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The Resurgence of Nuclear Energy

As the U.S. attempts to cut back on foreign oil, nuclear energy gains in popularity. Could this be a career for you?

By Eric Luchman

If you’ve heard a news story related to nuclear energy in the last year, it’s usually connected to the price of gas or the recent rate hikes in electricity. Energy also makes cameo appearances during the Presidential State of the Union address, like during the one Bush made this past January, where topics like ethanol, hydrogen and wind were all discussed.

As the United States attempts to use less foreign oil, nuclear energy is increasingly becoming an important player. How much of a player, however, centers on many factors, such as implementing new technologies used to run plants, acceptance among policy makers and the public, and the ability for utility companies to prove that newly built nuclear plants are safe and cost efficient.

Despite a relative lack of news coverage, nuclear energy and its outlook is on the minds of decision makers in the U.S. and across the globe. And, if you choose to pursue a career in this exciting field, you can play a major role in our country’s energy future.

Nuclear Power 2010

Around the world, and specifically in places like China and India, the topic of nuclear energy is a priority. Countries are not only searching for alternative energy sources, but also looking to supply a growing population and presence in the global marketing place. This past December, the International Atomic Energy Agency hosted an event in Vienna where 28 countries convened to learn the requirements for building nuclear power plants.

How does the global outlook on nuclear energy impact the United States? “Whether or not new (nuclear) construction develops quickly within our borders, it appears that global demand will have a positive impact to the industry here in the U.S.,” says Mark Fenske, senior vice president of Hudson Energy Services, an agency that provides top recruits for the energy industry. “Companies that are involved in plant design and construction have evolved into multi-nationals and most have a strong presence [here].”

Currently, the U.S. Department of Energy has a commitment to nuclear energy as outlined in their plan entitled “Nuclear Power 2010.” According to the DOE’s Web site, this plan is a joint effort between the DOE and industry leaders to identify new locations for nuclear power plants, build a case to develop the new plants, and implement new technologies, such as the light water reactor.

The DOE’s main concern is about the country’s over dependence upon natural gas for its electricity supply. This is not just an environmental issue about air quality; it is a concern about national security and the country’s vulnerability because it is so dependent on other countries for natural gas.

In North Anna, Va., the companies of General Electric and Dominion are applying for a license to build an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor. There are many steps that all parties involved must take, including financial backing, engineering specifications and multiple licensing steps. If approved, the nuclear plant should be in operation by 2014. The current administration is supportive of moving nuclear energy from the backburner of discussion and debate to a sustainable and efficient source of energy for the U.S.

Storage Space

Despite the push to bring nuclear engineering out of the 1970s, many concerns remain about the security and safety of using nuclear power. “One of the biggest hurdles for nuclear power is the safe disposal, transportation and storage of spent nuclear fuel,” says Fenske.

A main issue is Yucca Mountain, a spot that was designated as a site to store the nation’s spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste in 2002. However, this project has been delayed. Adds Fenske, “Without a centralized, safe and permanent storage site, radioactive waste will continue to accumulate at 126 sites across the nation. And unfortunately, the Yucca Mountain project is substantially behind schedule, which in turn contributes to the justifiable concerns and resistance of anti-nuclear activists.”

The other 800-pound-gorilla in the room concerning nuclear energy is building nuclear facilities that are secure from attacks and convincing a skeptical public about their safety. “Our government must ensure that nuclear power plants are constructed and operated in a way that protects public health and environmental safety, including engineering and design safety, and in the form of plant security and long-term secure storage of spent fuel,” states Fenske. “In this age of daily terrorist threats, security is a significant issue, but this is true in most industries and is not limited to nuclear energy.”

Nuclear Now

With all of these factors impacting nuclear energy today and in the future, what are the implications for those hoping to find a career in the field? “There is a strong consensus among industry [insiders] that nearly half of the current nuclear industry workers are over 47 years old, and during the next five years alone, the [field] could be facing the loss of more than 20,000 workers due to retirement,” says Fenske. New graduates will not only be needed to replace a retiring workforce, but engineers from varying backgrounds will be needed when new plants are approved for construction. “There will likely be additional demand in order to meet the needs of the plant design firms, manufacturers of plant components, construction companies, service companies and regulating agencies. Over the next 10 years, studies indicate that as many as 90,000 nuclear professionals may be needed to meet the needs of all segments of the industry in the U.S. alone,” explains Fenske.

Other indicators of job growth in nuclear engineering careers come straight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC anticipates hiring 300 to 400 new personnel through 2008 to prepare for the analysis and development of new nuclear plants.

The need for alternative sources of energy will not go away, and neither will the increasing demand for energy. If nuclear energy is going to see a resurgence out of three decades of reluctance and skepticism in Washington, D.C. and among the public, inevitably it will be among the shareholders, investment bankers and utility companies that approved the technology and building of new nuclear facilities. “Although the cost of a single new reactor is estimated to be in the range of $1.5 billion, the economic risk to the investors and operators has been dramatically reduced compared to the plants built 20 and 25 years ago,” adds Fenske.

With the current age of plants in the U.S., the labor force needs to maintain current plants and build new ones that have been depleted. This shortage of labor provides a great opportunity to future graduates. “The long draught since the last era of new plant construction has drastically depleted the human capital that will be required to build and supply new components, construct new plants, and to operate the new plants and the existing fleet. Therefore, I believe that the opportunity for young graduates in the nuclear and engineering fields will be greater than at any prior time in history,” asserts Fenske.

Eric Luchman is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.

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