One sure thing for future employment is in nuclear. Now with three decades past the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island and further expansion of nuclear power at a standstill, years of stagnant hiring comes to, as the American Physical Society, an independent group of physicists put it, “a greatly reduced interest among undergraduates in nuclear science and engineering programs. This quote is from a recent report by the Society finding that the number of college nuclear engineering programs has dropped from 66 in the early 1980s to 30 in 2008. (page 4 of the pdf file)
Nuclear energy as produces 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and is largest source of emission-free electricity. Many people in the nuclear power industry have recognized the potential work force problem and are taking new steps to help answer those questions about pursuing a career in the field.
Meanwhile, scary as it seems, the nuclear industry is preparing for an eventual shortage of workers. For thirty years the industry employed a very stable work force and not much growth, there wasn’t much growth within the industry, and thus, not much hiring.
A large reactor facility offers 400 to 700 positions once the plants are up and running, according to statistics from the Nuclear Energy Institute, which contends that nuclear plants generate about $40 million each year in payroll.
The interest in attracting know-how and education is growing into action. For example this past November Entergy New Orleans, a subsidiary of the New Orleans-based power provider Entergy Corp., hosted a free, three-hour workshop on nuclear power production for Orleans Parish public school math and science teachers. The program, called Power Path to Nuclear Energy, offered training, curriculum materials and the potential for bringing guest lecturers into the classroom in an effort to spur an early interest in nuclear science in sixth through 12th-grade students.
That takes the competition for intellect down to the 11 year olds. Entergy has a lot at stake, its the second-largest nuclear power generator in the U.S., and it is among more than a dozen companies considering building upward of 30 new nuclear plants, including one in Louisiana. Entergy is pressing on even though its plan was put on hold last year after the company failed to strike a deal with the manufacturer of its 1st choice reactor.
Even if companies don’t get the kid, the materials and assistance help raise knowledge and awareness about nuclear power over an important part of the community – the youth. John Wheeler, head of work force development for Entergy quoted in an article in The Times Picayune said, “You’re reinforcing math and science skills at the same time. It would be great if a student chose to go into the nuclear power industry, but if they choose to do something else with their career, eventually, if it’s in the science and technology field, that’s good for everybody.”
Louisiana State University is also in the effort with one of the remaining collegiate programs. The university has began to offer students the opportunity to enroll in nuclear engineering as a minor, a move intended to provide training in specialized skills like nuclear power plant design and operation. So far, 13 students have enrolled, according to Warren Waggenspack, Associate Dean for Academic Programs at LSU’s College of Engineering.
In an understatement Waggenspack says, “The technology has advanced significantly in the intervening years. There are good engineering challenges that some of these kids want to address in providing good, safe nuclear power.”
Wheeler points out another issue, “We’re still going to have to replace the existing work force that is aging out.” Most U.S. reactors facilities are old enough that the operating staff is closing in on their retirement years while the facilities have another generation of useful life remaining.
But even though Louisiana has caught on, the nuclear industry could be poised for enormous growth, if only government would get out of the way or reverse course and help with growth. That may be far too much to expect with the current Federal administration, their choice of the NRC chairman shows a total lack of sense for economic growth, jobs, energy security or public safety.
Change is likely two years away, a very short time in policy, but 10 percent or so of a career. Waiting for policy change is a huge waste of U.S. intellectual power, especially as much of the research for a massive renaissance is already on the shelf.
It’s very encouraging to see Entergy getting out there. That kind of self interested leadership is what will play a major role in reversing the policy course. Polls show the population has adjusted to nuclear power, even as most are still in the dark about the potential, and realize the importance to the national energy security.
At the same time, right now, the rest of the world is charging on with reactor construction contracts while the U.S., with doubtless the best technology available dawdles and dallies about getting nothing done. It’s a classic case of bureaucratic ineptitude from well-intentioned governmental interference.