Image: Indian Point nuclear power plant
AFP-Getty Images file
The Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, N.Y., houses two of the nation's 104 commercial reactors.
updated 10/7/2008 1:31:49 PM ET 2008-10-07T17:31:49

Jackie Young was always good at math and science, but when she started college she never figured she'd end up pursuing a career in nuclear energy.

Then professors at the University of Tennessee's nuclear engineering department briefed her and other undeclared freshmen about what they call a "nuclear renaissance" as the nation prepares to build dozens of new plants in coming years to meet burgeoning energy needs and wean the country off oil.

"They told us how it was so big in the '70s and is just now picking back up, and I was very interested," said Young, who's starting her junior year. "There are going to be so many career opportunities."

Young is not alone. Nuclear engineering programs at universities nationwide are brimming with students eager to break into what they see as a growth industry.

This rebirth of learning comes after a decades-long slump that prompted many schools to scale back nuclear engineering programs and some to close altogether, a trend that has some experts worrying whether enough new workers can be trained in time to support the potential growth.

There are now 65 nuclear power plants with 104 reactors operating in the country, most built during a flurry of construction in the 1960s and '70s. There have been no new plants built since 1996.

The nation's enthusiasm for nuclear energy turned to antipathy in 1979 after an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania released radioactive materials. It was the most serious commercial nuclear plant accident in American history.

Seven years later, horrific images of people injured in the Ukraine after a reactor in the Chernobyl power plant exploded cast an even darker pall on the industry.

Tighter regulation, rising construction costs and falling fossil fuel prices also contributed to the shift away from nuclear.

23 permit requests
But the recent rise in the cost of fossil fuels and concerns about the level of greenhouse gases from coal and natural-gas fired power plants has the nation again looking at nuclear as a source of electric power. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects to rule on 23 nuclear-plant construction permits over the next six years.

Among those with applications pending before the NRC are NuStart Energy — a consortium of 10 power companies — Duke Energy, Exelon and Progress Energy. A complex regulatory environment, the vagaries of world energy markets and continued resistance by environmental interests make it impossible to predict how many new plants — if any — will be built.

But policy makers have taken a more favorable view of nuclear power. Both presidential candidates have talked about nuclear as part of their energy policy plans.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has said nuclear power should be an option, but only if key issues such as security and disposal of waste can be adequately addressed. Republican Sen. John McCain has said he'd put his administration on track to build 45 new nuclear plants by 2030.

"The core message is we need a comprehensive energy strategy," said Shirley Jackson, president of upstate New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a past chairman of the NRC. "Nuclear energy can and should be a part of that overall comprehensive energy strategy, but nothing can happen without the human resources."

Jackson is among a growing number of industry experts who worry about a shortage of qualified workers.

In 2007, American universities granted 729 undergraduate and graduate nuclear engineering degrees. That's up from 480 in 1998, according to a survey by the U.S. Energy Department's Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

A work force study this summer by the American Physical Society found that the number of students enrolled in undergraduate nuclear engineering degree programs in the U.S. rose to more than 1,900 in 2007 from a low of about 500 in 1999.

At the same time, it noted that 35 percent of the current nuclear work force will reach retirement age in the next five years, creating a shortage of trained workers even if the number of nuclear power reactors remains the same through 2050.

"If we have any significant increase (in plants), there are going to be problems," said Sekazi Mtingwa, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who led the study group.

Under a scenario where the number of nuclear reactors doubles by 2050, the group said the number of nuclear-trained engineers needed to handle the work will grow from about 8,000 this year to 12,500 in 2020 and reach 21,500 in 2050.

RPI's Jackson said the long slump in nuclear training and research at U.S. universities has put the country's ability to design and build new plants in question, and she predicts the first to come online will likely be joint ventures involving companies from Europe and Asia, where nuclear power has a receptive audience.

Foreign nationals are heavily represented in the nuclear engineering faculties at American universities. But heightened national security concerns have made U.S. citizenship a requirement for work in many areas of the industry, particularly in government, Jackson said.

"It's one of the reasons we really do need to build an indigenous work force," she said.

While the power industry will need people to design, build and operate new plants, demand for nuclear expertise in regulatory agencies, medicine, biological research and even homeland security also is on the rise.

Regulatory body also hires more
The NRC alone has increased its head count by about 200 in each of the past three years and anticipates adding about 200 more this year, said Scott Burnell, an agency spokesman.

Many of the new hires were brought in to handle the increase in nuclear plant construction applications, though not all of them are nuclear engineers, Burnell said.

Universities that offer nuclear engineering degrees have been beefing up their programs with help from federal grants aimed at boosting nuclear education and expanding the work force. Last month, the NRC awarded nearly $20 million to 60 schools.

RPI hired eight new faculty in the past two years and plans to add four more in the next three to five years, said Tim Wei, dean of its School of Engineering. The University of Michigan has added six faculty in the past two years, and its swelling student body is quickly outgrowing its space on the Ann Arbor campus, said William Martin, chairman of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences department.

"We're feeling the pain of growth, but it's a good problem to have," Martin said.

And while they might have to endure some crowded classrooms, most nuclear engineering students can look forward to their choice of jobs when they graduate, with starting salaries in the $60,000 range, about $10,000 more than their counterparts in mechanical, civil and other engineering disciplines.

"We get e-mails all the time about internships and job opportunities," said Rian Bahran, a graduate student at RPI who started his studies in 2003, before there was talk of a nuclear renaissance and a surge of new enrollments.

"They've gotten pretty aggressive," Bahran said. "Now we almost feel spoiled because we don't worry about getting a job," Bahran said. "It's really a question of what job you're going to get and if you're going to be in the location you want."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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