Nuclear power is back… well, it never really left. Today, 104 commercial power plants harness nuclear fission to generate 20 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. However, not since the late 1970’s has a new commercial US nuclear power plant been ordered. As a result, the number of nuclear energy professionals has dwindled, and many nuclear training programs offered by academia have shut their doors.
Now, for the first time in almost 30 years, energy companies are testing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing process in an effort to obtain approval for new nuclear plants. According to “Licensing Renewed,” an article appearing in Mechanical Engineering Magazine, in 1992 the NRC established new plant licensing processes to replace the cumbersome 1956 statues. The old process stagnated the nuclear industry. The hallmark of the new process is standardization. A plant design is approved once and is then reused. Additional scrutiny is applied only to the proposed location but not the plant design itself.
An article in The Washington Times entitled, “Nuclear needs energize schools” says that the NRC has received 17 license applications since 2007, and five reactor design proposals have either been certified or are in the certification process. With the NRC licensing process seemingly back on track, the question arises: who will design, build, and operate nuclear plants of the future?
The Washington Times says that the median employee age in nuclear energy is 48, and up to 35 percent of the industry’s workers may be eligible to retire between now and 2013. To replace the aging workforce, nuclear energy companies are working aggressively with universities to churn out new nuclear-trained graduates. For example, Dominion has engaged Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Purdue, and Penn State, according to The Washington Times. At the University of North Texas, where I am a faculty member, our Nuclear Engineering Technology program has had a long standing relationship with TXU to train nuclear energy professionals for the Comanche Peak power station.
Minting more domestically trained nuclear industry professionals is a goal held at the highest levels within the US Federal government. In an October, 2008 speech entitled “Renewing America’s Nuclear Power Partnership for Energy Security and Economic Growth,” U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman noted the need to train and retain qualified people in the nuclear industry.
“Our future success will depend heavily on our ability to recruit, educate, and train highly technical personnel to work in the nuclear industry – from nuclear scientists and engineers to skilled craftspeople, construction managers, plant operators and maintenance personnel.”
The rejuvenation of our domestic nuclear energy industry coupled with support from government, industry, and academia makes nuclear engineering and related disciplines promising career choices for the first time in a generation.