Emissions, Nuclear, Reactors

Nuclear Reactions: New Engineers Need Nuclear Inspiration

Issue 2 and Volume 107.

By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E.,
Contributing Editor

My father was born in 1908, the same year General Motors was founded. He became an engineer and worked for GM for 40 years. I was born just a few months after Enrico Fermi first demonstrated a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. I became an engineer and worked in the nuclear industry. What about the generation of Americans born in the mid-1980s? They are now entering college. What contemporary technology will attract their study and their talents? What will motivate them? Is it possible to attract them to a 40-year-old, mature technology such as nuclear power?

For my father, the pioneers of the automobile industry were not just names in a history book: they were faces he saw and voices he heard. How it must have stoked his enthusiasm to hear Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., describe product concepts, or to see Charles Kettering demonstrate the latest innovation from his laboratory. For my part, I was inspired to hear Glenn Seaborg talk of the accomplishments of the Atomic Energy Commission, or to gain an insight into the work at Oak Ridge from Alvin Weinberg, himself. I felt privileged to become acquainted with one who was actually there, under the stadium at the University of Chicago, at the creation of the nuclear age. Where will a new generation of nuclear engineers find their inspiration?

Such thoughts came to mind amid the recent 60th anniversary celebration of Fermi’s milestone accomplishment. The events of December 2, 1942, marked the birth of both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. When I decided to enter into the study of nuclear engineering 20 years later, it was a vibrant and rapidly developing field. The wartime memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh; but the constructive, benevolent use of the potent nuclear forces was just being demonstrated. “Atomic” power plants such as Dresden I and Peach Bottom I were new or coming on-line. Here, at last, was an unlimited source of clean, economical energy. I thought this must be the wave of the future, and I wanted to be a part of it. I eschewed a career in the auto industry, in spite of my love for cars and my favorable experiences with automotive engineering. Instead, I opted for a younger field, where there were new concepts to define, developmental problems to solve, and untold opportunities to explore. The enthusiasm I experienced motivated not only me, but also a whole generation of nuclear engineers.

Now it’s time to develop a new generation of nuclear engineers. Those who joined the nuclear boom of the early 1970s have either scattered to other occupations as the nuclear business faltered, or are now contemplating retirement rather than new challenges. Yet somebody needs to continue the work of operating, maintaining and improving our existing fleet of nuclear plants. Who will they be, and what will motivate them? Let me throw out a few ideas.

I believe the never-ending controversy over nuclear energy could be, itself, a motivation for some to enter the field. Youth likes nothing more than to overthrow the orthodoxy of its predecessors. To understand the details of reactor theory, radioactivity, radiation interaction with matter, etc., would position one of the new generation to challenge the anti-nuclear mythology which dominates the thinking of the current generation. To know better than their elders the truth behind the controversy, and to fling that truth in the face of ignorant prejudice, has a classic appeal to youth. Let’s capture that appeal and use it to attract new nuclear engineering talent.

While existing BWRs and PWRs may represent mature technology, there are technical challenges on the horizon that could create excitement to mirror that felt in the early days of commercial nuclear power. The pebble bed reactor, and the Generation IV technologies such as the gas-cooled Brayton Cycle plant, the molten salt and the liquid metal plants, are not new concepts. But everything past the conceptual stage is new. The new generation of engineers will have to cleverly conceive passively safe versions of these reactors. They will find more than enough challenges in the design of efficient, reliable, economical, yet proliferation-resistant fuel cycles. They will have to determine how to get more and more out of less and less – more power, more efficiency, with fewer people and lower capital expenditures. In short, with the Generation IV program, it could be “back to the future” with the return of the challenges and excitement of the nuclear industry in the 1960s. That’s motivating.

We have opportunities to return excitement and the vigor to the nuclear industry. We have opportunities to attract the brightest and most enthusiastic of a new generation of engineers. Now that there is no longer a hostile environment in Washington, the nuclear industry has a lot of opportunities. Let’s take advantage of them.