Nuclear engineers: Fission, fusion and fiscal success
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Industry experts say the demand for nuclear engineers has exploded over the past two years, and college students taking this career path will have jobs waiting for them when they graduate.
The U.S. Department of Energy last month disbursed $19 million in grants to universities, laboratories and companies all over the country for nuclear energy research and development. "Along with these funds come jobs," says Andrew Kadak, president-elect of the American Nuclear Society. "We are seeing a resurgence in our government's interest in the nuclear option for long-term energy needs. That translates into long-term careers."
Arden Bement Jr., head of the School of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue University, says that's good news for graduates of Purdue's program. "The nuclear industry is about 40 years old, and a large number of engineers are retiring or nearing retirement age," he says. "The number of job opportunities in the industry is expanding rapidly."
In conjunction with increased government funding and the aging of the work force, government deregulation of the industry has had a direct effect on the number of jobs. Industry experts agree that with less regulation, all of the 103 nuclear power plants in the United States have become more competitive and more focused on improving power output. The plants previously operated about 72 percent of the time. Now they operate 87 percent of the time, with a goal of 90 percent or better. Bement says the plants aim for the shortest possible down time for refueling and for continuous reliable operation, and that means more engineers are required to improve the systems for long-term performance.
Purdue nuclear engineering graduates benefit from a 100 percent placement rate and the ability to pick and choose their career path. Sixty-two nuclear engineering-related jobs were available for the five Purdue nuclear engineering grads entering the work force after the 1997-98 school year. This spring, the handful of Purdue students with nuclear engineering degrees who were seeking employment had almost 75 positions to choose from.
Over the past five years, the 20 Purdue students with nuclear engineering degrees who chose to immediately enter the work force accepted positions at nuclear utility companies, naval propulsion labs, the Argonne National Laboratory a national science research facility nuclear vendors, semiconductor companies, aerospace industries, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The remaining 23 students entered graduate school and, upon earning a master of science or doctorate degree, also were able to choose from academic positions, research and development jobs at national laboratories, and jobs that require advanced instrumentation or software specialties.
Bement says career paths are plentiful and varied because of nuclear engineering students' broad-based field of study. Purdue's program integrates engineering science and practice, nuclear physics, radiation and technology, and computational science and technology.
Although there are now more than 400 nuclear power plants in operation around the world, the jobs available aren't only with power plants or navy nuclear propulsion systems. Breakthrough biomedical applications undergoing research at Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering involve the use of radionuclides to clear veins in heart patients, neutron beams for brain tumor therapy, laser beams instead of X-rays to find breast cancer, and neural-fuzzy logic techniques to improve hearing aids. All of these procedures benefit from nuclear engineering skills.
To address health concerns, nuclear engineers have developed systems for the food processing industry to irradiate meat and for municipalities to sterilize raw sewage. Nuclear security, advanced industrial instrumentation, plasma processing, software development, and nuclear waste management and remediation are among other job options available for nuclear engineers.
"It's a degree that is highly respected because it's one of the toughest majors and so few people declare nuclear engineering as a major, " says Brian Stewart, a 1997 Purdue graduate employed by United Space Alliance, a space operations company in Houston.
Stewart, who hopes to become an astronaut, is training to work as one of 27 Johnson Space Center flight controllers responsible for operating the life-support system on the International Space Station. "A lot of sophisticated machinery requires engineers rather than techs to operate," he says. Purdue's multidisciplinary program includes operations engineering, which helps when it comes to learning new and varied systems and trouble-shooting them.
Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering reports the starting salary offers for May 1999 graduates with bachelor of science degrees in nuclear engineering ranged between $44,400 and $48,000 per year among the highest for all engineering disciplines. Signing, relocation and merit bonuses also are common recruitment tools. Nuclear engineers with a doctoral degree can garner an annual salary around $70,000.
Sources: Arden Bement Jr., (765) 494-5742; firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Kadak, (617) 253-0166; email@example.com
Brian Stewart, (281) 483-2773; Brian.E.Stewart1@jsc.nasa.govWriter: Jeanine Smith, (765) 496-3133; firstname.lastname@example.org Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.com