By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E.,
Nuclear power plant operators have steadily improved the performance of commercial nuclear plants over the past 20 years, making these plants competitive with other electricity sources. Noting low enrollments in universities’ nuclear engineering programs, many people, including myself, have expressed concern that this operating performance will suffer as the current experienced operators retire and companies cannot find adequate replacements. Updated information published recently in Nuclear News gives reason for optimism that this will not be the case.
Three years ago in this column I questioned how the industry could address future staffing issues. At that time, potential nuclear engineering students saw a nuclear industry that was contracting, not growing. There were no plans for new power plants, and the future of existing plants was in doubt. Therefore, many promising students sought greener pastures in other disciplines. In response, many universities shut down their nuclear engineering programs for lack of students. A 2000 study by the Nuclear Engineering Department Heads Organization (NEDHO) noted that nuclear engineering enrollment declined by two-thirds between 1992 and 2000. As a result, the study noted, only 29 schools retained their nuclear engineering departments. (I have been out of academia for 28 years, but both of the nuclear engineering programs I participated in – as student and professor – no longer exist.) The study’s authors also reported that, due to expected retirements in the industry, nuclear engineering graduation rates would soon fall short of meeting the industry’s needs by as many as 450 engineers a year.
Last February I suggested in this column that the industry should appeal to young peoples’ sense of idealism in order to recruit students into the nuclear engineering profession. New information indicates that isn’t necessary: crass materialism is doing the job quite nicely, thank you.
The September issue of Nuclear News, published by the American Nuclear Society, features an interview with John Gutteridge, director of university programs for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy. Gutteridge notes that, in spite of some high-profile setbacks such as the shutdown of the University of Michigan reactor, there have been many positive developments in nuclear engineering education. The numbers are encouraging. For example, undergraduate enrollment, which dropped from 1,800 students in 1980 to less than 500 in 1998, rebounded to more than 1,000 students in 2002, the most recent year for which the numbers are available. This, of course, is good news for the universities offering nuclear programs. And Gutteridge reports that all 28 remaining nuclear engineering programs have seen enrollment increases. He cites two of the more notable examples: Purdue University’s undergraduate nuclear engineering enrollment has gone from only nine students to more than 100 students in the past four years; the Texas A&M undergraduate program now has nearly 200 students, in contrast to only 55 students four years ago.
Gutteridge attributes part of the increase in enrollment to normal supply and demand economics. The dearth of graduates over the past few years has driven up starting salaries so much that nuclear engineering graduates now command some of the highest salaries of any engineering discipline. And according to Texas A&M University, its nuclear engineers have the highest starting salaries of any of its engineering graduates. So, forget about appealing to idealism; the students are following the money.
An interesting sidelight is that, because of the favorable salaries, students who are U.S. citizens are opting for the job market rather than graduate school. As a result, nuclear engineering graduate enrollment is now made up of approximately 50 percent foreign nationals.
In the Nuclear News interview, Gutteridge also notes that DOE programs have played an important role in making sure educational opportunities remain available for those wishing to pursue nuclear engineering. DOE has provided grants to universities to upgrade their reactors in order to keep them operating reliably and economically. DOE also has a reactor sharing program, in which it provides funding so schools without reactors can make use of reactor labs at other universities. In addition, there is a matching grant program in which DOE matches corporate grants to nuclear engineering programs, up to a maximum amount determined by the funds available. Recently, this amount has been $60,000 per school.
Perhaps most substantial of the DOE programs is one that funds several university consortia in support of the schools’ nuclear engineering programs. Most of these groups receive $1-2 million a year for a five-year period.
Every industry needs a reliable supply of people capable of sustaining and advancing it. In many cases this does not require a focused, specialized education. However, I believe the nuclear industry requires a basic cadre of nuclear engineers in addition to the mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, civil, etc., engineers needed for any technology-driven industry. The improving health of the nuclear engineering education establishment is one more positive indicator for the future health of the nuclear industry.