It took Japan’s Fukushima disaster to make nuclear energy interesting to students in Karl Craddock’s advanced placement chemistry class at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill. Too bad the buzz was about radiation plumes, iodine pills, and potential deadly threats at nuclear power plants that generate more than half the electricity in Illinois. It wasn’t the sort of talk to get kids excited about a career in nuclear energy. “It doesn’t have the cool factor right now, that’s for sure,” says Craddock, who has taught science at the suburban Chicago high school for seven years.
Whether Fukushima, where the world watched three nuclear reactors begin to melt down following an earthquake and tsunami in March, marked the end of America’s nuclear renaissance remains to be seen. There is little doubt, though, that it has cast a pall over the industry’s efforts to recruit a new generation of engineers, technicians, and decontamination specialists just as nuclear plant operators face an unprecedented labor crunch.
Nuclear utilities in the U.S. will need to hire nearly 25,000 people to replace the 39 percent of its workforce that will be eligible for retirement by 2016, says Carol L. Berrigan, senior director for industry infrastructure for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based trade group. Meanwhile, U.S. universities awarded a total of 715 graduate and undergraduate degrees in nuclear engineering in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.
After nuclear plant disasters at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl in Ukraine, nuclear power lost political support in the U.S. Hiring slowed through the 1990s and nuclear workers under the age of 40 became a rarity as talk turned from expansion to shutting down existing plants. “That’s not an exciting prospect for a young person thinking about their career,” says K.L. “Lee” Peddicord, a professor of nuclear engineering and director of the Nuclear Power Institute at Texas A&M University.
With nuclear power out of favor, the number of academic institutions offering degrees shrank to 32 in 2010 from 77 in 1975, according to the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Bachelor’s degrees awarded in nuclear engineering fell to 120 in 2001, from 863 in 1978. Power companies and engineering schools redoubled their recruiting efforts in recent years to replace retiring baby boomers and staff the 34 new plants that were on the drawing boards as of 2009. Urged by two utilities with nuclear ambitions in Texas—South Texas Project and Exelon —Texas A&M University in College Station launched the Nuclear Power Institute in 2008 to spearhead a statewide effort to train 2,000 nuclear workers, boost math and science programs at high schools, and develop a new two-year nuclear training degree with community colleges based near eight proposed new plants.
The Nuclear Power Institute has graduated its first two classes of technicians, yet Peddicord worries that the weak economy and the growing uncertainty overhanging a U.S. nuclear expansion will depress interest in the program. The partners in two new reactors planned for nearby Bay City— NRG Energy and Tokyo Electric Power, operator of the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant—yanked funding for the project after the disaster. “The real test will come in the fall, when we look at enrollment,” he says.
Arjun Arya, 18, who graduated from Fremd High School this year, says he hopes Fukushima will inspire some in his generation to pursue next-generation forms of nuclear energy. As for himself, he’s aiming for a career in medicine. Fukushima wasn’t a factor in his career choice, but he understands the caution it inspired. “People have an innate fear of hurting.”