Friday, March 2, 2012

Nuclear Engineering Education:

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.

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3 comments:

  1. Gail - Thank you for pointing this out. It is hypocritical for an Administration that is bragging about having supported the first nuclear plant construction project to be approved in 35 years to zero out funding for nuclear engineering education.

    Approving Vogtle and its near term following projects at VC Summer, William States Lee, and Turkey Point ensures that we will need skilled nuclear engineers for at least the next 70-80 years.

    Of course, it would also be great if the nuclear industry stepped up its support for nuclear engineering programs and stopped waiting for the government to do most of the funding.

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  2. The rationale I have seen from OMB for zeroing out the funds echoes Rod's statement above. OMB belives that the government has "primed the pump" enough, enrollments are up, and now industry will step in and provide continuing funding for educational programs. They do a little, INPO fellowships, for example. But by and large they don't. Why? Because private business is under tremendous pressure from upper management to control costs and justify expenses. Providing funding for a somewhat nebulous goal of "assurring a pipeline of trained engineers" isn't going to cut it in boardrooms where the questions are always "What's in it for us?", "How does that boost the share price?", and "What's the bottom line?" There is also a preception among many political demagogues that funding nuclear education is a form of "corporate welfare". Never mind that the funding goes to students and universities, not eeeeeeevil corporations. But because it seems to be tied to a particular industry, especially the nuclear industry, makes it unpopular.

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  3. Rod, Wayne,

    I agree that OMB sees things the same way as Rod, that the industry needs to step it up and pick up the slack. But the truth of the matter is, only about 20% of nuclear engineers go to work in the nuclear power industry. That's why the industry doesn't fund more.
    I was part of the Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation last year and we got the chance to discuss this topic plenty. What we found was that more than half of all nuclear engineers in the U.S. go to work for the federal government or the national labs (and an even higher portion of those with advanced degrees choose the labs over industry). The balance go to nuclear medicine or measurement or other related fields.
    INPO, through NANT, which is the industry, invests a substantial amount of money in nuclear engineering students each year, but most nuclear engineers go to work for the government or the labs, so it doesn't make sense for the industry to invest a bunch of money if only one out of every five students they may support will come to benefit them. All they can do is to rate "the student's expressed interest and desire to work in the nuclear power industry" in their award criteria and ask the student to intern or co-op in industry, but that's not binding for the student.
    Where there is increasing support for nuclear by industry is in the technical schools. If you want an associates in nuclear technology, you can bet there are lots of programs open with high funding and more opportunities being created. Lots of partnerships with utilities. But those students are not "engineers," and the nuclear engineers still need the support from all available sources.

    Gail - thanks for posting on this issue. If only nuclear engineers could get support from traditional educational funding opportunities, like through NSF, then they could be treated as other students. But NSF applications with nuclear focus are turned down because of their special nature - the NSF doesn't have the personnel to judge the merits of the applications. That's why the program exists with DOE, NRC, and NNSA to fund nuclear engineers - because that's where the nuclear engineers work in the government that can decide the merits of an application. If you give a talented but poor college student the choice between a fully funded degree in some science or a partially funded degree in nuclear, even those students who like nuclear engineering stop and think. DOE and NRC need to think of their future and the pipeline of engineers and restore funding (at a minimum. Increasing support would be nice, but I know that's too hopeful.). Funding students in nuclear engineering supports each of their respective goals through a trained workforce for both the industry and their own ranks. (My personal opinion: NNSA is NNSA. They'll get the money they need for their specialists. They're related to national security. If only domestic security of electrical supply were seen as highly.)

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