Caught in the Budget Debate?
When the 2013 budget requests for the coming fiscal year were announced, a number of us were highly disappointed to see that support for nuclear engineering was zeroed out, this time, in both the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
It seems to me that in general, it is penny-wise and pound-foolish for a nation to skimp on education. I know the budget is tight and I know there are many other important programs, but we really can't stop looking ahead.
The case for nuclear engineering education is particularly important. The current workforce of nuclear engineers is rapidly retiring. During all the years of when nuclear power development was stagnant in the US, the pipeline of new engineers dried to a trickle. Many academic nuclear engineering programs closed their doors, research reactors on campuses were shuttered, and only a small number of visionary students could see much of a future in this field.
In recent years, due in large part to government funding, the academic infrastructure for nuclear engineering in the US began to experience the beginnings of a revival. Several new academic departments were started and enrollments began to increase. While the improved prospects for new nuclear power plants in the US was certainly a factor, the real turnaround can be traced to support from the Office of Nuclear Energy at the DOE about the year 1999-2000, when Bill Magwood, now a Commissioner at the NRC, headed the Office. (Truth in advertising--I was Deputy Director of that office at the time.)
This is not the first time that the program has been threatened. Several years ago, DOE failed to fund the program. I was no longer working for the government at that time, so can't provide the backroom details, but NRC ended up stepping in and developing its own program to assure continued support of nuclear engineering educational activities. In fact, most of the DOE staff working on nuclear engineering education programs moved over to the NRC. A year or two later, DOE restarted an educational program, which appears to be complementary to NRC's.
Now, both programs are threatened.
Worse still, this threat comes at a time when the nuclear industry in the US seems to be on the verge of revival. Admittedly, some don't believe that the revival will extend much beyond the few projects that are currently underway. I think that view is shortsighted.
However, even if we were not seeing new reactor development, we would still need to support nuclear engineering education to assure sufficient replacements for retiring engineers at currently operating plants and related facilities--and later, for the decommissioning of plants.
It is difficult to understand why an agency would seek to save a small amount of money by targeting educational activities in a discipline where it is so important to have a high level of expertise.
Some may feel that we can ramp up the educational programs quickly as the need arises, or retrain engineers in other fields. It is not that easy. While some positions can be filled that way, many positions require the in-depth understanding that a full nuclear engineering curriculum provides.
Lest I sound too alarmist, I should point out that the zeroing of budget lines for nuclear engineering education does not mean that there will be no support at all for universities. Both the DOE and the NRC have significant research programs, and some research funds have always gone to universities. I am certain the intention will be to continue support through research. However, research funding--even if it increased--cannot be used for all the same purposes.
The budget request is only the first step in the budget process. From here, the budget must be considered by Congress. One hopes that some of the supporters of nuclear energy on the Hill will notice this cut and restore the funding. I would encourage those who share my concern to contact your members of Congress and ask for their help in restoring funding for educational programs.