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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo JANUARY 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 5
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A NEW ERA - By Corinna Wu - Three foundations have had a major impact on engineering education, particularly in the areas of biomedical, entrepreneurship and distance education.

By Corinna Wu

From worries of global warming to increased gas prices, recent trends are bringing nuclear power to the energy forefront. And on campus, students are flocking back to nuclear engineering programs.

Stewart Brand is a self-professed “greenie.” An original hippie of the 1960s and founder of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” he has spent decades promoting environmental and social causes. So it came as a shock to many when last year, Brand wrote an essay for Technology Review in which he touted the benefits of nuclear power. In the piece, titled “Environmental Heresies,” Brand embraced nuclear as the only technology currently available that can help save the planet from global warming.

Soon, people began mentioning Brand with other prominent environmentalists who had also spoken in favor of nuclear: scientist James Lovelock, who proposed the Gaia hypothesis; Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace; and Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a former board member of Friends of the Earth. According to Brand, others are following suit. “I’m seeing much less resistance from my fellow greenies,” he said at a forum held at MIT in September. “Not total conversion, but fewer opposing it.”

Nuclear is getting a second look from environmentalists because, unlike coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels, it does not produce carbon dioxide as a by-product. Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere traps heat radiating from the Earth’s surface, thus leading to a gradual rise in global temperature. Scientific and governmental bodies around the world agree that much of the warming of the planet seen in the last 50 years is due to this kind of human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

This change in attitude (or religion, some would say) makes for some strange bedfellows. At the MIT forum, Brand sat on stage with representatives from two groups looking to build new nuclear reactors in the United States and South Africa. A favorable regulatory and economic climate is helping to drive down the cost of construction and operation of these plants, making nuclear a good business move for utilities. The last order for a nuclear plant in the United States was in 1978. Now, there are 15 groups making plans for new reactors, says Ronald Hagen, a specialist in nuclear energy at the Department of Energy (DOE), though none has made a firm commitment to build them.

But with the potential number of reactors increasing, the need for nuclear engineers and other trained personnel to design, build and operate them will go up as well, says Gilbert Brown, a professor and coordinator of the nuclear engineering program at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “The jobs are not just for nuclear engineers. We need civil and mechanical engineers to design and build these plants. It’s going to ripple through the whole economy.”

University nuclear science and engineering programs around the country have already started to see their currency rise, as a new generation of students looks for ways to feed the world’s energy needs while protecting the Earth’s climate. Brown is optimistic. “I think this is the beginning of a new renaissance.”

Every form of energy produces some type of waste, and people come to different conclusions about the relative evils of each. To utilities, though, the costs of construction, operation and maintenance determine the economic feasibility of a particular type of plant.

Half of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal. Coal is plentiful and cheap, but its main drawback is that it pollutes more than other forms of fuel. In addition to carbon dioxide, coal plants release sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and soot into the air. Researchers are working on developing clean coal technologies to reduce these pollutants, which will make plants more expensive to build.

Natural gas plants, on the other hand, are relatively cheap and quick to build, says Hagen, who describes their construction as “basically putting a jet engine on the ground.” Most of the plants built in United States in the past 15 years are powered by natural gas, but they’re expensive to operate. That is especially true now that gas prices are at an all-time high. As a result, utilities turn them on only when demand for electricity peaks—say, during hot summer days when air conditioners are running full blast.


Costly Construction

The biggest economic barrier to nuclear plants is the cost of building one, says Hagen. However, he adds, “once it’s there, it’s a mint.” The energy intensity of nuclear fuel is millions of times higher than that of fossil fuels, so it takes much less to produce the same amount of energy. The waste generated is also much less, although it is radioactive and must be handled properly. Right now, power plants store their nuclear waste on site. The government has plans to establish a central repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., but that decision has been highly controversial.

Because of their low overall operation cost, coal and nuclear plants end up providing the country with a base level of electricity, with natural gas being used to “top off” demand. There are 103 nuclear power plants in the United States today, which generate about one-fifth of the country’s electricity.

Even though there have been no new plants ordered for nearly three decades, the total amount of nuclear energy generated has been going up. “The plants 15 years ago were operating at 65 or 70 percent of their capacity, and now they’re operating at 90 to 95 percent of their capacity,” Brown says. Some have undergone power upgrades by the re-engineering of certain components. By contrast, gas-powered plants run at only about 25 to 35 percent of their capacity.

Recent policy decisions have brightened the economics for companies planning on investing in new nuclear reactors. The Energy Policy Act signed by President Bush in August provides billions of dollars of tax breaks and subsidies to the nuclear industry. It extends the Price-Anderson Act, which limits liability on accidents. The bill also includes $2 billion of financial support for the first six reactors built if they happen to run into delays caused by the federal licensing process.

However, new licensing procedures have been designed to reduce the likelihood of these delays. In the past, companies would have to get two separate licenses from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC): one to construct a plant and then one to operate it. “So investors could be in a position where they would have built this power plant, but then somehow because of a blockage in the licensing process, they might never be able to turn it on,” says Ian Hutchinson, chair of the nuclear science and engineering department at MIT.

In 1989, the NRC offered some alternatives, such as a combined construction and operation license to give utilities some predictability in the planning process. Or they could apply for an early site permit, if they had a place for a reactor without immediate plans to build it. Lastly, certain reactor designs could receive prior approval and then used “off the shelf” whenever the time came. “If you take advantage of the two things—the design certification and the early site permit—you get rid of a lot of the bureaucracy,” Hagen says.

