Regulator says more nuclear engineers needed

Could nuclear energy ever come to be known as the other “green” power source? Probably not without a

Could nuclear energy ever come to be known as the other “green” power source? Probably not without a steady supply of nuclear engineers, many of them likely from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein spoke to RPI students and faculty Thursday on a self-described recruiting mission to stimulate interest in nuclear engineering and possibly careers working for the NRC. Klein warned the nuclear power industry faces a potential shortage of qualified engineers.

“A report prepared by the nuclear power industry has estimated that roughly 35 percent of the current [nuclear energy] utility personnel will be eligible for retirement within five years,” Klein said. “The situation for government agencies such as the NRC, the [U.S.] Department of Energy and the national laboratories, is equally dramatic.”

RPI has actively tried to combat the shortfall, awarding the most nuclear engineering undergraduate degrees of any U.S. university in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and placing in the top three with 46 nuclear engineering bachelor of science degrees awarded in 2007, according to college officials.

Klein said his agency does not advocate for or against more nuclear power plants but must regulate the nation’s 104 reactors. He said there is a worldwide movement to build more nuclear power plants, possibly stimulated by concerns about global warming linked to man-made carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear power plants reliably create huge amounts of electricity while emitting no carbon dioxide, although they do create radioactive waste.

“Nuclear is the only major source of energy where we capture all of the by-product. The spent fuel is captured. Now, we don’t know what to do with it, but it’s captured as opposed to emitting it into the air,” Klein said.

RPI senior Creighton Adsit said he will graduate with a nuclear engineering degree in May and he’s already got a job working for a nuclear utility in Virginia. During a question and answer period he asked Klein if he thought a spent fuel recycling program could be put in place in the U.S. within five years.

“It would take at least 10 years to build the plant so the chances of that quickly approach one over infinity,” Klein quipped.

He said dealing with nuclear waste will be one of the exciting challenges facing new nuclear engineers, as well as regulation of new models of nuclear power plants for nine site applications the NRC is reviewing and cyber terrorist threats to existing and future nuclear power plants.

RPI President Shirley Jackson Lee, herself a former chairwoman of the NRC, said nuclear energy needs to be one part of solving this century’s energy needs.

“As we can see, as other nations develop and our own energy needs continue to grow, energy security, which means security of supply coupled with environmental and climate effects, becomes a larger and larger issue,” Jackson said. “The solution then to that requires a broad public policy and technological approach that ultimately rests with having myriad sources of energy and nuclear is one of those.”

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