Educating a New Nuclear Workforce

by Beth Kelly

Today in the United States, nuclear power plants generate close to one-fifth of the nation’s electricity and constitute a majority of our non-greenhouse gas-emitting electrical production. It is by far the largest source of low-carbon electricity in the country. Yet, despite analyses urging a more substantial role for nuclear power in light of looming climate change, the U.S. nuclear industry is not projected to grow in the decades ahead. But a nuclear renaissance is possible if we want it, and the first step is educating a new wave of nuclear workers on the vast potential of this type of energy generation.

Nuclear Science Week, which took place this year from Oct. 19 – 23, is a recurring, yearly proceeding that focuses on championing the innovations that can be found by exploring nuclear science. Events are held throughout the United States, as well as in other countries worldwide such as Canada and the United Arab Emirates. Many of these celebrations are hosted by universities and high schools, with the intent of drumming up support for nuclear science courses as well as careers in the field.

Close to half of the nuclear workforce will be eligible for retirement within the next 10 years. And as the “boomer” generation departs, finding applicants with the right set of skills to step in and replace them is a challenge. As a part of its broader educational goals, NSW exposes students to the broad range of opportunities that exist for nuclear engineers. At a time when the industry stands at a crossroads, partnerships with educational programs are crucial to its continued success.

The Department of Energy currently projects that the U.S. electrical demand will rise by 28% by 2040. In order to maintain nuclear power’s current share of electricity generation, we will need to build one new reactor every year, starting next year – or 20-25 new units by 2040. Worsening effects of global warming may further impact this number, provided we continue to drive more focus on shifting away from coal- and oil-burning facilities. Certainly we need to support new and upcoming projects that can start us on the path towards a more sustainable energy future, and nuclear power is the only emission-free electricity source that can grow to help us meet this demand.

Most projections show that renewables – excluding input from nuclear – won’t be able to ramp up sufficiently in the coming decades to meet the planet’s energy needs. A failure to increase our reliance on low-carbon sources of power will lead to additional energy-related CO2 emissions released by burning fossil fuels. Currently there are five new nuclear power facilities being built within the United States and over 60 under construction in other parts of the world. When we combine this new generating capacity with the widely graying workforce, there are plenty of opportunities for newcomers to contribute to the industry.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for nuclear engineers is expected to increase 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, and the average annual pay in 2012 was $104,270, higher than the $86,200 median earned by all engineers. This occupation requires a bachelor’s degree, but the related profession of nuclear technician typically only requires an associate’s degree. These technicians made an average of $69,060 per year as compared to technicians in “life, physical, and social science,” who took home $41,130 on average. In 2011 it was estimated that, in order to survive the aging boomer upheaval, the nuclear industry would have to replace nearly 25,000 skilled workers.

The advantages of nuclear energy are manifold. We have enough fuel for hundreds of years even without implementing any improvements to the current nuclear infrastructure. Unlike solar panels and wind turbines, nuclear reactors aren’t dependent on weather conditions and can reliably deliver electrical output steadily throughout the day. According to experts at Direct Energy, global emissions of carbon increased from 6,750 million metric tons in 2000 to 8,749 million metric tons in 2008. It’s clear that we need all the help we can get from every green energy source, including nuclear, to mitigate this problem for future generations. It’s important, especially considering the immediacy of the Paris COP21 conference, to regard the future of nuclear energy as one that closely aligns with the future of our energy needs.

Beyond acting in their own economic self-interest, fresh talent that engages with nuclear energy will be doing their part to help the planet by enabling the growth of various burgeoning national nuclear programs. Now is the time to revitalize the future of nuclear power, but it is only possible with the help and persistence of new recruits.

(note the image is a screen capture of a Gordon McDowell video taken of students from Calvin College presenting during the Thorium Energy Alliance conference June 3 and 4th/2015)

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