U.S. News knows which way the wind is blowing: their article ”The New Hot Job: Nuclear Engineering” highlights the mounting interest in nuclear energy and technology. And a good thing, too. The American Nuclear Society estimates that 700 nuclear engineers need to graduate annually to fill growing demand, whereas only an expected 249 new engineers will graduate each year.
“Nuclear Help Desperately Wanted” could be the sign in front of dozens of engineering colleges across the country. With worldwide interest in nuclear energy and technology skyrocketing, engineers with a nuclear background are feeling very popular these days. It’s welcome news for a field that has been long stifled by negative public opinion. The challenge the discipline faces is how to meet this new demand after years of shrinking interest.
Due in part to the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, the nuclear energy sector has been in decline for 30 years. Enrollment at undergraduate and graduate programs has dwindled, and some nuclear engineering programs have merged with other disciplines or shut down altogether. The ones that did survive shifted their focus to more lucrative fields within nuclear research, such as radiation detection or medical physics. According to the American Nuclear Society, 65 nuclear engineering programs existed in the country in 1980; now there is less than half that.
But in recent months, nuclear has re-emerged as a much ballyhooed energy source, and the entire community is scrambling to stave off what could be a massive shortage of qualified workers if the demand for nuclear power does take off. With an aging workforce, including many workers who are near retirement, the ANS estimates that 700 nuclear engineers need to graduate per year to support the potential demand. The organization currently expects only 249 new engineers to be available each year.
Students appear to be eager to fill the gap. Even without recruiting, some university departments are seeing as much growth as they can handle: There are more than three times as many nuclear engineering students now as there were just five years ago. “Today’s students don’t have the same fear of nuclear power that their parents did,” says Mark Pierson, a professor at Virginia Tech.