The New Hot Job: Nuclear Engineering

After decades of declining interest, universities are scrambling to keep up with the newfound demand.

The cooling towers of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
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"Nuclear Help Desperately Wanted" could be the sign in front of dozens of engineering colleges across the country. With worldwide interest in nuclear energy and technology skyrocketing, engineers with a nuclear background are feeling very popular these days. It's welcome news for a field that has been long stifled by negative public opinion. The challenge the discipline faces is how to meet this new demand after years of shrinking interest.

Due in part to the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, the nuclear energy sector has been in decline for 30 years. Enrollment at undergraduate and graduate programs has dwindled, and some nuclear engineering programs have merged with other disciplines or shut down altogether. The ones that did survive shifted their focus to more lucrative fields within nuclear research, such as radiation detection or medical physics. According to the American Nuclear Society, 65 nuclear engineering programs existed in the country in 1980; now there is less than half that.

But in recent months, nuclear has re-emerged as a much ballyhooed energy source, and the entire community is scrambling to stave off what could be a massive shortage of qualified workers if the demand for nuclear power does take off. With an aging workforce, including many workers who are near retirement, the ANS estimates that 700 nuclear engineers need to graduate per year to support the potential demand. The organization currently expects only 249 new engineers to be available each year.

Students appear to be eager to fill the gap. Even without recruiting, some university departments are seeing as much growth as they can handle: There are more than three times as many nuclear engineering students now as there were just five years ago. "Today's students don't have the same fear of nuclear power that their parents did," says Mark Pierson, a professor at Virginia Tech.

Not only are the existing programs growing near capacity, but departments that shuttered years ago are finding new life. Virginia Tech, which closed its nuclear engineering program in the early 1980s, launched a nuclear graduate certification program, headed by Pierson, last fall. New Mexico State University, the University of Virginia, and the Colorado School of Mines have made similar moves.

The Virginia Tech program owes much of its success to large energy companies that have pushed the school to offer certain courses. Companies such as Paris-based Areva NP and Virginia-based Babcock & Wilcox supply the graduate-level classrooms with about two thirds of the program's students. Exelon, the top nuclear power plant operator in the country, has given several Midwest universities, technical schools, and community colleges more than a half a million dollars for scholarships and recruitment. These companies are not just looking for nuclear engineers: They're also anticipating shortages of skilled tradesmen and mechanical, electrical, chemical, and civil engineers with the know-how to run and build nuclear facilities. Such experts actually make up the vast majority of the energy workforce.

For the most part, the nuclear community is happy with the outpouring of interest, but it also worries about shortages in lab space, resources, and competent junior faculty. The hiring problem is especially pronounced for less-established schools. The competition to recruit faculty has been called fierce, with salaries on the rise and faculty being raided by competing universities.

The shrinking nuclear market in decades past also decreased the number of research and test reactors run by universities. There are only 24 of these reactors online today, less than half the number in the 1980s, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Some were decommissioned because post-Sept. 11 security measures were too costly. Other schools just could not justify an expensive reactor after student enrollment declined. No one expects new research reactors to be built, but academics and industry folk alike worry that the lack of research reactors could mean that fewer of the new nuclear engineers and operators will have real-life reactor experience. "If you're studying science and engineering, it's nice to be able to study the theory, then walk into a lab and do the work," says Audeen Fentiman, an associate dean at Purdue's nuclear engineering department. "A reactor allows a student to do that."