Perhaps more than any other engineering discipline, nuclear is at the mercy of public opinion, and politics often plays a role in its development, or lack thereof. For example, in his first State of the Union address, Bill Clinton announced that nuclear power research was "no longer needed" and that its federal funding would be all but eliminated. "It just wasn't politically astute to be touting nuclear energy in 1993," said John Gutteridge, who is the manager of the education program at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. By 1998, the Office of Nuclear Energy within the Department of Energy had no funding for research activities at all.
How quickly public opinion can change. In the presidential campaign, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has said he wants to build 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030. (Democratic candidate Barack Obama has not announced a nuclear strategy.)
The increased political interest hasn't quite translated into big bucks, though. Since the '90s, Congress has shown a decent amount of support for nuclear programs at universities; in one year, it appropriated $27 million for departments to build infrastructure and hire junior faculty. But that money has controversially been moved from one agency to another, in part because of conflict with the administration's antiproliferation goals and in part because the powers that be just can't decide what they want to do.
Stable federal support for nuclear is crucial for its development, and the nuclear community has been working to address the concerns of its most ardent detractors. Key issues are waste disposal, security, and the potential for accidents.
Even if the American nuclear renaissance isn't fully realized, universities have a role to play in the burgeoning global market for nuclear energy—a force even the U.S. political machine can't stop. The United States still has some of the best training in nuclear safety standards of any country in the world, and foreign students comprise almost 50 percent of the enrollment in some U.S. engineering departments. These international students are expected to return home with some of world's top training. As Bill Martin, the chair of University of Michigan's nuclear engineering department, says, "An accident anywhere means an accident everywhere." With or without clear political and public support, it's a scenario the entire community is working awfully hard to prevent.