments will need to take some positive action to ensure there is sufficient manpower to help build and operate a new generation of nuclear power plants.
As they gear up to apply for licenses to construct and operate as many as 33 new plants in different parts of the country, utilities are eagerly anticipating the increasing number of students who are preparing for careers in nuclear energy. That contrasts sharply with the bleak situation several years ago, when enrollments in many nuclear engineering programs had reached a low point. Some universities discontinued their nuclear engineering programs and several engineering schools decommissioned their research reactors.
Here at the University of Florida, the nuclear engineering program now has 116 undergraduates and 79 graduate students, up 10 percent over last year. Enrollments in nuclear engineering programs at other universities have also grown. For example, at the University of Tennessee, there are now 216 students enrolled in nuclear engineering - 157 undergraduates and 59 graduate students. By contrast, the same nuclear engineering program had a
combined total of only 104 undergraduate and graduate students in 2000.
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, there are 154 undergraduates in the nuclear engineering program this year, more than three times the enrollment in 2000. At the University of California-Berkeley, the number of undergraduates studying nuclear engineering has nearly doubled in the past six years to 68 students. The University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate enrollment in nuclear engineering last year climbed to 95, up from 24 in 2000. And the graduate student enrollments at all three institutions also increased significantly.
This new generation of nuclear engineers is essential to the growth of the technology. Moreover, the nuclear industry needs more than nuclear engineers to build, operate and maintain nuclear power plants. It also needs electrical and mechanical engineers, health physicists, skilled human resource professionals to manage the hiring and many other professionals. In addition it must hire and train thousands of machinists, electricians, iron workers and other tradesmen in order to build the power plants and the related infrastructure America will need in the coming decade.
Like manufacturing in general, the nuclear industry faces a critical shortage of skilled workers. And that includes nuclear plant operators. It is estimated that one-third to one-half of the existing nuclear industry work force will retire by 2015.
Filling that gap and providing the skilled manpower needed to expand our base of emission-free energy poses a major challenge to the industry and to the country. If we do not produce the needed personnel, we will see a major increase in global warming as well as a growing threat to the security and reliability of our entire electric power system.
In addition to the encouragement coming from the federal government and industry, states facing future energy shortages must also step up to the plate. The state of Florida - as well as many others - must insure that nuclear and other engineering programs in their universities have adequate resources, and provide incentives for our brightest students to study a subject that can make a major contribution to preserving our environment and way of life - nuclear energy.
Jack Ohanian is professor emeritus of nuclear and radiological engineering at the University of Florida.

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