Nuclear Fission: Time to Put Away the Shades?


I study nuclear science, I love my classes

I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses

Things are going great, and they're only getting better

I'm doing all right, getting good grades

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.

    --Timbuk 3, Greetings From Timbuk 3, 1986

In the 20 years since one-hit wonder Timbuk 3 made nuclear science the pop cliché for career promise, the nuclear power industry has fallen on hard times. Many older plants have proved unprofitable, and some are being decommissioned at considerable expense, leaving in their wake contaminated buildings and piles of spent fuel all lit up with no place to go. Nuclear engineering degree programs have also floundered: Roughly half the programs in the United States disappeared during the 1990s, and enrollments have sagged in the few that are still around. During the last decade of the 20th century, research on nuclear power systems virtually ceased. It would seem to be a lousy time to embark on a career in nuclear science and engineering.

But not so fast. Maybe, just maybe, nuclear fission wasn't the flash in the pan it seemed to be. Even as the industry as a whole seemed to be teetering on the brink, existing nuclear plants were thriving. U.S. plants operated at 80% capacity during the 1990s, up from 65% the previous decade. And just last year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), home of the nation's first and best graduate nuclear engineering program, started a brand-new research center, the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES). Meanwhile, nuclear engineering enrollments are creeping up nationwide. Last year's 1st-year enrollment in Purdue University's program was up by 40% over the previous year.

Furthermore, even as the industry struggles for survival, scientists and engineers who make it through the nation's few remaining nuclear energy programs draw top salaries and many job offers (see sidebar).

Purdue's Nuclear Engineering Program Grows

An increase in the number of incoming 1st-year nuclear engineering students could reflect a renewed interest in the pursuit of nuclear engineering careers.

This year, Purdue will welcome a 1st-year class of 37 nuclear engineering students--well over twice as many as entered the program last year. Arden Bement Jr., head of the department of nuclear engineering, said the increase is due to renewed concerns about energy production and to a growing interest in global warming concerns--nuclear power generation is free of greenhouse gas emissions.

Bement said nuclear engineers are being sought vigorously by businesses and federal agencies, which are often required to compete fiercely with the former to recruit knowledgeable graduates. This has secured a 100% job placement for students since 1992 and a substantial median annual income.

"[Job placement] is off the chart," said Bement. "We just don't have enough graduates to satisfy the job market. Students often receive from 50 to 100 job offers from companies."

--From the Summer 2001 Edition of University Currents, a publication of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology. Reprinted with permission.

Far from abandoning the nuclear industry, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) seems intent on reinvigorating it or at least propping it up--to the dismay of many environmentalists. And they have the resources to do it. A DOE blue-ribbon panel, charged in 1999 with finding ways to bolster nuclear energy education in the United States, recommended new graduate fellowships and grants for faculty research including special programs for new faculty. Those programs are now in place, and new academic departments and research centers (such as the one at MIT) are popping up here and there around the country, paid for largely by government money. (The Tokyo Electric Power Company is another major sponsor of MIT's CANES.) Aspiring nuclear scientists can keep their shades on, it seems, for at least a little while longer.

Why is the government trying to rejuvenate nuclear science? Part of the reason is obvious: It needs the expertise to improve and maintain the nation's nuclear weapons stockpiles, and it needs people to replace the first generation of nuclear plant operators and engineers, many of whom are now retiring. The government also recognizes that nuclear technology has had profound indirect scientific and technological benefits in fields ranging from solid-state physics to biomedical science and will probably continue to do so.

The government's policy is also, in part, a reaction to a growing awareness of the environmental damage done by fossil fuels, especially global warming. Nuclear fission is an established, mature (some would say near-death) energy technology that doesn't produce CO2. That's not to say that it doesn't create dangerous by-products. But in the post-Rio world, the environmental risk of spent nuclear fuel must be weighed against the potential environmental harm of the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels. In the past, this risk was hardly considered at all, except by forward-looking (or alarmist, depending on your political persuasion) environmentalists. Today the cost of mitigating CO2, which used to be left entirely off the ledger, is often incorporated into future fossil-fuel energy cost estimates by even fairly conservative accountants, economists, and politicians. (See the accompanying piece by U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.) That makes nuclear fission look a bit more competitive, at least until the price comes down on solar, wind, biomass, fuel cell, and other, less controversial emissions-free energy sources.

The government policy is also due, in part, to the emergence of new nuclear energy technologies that, if successfully developed and implemented, could increase nuclear plant safety while also reducing costs and the risk of nuclear proliferation. Some of the new nuclear science research programs, including the one at MIT, are studying new reactor designs and fuel cycles that scientists (and policy-makers) hope will make nuclear plants safer and cheaper to operate, and produce waste materials with smaller volume, shorter half-lives, and less appeal to terrorists and other would-be nuclear powers. Scientists are also investigating the possibility of using high-temperature nuclear reactors to make hydrogen for fuel cells.

Most of the policies contributing to nuclear science's apparent new vigor were made before September 11. The terrorist attacks put a new spin on things, and those things aren't spinning in nuclear energy's favor. The events of September 11 showed that terrorists don't need to build their own bombs to wreak havoc; they can use our own technologies against us. Proliferation of fissile materials isn't the only nuclear power security issue.

Nuclear power plants are obvious targets for terrorism. Regulations require plants to meet certain safety requirements, and mock-terrorist raids are often staged to test plant security. But surviving an airliner crash isn't part of the specification. "No power plant in the world could withstand an airborne terror attack like the one on September 11," says a spokesperson for the association of German electric power utilities, as quoted in Physics Today . As a consequence, U.S. nuclear energy plants have been on their highest state of alert since September 11. In the business of energy production, unit cost is king, and extra security means extra unit cost.

The bottom line: The job market for nuclear energy scientists is strong. As long as nuclear technology remains important for keeping America in its current position of global leadership, the U.S. government will keep pumping research's life-blood (money) into nuclear-energy-related science. The long-term viability of the nuclear energy industry is less certain and will depend, in large part, on the success of nuclear energy researchers in developing safer, lower-impact nuclear energy technologies. It will also depend on the success of competing emission-free technologies--solar, wind, biomass, and fuel cell energy, among others--that promise less environmental impact. Nuclear energy science may be on life support, but it isn't dead yet.

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