Nuclear engineering graduates see bright future
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. National energy concerns, job stability and new technology applications are generating renewed interest in nuclear engineering careers.
Purdue University, which has one of the largest nuclear engineering programs in the nation, will welcome a beginning class next fall expected to be twice as large as this year's class of 82 students.
"Students are looking at nuclear engineering in a much broader context," said Arden Bement Jr., a distinguished professor and head of nuclear engineering at Purdue. "Today there are more opportunities for nuclear engineering graduates as well as new interest in nuclear power generation."
Bement attributes much of the increased interest to renewed concerns about U.S. energy self-sufficiency and fear of dependence on foreign energy sources.
In light of California's energy crisis, environmental concerns about fossil fuel pollution and global warming, the nuclear power industry's prospects no longer seem as dim as they did in the years following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactor breakdowns.
Congress is considering a substantial increase in funding for nuclear research. Additional funding also is being allocated to ensure safe storage of radioactive waste, improve nuclear plant design and construction safety, and increase cost efficiency .
In July Vice President Dick Cheney, Cabinet members and lawmakers began conducting "town hall" forums to raise support for the Bush administration's national energy strategy to boost U.S. production of oil, gas and nuclear power.
The House and Senate also began considering the plan's recommendations. The plan, which was released in May, calls for revising regulations to speed relicensing of reactors and licensing of new plants. It is estimated that 65 new power plants of all sorts must go on-line annually to meet demand. There currently are no nuclear plants under construction.
"There is the expectation now that there will be new reactors built in this country due to energy demands," Bement said. "In the next 20 years, to meet demand, we'll clearly need more diversity in fuel type. Students understand the growing need for safe, affordable energy, and nuclear energy is the lowest cost form of energy right now. Plus it doesn't emit greenhouse gases."
According to U.S. Department of Labor reports, nuclear engineers held about 12,000 jobs in 1998, the most recent year for that industry report. About 60 percent were in utilities, the federal government and engineering consulting firms.
More than half of all federally employed nuclear engineers were civilian employees of the Navy. Most of the rest worked for the Department of Energy or the Tennessee Valley Authority, while a smaller percentage worked for defense manufacturers or manufacturers of nuclear power equipment. Most nonfederally employed nuclear engineers worked for public utilities or engineering consulting companies.
Until recently, labor analysts predicted most job openings for nuclear engineers would result from the need to replace engineers who transferred to other occupations or retired. "Utility industry jobs tend to be stable and offer greater job security than the more volatile high-tech industries," Bement said regarding the low turnover in utilities positions.
He said nuclear engineers will be needed to replace retiring engineers at existing plants. Many of those plants will come up for relicensing in the next decade. Nuclear engineers also will be needed to work in defense-related areas and to improve and enforce waste management and safety standards. Job opportunities also will exist in the production, handling and use of nuclear fuel and the safe disposal of waste produced by nuclear energy or in fusion energy.
Bement said nuclear engineering graduates also have less obvious employment opportunities beyond power generation. Some specialize in the development of nuclear power propulsion technology for space missions, while others develop industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials, including equipment to diagnose and treat medical problems.
Purdue graduates with a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering earn an average of $44,500 per year. Bement said some of Purdue's outstanding bachelor of science graduates are being offered starting salaries exceeding $50,000. Advanced-degree holders from Purdue could command a salary another $10,000 to $20,000 higher right after graduation.
The median annual earnings of all nuclear engineers was $71,310 in 1998, the Department of Labor reports. In the federal government, nuclear engineers in supervisory, nonsupervisory and management positions averaged $67,100 a year in early 1999.
Purdue graduates have enjoyed 100 percent job placement since 1992, the first year records were kept on employment success. The U.S. News and World Report's most recent survey ranked Purdue's nuclear engineering program seventh in the nation.
Source: Arden Bement Jr., (765) 494-5742 firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Grant Flora; (765) 494-2073; gflora.purdue.edu
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.com