It’s significant that in 16 years, no one has applied for a combined construction and operation license. But within the last few months, several companies like Entergy, Constellation Energy, Duke Power and Progress Energy have announced plans to start preparing applications in hopes of taking full advantage of the incentives in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

Even without new plants, jobs are plentiful for nuclear engineers at all degree levels, says William Martin, chair of the department of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The engineers who went to work in the ’50s and ’60s are now approaching retirement, and there more people leaving the field than entering it. High-profile accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl cast a pall over the whole nuclear industry in the years that followed. One result was that undergraduate enrollments in nuclear engineering plummeted in the ’90s.

The lack of student interest naturally led to changes at universities. The number of schools offering degrees in nuclear engineering is half of what existed in 1975. Some departments just faded away; others merged with other disciplines. Currently, there are 19 institutions accredited by ABET in nuclear engineering and three accredited in nuclear engineering technology.


More Students

But for a combination of reasons, students seem to be flocking back. “Almost all of the nuclear engineering departments in the U.S. have seen a doubling or tripling of the undergraduate population in the last five years,” says Hutchinson. A recent DOE survey counted 1,759 undergraduates enrolled in nuclear engineering programs around the country, compared with only 450 undergraduates in 1999. Among graduate students, the numbers have shot up just within the past year, from about 600 to 1,008.

More Students

Hutchinson thinks that the public is gradually recognizing nuclear’s potential to mitigate global warming, and that shift has made an impact on students’ career choices. “Students are amazingly sensitive to the overall ethos and opinions of society,” he says. “They’re the first to react.” He adds that the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000 played a part as well. “Students realized that life is broader than computer science, and this was particularly important for people who had skills and interests in mathematically based sciences.”

Martin notes that the 9/11 terrorist attacks also may have spurred student interest since nuclear methods can be used to scan trucks, trains or baggage for explosive materials. “So contributing to homeland security could be a motivating factor,” he says, “and achieving energy independence, regardless of the effect on global warming.”

Indeed, many university nuclear engineering departments have broadened their scope to include the nuclear sciences–that is, any application that makes use of radiation. Nuclear medicine uses radiation to diagnose and treat illness—cancer, for example. Scientists developing advanced materials can use it for imaging or processing. Meat, vegetables and fruit get irradiated to kill disease-causing microbes. That means many nuclear science and engineering graduates may never work at a nuclear power plant but apply their expertise in other fields.

Nuclear engineers earn the third-highest median income ($102,000) among engineering professions, according to the American Nuclear Society, an educational organization. Graduates are finding themselves juggling a half dozen job offers, says John Gutteridge, director of university programs at the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology.
The NRC itself wants to hire 350 new employees by the end of this year, a

10-percent increase in the current staffing level. The agency is preparing for an onslaught of expected reactor license applications in 2007 and 2008. NRC Chairman Nils J. Diaz made this announcement at a recent meeting of professionals who run research and training reactors around the country. Twenty-five of these are operated by universities, and at some, students have the controls.

Jessica Flores, a sophomore at MIT, works about 12 hours per week at the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. She sits at the console, monitoring conditions in the core and logging data every half hour. In order to work there, Flores had to go through a rigorous training program and pass a two-day exam administered by the NRC, which earned her an operator’s license.
The lab hires five or six students each year to participate in the training, says Edward Lau, superintendent of reactor operations at MIT. No particular preference is given to nuclear science and engineering students, but rather they look for people interested in learning the ins and outs of a complex mechanical system. Currently, 16 students work at the reactor—more than the 14 full-time staff members.

After one year of experience, students can prepare and apply for a senior reactor operator’s license, allowing them to take on supervisory tasks. These licenses don’t qualify students to work at other reactors, but nevertheless, the credentials are impressive to employers, Lau says. “It’s not often they see a résumé with this kind of experience.”

He observes the students who work there becoming more mature from interacting with staff. And the benefits go the other way, too. “They challenge our safety culture, asking, ‘Why do you do this?’” Lau says. “They see it with fresh eyes.”

University research reactors like the one at MIT get support from the DOE, which supplies them with fuel, collects waste and offers grants for equipment and security upgrades. A few years ago, the DOE recognized that many of these reactors were closing because they weren’t being used to their full potential. That prompted the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology to institute several programs aimed at expanding training opportunities for students.

For example, in 2002, it established a grant called Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education (INIE), which provides funding for universities to integrate their research facilities and educational programs. There are six consortia, comprising 32 universities, that are using the grants to share coursework and facilities, arrange student exchanges and develop opportunities for distance learning. Gutteridge says the program encourages schools to work with each other and with DOE labs and industry, when normally, they might act more like competitors than collaborators.

The DOE also has made efforts to open up opportunities to minority students through its University Partnerships program. It pairs Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions with schools that offer nuclear engineering degrees. Eight such partnerships have formed so far. “Each works a little differently,” Gutteridge says. For example, one such collaboration will help establish an undergraduate minor in nuclear engineering at Clark Atlanta University and allow several of its students to pursue graduate degrees at Georgia Tech.

High salaries and strong job prospects have certainly persuaded many students to choose careers in nuclear engineering. But the message that nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases has perhaps made that choice easier for kids who grew up learning about the dangers of global warming. If more reactors are built, the need for engineers trained in operating them and dealing with the waste generated will grow. Research into related areas such as nuclear medicine and homeland security will also increase opportunities. For those interested in the peaceful applications of atomic energy, these trends could be signaling the start of a new nuclear age.

Corinna Wu is a freelance writer currently based at MIT, where she has a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship.

 

FEATURES
A NEW ERA - By Corinna Wu
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